On a morning in early February 1888, officials from British India and Portuguese Goa gathered in what was then the frontier town of Castle Rock. The mood was celebratory. At a special ceremony, Donald Mackay, governor of Bombay, and Augusto César Cardoso de Carvalho, governor-general of Portuguese India, ceremoniously completed the linking of the new West of India Portuguese Railway with the Southern Mahratta Railways by tightening the bolts of the fish-plates.

“If St Francis Xavier, or the immortal Vasco da Gama, whose name now graces the second station on the railway, could revisit the scenes of their labours and triumphs they would find in the changed aspect of the southern headland enough to compensate for all the vanished pomps and glories of the moribund Ilha de Goa,” The Times of India wrote on February 6.

“Pomps and glories” were indeed what the European colonisers in India wanted to display at the ceremony. First the national anthems of Britain and Portugal were played, then luncheon served and finally a train ride organised to Mormugao, where a banquet was held in the Old Palace.

In the British Indian press’ coverage of the event, it is easy to see their patronising attitudes towards the Portuguese. The Times of India called the opening of the railway link “certainly the most worthy achievement that the modern history of Portuguese India can show”.

Due praise was given, however, to Ernest Edward Sawyer, the chief engineer of the railway for what was a truly arduous and challenging task that began with an idea born in London in the early 1880s.

Commercial treaty

Until the 18th century, Goa was a major political centre and economic hub, with its viceroy possessing authority over vast Portuguese territories stretching from Africa to South East Asia. This power waned over the next hundred years as Portugal diminished, becoming a minor colonial power. By the middle of the 19th century, Goa looked more like an economic backwater.

“Portuguese authorities wanted to invigorate the economy of Goa to reduce the drain on the Portuguese treasury as trade deficits were rising to alarming levels,” Prashant Kumar Mishra, a senior bureaucrat with the Southwestern Railway wrote in a paper titled West of India Guaranteed Portuguese Railway: Planning and Construction. “Portugal had undertaken an ambitious public works programme (commonly known as Fontismo, after its main promoter, engineer and statesman, Fontes Pereira de Melo), based on the Saint-Simonianist ideology, including building of railways to spur the economic growth in Portugal and its colonies.”

An 1878 treaty of commerce and extradition between Britain and Portugal that abolished customs duties in their frontiers in India paved the way for the building of a railway line that connected Goa with the rest of India.

“One of the clauses of the treaty determined the construction of a railway between the port of Mormugao (in Goa, Portuguese India) and New Hubli (in British India),” Portuguese researcher Hugo Silveira Pereira wrote in a 2015 paper titled Managing Technology: the West of India Portuguese Railway Company (1878-1902). “According to the agreement, the Portuguese government had to find a company or group of entrepreneurs capable of building and operating the line. If the British Government deemed the company reliable, it would support the construction of the railway in its territory.”

The Stafford House Committee, which went on to form the West of India Portuguese Guaranteed Railway Company, signed a contract with the Portuguese government to build the line. The contract called for the construction of a harbour at the Mormugao port and a metre gauge line from there to the frontier with British India. Portugal guaranteed a yield of 5% on an investment of 800,000 pounds and 6% on any additional capital above that amount. Land was provided by the Portuguese government to the company for free.

Engineering challenge

Work on the project began in 1881, with Ernest Edward Sawyer being appointed the chief engineer.

The stretch from the Mormugao port to Margao was relatively easy to construct. It bisected small fishing villages such as Cola and Velsao and went through Majorda, heading southwards and crossing River Sal before reaching Margao.

The biggest challenge for Sawyer and his team was the 16-kilometre long ghat section.

Twelve tunnels, ranging from 47 metres to 255 metres in length, had to be built on this stretch. “Men especially skilled for this work from Ceylon and other places were brought to get those tunnels bored quickly,” Mishra wrote. For the cuttings, viaducts, embankments and tunnels, a total of 73,310 cubic metres of rock and earth were excavated.

The line passed near the Dudh Sagar Waterfalls. The foot of the waterfalls was bridged by a viaduct that consisted of two arches of 18 metres and four of 7.6 metres with huge retaining walls. Another engineering marvel near the falls was the 35-metre high Sonal embankment that carries the line across the gorge.

More than a century after operations commenced on the route, videos of long-distance trains crossing the bridge over the waterfalls are immensely popular on social media.

In addition to the viaducts on the ghat section, seven large bridges were built on the line.

In its article about the inauguration of the line, The Times of India said, “The visitor will have noted that but six short years ago these valleys with their lofty mountains and their forest-clad beds were an untrodden region from all time.”

High expectations

“[The] Portuguese government was convinced of the possibilities of Mormugao competing with that of Bombay Port when once the former was connected to the rich lands of Central and South India by rail,” Mishra wrote. “It was assumed that construction of Railway of Mormugao would lead to a faster growth of maritime trade in Portuguese India.”

As hoped, the town was transformed by the project.

“Mormugao is only a port of recent date, and six years ago presented a very different aspect,” The Graphic, an illustrated British weekly, said on December 15. “What was then a rock-bound headland, where a small boat could not effect a landing, is now converted into a quay where a steamer of 4000 tons can be berthed.”

It became an important port of call for the British India Shipping Company, which, along with passengers to and from Bombay, also offered to transport freight between southern and western India using the new railway line. As per the agreement, the port and the railway line stayed in the possession of the West of India Portuguese Guaranteed Railway Company, which handled all the transhipments at the port to and from Bombay. “This arrangement should be very advantageous to the public, and will even enable Bombay firms to transact business with the Southern Mahratta country without the expense of establishing agencies at Mormugao,” The Times of India said in a report published before the railway line became functional.

London considered the line to be a strategic asset since it was owned by a British company. When a mutiny broke out in the Portuguese Indian Army in October 1895, one of the main concerns of the British Empire was the port and the railway line.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, there was a fear among the British establishment that citizens of Axis nations may enter the Indian subcontinent via Mormugao and then sneak into British India using the railway line since there were hardly any serious border controls between the territories controlled by the two colonisers.

Until Konkan Railway became fully functional in the late 1990s, the West of India Portuguese Railway (renamed the Guntakal-Vasco da Gama section) was the only rail transport in Goa. Its tracks were converted into Indian gauge only in 1998.

In the article about the inauguration of the line, The Times of India wrote:

“Those who have just taken part in the inaugural festivities have passed through an old-world land smiling with verdure, watered by numerous streams, dotted with pretty villages and white churches; steaming up the ghauts, they have enjoyed a scene that will not soon be forgotten- in front of the serrated outline of the Syadris with gigantic peaks shutting out the east; behind across a yawning depth, a huge upstanding ridge bounding all that lies seawards; to the south the mystic double-head of the valley shrouded in long spurs and impenetrable forest; to the north its open mouth but for a western gorge leading to the region of cocoa and palm shows only the broad avenue to yet a wilder and grander vale.”  

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.