Sunday, 13 January 2008

Forts in the Vasai and Konkan Region.

Bassein Fort circa 1817, an engraving by Akermann circa 1820, from a drawing by Captn. James Barton.
Please click on the picture for a larger version.


The purpose of this post is to provide a discussion area on the history of a number of forts in the area around Vasai, an area approximately twenty miles to the north of Mumbai.

Why should I, an Englishman be interested in these forts?

Well, it all stems from my great great great grandfather, Captain James Barton. James was an officer in the Bombay Artillery, who served in the area from 1811 until 1827, when he died at Matoonga.

My interest originally stemmed from the fact that I had discovered that twenty one coloured engravings had survived, which had been made from drawings that he had sent to Ackermann in London.

I wanted to see if I could find out where these forts were located. Little did I know quite where this journey would take me.

These drawings are kept in the British Library, along with copies of his other drawings, which can be see on the Collect Britain website at

What is especially poignant, is that this particular drawing probably contains the only image that we have of James himself. We possess a letter dating from the 1870's from his son, retired Major General Charles James Barton, who nearing death, and with a one year old son, realised that this son, would probably also be faced with never being able to remember what his fathers face would look like.

Poor Charles wrote, that thoughout his adult life, that he had been troubled by not knowing what his father had looked like, for he had been an infant when he was left without a father.

James Barton seated with his sketch pad

Charles Barton also served in the Bombay Artillery in much the same area in the 1840's, 1850's, and 1860's.

Unlike his father, as far as we know Charles was not an artists, although his brother was. Charles however embraced the new science of photography. It is not clear whether he took the photos himself, or whether he engaged the services of a professional photographer, but what is clear, is that he collected a series of photographs starting in 1857 at Bulshire in the Persian Gulf, as he returned from taking part in the expedition to Persia.

Along his return journey he appears to have been deliberately visiting and recording the places where his father had served.

Major General Charles J Barton, Bombay Artillery

In attempt to research these events, I first visited the British Library Asia Pacific Collection, but wanting to go beyond the dry words on the page, and wanting like my great great grandfather, to be able to visualise the locations, I started to research the places through the internet.

My starting point was the India Rootsweb, which can be joined by emailing and subscribing to

One of the members of that list Arvind Kolhatkar, turned out to come from the Konkan region, and with his help we soon traced many of the locations.

I also widened out the search, and discovered that there is an intrepid group of young Indian's who are increasingly spending their time trekking to these often remote forts, in the Ghats.

Taking my courage in my hands, and to their great surprise, I began to approach these trekkers by email, and they have all been unfailing helpful in return. Kiran Kharade and Ravi Vaidyanathan, have been extremely helpful, and with there very good local knowledge and keen interest, I have been able to piece together a great deal of information on the places my ancestors visited.

My interests have for a lot time extended beyond, just those directly connected with my own family. I have a deep interest in colonial history, which I believe should be called early globalisation.

By learning about the events of what was in many ways a prototype for many of the events in todays complex world.

Central to my research at Bassein as my ancestors, would have called it, or Vasai as it is now called, has been Shridatta Raut.

Shridatta Raut [first on the right] explaining the history of one of these forts,

Shridatta emailed me having seen one of my posts about Bassein. He lives in Vasai and visits the fort every week. He has sent up a group of volunteers dedicated to protecting and preserving the fort.

He was kind enough to go out with copies of the drawings my ancestor had drawn, and to find the locations on the ground.

Each week he has been organising visits for school groups and the general public.

With his volunteers he has removed tonnes of rubbish, and he is working to remove the trees which are growing out of the very walls of the buildings.

The team working out the plan for the following week.

Mapping work in progress.

The scale of the undertaking can be seen from the following aerial photograph.

Vasai Fort

However the quality of the buildings that he and his friends are seeking to protect are such, that I believe he deserves as much support as possible.

Not content with coping with a project of this size, Shridatta Raut has recently started turning his attention to the forts to the north of Vasai, including Mahim and Shirgaon.

Exploring Shigaon Fort

So whether you know Vasai Fort as Vasai, Bassein, Baxay, Baçaim, we would like to hear from you.

We would particularly like to hear from Mahratta or Portuguese people with access to accounts, maps or drawings that can tell us more about these fascinating forts and there history.

Engravings of Chaul [top] and Baçaim [bottom], from a French 17th Century book, courtesy of Gallica.