The fort in the Port Town
Sanjeev V Sardesai
Today let us take a journey into Mormugao. Situated on the North West point of the Southern District of Goa, just off Vasco City, it is famous for being a much acclaimed Port Town, catering to berths for massive ocean going passenger liners and goods carrying ships.
History tells us that Old Goa after being run over by Portuguese forces and routing the Adilshahi army off the island, was a fortified city, embraced by a tall wall built by the Adilshahi forces. However, other records inform us, it was about a mile in length along the river and about three-fourths of a mile in width.
This limited residential area of the then capital of Portuguese Goa, and the exodus of visitors – local and arriving galleons, led to an overload on the modest sanitation and other infra-structural amenities leading to serious health consequences of its populace which were not addressed adequately.
Repeated epidemics took a toll on the residents. It was then decided to shift the capital elsewhere. Mormugao was identified as the ideal location.
In 1624, the then Viceroy of Portuguese Goa, the Count of Vidigueira D Francisco da Gama, laid the foundation of a fortification on the hillock facing the natural Port of Mormugao. This fortification was approximately about 8400-8500 feet and had twenty bastions on its walls flanking all sides.
However, all these bastions were not provided with artillery and had a total of only 18 canons on its walls. The book by former Director of Archives, Goa, P P Shirodkar, ‘Fortresses & Forts of Goa’ informs that this fort was constructed under the supervision of Jesuits, built overlooking the port, it was provided with three prisons, two of which were of a secret nature. The construction of this fort had the blessings of the King of Portugal D Filipe III and hence is classified as a “Royal Fortress”.
Immediately after its completion around 1638, it came under the attack by the Dutch armada in 1640. One story told, is that during this Dutch attack, the nuns of the Convent of Santa Monica, Old Goa sent a flag with the Miraculous Cross woven on one side and an image of the Immaculate Conception on the other. It is said that hoisting this flag, on the fort ramparts, gave a morale boost to the Portuguese forces on the fort, who managed to stave off the attackers. This flag finds a place of honour in the Goa State Museum, Panaji.
Between 1686 to 1703, works were carried out to construct the custom house, a hospital, a high court, residential houses for officers, a house for the revenue collector and a convent for nuns, besides 14 houses with courtyards. A huge water tank was also constructed near the fort stairs. In 1703, the then Viceroy, who had temporarily shifted from Old Goa to Panelim, decided to shift his residence to the newly built Mormugao palace.
This palace still exists, in the high security area of the MPT, and was used as their office. The offices have now shifted elsewhere and the palace lies bare, yet majestic. This palace, in October 1943 recorded as ‘Hotel Palacio Antigo’ at Mormugao Harbour, was a first hand witness, during the exchange of WWII POW’s by the Japanese and the Allied Axis countries.
However, the plans to shift the capital to Mormugao fell apart when on December 31, 1759, the Viceroy Manoel de Saldanha de Albuquerque, Count of Ega, shifted his residence from Panelim to Panaji, which was then called as ‘Nova Goa’ or ‘new Goa’.
There are two accesses to this fort today, placed atop a hillock. One is by accessing a narrow staircase from the road, which leads to the Port. The steep pathway has 152 steps and is a very adventurous experience. The other easier one is by entering the MPT HQ premise on Head Land – Sada and walking a short distance to the fort.
The Mormugao fort is a protected monument under the Directorate of Archives & Archaeology, Government of Goa, and is comparatively well maintained. Its thick walls offer a beautiful walkway on its ramparts and lead you to a bastion, where there is a flag pole. From here, you can get a bird’s eye view of the majestic Mormugao Port.
There exists a small chapel dedicated to Nossa Senhora de Piedade within this fort and it displays a huge cross in its inner courtyard. Below the ramparts, we can see many rooms and compartments which were used as barracks, the ammunition storage, and prisons.
The fortifications that we see here are complemented by a huge lengthy wall and sea level bastions all along the mountainous sides of Headland Sada area, ending at Baina Beach.
These fortifications can be seen, travelling either by road, or make a beautiful view when sailing to the Grande Island/ Bat Island. They are prominently seen running as a huge high wall along the Japanese Garden area of Mormugao; also below the garbage dump yard of the Vasco Municipality. Bastions are seen at sea level on the hill to the North of Baina Beach.
Though by mid 1800’s this fort fell to disuse, a semaphore station was erected here in 1840 to maintain connectivity with Fort Aguada, Reis Magos, and Panaji.
Though Mormugao declined in its primary need for military protection by end 1800’s, another historic event of the Portuguese signing a contract with Western India Portuguese Railway, a British agency on April 18, 1881 led to laying of the railway line and construction of an artificial port. From then on the fort has seen representatives of the world in the form of sea going passenger and goods vessels.
Today this fort, is awaiting a visit from its own Goan people.