On a sultry April afternoon in 1921 when Robert Bristow got off his train from Madras (now Chennai) at Ernakulam Terminus, irony awaited him. At the water-front nearby, a small boat was ready to give him the first glimpse of the harbor he was to famously upscale. He did notice that the launch was called ‘Vasco’. But even before he could spell out Vasco da Gama’, Cochin had hit him. He was absorbed by “the blue lagoons”, “the interminable vista fading only into the sky itself” and “ the faint mirage of trees over an invisible horizon”.
The scenic Malabar shore had seen in 1498 a far more historic visitor who cared a lot less for the scenic. Among the few reminders left of the big visit was the little boat that bore his name. The colonial practice the Portuguese Argonaut kicked off with much madness had since acquired a method. Bristow embodied it. The European script itself was beginning to unravel on India’s happening ‘left coast’ and this harbor engineer stayed on to add a footnote. Which he eventually signed off with a flourish. In the 20 years ‘Vasco’ ferried him countless times across the back waters, his mind was on bloodless battles to be waged in committees, sub committees and the mother of all, with the stubborn sand bar that stretched across the harbor mouth. A veritable underwater speed-breaker that had long stalled Cochin’s maritime trade.
Bristow won on all fronts. He got his approvals, dredged the channel and set up a deep-sea port big enough for world trade and the world war he had anticipated. With minimal cost to the land-scarce princely state. He didn’t carry his cranes and boilers into an already crowded mainland. Instead he reclaimed an island to house the port office, workshops and the wharfs. Since then, over some seventy years, the workaday island has notched up its own heritage-
- A non-green ecology of men and metal
- The vintage dry dock and workshops,still functional
- A steam crane, in tact with a fitness certificate
- Anvils and ovens straignt out of Dickensian England
- The shop floor with a long rotating shaft powered at one end by an electric motor and in tirun powering a series of machines through pulleys.
- A mazdoor – turned shed clerk recalling his routine ride not too long agog in the six-seater “Vasco”
- The bearded Basil John running a millling machine with a Biblical hymn on his lips
- His colleague who pulls out his hankie to wipe the dust and grease off the embossed marking on the machine: ‘Made in USA, 1907′.
- And, under the bridges Bristow built, herons perched on floats of weed surveying the going on.