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Suvali: The birthplace of Indian Navy

  1. Robert Dsouza

    Robert Dsouza Moderator

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    Even as the world celebrates Heritage Week, a lot of history within Surat is still buried under the sands at Suvali, unknown and undiscovered. Suvali holds its place in history for it nationwide importance. Few people know that Suvali is also the birthplace of the Indian Navy.

    A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels by Kerr Robert (1824) informs how in 1612, Captain Thomas Best encountered and defeated the Portuguese in the Battle of Swally (the British called it Swally in anglicised accent). While the Portugal fleet consisted of 4 galleons and 26 oared barks, the English East India Company had four ships namely – James, Solomon, Red Dragon,and Hosiander.

    As Captain Thomas Best awaited permission for trading from the Mughal Emperor on October 10, 1612, his ships sailed in at Suvali, 19 kilometres North-west of Surat. Between, October 17-21, he obtained a trading treaty subject to ratification by the Emperor. Opposed by the Portuguese who saw the British as clear competition, Captain Best learnt about a squadron of Portuguese ships which was planning to attack.

    On the November 29, 1612, the Battle of Seally commenced, the next day Captain Best managed to run three of the Portuguese galleons aground. An alert English watch sank a bark alight with fire which the Portuguese attacked them with, in hope to set their ships alight. A stand-off between the two remained until December 5 that year.

    This marked the decline of the Portugal trade in India and the beginning of British ascent. Upon hearing about the valour of the English, the Emperor favoured them over the Portuguese thereafter.

    To protect the trading port from further such encounters with pirates and intruders the English maintained a small fighting fleet from 1912 onwards. Named ‘The Honourable East India Company’s Marine’, then onwards, any ship embarking this shore would have to pay tax to the Company. The officers of which, went on to play an important role in surveying and protecting the Arabian, Persian and Indian coastlines and later functioned from Bombay.

    ‘The History of Indian Navy’ states the marine protected merchant shipping off the Gulf of Cambay and the rivers Tapti and Narmada. Their fleet also helped map the Indian coastline and that of Persia and Arabia. Later, as Bombay (now Mumbai) became the commercial centre for the British, the force was shifted and named the Bombay Marine. Participating in the Anglo-Burmese wars, several Indian sailors were commissioned by the force. The Bombay Marine was changed to ‘Her Majesty’s Indian Navy’ in 1830 and then to Royal Indian Marine in 1892. Naval dockyards at Bombay and Calcutta were armed and active in World War I. But it was not until 1928, that the first Indian officer, Sub Lieutenant DN Mukherji was appointed as an engineer officer.

    In 1934, during World War II, it was renamed The Royal Indian Navy; ships of which received a prefix – HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) and were often named after rivers of India – HMIS Sutlej, HMIS Jumna and so on. Upon turning into a Republic on January 26, 1950, the name was changed to Indian Navy. On April 22, 1958, Vice Admiral RD Katari was appointed India’s first Chief of Naval Staff.