History of Bombay (Part 2) : The Englishmen and Reclamation

Bombay’s “reclamations” of land from the Sea !


The Great Breach
The only record which survives of large-scale engineering before the arrival of the Portuguese is that of the remnants of a massive stone causeway across the Flats on the island of Bombay. These Flats were the low-lying lands between Dongri and Malabar hills, seperated from the island of Worli by the Great Breach, through which the sea poured in at high tide.
Pydhonie and Umarkhadi
The Great Breach may have extended almost to Umarkhadi, the creek separating Bombay from Mazagaon. Occasionally the two would be linked by a shallow creek at the site of the crowded present-day bazaar area of Pydhonie. Only the name, which means “foot wash”, now gives a clue to the fact that it was once a creek, because this was probably the first piece of land to be reclaimed from the sea.
Quite as likely, Umarkhadi was also filled in soon after the arrival of the British and joined Mazagaon irretrievably to Bombay. The last story in which Mazagaon appears as a seperate island relates to its occupation by the Sidi of Janjira in 1690-1. He was repelled by a rag-tag navy of fishermen led by the amateur Parsi admiral Rustomji Dorabji.
The Hornby Vellard
Early efforts at land reclamation concentrated on the small creeks crossing the northern Flats of Bombay island. Several of these were dammed or filled in during the eighteenth century. As a result, the areas north and east of Umarkhadi and Mazagaon were slowly settled in this period. However, the next major reclamation was due to the closure of the Great Breach north of Cumballa Hill in 1784 by the building of a sea-wall called the Hornby Vellard. The wall allowed reclamation of the Flats and supplied about 400 acres of land for the extension of the crowded inner city. The precincts of Mahalaxmi, Kamathipura, Tardeo and parts of Bycullah were settled.
Colaba and Old Woman’s Island
The fort area and the older parts of the Indian town were extremely crowded by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The rich English and Parsi merchants had already moved to the new suburbs of Mazagaon and Bycullah. In 1796, the island of Colaba was declared a cantonment area, and civilians were refused permission to build there. As boat traffic to Colaba increased over the next few decades and many people perished due to overloaded boats capsizing, the need for a Causeway became evident. The Colaba Causeway was completed in 1838, and used Old Woman’s island as a stepping stone to Colaba.

The First Back-bay Reclamation Scheme
The first Back-bay Reclamation Company was formed during the boom years of the early 1860’s, with the stated purpose of reclaiming the whole of Backbay, from the tip of Malabar Hill to the end of Colaba. When the American Civil War ended in 1865, a depression set in and land prices fell. The company went bankrupt and was liquidated. The government took over the narrow strip of land that had been created and gave it to the BB&CI Railways for the purpose of laying a line from Churchgate to their new terminus in Colaba.
The Dockyards
The Backbay reclamation was a major fiasco. The real work took place on the eastern shore of Bombay. All the way from the Sassoon Docks in the south to Sewri in the north, land reclamation proceeded all through the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.
The Elphinstone Land and Press Company was formed in 1858 to reclaim 250 acres of land from Apollo Bunder to Mazagaon, and a further 100 acres at Bori Bunder, to be given to the GIP Railways for building a the Victoria Terminus. The company went bankrupt with the 1865 crash, and their equipment, along with the already reclaimed land, was given over to the newly-formed Bombay Port Trust in 1873. By the mid 1880’s the reclamations were complete, and wet and dry docks had been built.
Early Twentieth Century
The Port Trust continued its work well into the Twentieth century. Between 1914 and 1918 it completed building a dry dock and used the excavated earth to create the 22 acre Ballard Estate. In the meanwhile another ill-advised Backbay reclamation had gone the way of the first. However, this created the land on which one of the city’s most well-known landmarks was built– the Marine Drive. The Art Deco buildings west of the Oval Maidan also stand on land reclaimed by this scheme.

Late Twentieth Century
The Independence did not bring reclamation work to an end. The third Backbay reclamation scheme was put into effect and yielded the small acreage on which the high-rises of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade are planted. The Naval Dockyards were reclaimed on the east, and smaller works were continued further north. A series of Supreme Court injunctions protecting the shoreline and access to it for fishermen have slowed such work since the 1970’s. In the late 1990’s the Supreme Court has further restricted reclamations by setting up Coastal Regulatory Zones.

Mumbai islands_diagram1

The First Englishmen in Bombay
An interesting account of the Voyage of Ralph Fitch, Merchant of London. This part of the account pertains to the year 1583.
The first city of India that we arrived at upon the 5th of November, after we had passed the coast of Zindi, is called Diu, which standeth in an Island in the Kingdom of Cambaia and is the strongest town that the Portugals have in those parts. It is but little, but well stored with merchandise, for here they lade many great ships with divers commodities for the Straits of Mecca, for Ormus, and other places, and these be ships of the Moors and of Christians. But the Moors cannot pass except they have a passport from the Portugals.
Cambaietta is the chief city of that province, which is great and very populous and fairly builded for a town of the Gentiles, but if there happen any famine the people will sell their children for very little. The last king of Cambaia was Sultan Badu, which was killed at the siege of Diu, and shortly after his city was taken by the Great Mogor, which is the King of Agra and of Dilli, which are forty days’ journey from the country of Cambaia. Here the women wear upon their arms infinite numbers of rings made of elephants’ teeth, wherein they take so much delight that they had rather be without their meat than without their bracelets.
Going from Diu we came to Daman, the second town of the Portugals in the country of Cambaia, which is distant from Diu forty leagues. Here is no trade but of corn and rice. They have many villages under them which they quietly possess in time of peace, but in time of war the enemy is master of them.
From thence we passed by Basaim and from Basaim to Tana, at both which places is small trade but only of corn and rice.
The 10th of November we arrived at Chaul, which standeth in the firm land. There be two towns, the one belonging to the Portugals and the other to the Moors. That of the Portugals is the nearest to the sea and commandeth the bay, and is walled round about. A little above that is the town of the Moors, which is governed by a Moor King called Xa-Maluco. Here is great traffic for all sorts of spices and drugs, silk and cloth of silk, sandals, elephants’ teeth and much China work, and much sugar which is made of the nut called Gagara; the tree is called the palmer, which is the profitablest tree in the world. It doth always bear fruit, and doth yield wine, oil, sugar, vinegar, cords, coals; of the leaves are made thatch for the houses, sails for ships, mats to sit or lie on; of the branches they make their houses and brooms to sweep; of the tree, wood for ships. The wine doth issue out of the top of the tree. They cut a branch of a bough and bind it hard and hang an earthen pot upon it, which they empty every morning and every evening and still it and put in certain dried raisins, and it becometh very strong wine in short time.


1. Zindi is Sind.
2. Diu fort was allowed to be constructed by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat in 1535. Ten years later the Portuguese occupied the whole town and island.
3. The Straits of Mecca refer to the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, referred to as Gates of Mecca in Berthelot’s map of 1635.
4. Cambaietta is Cambay.
5. Gentiles seems to mean any non-Islamic people of India and Moors all the Islamic peoples.
6. Children were supposed to be sold into slavery, a practice often alleged of many parts of Asia.
7. Sultan Badu refers to Bahadur Shah, who was not killed at the siege of Diu, but murdered and thrown into the water while on a diplomatic visit to the Portuguese aboard their ships. They denied complicity in the deed, but historians are still unconvinced.
8. Dilli is the correct transliteration for the city whose name is more commonly written as Delhi. The latter is may be an incorrect transcription of Dehli, the common Indo-Persian name for the same city.
9. Elephants’ teeth refer to tusks.
10. Daman was sacked by the Portuguese in 1531 and occupied by them in 1558.
11. Basaim, also spelt Bazim or Bassein, is the modern Vasai. The town and land were ceded to the Portuguese by Bahadur Shah in 1534. The Marathas captured it in 1739. Tana is modern Thana, and was occupied by the Portuguese in 1533 and lost in 1739.
12. Chaul was a Portuguese factory and the town a little above it is Alibagh.
13. Xa-Maluco or Zemelluco or other variant spellings of this word refer to the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Ahmadnagar. The same name was used by occidental travellers for all kings of the dynasty! The reigning prince at this time was Murtaza Nizam Shah I (1565-1587) and Chaul belonged to his kingdom.
14. Gagara refers to jaggery, made from the sappy juice, and not the nut, of various palm trees. The derivation is from the Malayalam chakkara through the Portuguese form jagara.
15. Palmer, also spelt pawmer, refer to the palm tree. The derivation is from the French palmier. The abundant virtues of the tree are accurately catalogued.
16. Still clearly means to distil.
17. The short time can be rather short. The liquid remains toddy for no more than four days; after which it turns sour and has to be distilled into arrack.


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.



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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