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Ancient Shipbuilding Tradition Preserved Aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor

by Nov 10, 2019

Old-growth Teak forests existed naturally in India, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Tectona grandis is a tropical, flowering tree that prefers direct sunlight and moist, well-drained soil. The trees can grow up to 130 ft. tall and more than 3 ft. in diameter at the base. They are propagated by seeds, the flowers pollinated by insects.

India was the original habitat of Teak, with native forests spreading eastward and southward.

Today, old-growth Teak forests have declined significantly as a result of overexploitation, deforestation and habitat fragmentation.

Myanmar is home to the largest remaining natural growth teak forest on Earth.

Planted cash-crop teak forests have expanded in recent decades in various tropical locations in Asia, the tropical Americas and the Pacific, but the quality of the wood produced is not generally comparable to natural old-growth Teak.

Environmental and climate conditions are factors, but it appears to primarily be the lack of biodiversity in the seeds, sourced from trees outside of the original and oldest habitats in India and Myanmar, producing trees that are not as hardy, less resistant to diseases and insect infestations and inconsistent quality and density.

In ancient India, regional interaction, maritime trade, and shipbuilding evolved, expanded and had been flourishing for centuries prior to the first arrival of Europeans. Teak-wood had long been valued, used and traded for shipbuilding purposes throughout the region.

The first European mariners to arrive in the region observed that existing ships built by Indian shipwrights, made of teak and other tropical woods, were often larger, were stronger and far more resilient and resistant to ship worm and dry rot than were their own ships made with Oak or Elm or Fir or White Pine.

Image of Calicut, India from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's atlas Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1572.

As Europeans arrived in force, as trading evolved, as their competing and conflicting colonial empires expanded, so did their need for larger fleets with stronger and more resilient ships.

The European explorers, traders, colonists recognized the value and usefulness of Indian teak and the skills of Indian shipwrights for building resilient ships for trading and military purposes.

In contrast, the Portuguese noted that their ships built in Lisbon, constructed of pine or oak, tended to last a dozen years at best, whereas ships built of teak by Indian shipwrights, could be expected to last for upwards of 50 years or longer.

Author John Masefield (Sea Life in Nelson’s Time, 1905), describes characteristics of naval ships constructed in England during the 1700’s: “The general life of a ship in those days… was only eight or nine years. Few lasted that long without great repairs equal almost to their first cost. Many rotted to pieces after a few months as sea. In 1812, a fine three-decker, which had seen no hard sea service, was condemned as rotten a year after she was launched.”

Abraham Parsons observed a marked difference among ships constructed in India (Travels in Asia and Africa: Including a Journey from Scanderoon to Aleppo, 1775): “the timber and plank, of which they [Indian ships] are built, so far exceeds any in Europe for durability that it is usual for ships to last fifty or sixty years; This timber and plank are peculiar to India only; the best on this side of India grows to the north of Bombay; what grows to the south, on the coast of. Malabar, is, however, very good, and great quantities of it are brought to Bombay; it is called Tiek, and will last in a-hot climate longer than any wood whatever.”

While European desires for spices and other precious trade goods may have partially inspired their initial exploration and colonialization efforts in the region, teak was quickly recognized by mariners for its exceptional durability and usefulness in shipbuilding.

Today, the remnants of that ancient shipbuilding tradition is proudly preserved and skillfully carried forward with the precise restoration and replacement of teak deck planking aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor.