A Masulah Boat off the coast of Madras
A Masulah Boat off the coast of Madras

The state government is involved in yet another struggle to bring the autorickshaw drivers of our city under control. All this brings to mind the two-century-long battle that Madras fought against another transport operator — the Masulah boatman. And the two struggles are remarkably similar to each other.

Our city did not have a natural harbour with the surf near the coast being particularly dangerous. Between 1639 and 1875 or so, all ships dropped anchor beyond the surf, at a distance of almost two miles from the coast. This spot came to be known as Madras Roads. The only vessels that could brave the surf and ply to and fro between the ships and the coast were the native masulah boats. Passengers and goods had to use this form of transport when they landed at Madras or embarked on a sea voyage. Over time, given this monopoly, the boatmen became a law unto themselves.

The two-mile ferry service on the native boats to the shore was fraught with risks. As an account put it, “the boatmen waited for a big wave, came in on the crest of it till it was spent, paddled hard to get past the breaking place of the next wave so as to be carried by it right up to the beach. And as they waited outside the surf for a good wave they bargained with their passengers”. Those who did not accede to the boatmen’s demands could be pushed over by means of an accidental rocking of the boat and their goods could also be roughly handled.

For years, the government tried its best to rein in the boatmen but as a writer put it, “they were a gang of rapacious scoundrels who knew themselves to be indispensable and traded on it”. In 1839, the government tried to end the monopoly of a few boatmen who controlled the service by throwing open the supply of boats to public competition. But the boat cartel ensured that no newcomer came forward. In 1842, the government passed an Act by which it was compulsory for boats to be licensed. None of the boatmen applied for it and went on a strike! They “defied the law and plundered property under the very eyes of the watching peons”. The government kept enhancing the rates and also published rate cards to bring some control but to no avail. In the 1860s, it even enacted a rule that every boat should have a policeman on board, no doubt to ensure safety of the passengers and goods. It all sounds terribly familiar doesn’t it?

It was finally technology that put an end to the boatmen. The ships became bigger and steam driven, enabling them to brave the surf. And the harbour works began in 1856, concluding in the early 1900s, enabling ships to dock safely. The boatman and the masulah boat became a thing of the past. Perhaps effective public transport alternatives can control the autos as well.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 22, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column