Godown – meaning and origin of the term

HF: Our recently posted article, The Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company, newspaper article 1937, made me wonder about the origin of the term Godown which is used frequently in India and Hong Kong.

Yuen Yuen Godown Hong Kong, Source Historical Photographs Of China, Swire G. Warren Collection

Yuen Yuen Godown Hong Kong c1906-1907 Source: Historical Photographs of China, Swire, G. Warren collection

A quick online search came up with this definition: (in India and other countries in Asia) a warehouse or other storage place.

I thought I could do better than this and reached for my copy of Hobson Jobson: A glossary of colloquial words and phrases, first published in 1886, which was one of my father’s many books on the Indian Subcontinent.

Hobson Jobson has a full page on the term. Here is part of its script:

GOWDOWN  A warehouse for goods and stores; an outbuilding used for stores; a store-room. The word is in constant use in the Chinese ports as well as in India. The Hindu and Bengali gudam is apparently an adoption of the Anglo-Indian word, not its original. The word appears to have passed to the continent of India from the eastern settlements, where the Malay word gadong is used in the same sense of ‘store-room,’ but also in that of ‘a house built of brick or stone.’ Still the word appears to have come primarily from the South of India, where in Telugu gidangi, giddangi, in Tamil kidangu, signify ‘a place where goods lie,’ from kidu, ‘to lie.’ It appears in Singhalese also as gudama. It is a fact that many common Malay and Javanese words are Tamil, or only to be explained by Tamil. Free intercourse between the Coromandel Coast and the Archipelago is very ancient, and when the Portuguese first appeared at Malacca they found there numerous settlers from S. India (see s.v. KLING). Bluteau gives the word as palavra da India, and explains it as a “logea quasi debaixo de chao” (“almost under ground”), but this is seldom the case.

1513 “…in which all his rice and a Gudam full of mace was burned.” – Letter of F.P. Andrade to Albuqueque. Feb. 22, India Office, MSS. Corpo Chronologico, vol I.

1552 “At night secretly they cleared their Gudams, which are rooms almost under ground, for fear of fire.” – Barros, Dec 11. Bk. vi. ch 3.

1552 “…and ordered them to plunder many godowns (gudoes) in which there was such abundance of clove, nutmeg, mace, and sandal wood, that our people could not transport it all till they had called in the people of Malacca to complete its removal.” – Castanheda, iii. 276-7

Holts Wharf Gowdowns Hong Kong, Source Historical Photographs Of China, Swire G. Warren Collection C1911 1912

Holts Wharf Godowns Hong Kong, Source: Historical Photographs of China, Swire G. Warren collection c1911-1912

Source: Hobson Jobson: A glossary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases, Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, Routledge & Kegan Paul, First published 1886, Reprinted 1969

This article was first posted on 11th December 2021.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. The Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company, newspaper article 1937
  2. Shiu Wing Steel Company Ltd – Scrap Godown, Yau Tong
  3. BAAG Report KWIZ #74 Naval Reports – information about Naval, Kowloon, Cosmopolitan, Taikoo Docks and China Provident Godowns…

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