The history of ship building dates back to ancient times spanning thousands of years. The curiosity of humans to explore the seas and worlds beyond led to great many inventions for seafaring. Read here to learn about the fascinating history of ship building in India and the world.
As India gears to become the hub for Green Ship Building by 2030, the history of ships in the sub-continent traverse time.
The history of shipbuilding is a fascinating journey that spans thousands of years, reflecting the evolution of human civilization and the exploration of the world’s oceans.
Throughout history, shipbuilding has been an essential driver of global trade, exploration, and cultural exchange.
Today, shipbuilding remains a crucial industry, supporting international commerce, naval defense, and maritime exploration across the globe.
The global history of ship building
Some key milestones in the history of ship building around the world are mentioned here:
Shipbuilding traces its origins back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Phoenicians. These early seafaring peoples constructed simple boats and rafts for transportation, fishing, and trade along rivers and coastal waters.
Ancient Greeks and Romans
- The ancient Greeks and Romans further advanced shipbuilding techniques, building larger and more sophisticated vessels for both trade and naval purposes.
- The trireme, a type of ancient Greek warship with three rows of oars, is a notable example of their shipbuilding prowess.
- During the Viking Age (around the 8th to 11th centuries), the Norse people were renowned for their shipbuilding skills.
- They constructed sturdy longships that allowed them to explore and raid distant lands across the North Atlantic and into Europe.
Age of Exploration
- The 15th and 16th centuries saw a significant expansion of shipbuilding due to the Age of Exploration.
- Explorers from Europe, such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, commissioned ships like caravels and carracks to undertake voyages of discovery, leading to the exploration and colonization of new continents.
Age of Sail
- The Age of Sail, which spanned from the 16th to the 19th centuries, saw the rise of powerful sailing ships like galleons, frigates, and clipper ships.
- These vessels were crucial for trade, transportation, and naval warfare during the era of colonial expansion.
- The 19th century brought significant advancements in shipbuilding technology with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
- Iron and steel replaced wood as the primary shipbuilding materials, leading to the construction of more massive and stronger ships.
- The early 19th century saw the introduction of steam-powered ships, revolutionizing maritime transportation.
- Steam engines replaced sails as the main propulsion method, making long-distance travel more efficient and reliable.
- The 20th century marked a new era in shipbuilding, with the widespread use of internal combustion engines and the incorporation of advanced technologies.
- The development of containerization revolutionized cargo shipping, making it more efficient and cost-effective.
- In the 20th and 21st centuries, naval shipbuilding witnessed significant advancements, including the introduction of aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and guided-missile destroyers.
- These innovations have transformed naval warfare capabilities and strategic maritime power.
Present-day shipbuilding is characterized by advanced engineering, automation, and computer-aided design.
Specialized vessels, such as offshore oil platforms, LNG carriers, and luxury cruise ships, are built using cutting-edge technologies and materials.
History of ship building in India
The history of shipbuilding in India dates back to ancient times, with a rich maritime heritage that spans several centuries.
Indian shipbuilding skills were well-known and highly regarded in the ancient and medieval world, leading to significant maritime trade and exploration.
Ancient Indians were skilled shipbuilders and navigators. The Harappan civilization (around 2600-1900 BCE) had access to the Arabian Sea and the Indus River, facilitating maritime trade with neighboring regions.
- Excavations at Lothal, a major Harappan port city, have revealed the existence of a sophisticated dockyard with evidence of shipbuilding.
- A certain caste held a monopoly on the technology of shipbuilding, which was an inherited trade that was passed down from father to son.
- The units of measurement utilized by the native builders were their hands, fingers, and feet.
- Flat-bottomed boats were designed to dock and service ships on both the big seas and domestic rivers. Around 60 tonnes of weight may be carried by these boats.
- Additionally, the Harappans constructed a tidal dock for berthing and maintaining ships at port cities. This is seen to be a special development since it was the first tide dock ever built.
- Thus, from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE, India had a sophisticated civilization centered around shipbuilding.
The earlier Vedic period (2000-600 BCE) saw a slowdown from the advancement of the Harrapan culture and hence is called the dark age for ship building in India.
The later Vedic period (600-200 BCE) saw the revival of maritime activity.
Maurya and Gupta Empires
During the Maurya (322-185 BCE) and Gupta (320-550 CE) periods, India continued to be a significant maritime power. The Indian Ocean was a thriving network of trade routes, connecting India with Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
- During the Mauryan Era, a Superintendent of Ships was appointed for the building and maintenance of boats.
- Ocean-going ships capable of accommodating 700 passengers were built.
- There are records of boats with up to 30 oars having been built in Punjab for Alexander’s fleet implying that the shipbuilding culture had started taking shape during the Mauryan Era.
- Post-Gupta period had vessels with single, double, treble, and four masts also with as many sails, were built.
- The wood used to build ships was mainly Malabar teak as it was found to be more durable than Oak which was used in other parts of the world to manufacture vessels.
The advent of sails
Multi-oared ships were entirely overshadowed by sail ships.
- In 756 CE, Pushyadeva, the king of Sindh, repulsed ferocious Arab Navy assaults, displaying the maritime prowess and superior shipbuilding skills of the period.
- The historical work Yukti Kalpataru (1100 CE) addresses shipbuilding and goes into great detail about the many kinds of ships constructed at this time.
- Boats used for different tasks were referred to by distinct names, such as Samanya, Madhyawa, and Visesha for ferrying people across the river, hauling merchandise, and fishing.
- The ships had excellent seaworthiness, could sail even at extremely high wind speeds, and could withstand the huge swell caused by cyclones.
Since the Mauryan and Gupta times, the ships were mostly built at Calicut, Cochin, Kaveripattinam, Masulipatnam, and Calcutta.
Two types of ships were built – the Monoxylon and the Colandiophonto.
- The Monoxylon, as the name suggests, was cut out of a single log to accommodate about 100 to 150 persons. It was raised with planks crossways to the ship in tiers. They were used in coastal traffic.
- The Colandiophonto, however, were ocean-going vessels and were proportionately larger and sturdier weighing more than 1,000 tonnes.
Indian shipbuilding reached new heights during the medieval period. Arab and Chinese travelers documented India’s flourishing maritime trade and advanced shipbuilding techniques.
Indian ships, known as “dhows,” were used for both trade and naval purposes. These dhows were well-designed and efficient vessels, capable of navigating long distances across the Indian Ocean.
This period for the first time saw several Indian ships being built specifically for at-sea combat.
- These Indian ships could fire incendiary throwers and catapults. The construction of warships in India changed when cannons were added to them when the Portuguese arrived in 1498 CE.
- The Marathas also boosted the Indian shipbuilding sector. The Marathas established shipbuilding yards in Vijaydurg, Swarndur, and Kolaba throughout the 17th century.
- The ships built here were noted for their maneuverability in restricted waters and superb sailing qualities.
- One of the oldest designs in ship construction was the Baghalah which traversed along the Gujarat coast.
- The main features of the Baghalah were that it had a length of 74 feet and a width of 25 feet. It weighed 150 tonnes and had a depth of about 11 feet.
- The Baghalah was used for about 87 years from 1750-1837 CE. Thus, we see that India had a long shipbuilding heritage even before the British arrived.
With the arrival of European colonial powers in the 15th century, Indian ship building changed due to the influence of foreign technologies and shipbuilding practices. The British East India Company established shipyards in India for its trade and naval needs.
- The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought in its wake, several changes in shipbuilding.
- Paddle steamers began to be used instead of sail propulsion. In 1836, screw propellers were invented.
- Between 1840 and 1880, shipbuilders began to use iron to build ships instead of wood, and by 1880, ships began to have steel hulls.
- The first ships with electric motors were constructed in 1903, after the introduction of the turbine or rotary engine in 1900 and the diesel engine in 1895, respectively. Wood, coal, oil, and then gas were the fuels utilized in that sequence.
- Every improvement necessitated modifications to the machinery and equipment used in its construction, use, and maintenance.
- Through World War I, the cyclic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II, technical advancements were made, including the introduction of turbine, diesel, and supercharging engines, turbo-electric propulsion, and much higher engine speeds, as well as the replacement of transverse frames with longitudinal ones and the development of turbine and diesel propulsion. Electric arc welding first appeared at the start of World War II.
During the 18th century, and the first half of the 19th century, the shipbuilding activity in India was dominated by one community – the Parsis.
Shipbuilding activity at Surat thrived and the Parsis showed absorbing interest. They built ships on order and built boats for sale. After Surat, the shipbuilding moved to Daman, Dhabul, Bassein, and Bombay.
At Bombay, one or two ships were built yearly on average from 1736 until 1743.
- There were built Twelve distinct types of ships. The Admiralty placed a request for the construction of the Wadia Frigate known as “Salsette” in 1807.
- After a British naval squadron was trapped in ice for nine weeks in the North Baltic Sea, this ship emerged unharmed.
- Unlike English boats, which had an average longevity of 12 years, the Wadia’s’ ships lasted 30 years.
- For the Royal Navy, several 74-gun ships were constructed between 1810 and 1813.
- The 46-gun ship ‘Trincomalee’ was also constructed by the Wadia in 1817. The ship was given the new name ‘Foudroyant’ and had the title of being the oldest ship currently at sea.
For India, the switch from sail to steam and from steam to electricity occurred at the wrong moment.
In addition to the British shipbuilders’ refusal to export this technology to India, the latter’s industrialization lagged much behind that of the European countries. As a result, India’s shipbuilding sector was all but destined for extinction.
After India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, efforts were made to revive and modernize the shipbuilding industry.
The government initiated several shipyards across the country, such as Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE), Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), and Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL).
In recent decades, India’s shipbuilding industry has seen significant growth and modernization.
Indian shipyards have been involved in constructing a wide range of vessels, including merchant ships, naval ships, offshore vessels, and even research vessels.
The shipbuilding industry has also been actively involved in exports, contributing to India’s economy and strengthening its position in the global shipbuilding market.
Today, India’s shipbuilding industry continues to evolve and remains an essential part of the country’s maritime sector.
With advancements in technology, infrastructure, and skilled workforce, Indian shipbuilders are competing internationally and contributing to the nation’s maritime capabilities and trade ambitions.
-Article by Swathi Satish