The idea of establishing a modern port in Cochin was first proposed by Lord Willingdon during his governorship of the Madras Province. The opening of the Suez Canal allowed several ships to pass near the west coast and he felt it was necessary to build a modern port in the southern part as well. He selected Sir Robert Bristow, a leading British harbour engineer, to head the project, and Bristow became chief engineer of Cochin Kingdom’s Port Department in 1920. From that point forward until the port’s completion in 1939, he and his team were actively involved in making a greenfield port. With extensive research spanning over a decade toward securing a permanent manmade port that could withstand monsoon erosion, he was convinced that it would be both feasible and largely beneficial to develop Cochin through its port. He believed that Cochin could become the safest harbour in India if the ships could enter the inner channel.
The challenge before engineers was a rock-like sandbar that stood across the opening of Cochin backwaters into the sea. Its density prevented the entry of all large ships (requiring more than eight or nine feet of water). It was thought that the removal of the sandbar was a technical impossibility, and the potential consequence on the environment was beyond estimation. Efforts that had been previously undertaken on this scale had led to ecological atrocities such as the destruction of the Vypeen foreshore.
However, Bristow, after a detailed study of wind and sea current conditions, concluded that such issues could easily be avoided. He addressed the immediate problem of Vypeen foreshore erosion by building granite groynes that were nearly parallel with the shore and overlapped each other. The groynes enabled a system of automatic reclamation which naturally protected the shore from monsoon seas. Spurred on by this success, Bristow planned out a detailed proposal of reclaiming part of the backwaters at a cost of ₹25 million (equivalent to ₹5.3 billion or US$67 million in 2023). An ad-hoc committee appointed by the Madras government examined and approved the plans submitted by Bristow.
The construction of the dredger Lord Willingdon was completed in 1925 and arrived in Cochin in May 1926. It was estimated that the dredger was put to use for at least 20 hours a day for the next two years to create a new island to house the Cochin Port and other trade-related establishments. Around 3.2 km2 of land was reclaimed in the dredging. Sir Bristow and his team had completed the port when the steamship SS Padma, was given clearance for the newly constructed inner harbour of Cochin. Speaking to the BBC directly after the port’s completion, Bristow proudly proclaimed: “I live on a large island made from the bottom of the sea. It is called Willingdon Island, after the present Viceroy of India. From the upper floor of my house, I look down on the finest harbour in the East.” The Willingdon Island was artificially created with the mud sledded out for the harbour construction.
In 1932, the Maritime Board of British India declared the Port of Cochin as a major port and was opened to all vessels up to 30 feet draught. It was returned to civil authorities on 19 May 1945. After the Independence, the port was taken over by the government of India, and in 1964, the administration of the port was vested to a Board of Trustees under the Major Port Trusts Act. The port is currently listed as one of the 12 major ports of India.
In 2022, following the introduction of the Major Port Authorities Act 2021 superseding the Major Port Trusts Act 1963, Cochin Port Trust was renamed to Cochin Port Authority thereby adopting a new logo.