Victoria Docks Blasts: The Explosions That Built India’s Commercial Capital

History

Victoria Docks Blasts: The Explosions That Built India’s Commercial Capital

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

f you were to ask a historian about the darkest day the world has ever witnessed, they’d choose from a handful of answers. Like the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the early days of August 1945, people wiped out within seconds. They’d likely bring up the volcanic eruption at Pompeii, which no one seemed to have survived. They might even talk about the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event that precipitated World War I.

These events shaped the world we live in. Dark, but iconic days.

For Mumbai, one of these days was April 14, 1944. This day, 74 years ago. They say it rained gold and blood on that day.

It was work as usual on Victoria Docks, when the earth began to shake. What was believed to be a Japanese attack, turned out to be an unfortunate accident. There was a blast aboard the British cargo ship, Fort Stikine, that had been loaded with explosives. The explosion caused the ship to split into two, causing a minor tsunami that left the docks, as well as the commercial area around it, in a heap of blood and debris.

Several personal memoirs from that era reveal that the fire continued to burn for that day and for the following night. Bodies floated in the waters off the ship; the death toll was pegged close to 900 people, including civilian and ship personnel.

Yet, the Victoria Docks blasts have now become a footnote in Mumbai’s contemporary history – possibly replaced by newer, fresher horrors. Most residents can still recall the 1993 blasts, like a piece of shrapnel lodged in our collective memory. Just like 1993, the explosions of 1944 brought the entire city to a standstill.

Migrants to the city are unable to find suitable accommodation, because the rich have already locked all the best properties at ancient rates.

On the blog Old Photos Bombay D P Ings recalls an entry from 1961, where he witnessed “thirty burning dhows in the stream and, as they sank, their cargoes of cotton still smouldered on the surface.” Shrapnel fell everywhere, causing several buildings to explode. “It took four days to burn out the main fire and two whole weeks to extinguish everything… Amongst the debris falling from the sky were the 28lb ingots of gold, one of the first to be found was picked up by Burjorji Motiwala a retired Parsee civil engineer. The ingots had crashed through the building’s corrugated roof, penetrated the floor of the balcony above and come to rest on his balcony in the corner. The bar was stamped Z13526 and was worth 90,000 rupees, Mr Motiwala received a reward of 999 rupees which he donated to the relief fund… The entire dock was cleaned up in a debris removal, and led to the filling of Back Bay which later on gave rise to the Nariman Point.”

And that’s how India’s busiest commercial capital came to be.

Despite such a rich – if bloody – history, Nariman Point is now considered one of the worst-planned districts in the world. After the actual blasts, the area suffered a legislative explosion in the form of the Bombay Rent Act of 1947. Enacted the year after Independence, the act froze the rents on all the buildings leased at the time at 1940 levels. The act also provided for the transfer of the right to lease the property at the fixed rents to the legal heir of the tenants. As long as the tenants were paying, they could not be evicted. This was originally intended as an emergency wartime measure, a five-year provision to protect tenants from inflation and speculation after WWII ended.

Since the provision extended to commercial buildings, it continues to benefit multinational corporations and large government enterprises, which pay a pittance for their offices. Originally, the area was designated for educational and mixed-use residential buildings, but with the Rent Act in play, it has remained a commercial complex.

And the rest of us pay for it. The Rent Act affects the newcomer, the young, and the poor. Migrants to the city are unable to find suitable accommodation, because the rich have already locked all the best properties at ancient rates.

The Victoria Docks blasts might have floated to the south of public consciousness, but we continue to feel its after-effects today. Had the explosions not happened, there would be no Nariman Point. We would have had a properly planned and developed New Bombay today. We live in a city built on the debris of that incident – it’s bound to haunt us from the great beyond.

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