History of Bombay (Part 1) – a quick-read compendium

Bombay or Mumbai as it is called now,  has fascinated everyone .. all across world , across India spanning all ages. Right from 9th century to 21st people have had their sting with the five islands. In this three part post, I have attempted to highlight briefly , the rich history of Bombay from various online and offline sources.  In the first part of the blog , we run through the history of Bombay briskly from 9th century to the current 21 century.

bombay_map_1700Blank simple map of Greater Bombay. GreaterMumbai

Fisherwomen and Stone goddesses

Although the archipelago which developed into the modern city of Mumbai was inhabited whenever history chanced on it, we are forced to imagine the lives of these early Mumbaikars, because the islands lay outside of the sweep of history and beyond the marches of armies for millennia. Stone age implements have been found at several sites in these islands. Later, around the third century BC, the coastal regions, and presumably the islands, were part of the Magadhan empire ruled by the emperor Ashok. The empire ebbed, leaving behind some Buddhist monks and the deep-sea fishermen called Kolis, whose stone goddess, Mumbadevi, gave her name to the modern metropolis.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Indian ocean, and especially the Arabian Sea, was the world’s center of commerce. Deep sea crafts made of wood tied together with ropes transported merchandise between Aden, Calicut, Cambay and cities on the West coast of Africa. Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and other travelers passed by without ever making a landfall in these islands.
Bombay changed hands many times. The islands belonged to the Silhara dynasty till the middle of the 13th century. The oldest structures in the archipelago— the caves at Elephanta, and part of the Walkeshwar temple complex probably date from this time. Modern sources identify a 13th century Raja Bhimdev who had his capital in Mahikawati– present-day Mahim, and Prabhadevi. Presumably the first merchants and agriculturists settled in Mumbai at this time. In 1343 the island of Salsette, and eventually the whole archipelago, passed to the Sultan of Gujarat. The mosque in Mahim dates from this period.

The Slow Turn West

In 1508 Francis Almeida sailed into the deep natural harbour of the island his countrymen came to call Bom Bahia (the Good Bay). Bahadur Shah of Gujarat was forced to cede the main islands to the Portuguese in 1534, before he was murdered by the proselytizing invaders. The Portuguese built a fort in Bassein. They were not interested in the islands, although some fortifications and a few chapels were built for the converted fishermen. The St. Andrew’s church in Bandra dates from this period.
For years, the Dutch and the British tried to get information on the sea route to India— often by spying. Even the reports of such spies never bother to mention Bombay. Eventually, in 1661, Catherine of Braganza brought these islands to Charles II of England as part of her marriage dowry. The British East India Company received it from the crown in 1668, founded the modern city, and shortly thereafter moved their main holdings from Surat to Bombay.

George Oxenden was the first governor of a Bombay whose place in history was finally secure. The web of commerce which had supported the civilization of the Indian Ocean littoral had died with the coming of the Europeans. The Mughal empire in Delhi was not interested in navies– despising the Portuguese and the British as “merchant princes”.

The second governor of Bombay, Gerald Aungier, saw the opportunity to develop the islands into a centre of commerce to rival other ports still in the hands of local kingdoms. He offered various inducement to skilled workers and traders to move to this British holding. The opportunities for business attracted many Gujarati communities— the Parsis, the Bohras, Jews and banias from Surat and Diu.

The population of Bombay was estimated to have risen from 10,000 in 1661 to 60,000 in 1675. Through the 18th century British power and influence grew slowly but at the expense of the local kingdoms. The migration of skilled workers and traders to the safe-haven of Bombay continued. The shipbuilding industry moved to Bombay from Surat with the coming of the Wadias. Artisans from Gujarat, such as goldsmiths, iron-smiths and weavers moved to the islands and coexisted with the slave trade from Madagascar. During this period the first land-use laws were set up in Bombay, segregating the British part of the islands from the black town.
With increasing prosperity and growing political power following the 1817 victory over the Marathas, the British embarked upon reclamations and large scale engineering works in Bombay.

The sixty years between the completion of the vellard at Breach Candy (1784) and the construction of the Mahim Causeway (1845) are the heroic period in which the seven islands were merged into one landmass.

These immense works, in turn, attracted construction workers, like the Kamathis from Andhra, who began to come to Bombay from 1757 on. A regular civil administration was put in place during this period. In 1853 a 35-km long railway line between Thana and Bombay was inaugurated– the first in India. Four years later, in 1854, the first cotton mill was founded in Bombay. With the cotton mills came large scale migrations of Marathi workers, and the chawls which accommodated them. The city had found its shape.

Dreams of Power

Following the first war of Independence in 1857, the Company was accused of mismanagement, and Bombay reverted to the British crown. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, exports, specially cotton, from Bombay became a major part of the colonial economy. The Great Indian Peninsular Railway facilitated travel within India. This network of commerce and communication led to an accumulation of wealth. This was channelled into building an Imperial Bombay by a succession of Governors. Many of Bombay’s famous landmarks, the Flora Fountain and the Victoria Terminus, date from this time. The water works, including the Hanging Gardens and the lakes were also built at this time. The Bombay Municipal Corporation was founded in 1872. However, this facade of a progressive and well-governed city was belied by the plague epidemics of the 1890s. This dichotomy between the city’s symbols of power and prosperity and the living conditions of the people who make it so continues even today.
The construction of Imperial Bombay continued well into the 20th century. Landmarks from this period are the Gateway of India, the General Post Office, the Town Hall (now the Asiatic Library) and the Prince of Wales Museum. Bombay expanded northwards into the first suburbs, before spreading its nightmare tentacles into the the northern suburbs. The nearly 2000 acres reclaimed by the Port Trust depressed the property market for a while, but the Backbay reclamation scandal of the ’20s was a testament to the greed for land.
The freedom movement reached a high pitch of activity against this background of developing Indian wealth. Gandhi returned from South Africa and reached Bombay on January 12, 1915. Following many campaigns in the succeeding years, the end of the British imperial rule in India was clearly presaged by the Quit India declaration by the Indian National Congress on August 8, 1942, in Gowalia Tank Maidan, near Kemp’s Corner.

India became a free country on August 15, 1947. In the meanwhile, Greater Bombay had come into existence through an Act of the British parliament in 1945.

Millennial Mumbai

Already India’s main port and commercial center, the City of Gold lured the poverty stricken rural population and the expanding middle class equally. The population boom of the ’50s and ’60s was fueled by the absence of opportunities in the rest of the country. The language riots, the reorganization of Indian states and the see-saw politics of the country did not seem to affect the city. The glamor industry’s flattering portrayal of Bombay seemed to be the reality. However, by the late ’80s the other big Indian cities had choked in their own refuse and Bombay’s road ahead seemed to be blighted.

How this city, renamed Mumbai in the mid 90’s copes with the challenge of controlling its political fragmentation, disastrous health problems and load of pollution by utilizing its wealth of talent and manpower is a story to be told by future historians.

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References :

Archives at : http://theory.tifr.res.in/bombay/history/
Empires of the Monsoon, by Richard Hall, Harper Collins, 1996.
City of Gold, by Gillian Tindall, Penguin Books, 1992.
Bombay- The Cities Within, by S. Dwivedi and R. Mehrotra.
Bombay: Metaphor for Modern India, by Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner, 1995.
Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture, by Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner,  1995.

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About Prasad Bhave

Clinical Scientist / Healthcare Informatics Consultant
This entry was posted in Bombay, History, History of Bombay, Mumbai, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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