From Bombay to Baltimore: Was the American national anthem composed on a ship built in India at the Wadia Shipyard?

© 2019, Prof. Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers Business School

This is an updated and revised version of the June 14, 2018 post: The “Star-Spangled Banner” and an Early Example of Outsourcing: The American National Anthem Was Composed on a Ship Built in India

The featured image of the Stars and Stripes above is housed at the Smithsonian.

On several national holidays in the US—such as Flag Day and Independence Day[1]—patriotic Americans will climb to the second floor of a nondescript building on the Mall in Washington, DC, and enter a dimly-lit, cavernous room to stand before the most sacred item in the National Museum of American History: the Star-Spangled Banner. The fragile flag, bearing 15 stars and 15 stripes (for the 13 colonies plus Vermont and Kentucky, which later joined the union), is today only a faded[2] and tattered remnant of the 1814 original (see more on this below). But it remains one of the holiest icons of American life.

The Star-Spangled Banner – Source: Smithsonian

How “The Star-Spangled Banner” Was Written

During the War of 1812 (which didn’t end until 1815), British Navy ships began, on the night of September 13, 1814, a heavy bombardment of Fort McHenry, a promontory protecting the inner harbor of Baltimore. A giant American flag, measuring 30 x 42 feet, could be seen flying over the fort from long distances.

A Maryland lawyer, Francis Scott Key, very much an American patriot, viewed the bombardment while he was on board a British Navy vessel, which in several accounts is identified as the H.M.S. Minden. Why was he on a British ship? It was a gentlemanly arrangement. Key had gone on a sloop from Baltimore to negotiate with the British commander for the release of American prisoners, including the well-connected physician Dr. William Beanes.[3] Initially rebuffed, Key finally got permission to return with the released American prisoners. But by then, it was too late. Since both Key and Beanes knew about the plan to bombard Fort McHenry, all the Americans were detained through the night of September 13. They witnessed “…the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” in cannonades from as many as 19 British vessels.

Source: National Park Service

On the morning of September 14, “…by the dawn’s early light…,” Francis Scott Key rejoiced to see that despite the massive bombardment, “…our flag was still there….” (Click to see a handwritten version of his poem at the Library of Congress.)

A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry; Print by J. Bower, Philadelphia, 1816. Source: Smithsonian

According to some reports, swelling with patriotic pride, Key began to compose his poem while still on board the H.M.S. Minden, and it was published soon after his return to Baltimore under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.”[4] (Click for PDF Version: Defence of Fort M’Henry.Within weeks, Key’s poem “went viral” throughout the American colonies, with as many as three publishers clamoring to include the poem in their collections just one month later in November 1814. More than a century after that, in 1931 the first verse of this poem was officially adopted as the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with the melody, an old British 18th-century tune,[5] apparently originally recommended by Key himself.

“Defence of Fort M’Henry” – Source: Library of Congress

What Happened to the Star-Spangled Banner?

Source: Adobe Stock

After the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, the flag was taken down and kept by the family of the fort commander, George Armistead. But so great was the interest and patriotic fervor that small pieces were cut off and given to friends and relatives as souvenirs,[6] so that today it is only 80 percent of its original size. Col. Armistead’s grandson donated the tattered remnant to the Smithsonian Institution in 1912. 

Why the British Royal Navy Outsourced the Construction of the H.M.S. Minden to India

Outsourcing, in general, is different from importing. In outsourcing, an item originally made in the home nation is consciously transferred to a foreign company specifically commissioned to produce (design and manufacture) and export back to the original nation.[7] British warships were designed and constructed in England until 1750, when an enterprising Indian, Lovji Wadia, created Asia’s first dry dock, the Wadia Shipyard, which is still in use at Bombay Harbor (Mumbai Harbour).

Outsourcing requires three ingredients:

1.  It must make economic sense—the foreign production must be cheaper and/or better than the original production done in-house by the commissioning firm.

2.  Detailed designs must be put down on paper (or these days in software) and shared with the foreign firm.

3.  The foreign producer/exporter must be able to understand the technology and standards expected by the commissioning firm, and the commissioning firm must have confidence that the foreign producer/exporter will meet its quality and delivery standards.

Building a large, 74-cannon man-o’-war was no easy task, and the British Navy had exacting standards. But by 1810, the Wadia Shipyard in Bombay had met all technical criteria, as well as the expectations of the British Navy. The clincher was the realization that not only was production in India cheaper, but a vessel made from Indian teak, which is resistant to marine worms,[8] would far outlast one constructed from European oak. (The Minden fulfilled this hope, and its life spanned 51 years.[9])

H.M.S. Minden off Gibraltar by Moonlight – Painting by James Wilson Carmichael. Source: WikiGallery.

The Wadia Shipyard had been in existence since 1736, gradually building larger and larger vessels for the East India Company, some of whose ships were also taken over by the British Navy.[10] However, the H.M.S. Minden was the first officially outsourced vessel. The British sent technical experts with detailed plans, and they conferred on Jamsetjee Wadia (grandson of the founder) the title of Master Builder.

Portrait of Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia,  c. 1754‒1821 (third-generation Master Builder), oil on canvas, c. 1830.
Attributed to J. Dorman based on an earlier engraving after an original miniature by Edward Nash.
Source:  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In the portrait by Dorman, Wadia can be seen holding the blueprint of the Minden, a pair of calipers, and a folding measuring rule tucked in his sash, while through a window the artist depicts the ship under construction in the Bombay dry dock. Altogether, the Wadia Shipyard built over 400 ships,[11] including 41 warships that served the British Navy in many battles. (One ship, the H.M.S. Trincomalee, commissioned in 1812, is still afloat as a museum at Hartlepool, England.)

The collaboration between the British and the Wadia family was mutually very beneficial commercially. But reports survive asserting that, despite the technical ability of the shipyard and the many orders it received, the British continued to be brusque and dismissive toward Indians. On one of the vessels, the H.M.S. Cornwallis, Jamsetjee Wadia (or one of his sons) carved the inscription: “This ship was built by a damned Black Fellow A.D. 1800.” Carved deep inside on the keelson of the ship, the inscription was not seen until the Cornwallis was decommissioned and Lt. Col. John Briggs discovered it.[12] The British rule in India was far less racist and brutal compared with other colonizers. Nevertheless, attitudes of superiority persisted despite evidence that Indians could be as efficient, globalized, and entrepreneurial as anybody.

Historical Disputations

The fact that the H.M.S. Minden and 40-odd British warships were built in Bombay is beyond dispute.[13] However, some historians, such as Ralph E. Eschelman and Scott S. Sheads,[14] cast doubt on the story since there is no official naval record that the Minden was at Baltimore. Part of the ambiguity stems from the fact that later descriptions of Key’s mission include the words “sloop” or “packet,” whereas the Minden was a warship. (I wrote to the Royal Navy Archives in Greenwich asking for proof that the H.M.S. Minden was present in Baltimore, but their reply was unhelpful, simply saying I was welcome to dig through their records.)

However, I have found three reputable sources that assert that the H.M.S. Minden was indeed the ship. The same historians (Eschelman and Sheads) quote Key’s eldest daughter as writing:

The name of the ship my father went on when he boarded the British fleet was called the Minden.[15]

Two other documented accounts also name the ship as H.M.S. Minden. Bayard Taylor, a nationally noted American journalist, traveled to India in 1853 and wrote in his book:[16]

The Wadya family, to which my host belonged, have been for more than half a century the ship-builders of Bombay. The vicinity of the teak forests has occasioned the building of several ships of the line for the British Navy in the dockyard there. The first of these, the Minden, has been in service for nearly fifty years, and her condition still attests the excellence of her construction. It was between her decks, while lying off Fort McHenry, that Francis Key wrote our “Star-spangled Banner.” …The present head-builder Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee…was nearly three years in England, studying his profession.…

In January 3, 1863, the jurist William C. Noyes wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, offering a small box made from the timbers of the then broken-up Minden:

New York, Jan’y 3. 1863.


The frigate “Minden” of the British Navy was engaged in the Bombardment of Baltimore during the last war with England, and the late F. S. Key, the author of the celebrated National Ode, “The Star Spangled Banner,” was kept under her guns and compelled to witness the attempted destruction of that City, having gone to her with a flag of truce to release a friend. While in this condition he wrote the most, if not the whole of that great & stir(r)ing song. The “Minden” was recently broken up at Canton, and a friend now in that country Mr. Henry Dwight Williams, Esq. has sent to me for your acceptance a Case made from one of her timbers…

I have the Honor to be with great respect,

Your friend & Servant,

William Curtis Noyes.

(Click to see a copy of Noyes’ handwritten letter to Lincoln at the Library of Congress.)

Thus, several reputable sources—Key’s daughter, journalist Bayard, jurist William Curtis Noyes, and the Wadia family—indicate that the ship on which the American national anthem was composed was, indeed, the H.M.S. Minden. Lingering doubts may remain in the minds of some historians, who are looking for even more convincing proof. But the preponderance of the available evidence suggests that the “Star-Spangled Banner” began life aboard the Minden, built in India by the Wadia Shipyard.

Source: Adobe Stock

Rebuttal from Historian James Gamble

Historian James Gamble argues that the ship present during the bombardment of Fort McHenry was another, much smaller vessel also called the Minden, and not the man-o’-war built in Bombay. As mentioned above, the British Navy is silent on this subject and on whether it was even possible for two different British naval vessels to have the same name.



[1] Flag Day is celebrated on June 14 to commemorate the official adoption of The Stars and Stripes as the national flag in 1885; and Independence Day is celebrated on July 4 to salute the signing of the Declaration of Independence (from England) in 1776. Read more: “The History of Flag Day” and “The Story of the Fourth of July.”

[2] The flag at the National Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums, is kept in a climate-controlled environment, and lighting is kept dim to preserve it from further discoloration.

[3] Beanes’ wife was the niece of John Hanson, the first person to hold the title of “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” (President of the Continental Congress), 1781‒1782.

[4] The earliest version in the Library of Congress is in a collection of poems entitled National Songster; or, a collection of the most admired patriotic songs, on the brilliant victories, achieved by the naval and military heroes of the United States of America, over equal and superior forces of the British, published in 1814 by John Gruber and Daniel May, Hagerstown, MD.  “Defence of Fort M’Henry” is on pages 30‒31 and can be seen at the Library of Congress.

[5] The tune and its original lyrics, “To Anacreon in Heaven”, dating from around 1766, came from the Anacreontic Society (of amateur musicians) in London. Why Key or his publisher thought this tune was suitable is unknown, since the vocal range is difficult for most lay singers. Click to listen to an audio file.

[6] According to Wikipedia, “a 2-inch by 5-inch scrap of the flag ‒ white and red… was sold at auction in Dallas, TX on November 30, 2011, for $38,837.”

[7] Contractor, F.J., Kumar, V., Kundu, S.K., Pedersen, T. (eds.) (2010). Global Outsourcing and Offshoring: An Integrated Approach to Theory and Corporate Strategy. London: Cambridge University Press.

[8] Teak is also a denser wood than oak and thus can better withstand cannon hits.

[9] After being in the British Navy for several decades, the H.M.S. Minden was moved to Hong Kong to serve as a hospital ship before being scrapped in 1861. Also see: The Industrial History of Hong Kong.

[10] Karaka, D.F. (1884). History of the Parsis, Including Their Manners, Customs, Religion, and Present Position, 2 vols. London: Macmillan, vol.1, chapter 13.

[11] Before being taken over by the Indian Government.

[12] In volume 17, page 243, of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1860), Briggs bears the title of Lt. General. However, in Tanya M. Luhrman (1996), The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society, Harvard University Press, he is described as Lt. Col. Briggsbook. In my opinion, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society has a more reliable account.

[13] A first-hand account of the launching of the Minden in The Bombay Courier, June 23, 1810, stated:

“On Tuesday last His Majesty’s Ship, the Minden built in the new docks (Bombay) by Jamsetji Bomanji Wadia was floated into the stream at high water…(T)he Minden, for beauty of construction and strength of frame, may stand in competition with any man-o-war that has come out of the most celebrated Dockyards of Great Britain. For the skill of its architects, for the superiority of its timber, and for the excellence of its docks, Bombay may now claim a distinguished place among naval arsenals.”

[14] Eshelman, R.E., Sheads, S.S. (2013). Chesapeake Legends and Lore from the War of 1812. Charleston, SC: History Press.

[15] Footnote 96 in Eschelman and Sheads (ibid.) states that the undated letter was written by Elizabeth P. (Keys) Howard, daughter of Francis S. Key.

[16] Bayard Taylor was on assignment to India in 1853 for the New York Tribune. The reference to the Minden is on page 60 in the following: Taylor, B. (1855). A Visit to India, China, and Japan: In the Year 1853. New York: G.P. Putnam & Co. Also see The Unpublished Letters of Bayard Taylor in the Huntington Library (1937) edited by J. R. Schultz. San Marino, CA (original at the University of Michigan).

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