The Chennai Harbour extends along the entire eastern side of First Line Beach (Rajaji Salai). If you had been visiting this city in the early 1800s, you would have scoffed at the idea that Madras could ever have a decent port. The surf was notorious and so was a strong current and the old ships could never approach land. All ships stopped two miles in the sea at a place called Madras Roads. Catamarans rowed up to them and passengers and goods were offloaded from the ships onto the rafts, which then brought them to the shore. The surf was so rough and the boatmen so rapacious in their greed that many passengers preferred to wade ashore. In the chaos of being brought to land on primitive boats, goods would invariably be lost. It was said that 90% of the merchandise brought from England to India perished in the last two miles.
The idea of a proper port for Madras began with Warren Hastings in 1769 when he was member of the Fort St George Council and the Committee of Works. A plan for a harbour was sent down from London and a pier based on sunken caissons with piles was recommended for Madras. But with Hastings leaving for Calcutta as Governor-General, the plan was pigeon-holed.
In 1798, Captain Lennon of the Madras Engineers submitted a memorandum of fifty pages in which he suggested not only a pier but also a closed harbour. The Board in Madras passed on the proposal to the Directors in England and nothing was heard again of the idea.
The Port scheme gained a major source of support with the establishment of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. The merchants of the city were convinced that if it was to transform from being Kipiling’s “tired withered beldame”, Madras needed a proper harbour and therefore began championing the cause. The Chamber, which had most of its members on First Line Beach, roped in the Madras Trades Association, which comprised the retail giants of Mount Road. In 1857, a Committee in which the Chamber was represented submitted to the East India Company a report that stated “that an iron screw pile pier was not only feasible but simple of construction and was the most suitable structure for spanning the Madras surf”. The Government that replaced the Company post Mutiny accepted this proposal which was estimated to cost Rs 95,000. A year later this was revised to Rs 103,000 and on 17th September 1859, the first pile was screwed down by Sir Charles Trevelyan, the then Governor, assisted by the Commander-in-Chief and Henry Nelson, Chairman of the Chamber. Progress was slow for the vessels that brought in the piles from England met with repeated disasters. By 1861, the rather flimsy structure of 1000 feet length and 40 feet width, with four lines of tramway and fixed and moveable cranes was ready. But with the Government refusing to sanction a warehouse, the masula boats were still needed to ply between vessel and pier and the boatmen preferred offloading the goods on to the beach.
In 1868, a storm damaged the pier. Then in 1872 came a worse cyclone when no less than ten vessels, 9 native barques, 3 native brigs, 1 native schooner, 6 native dhonies and 1 native sloop were wrecked and 19 people lost their lives. Two country vessels drifted on to the pier, caused a breach and passed right through the structure, north to south. The pier was closed for 18 months.
Repeated failures in the construction of a suitable pier and harbour did not deter the Chamber. Writing letters on the subject became a matter of habit. A powerful argument was that with the railways converging on Madras, precious little use could be made of them by way of cargo if the city did not have a suitable harbour. In 1872, the Suez Canal was opened and as related earlier, this revolutionised the maritime trade. The bulk of the trade of Madras could now be handled by steamers, which did not stand the same kind of risks from cyclones as the old ships. The Port idea gained steam once more and in 1873 therefore, the Government sent out William Parkes, who had supervised the construction of the Karachi Harbour.
Parkes’ proposal envisaged the running out of two piers into the sea, 1200 yards from the shore or into 7 fathoms of water. These two were to be joined on the eastern front by another pier or breakwater running parallel to the coast. The last would have an eastern entrance of around 480 ft width. The space enclosed within the piers would be 170 acres which was sufficient to provide anchorage for 17 large ships or steamers, besides a number of native craft. The water inside the enclosure would be free of surf and therefore the craft could anchor almost close to the shore. The report concluded with an estimate, which came to Rs 565,000, an expenditure, which it felt, was justifiable given the growing trade of Madras Port. Following this, the Government asked the Madras Chamber to estimate the probable income derivable from the trade of the Port in the event of the construction of the Harbour being sanctioned.
Amidst fears that the cost of the Port would be passed on to the great shipping lines such as P&O, thereby making them move over to Colombo or Calcutta, the Chamber began work on its report. By then, several Chamber members were local agents for international shipping lines. These members no doubt played a key role in allaying the fears of their shipping principals. Apart from the older established ones, a new entrant was Gordon Woodroffe, which was established in 1868 and handled the local business of the Clan, the Hansa and the Well lines. Its magnificent headquarters can be seen even now on First Line Beach. The project was sanctioned in March 1875, thanks in large measure to Governor Lord Hobart who was unflinching in his follow-up. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, laid the foundation stone and construction began.
Work progressed steadily through 1876 and 1877 the raging famine notwithstanding. The surf posed as many hurdles as possible when it came to building the piers but this was overcome by tipping heavy granite boulders into the sea and then setting the concrete blocks on them. By 1880, a railway line was laid along the coast linking the north and south piers and within the next year, cranes, machinery, engines and workshops were in place. Then, in 1881, Nature came back to claim what was her own. A severe cyclone blew over the city on 12th November and the eastern pier that was to protect the harbour was severely damaged, exposing the enclosed area to the full force of the sea. Experts were called in once again and for 3 ½ years, work was stopped. The Chamber was of the view that the eastern entrance was the culprit and sent in its comments to the Secretary of State. In 1885, money was sanctioned for the restoration and work began once again. Rs 80 lakhs had been spent thus far.
With the project finally taking some shape, the Government on 1st January 1886, passed the Madras Harbour Act as per which the properties and liabilities of the harbour were transferred from the Government to a Board of Trustees. In the meanwhile, work on the Harbour with its eastern entrance progressed and was completed by end 1895. There were new problems – namely the rapid silting up of the eastern entrance and the sea continuing to pose challenges all of which required a new messiah in the shape of Mr FJE Spring of whose doings, more will be told anon.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –