How oil came to Madras

One of the most fascinating sidelights of the Port story is the arrival of oil in Madras. The first phase in the development of the Port ended in 1895 and within a decade of this, the first motor cars had begun to roll off the ships that called at Madras. The first automobile dealer was Addison & Co and in 1901, AJ Yorke, a Director of Parry, became the first owner of a car in the city. He drove in it everyday from Bens Gardens (present day Boat Club Road) to his office in Parry’s Corner. First Line Beach was therefore an early witness to the automobile. And the automobile needed petrol.

Shell Oil ads

However, almost a decade before petrol, Chennai got to see kerosene for the first time. This was thanks to Best & Co, one of the giants of First Line Beach. Founded by Andrews Van Dunlop Best in 1879, the company was initially into shipping and trading, lines in which it was to make a fortune. In 1893, thanks to improved port facilities, Best & Co, by then agents in Madras for the London-based Marcus Samuel & Co, began importing by sea, kerosene in tankers. Marcus Samuel had made their name in selling trinkets and curios of which their sea-shells were most popular. Thus when they diversified into kerosene, they marketed it under the Shell brand. It was a Shell tanker that first came to Madras in 1893 and emptied its contents directly into a bulk-storage facility put up by Best & Co on the sand opposite the High Court.

But the credit for first bringing kerosene to the city belongs in reality to an Indian. This was Haji Sir Ismail Sait, a rich Cutchi Memon businessman of South India, who is today remembered in a hospital named after him in Bangalore. He ran the English Warehouse in Madras and Bangalore, which retailed everything from toys to mining equipment. Haji Sir Ismail was on the Board of Binny’s Carnatic Mill Co. Ltd in 1881 and was even then importing kerosene oil from America in cans and selling them through Spencer & Co. By the 1890s, he had developed a system of branches and depots upcountry and was firmly entrenched in the trade. In Madras, Haji Sir Ismail pioneered the sale of kerosene through carts, a system that survived well into the 1970s.
Best studied Haji Sir Ismail’s methods and given their financial muscle, went on to make a name for themselves in kerosene. In 1897, Samuel & Co formed the Shell Transport and Trading Company with Best as their Indian agents. In 1907, Shell merged with the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. Four years earlier, the latter had built its oil storage facility opposite the High Court with Arbuthnot & Co, another First Line Beach major, as its agent. In 1906, Arbuthnots collapsed and Best became the agents for Royal Dutch. In the meanwhile, oil from Burmah arrived in Madras in 1903, with Binny as the agents for the Burmah Oil Co Limited. By 1905, they too had their storage facilities fronting the High Court. The signing up of Binny’s with Burmah Oil was not to the liking of Haji Sir Ismail and he had to be placated given that he was a powerful Director on Board. The commission from the sale of Burmah Oil was split on a 3:5 basis between Haji Sir Ismail and Binny. But Binny’s interest in oil was short-lived. In 1906, it gave up the agency to Shaw Wallace.

The High Court Dome

The building of oil storage facilities on the beach fronting the High Court was no easy task. There was no road on the beach and as the Fort was controlled by the military (as it still is), special permission was obtained and a tramline was laid to transport construction material. But by 1910, there were at least three giant oil tanks on the beachfront. These were to be easy targets for the German ship the Emden when it came cruising down the Madras shoreline in 1914.
The First World War had begun that year and on 22nd September, the Emden found itself near Madras, technically enemy territory as this was a British colony. The light from the High Court’s top dome, which also served as the city’s lighthouse streamed out and provided easy guidance. At 9.30 pm Captain Karl Von Muller gave orders to fire and the Emden shelled the Madras coastline. The Burmah Oil tanks were easy targets and burst into flames. A merchant ship was sunk in the harbour and shells landed in George Town and also the compound of the High Court. When British guns began firing in retaliation at 10.00 pm, the Emden left unscathed.

The Emden Plaque

The oil tankers burnt for three days. The city was gripped by an unprecedented panic. Thousands fled and properties were sold at rock-bottom prices. In Germany, a jubilant Kaiser Wilhelm II decreed that the crew of the ship could add the word Emden to their names. In Madras, the word came to mean a ruffian or a bully and continues to remain so. A plaque on the High Court wall commemorates the shelling by the Emden even now. Some unexploded shells are in the Fort Museum.
By the time the war ended, the Port had expanded and the oil tanks were moved to Royapuram where they stand even today. By then motor cars and public transport vehicles had begun to ply in large numbers. Motor oils were sold in cans with Chester and Monkey brands being popular. Then in 1927, Royal Dutch and Burmah Oil merged to form Burmah-Shell. They had their offices in the buildings of Best & Co. Shell Motor Oil became the preferred brand of petrol. In the early 1930s, Madras got its first petrol bunk, run by Shell. This was near the Mount Road roundtana, i.e, near where the Annadurai statue is today.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog -


One response to “How oil came to Madras”

  1. […] land belonged to Haji Sir Ismail Sait, a prosperous businessman of Bangalore who pioneered the retailing of kerosene in Madras. He was also renowned for his philanthropy and several charities of his continue in the former city […]

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