Remembering The 1944 Blasts That Brought Mumbai To A Standstill & Left Long-Lasting Scars

Posted by Vaishnavi Rathi in History, Society
April 13, 2018

There are many dark days in history. If you ask the historians to tell you what they thought was the darkest day, their answers may vary. Some of them would point to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki where people were wiped out within seconds; or maybe the volcanic eruption of Pompeii – they say no one survived it. Or even Franz Ferdinand’s death. These events changed the world. These were the dark days that have been etched in our memories forever.

But, for Mumbai, the day that actually reshaped and altered the way it worked would be April 14, 1944. They say it actually rained gold and blood that day.

On that day in 1944, it felt as if Japan had bombed the city of Bombay. The incident was triggered by the blasts on Fort Stikine (a Canadian-built steamship), which later disrupted the Victoria Docks, taking down a majority of the commercial area with it. The entire city was in a turmoil, with blood and debris everywhere in the immediate proximity of that area. The city, or the country for that matter, had not seen blasts of this kind ever before. The tremors of the blasts were felt till Shimla.

Stowage plan of SS Fort Stikine
Stowage plan of SS Fort Stikine

One of the personal memoirs reveals that the fire continued to burn all through that day and the following night. By that time, dead bodies were to be seen floating in the water near the ship.

The 1944 Victoria Docks explosions seem to have been forgotten today by the residents of Mumbai. When asked if they know about the blasts, their memory takes them back to the time when the city was attacked in 1993. The incident from 1944, however, brought the entire city to a standstill by killing nearly 800 people, which is only the official figure. The unofficial figure is considered to have crossed 1,000.

Perhaps, this incident has been forgotten over the years because it was an accident. There is no proof that it was deliberate. Also, the intensity and the scale of terror attacks waged on this city have only multiplied over the years. This incident gets buried beneath the memories of all these incidents.

Even so, there are some memoirs and personal accounts that have helped us understand the event and its aftermath.

Mr. DP Ings, in his personal memoirs, recalled the fateful day after 25 years, as if it had happened only yesterday. He briefly describes the explosions as:

The earlier explosions had flung incendiary bombs over a wide area and small fires were burning everywhere. They were now thirty burning dhows in the stream and, as they sank, their carhoes of cotton still smouldered on the surface.The ships on the harbourwall, including ourselves and mantola, put down rescue the dhow crews.Darkness fell and the night sky reflected the blazing parts of the city.I watched from the monkey island and could hear the hiss of the cylinders as they ignited one by one. That day saw the wreckage of 27 ships and two docks: Victoria and Princess. Many people were killed outside the dock area by falling shrapnel and shells which exploded on impact, many buildings collapsed and others were set on fire. It took 4 days to burn out the main fire and two whole weeks to extinguish everything. There was a wave of terror spread throughout the city. In 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, as mentioned by D.P. Ings in his personal account.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. Many others found such gold bars falling through their roofs, in which some of the gold bars were returned but most of them kept it.In all, some 50,000 tons of shipping was lost and further 50,000 severely destroyed. The entire dock was cleaned up in a debris removal led to the filling of back bay which later on gave rise to the Nariman Point.

The Nariman Point is considered the worst planned district, with the infrastructure and its functioning being a monopoly of the top private builder firms in the city – thereby stripping the common public of the benefits the district was supposed to provide in modern India, which was formed due to the reclamation of the back-bay.

Suketu Mehta, in his book “Maximum city: Bombay Lost and Found”, talks about the Rent Act of 1947 which apparently had a major role to play in this. When World War II ended, this was the next catastrophe that the city faced and it is still recovering from the ‘legislative blasts’. Enacted in 1948, the act froze the rents on all the buildings leased at the time at the 1940 levels. The act also provided for the transfer of the right to lease the property at fixed rents to the legal heir of the tenants. As long as the tenants kept paying the rents, they could not be evicted. This was originally intended as an emergency wartime measure – a 5-year provision to protect tenants from inflation and speculation after the World War II. The provisions of the Rent Act also apply to commercial buildings, thereby benefiting the multinational corporations and large government enterprises which pay a pittance for their offices. Some of the richest people in the city love rent-controlled bungalows all around Malabar Hill.

The reason Bombay is choking is the Rent Act. It hits the newcomer, the young and the poor. Those who come in from outside can’t find a room to rent because the rich have already acquired or booked all the best properties. It is the most extreme version of a ‘newcomer’s tax’. But it doesn’t keep the newcomers out; it merely condemns them to live squalidly. This act, fuelled by the formation of Nariman Point, seems to be a plausible explanation for the state (along with five private firms) to back out of its commitment to move its offices from Nariman Point to New Bombay.

In one of the interviews with Rahul Mehrotra, a well established architect in today’s time, he says, ”It was a complete slap in the face of the New Bombay. The hubris of money and the nexus between politicians and builders had reached a point where city’s concern was not primary.” Originally, the Nariman Point was designated for educational and mixed-use residential buildings – but with the Rent Act in play, it became the worst planned commercial complex in the city.

Like any big catastrophe, the Victoria blasts played a major role in the later planning and functioning of the city. Even though the memories have faded over time, it doesn’t mean that the blasts did not take place. We are living in the city built on the debris of that incident. Had it not happened, there would be no Nariman Point. A properly planned and developed New Bombay would have existed today, as it had been planned before. This is how we know that the 1944 Victoria blasts left long-lasting scars.