The Great Fire of Cochin gutted a major part of Fort Cochin in 1889. January 4 marks the 125th year of the event

On the Fort Kochi beach, behind Bastion Bungalow, amidst boulders heaped around, fishing boats tugged and pushed carelessly nearby, stands a tall, stone pillar. Ignored and defaced this is perhaps the only living landmark of the Great Fire of Cochin (1889) that destroyed a major part of then British Cochin. January 4 marks the 125th anniversary of the fire considered as devastating as the Great Fire of London.

The British had taken control of Fort Cochin, later called British Cochin, by 1795. Among the many administrative decisions they took was to discourage ship-building in India. So when Chandrabhanu, a 500-tonne vessel, was launched by one of the ship-building yards in Cochin, the British slapped the owner of this ship with a court restraint. The vessel was ‘quarantined,’ and left to float close to the shores, near Calvathy, from where most of the mercantile companies, mostly European, functioned.

It was a hot evening on January 4, when smoke was first spotted spiralling from Chandrabhanu, blurring the blue sky. The ship had a temporary roof made of palm fronds and a guard appointed by the court. In his book Flashes of Kerala History, K.L. Bernard, devotes a chapter to the ‘Great Fire of Cochin’. He writes: “The Swiss bosses of Volkart Bros. (one of the mercantile companies) looked down upon the ‘native ship’ that had the cheek to smoke in their presence. They raised their brows when flames shot out with a hissing noise…”

Instead of acting immediately the officers at Volkart Bros. summoned the carpenters. “Let them cut the rope and float away the flaming devil,” they yelled. Built of seasoned teak, the sun had turned it highly inflammable. The carpenters with their broad chisels got into small canoes and attempted to cut the rope that anchored the ship. One of them swam with a chisel in his mouth and managed to cut the rope and free the flaming ship.

This, Bernard writes, turned most destructive. Aided by a strong wind and pushed by the current, Chandrabhanu moved closer to the shores. The building and stores of Volkart Bros. were soon engulfed in flames. “Tonnes and tonnes of coconut oil, carpets, coir, spices,” were all destroyed. The flames from these godowns rose so high that they could be seen miles away.

The fire gutted almost all warehouses such as Aspinwall, Pierce Leslie etc. along the portside. “Those days all these buildings had thatched roofs. The fire spread to the Calvathy side that housed most of the companies. All of them were burnt down. Around 300 houses here were also gutted. Surprisingly, the mosque that stood almost behind the Volkart Bros. building was spared,” informs K. J. Sohan, former Mayor of Cochin and now Chairman, Standing Committee (Town Planning) Corporation of Cochin.

Bernard graphically describes the confusion that prevailed. Officers of some of the companies like Brunton managed to ‘push the demon’ out of danger, the authorities called for cannons to shoot it down, while one of the Europeans, part of a group going to Bolghatty Residency for a garden party, even attempted to jump into the backwaters and end his life when he saw uninsured property swallowed by fire.

Cochin Argus, one of the oldest English newspapers in the State, mauled the Europeans for having played spectators to the event, while the natives fought the flames trying to salvage what little they could of the precious wealth. The then Port Officer Captain J. E. Winckler is said to have replied through the Madras Times accusing Cochin Argus of spreading poisonous libel.

The Port authorities decided to commemorate this event. They erected a monument in stone that stands on the nearby beach. Inscribed on it are the words, ‘Erected October 1890 by J.E. Winckler, Port Officer, the great fire of Cochin, 4th January 1889.’ It remains the only tangible memory of the fire.

“Originally this monument stood at the landing of the then Victoria jetty. When Lord Curzon made his visit to British Cochin it was considered a hindrance and removed to the pilot quarters compound and later to the present spot as part of the beach beautification project. Sadly, it is a forgotten monument, defaced by posters. I think it needs to be protected as a memory, as a testimony of our resilience. Kochi has managed to literally rise from the ashes,” says Sohan.

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