Bastioned Perimeter

Bastioned Perimeter

Vasai Fort (Baçaim/Baçaím/Bassaim/Bassein), Maharashtra, India

Military Architecture

Vasai’s urban layout was profoundly affected by the shift from the original wooden entrenchment works to a walled enclosure with 11 bastions which besides its containment function also upset the morphological and road scheme due to the limits and location of the accesses. Construction began in 1554 and continued without break until the Maratha conquest in 1739. Indeed, the repair and improvement work was constant, and major differences and overlapping interventions from various periods are visible in the various sections. Besides being extensive, it is a built system that is too varied and complex for it to be fully analysed in the space of this text. But it can be briefly outlined. The need for a bastioned perimeter wall was felt and promoted in Vasai earlier than in other places such as its counterparts Kochi, Chaul and Daman (Portuguese urban poles founded apart from the original native city). The city’s importance (capital status) and income, not just the growing threats, are the best justification for this. Previously only a few Portuguese strongholds in North Africa had enjoyed such benefits, otherwise experimental and for minor perimeters (Mazagan [El Jadida], Tangier and Ceuta), and in the Orient only for a similar emergency situation in Diu. But only in Mazagan was the fortification built from scratch, without using any pre-existing structure, as in Vasai. Meanwhile, in a letter to the king dated 20 December 1561 (from the Torre de Tombo archive in Lisbon, published by José Wicki) responding to questions from royal secretary Pedro da Alcáçova Carneiro, Viceroy Francisco Coutinho reports that he had contracted completion of the wall as previously decided “and around a hundred braças [≈ fathoms] length more, which they want so that a pond can be placed therein”. Measured against a current survey, the nearly 220 metres in question correspond to the addition needed for the walls, instead of following the current road, to be built in the form now visible with the pond, today essentially a new road, monument and rice paddy. It is an unprecedented option, because the pond would have been an excellent defensive element on the outside. For this reason the only explanations that come to mind are that they anticipated growth and/or the creation of an agriculture or fish supply reserve during siege situations. In another letter to the king in 1586, Viceroy Duarte de Meneses noted his concern over the fact that work had begun more than three decades ago and was not yet finished. Standing out among subsequent reports is the king’s response the next year in which he orders built the plan conceived by João Baptista Cairato, an Italian military engineer in the Estado da Índia’s service as its chief engineer. Later documentation only proves the slow pace of the process and the municipality’s lack of resources to meet the expenses. In their report from about 1635, António Bocarro and Pedro Barreto Resende make clear not only the slowness of the process but also the fact that everything was falling into obsolescence and ruin, a situation reversed in times of greater insecurity. Nowadays the main axis, north-south (from the ends of the Saint Peter’s and Three Kings bastions), measures 621.2 metres, and its perpendicular equivalent (from the ends of the Saint Sebastian’s and Mother of God bastions) 1,038.2 metres. The enclosure’s outside perimeter measures about 3,204.9 metres, thereby encompassing an area of 41 hectares, although the actual perimeter, without the bastion’s outlines, would be 2,496.3 metres, corresponding to an area of just over 39 hectares. One figure to keep in mind is the repeatedly incorrect identification of the bastions’ names in all available bibliographic resources. A comparison of what now stands against the description and illustrations by António Bocarro and Pedro Barreto Resende enables one to counter-propose, in all certainty, the identification indicated in the lines drawn over the satellite photograph (> p. 159), as 18th century cartography confirms. The reason for the mistake has been the incorrect identification of the Cavalier’s Bastion, which actually corresponds to the interior turret defending the Land or Country Gate, and could only be so from the toponymical standpoint. Further proof is provided by the positions of the bastions of Saint John, which to be next to the “anchorage” mentioned by Bocarro must correspond to the one containing the Sea Gate, and Saint Paul, which must have been on the sea front as it was “lost and broken due to the sea breaking on it”. The eleven bastions that chronicler speaks of are thus identified, versus the ten morphologically evident. The Elephant Bastion was eventually renamed after Saint Francis Xavier. Also important and unequivocal is that the complex was then an average of one or two metres lower than at present, which indicates a subsequent effort to systematically raise, consolidate and make regular the top levels. Besides the irregular features of a structure which otherwise presents major design irregularities and Maratha interventions (e.g., those visible in the Elephant and Saint John’s bastions and the wall between them) the most outstanding aspect is the different concern and investment vis-à-vis the type of exposure to the risks of military siege. Three protection levels are accordingly identified. On the river front, stretching from the Saint Sebastian’s to Mother of God (south and east) bastions, beyond the more archaic nature of the layout and the strong elements, the enclosure comprises just one wall and a narrow chemin de ronde. This was the zone of least risk, with protection provided by the Portuguese fleet. On an intermediate level was the section between the Three Kings and Mother of God (north) bastions, exposed to a swampy area, but where distance shooting could cause considerable damage. Hence the existence of the complex’s most powerful bastions and interior abutments, even though the double curtain wall and concomitant level middle ground hiding the abutments were not built. The most vulnerable zone was obviously the one marked by dry contact with the surroundings and comprised the section between the Three Kings and Saint Sebastian’s (west) bastions. It is the only one with a double wall and thickening, despite the more anachronistic bastions. Among the latter is the first one built, Saint Sebastian’s, inaugurated on 22 February 1554, but thoroughly reworked. It was for all reasons the most sensitive point, and where the definitive Maratha assault took place in 1739. The two gates, as well as that of Saint Sebastian’s Fort, were in bottleneck form and thus double; the Land or Country Gate was the most elaborate, with the aforementioned tower/Cavalier’s Bastion on the second line. As also mentioned above, the Sea Gate was an integral part of Saint John’s Bastion. Despite the conceptual anachronism versus the latest advances in military engineering at the time, the inside face was decorated in Roman style, work which probably dates to after the original plans. Given the importance of maritime activities and the excellent natural conditions, over the length of the riverfront three more minor gateways became necessary, all opening onto the south section: Saint Peter’s (1599) next to Saint Joseph’s Church; one next to the Hospital of the Poor; and another at the east end of the Jesuit complex. There was also a discreet gateway opening onto the northern inlet, next to the Mother of God Bastion. Besides these official passageways, there was also a complex system of tunnels and secret exits, such as the ones at the Three Kings Bastion. The latter’s system was extremely elaborate, in line with the fact that the captain of Vasai moved there with his entire estate, living in a house whose ruins have survived. At the date of conquest and abandonment (1739), Dongri Fort was built on the other side of the bar, where the city’s water supply was located. Curiously, this fort recalled the one at Morro de Chaul, without its hill. The final attack nevertheless came from the land side, the city’s strongest. Overall, but especially regarding access solutions and their elements’ design, Vasai’s walls appear as expeditious and pragmatic as those in Chaul and those known to have existed in Kochi and Colombo, enclosing Indo-Portuguese cities. Except for the canonical example of Daman, such fortified urban perimeters were presented as compromise solutions during the transition between traditions and new academic innovations in military engineering.

Walter Rossa