Conquest of Karachi

Behram Sohrab H.J. Rustomjee
By the late Ardeshir Cowasjee

(Source:, February 09, 2003)






One hundred and sixty-four years ago the British decided to conquer Sindh. Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Maitland (who as captain of HMS Bellerephon in 1815 had the honour of transporting Napoleon Bonaparte to the remote island of St Helena) was ordered to land an invading force at Karachi.

He was aboard the flag ship, HMS Wellesley, built in Bombay. The fortress commander, the ‘Killardar’ of Manora, Wasul Ben Butcha, considered it beneath his Baloch pride to surrender. The Wellesley fired a broadside, the fort was smashed to smithereens, and the white flag was hoisted.

What did the unfortunate brave Wasul have on his side? If Sir Richard Burton is to be believed, his garrison was three-strong – an old man, a young woman and a boy. One gun had no carriage, another gun had been fired once and had jumped from its carriage – ‘which it had destroyed in its violent struggle for freedom’, and the third gun would not go off. (Hopefully, we are now better prepared.)

An agreement for the surrender of Karachi was signed by Maitland, and, as Behram Rustomjee (May 1912 – December 2002) writes in his book ‘Karachi’, : “Thus it was that Karachi came to be formally occupied by the British on 7th February 1839.”

Behli (as he was known) Rustomjee, who had graduated in London as a BE, was our English and modern history teacher at the Bai Virbaijee Soparivala Parsi High School in the mid-1930s. He rose to be principal and was at the BVS for over thirty years until he retired in 1965. How fortunate my generation was to have had teachers such as he and the great Shams-ul-ulema Dastur Dr Maneckji Nusserwanjee Dhalla (Ph.D, Columbia 1909) who taught us ancient history, the history of civilization and religion. Dr Maneck Bezonjee Pithawalla, a Doctor of Science, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and also of the Geological Society, taught us geography and poetry. In fact, each could lecture on any subject.

Together with our academic learning, what was instilled into us was decency, tolerance, the spirit of ‘do as you would be done by’, the acceptance of the right of each man to his opinion, that religion is strictly between a man and his God and that it has nothing to do with politics or the state, that men of different faiths and beliefs can coexist, and that, above all, life is a gift from God to be lived and enjoyed to the full.

Behli gave me a copy of his book ‘Karachi (1839-1947)’ and in it he inscribed: “To a great-grandson of HJ from the author, a grandson of HJ. Let us work with unswerving faith on the future of Karachi, the city we both love.”

From the arrival of Sir Charles Napier in 1843 right up to the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 Karachi was a well-governed, tidy, clean and organized city. It was home to Hindus (of all castes and sorts), Muslims (Shias and Sunnis and all the other sects), Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Jews, Buddhists and Parsis who all coexisted amicably. And the same applied to the entire province of Sindh.

Behli wrote much on Napier, the first governor of Sindh, to whom the old and fine Karachi owes much. He tells us of the Italian marble obelisk erected in 1853 at what was later known as Napier Mole on which was inscribed the following words:

“From this spot on 1st October 1847 was fired the Farewell Salute to His Excellency Lt. General Sir Charles Napier, GCB, on his retirement from the Governorship of Sind, being the extreme point from which at that date a wheel carriage had ever passed along this Bunder, a work planned and executed under the government of His Excellency, and thus far completed at the date of his departure from this province.”

As says Behli, it was a befitting testimony to the planning and vision of Napier, to his extraordinary talent for civil administration, to his love for Karachi and to the care and attention he had accorded this then beautiful peaceful city. As he departed Karachi’s shores that morning on board the ‘Moozuffer’ bound for Suez, he exclaimed: “Thou shalt be the Glory of the East, would that I could come again to see you, Kurrachee, in your grandeur.”

Sir Charles Napier was ‘an old Peninsular Officer’ and the hero of the storming of the impregnable Imambargah fortress and of the victorious battles of Mianee and Dabo which rendered the province of Sindh unto the British Empire and gave rise to the story of the famous telegram he sent back to London which bore the sole word ‘Peccavi’.

He was 61 years of age in 1843 when he first came to Scinde (as it was then written). Slight and meagre of frame, scarred with the wounds of many battles, his conquest of our province was the culmination of his military career. He was appointed the first governor and commander of forces in Sindh by the governor-general, Lord Ellenborough. His first act was to move the centre of government from Hyderabad to Karachi, which for a sea power such as Britain could not have been a better choice.

Thus started the transformation of Karachi from a ‘miserable native fortress’ into a thriving port, a fortified town and a nerve centre for its new rulers. He built the finest barracks to house his soldiers (these magnificent buildings still stand and house the offices of the commander 5 corps and the Naval Comkar), whose welfare was his primary consideration, he set up for them a sanatorium at Gizree and Clifton, and laid out gardens and playgrounds. He planned the construction of Karachi harbour and its docks, he set up a timber pile pier at Keamari and built a causeway between that point and the city of Karachi, and he built the Manora lighthouse.

To ensure a sufficient supply of water he laid down plans: “The waters of the Muleer River were to be utilized not only for irrigating the government gardens for fountains but also for the houses of the town, the cantonment and even for the harbour of Keamari.”

Law and order being the first duty of any government, it was Napier who organized the police department of Sindh and Sir Bartle Frere commenting on it wrote: “His police system was, at the time he introduced it, far in advance of any other in India. It has been the model for most of what is good in subsequent reform of the Indian police.”

Security brought an increase in trade and business and industry and a growth in population. Merchants and cultivators came to settle and British and Parsi mercantile men turned their attention to Karachi which promised to be the ‘great emporium of trade with Central Asia’.

On August 10, 1847, for reasons of his own state of health and that of his family, Napier sent in his letter of resignation to the governor-general, who, in accepting it, recorded his regret at the loss of an officer “who combined rare abilities for the civil and military administration of the country, an ability which justifies the unlimited confidence.”

To revert to Behli’s inscription in his book, the HJ to whom he refers was Hormusjee Jamshedjee Rustomjee (1846-1899), grand seigneur, merchant prince, philanthropist and Grand Master of his Masonic Lodge, who lived and enjoyed his life in Karachi, and who ensured that many less endowed than he were also able to enjoy life. A marble tablet salvaged from the Masonic Lodge has inscribed on it: “This tablet has been erected by the Masonic Fraternity of Sind as a mark of the esteem and respect in which H.J. Rustomjee was held, for his sterling qualities both as a gentleman and a Mason.”

Our school, the BVS, founded in 1859 and nurtured by many an educated man of the community, enrolled only Parsis until 1948, when, on Jinnah’s request,
its doors were opened to admit boys of any faith, irrespective of caste or creed. In the year 2000, the government education division adjudged it to be ‘the best private boys’ school of Karachi, and it was awarded the Millennial Shield.

(Source:, Dated Feb 09, 2003)

About Amin H. Karim MD

Graduate of Dow Medical College Class of 1977.
This entry was posted in Karachi History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s