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Monday, April 24, 2023

Surat Fire - this day 186 years ago !

We know heat – we know fire too – there are other words like combustion, ignition, flashpoint and more.  Something heats the wood to a very high temperature. The heat can come from lots of different things -- a match, focused light, friction, lightning, something else that is already burning...  and when the wood reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the heat decomposes some of the cellulose material that makes up the wood ~ and there would be ‘fire’.

Fire can be destructive ! .. when the  fire strikes, lives are suddenly turned around.   Fire has been used by humans for cooking, heating,  in rituals, in agriculture for clearing land,  generating heat and light, for signaling, propulsion purposes, smelting, forging, incineration of waste, cremation, and as a weapon or mode of destruction. Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Fire is hot because the conversion of the weak double bond in molecular oxygen, O2, to the stronger bonds in the combustion products carbon dioxide and water releases energy.   The flame is the visible portion of the fire. 

Surat is a beautiful  city in the western India, in the state of Gujarat. The word Surat literally means face in Gujarati and Hindi. Located on the banks of the river Tapti near its confluence with the Arabian Sea, it used to be a large seaport. It is now the commercial and economic centre in South Gujarat. It is famous for  diamond and textile industry, and is a major supply centre for apparels and accessories.  

The recorded version of Thomas Vincent reads : 

“ And if Monday night was dreadful, Tuesday night was more dreadful, when far the greatest part of the city was consumed: many thousands who on Saturday had houses convenient in the city, both for themselves, and to entertain others, now have not where to lay their head; and the fields are the only receptacle which they can find for themselves and their goods”   -

-----------   Those were  the words about the Great Fire of London which occurred way back on 2nd Sept 1666.  Disaster struck at a time when Plague was already devastating population.  The fire was  reported to have originated in the baker, Thomas Faynor’s shop.  Though it was claimed to have been put off, three hours later at 1 am, the house was an inferno.  The bakery was located in Pudding Lane.  The fire spread quickly down the lane, carried on down Fish Hill and went towards Thames hitting badly warehouses and London Bridge on its trail.  The strong winds from the East helped it spreading tentacles rapidly.  A long dry summer had brought drought to the city, water was scarce and the wooden houses had dired out making them easy to burn.  

Those years, there was no organised Fire Brigade and fire fighting was at its primitive stage.  People used leather buckets, axes, water squirts and whatever they had.  Houses were ordered to be pulled down to stop the spread.  The Navy used gun powder to blow up houses and create space to stop the fire spread.  The fire could be contained only by the next morning by which time it had destroyed great part of London and could not spread to the south of the river.  

Back home in our country, in Apr 1837,  a fire broke out in Surat, then under British East India Company rule. It resulted in more than 500 deaths and the destruction of 9,737 houses in a 93⁄4 mile radius.

                         At 5 pm on 24 April, a jar of boiling pitch was spilt and some of the woodwork caught on fire at a house of one of the leading Parsis in Machhalipith neighbourhood.  The fire quickly spread to the densely packed neighbouring houses, which had timber frames and wooden eaves overhanging the narrow streets. Within a few hours, the fire spread to an area of three miles due to heavy wind from the north. At night, the large masses of smoke lit by the fire were visible from a distance of twenty to thirty miles. At daybreak on 25 April, the fire's spread shifted due to wind from the southwest. At about 2 pm, the fire was at its height. The fire declined thereafter and ended in the morning on 26 April. The fire had destroyed houses in a 93⁄4 mile radius, about three-fourths of the city

In that ravaging fire more than 500 people were feared dead, as right estimates are not available.  A total of 9,373 houses were destroyed. Of those, 6,250 were in the city proper and 3,123 in the suburbs.   Another instance, where the rulers were found wanting in managing relief and recovery. 

After the fire, Surat was affected by a heavy flood in August 1837. Due to these disasters, many  traders moved to Bombay and contributed in developing Bombay becoming a major port and commercial hub.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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