To date, the port city of Visakhapatnam reminds its denizens of its rich past in the form of dilapidated buildings that once shone brightly on the city roads and establishments that bear English names. The Victoria Pavilion, Queen Mary’s School, King George Hospital, Ross Hill, and CBM Compound are some of the many names that have lengthy stories behind their establishment in the City of Destiny. But the one locality in Vizag whose history often remains untold is the bustling Lawsons Bay Colony, which got its name from an English ship captain. But how did he hit the shores of the city? How did a colony overlooking the Bay of Bengal get its name? John Castellas, a Vizag heritage enthusiast and aficionado, shares the story of Captain Patrick Lawson and the tale behind Lawsons Bay Colony.
Over the centuries, many an old ‘Sea Salt’ (ship’s Captain) has sailed to Vizag but Captain Patrick Lawson was the only one to give his name to perpetuity. But was Captain Lawson a schemer or a sincere Old Salt? What brought him to Vizag? And what notoriety followed him?
Most of us in Vizag are familiar with Lawsons Bay Colony. Some old timers remember Lawsons Bay as a picturesque cove with sparkling turquoise blue waters in which we swam all day during picnics and where the fishing boats came in every afternoon laden with fish. That was before urban slums and a filthy bus station surrounded it. The bay was named after Captain Patrick Lawson, commander of the East Indiaman ships Locko, Lord Holland and Lord Hobart to name a few. Lawson, along with his wife, lived near the fishing village from about 1787 as a free trader (not associated with the East India Company), exporting goods made on the Coromandel Coast and importing luxury European items. Lawson died in 1820 and is buried in the Old Cemetery at Old Town near the Kurupam market. His daughter from his first marriage died in Vizag in 1821 and his second wife died in 1824, both of whom are buried in Vizag.
Captain Lawson sailed the East Indiaman Lord Holland, to and from the far east, carrying goods for the East India Company. Lawson had been captain of Lord Holland when, on his return to England in 1779, a crewmember denounced him for smuggling. Lawson lost his goods and his command.
Captain Patrick Lawson purchased a captured French East Indiaman Modeste, had her lengthened and superbly fitted out, and renamed her Locko. The directors seem to have forgiven Lawson, for he was accepted as captain and the ship was taken up for a voyage to India and China, on which she sailed in March 1781. On his return, he was again denounced for smuggling by one of his crew. His goods were confiscated, he lost his command and judgment was obtained against him by the Crown in the Court of Exchequer in the amount of nearly £100,000. According to the custom of the time, he avoided liability by escaping to India on a foreign ship and settling at Vizagapatam, where he prospered as a free merchant.
Captain Patrick Lawson’s Account Book of 1778 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, details the placement of special commission orders by private consumers from Europe. While resident in England, and, prior to Lawson’s departure for Canton, Mrs Lawson (alias Bridget Hennessy, Captain Lawson’s second wife) collected orders from female customers who seem to have been her acquaintances and a number of shopkeepers too. She wrote down in marvellous detail the specifics of these different commissions. His goods were advertised in the newspapers like the example in the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Digest 25 Jan 1787.
Captain Lawson may have been a model for the entrepreneurs of today. Captain Patrick Lawson and his wife boarded the ship United States in Madeira on 11 May 1784. This will later be the first US vessel to visit the Coromandel Coast. Captain Lawson was considered the pilot on board advising Master Thomas Bell. When the ship got to Sumatra, Captain Lawson and his wife left to join Rodney and journeyed to Bengal. The East India Company officials learnt that the United States carried Captain Lawson and his wife from Madeira and were always suspicious of him being involved in competitive free trade which they termed ‘illegal’.The Hydra, a ship partly owned by Captain Lawson, was the first US vessel to visit Calcutta which was an American vessel under a Danish flag. This made the EIC administrators suspicious, as there was still tension between the English and US because of the American War of Independence.
Patrick Lawson was born in Banff (Scotland), he is described… in no ambiguous terms as ‘a prodigious coxcomb both in dress and in manners… was a determined schemer he was perpetually engaging in some wild speculation which, if you credited his assertions, could not fail yielding a profit of five hundred per cent. Authorities resented his independent trading against their preferred monopoly. He was labelled ‘that man Lawson’, a schemer, an interloper, suspicious, illegal trader and yet he lived in Vizag and openly traded in India in defiance of the East India Company.
In 1787, Captain Lawson conducted a public defence of his character on the front page of the Calcutta Gazette. Major McKenzie had accused Lawson of insulting his wife and this resulted in heated letters to the editor of the Calcutta Gazette and the challenge to a duel in the old town of Vizag.
Captain Lawson apparently showed a white feather and did not turn up while the gallant major vainly waited for one hour at the bankshall (godown) near the Vizag Fort. However, the two gentlemen appeared to have blown off steam harmlessly and despite all the front page recriminatory letters, they did not resort to pistols and coffee or the more modern approach of law courts and thundering legal bills to settle their grievances.
Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for 5 generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager of Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado.
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