This year marks the 400th anniversary of Britain’s first trade mission to India led by Sir Thomas Roe. The move followed the granting of a charter to the (British) East India Company.
The Honourable East India Company’s trading monopoly with Asia led to the establishment, by the start of the 19th Century, of Britain’s Indian territorial empire, which stretched from Aden to China.
Today, trade with India is still a priority for the British government. It is also a focus in the ICE’s strategic plan, for membership growth and knowledge activity.
The growing interest of the East India Company in improving the infrastructure of India itself dates back to the early 19th Century and is largely coincident with the foundation of ICE. Before the middle of the 18th Century the East India Company’s military engineering establishment was not organised in a formal manner and one of those to benefit was colonel Henry Watson, who rose to colonel and chief engineer of Bengal. He also designed an unfulfilled proposal for docks at Kolkata. Better known are engineers like Sir Arthur Cotton and Sir Proby Cautley who designed major irrigation schemes in the 19th Century.
Cotton and Cautley were contemporaries of the first Indian to become an ICE member - Ardaseer Cursetjee (Wadia) (1808-1877) - one of a handful of members to have appeared on a stamp.
Cursetjee joined the East India Company’s service in 1822, aged 14, and by 1828 was in charge of the Marzagaon shipyard.
From his youth, however, he had been interested in steam engines and machinery, and in 1831, transferred to the Bombay Mint. At that time the Bombay shipyards were ill-equipped to deal with the demands of steam navigation, but Ardaseer was able to install an English built 10 horse power engine and within it in a boat, the Indus, which he had built. He was soon made assistant builder atMazagoan and shortly after, introduced gas lighting to Mumbai.
Cursetjee realised that to satisfy his quest for technical innovation he needed to visit England. In 1838, his request was granted and he arrived in 1839 - bearing the costs of his journey which were the equivalent of three years’ salary.
During his visit he attended official functions, gave evidence to the House of Commons, and was the first Indian to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society, sponsored by ICE members.
While in England, he successfully applied for the position of chief engineer and inspector of machinery at the Bombay dockyard of the East India Company and arrived back in India in April 1841.
Ardaseer held the position for 16 years in which time the factory opened as a repair yard and took on more work. In 1851 he suffered a stroke, probably induced by overwork, and was allowed to visit the United States and England, returning to Mumbai in February 1853.
He died in 1871, and was commemorated by a stamp issued in 1969.
The lives of many ICE members who worked in India are recorded in the biographical dictionary of civil engineers of Great Britain and Ireland. The third volume, covering 1890-1920, was published in September 2014.