Here is a brief history of Bombay through centuries .. a century-wise ,compilation of interesting facts and various references for quick read. ( that too is quite long ! )
The original Seven Islands of Bombay
Proceeding roughly south to north, the seven islands ceded by the Portuguese to the British were
1. Colaba: whose name is a corruption of the Koli name Kolbhat.
2. Old Woman’s Island: (alternatively, Old Man’s Island) a small rock between Colaba and Bombay, whose name is a corruption of the Arabic name Al-Omani, after the deep-sea fishermen who ranged up to the Gulf of Oman.
3. Bombay: the main harbour and the nucleus of the British fort from which the modern city grew; it stretched from Dongri on the east to Malabar Hill on the west.
4. Mazagaon: a Koli settlement to the east of Bombay island was seperated from it by Umarkhadi and Pydhonie.
5. Worli: north of Bombay was seperated from it by the Great Breach, which extended westwards almost to Dongri.
6. Parel: North of Mazagaon and called by many other names, including Matunga, Dharavi and Sion. The original population was predominantly Koli.
7. Mahim: to the west of Parel and north of Worli, took its name from the Mahim river and was the capital of a 13th century kingdom founded by Raja Bhimdev.
This list does not exhaust all the islands that have merged into the modern city of Bombay. In particular, Salsette, the large northern island which remained under Portuguese control till 1739, is not counted among these seven.
The Old “century-wise” History of Bombay
The Ninth Century
From AD 810 to 1260, the island of Bombay was ruled by the Silhara dynasty. These kings built the original Walkeshwar temple on Malabar Hill. It was during this time that the caves at Elephanta were carved out. Although the coastal town of Kalyan was a busy port, the natural harbour of Bombay was not developed till the 17th century.
The Thirteenth Century
In the 13th century Raja Bhimdev set up his capital in Mahikawati– present-day Mahim. A palace, court of justice and a temple were set up in Prabhadevi. Land was brought under cultivation, and fruit growing trees were planted on several islands. The Pathare Prabhus, Bhois, Agris, Vadvals and Brahmins came to Bombay at this time.
The Fourteenth Century
In 1343 the island of Salsette was invaded by the Muslim kings of Gujarat. In the ensuing wars, Mahim fell to the Gujarati kings. The Konkani people seem to have appeared around this time. The mosque in Mahim dates from this period.
The Sixteenth Century
The rule of the Sultans of Gujarat over the archipelago of Bombay came to an end with the arrival of the Portuguese. In 1508 the first Portuguese ship, captained by Francis Almeida sailed into Bombay harbour. The Portuguese were already at war all along the coast of India. In 1534, with just 21 ships, they managed to defeat the kingdom of Gujarat, and extracted, among many concessions, rights to the islands of Bombay.
India was not a priority for the Portuguese. Francis Almeida had been sent to the east to secure the spice trade for his country. The most lucrative part of this trade lay further east. Bombay and the Arabian sea was important only as a staging post to Malacca. Almeida’s successor, Albuquerque, consolidated their position by taking control of Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511 and Hormuz in 1515.
The northern parts of the Portuguese holdings in India, mainly on the coast of Gujarat, were defended out of their fort in Bassein, present day Vasai, on the mainland north of the islands, and stronghouses were built in Bandra, Mahim, and the harbour of Versova. Control over Bombay was exerted indirectly, through vazadors who rented the islands.
The vazador of Bombay was a certain Garcia da Orta. He built a manor house on the island in 1554. On his death in Goa, in 1570, the island was passed on to his sons. During this time Bombay’s main trade was in coconuts and coir. The island of Salsette also exported rice.
The Portuguese encouraged intermarriage with the local population, and strongly supported the Catholic church; going to the extent of starting the Inquisition in India in the year 1560. The result was a growing mixed population which supported the Portuguese in times of strife. However, their intolerance of other religions, seen in the forcible conversion to Christianity of the local Koli population in Bombay, Mahim, Worli and Bassein, had the effect of alienating the local population.
Land in Bandra, Parel, Vadala and Sion was given to the Jesuits. Records speak of two churches built in Girgaum, a Jesuit church in Bandra in 1570 and a fort in Mahim. Of these, only St. Andrew’s Church in Bandra can still be seen.
With the annexation of Portugal by Spain in 1580, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British eight years later, the way was open for other European powers to follow the spice routes to India and further East. The Dutch arrived first, closely followed by the British. An account of the Portuguese towns in India, in the year 1583, has been left by a member of the first band of English merchants who tried to reach India.
The Seventeenth Century
The first important event recorded in the history of 17th century Bombay dates from 1640, during the Portuguese occupation of the islands. The first Parsi, a trader called Dorabji Nanabhai, is known to have settled in Bombay in this year.
In 1661, the islands of Bombay passed to the British Crown, when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. However, the Portuguese garrison in Bassein refused to part with the islands of Salsette, Parel, Worli and Mazagaon. British soldiers captured these islands only in 1665, and a treaty was signed in the manor house on the island of Bombay.
The British East India Company received it from the crown in 1668 for the sum of 10 pounds a year, payable every September 30. Sir George Oxenden, then President of the factory in Surat, became the first Governor of Bombay. The Company immediately set about the task of opening up the islands by constructing a quay and warehouses. A customs house was also built. Fortifications were made around the manor house, now renamed Bombay Castle. A Judge-Advocate was appointed for the purpose of civil administration.
Gerald Aungier was appointed the President of the Surat factory and Governor of Bombay in 1672, and remained at this post till 1675. He offered various inducement to skilled workers and traders to set up business in the new township. As a result, a large number of Parsis, Armenian, Bohras, Jews, Gujarati banias from Surat and Diu and Brahmins from Salsette came to Bombay. The population of Bombay was estimated to have risen from 10,000 in 1661 to 60,000 in 1675.
Gerald Aungier established the first mint in Bombay. In 1670 the Parsi businessman Bhimjee Parikh imported the first printing press into Bombay. Aungier planned extensive fortifications from Dongri in the north to Mendham’s Point (near present day Lion Gate) in the south. However, these walls were only built in the beginning of the 18th century. The harbour was also developed, with space for the berthing of 20 ships. In 1686, the Company shifted its main holdings from Surat to Bombay.
During the Portuguese occupation, Bombay exported only coir and coconuts. With the coming of many Indian and British merchants, Bombay’s trade developed. Soon it was trading in salt, rice, ivory, cloth, lead and sword blades with many Indian ports as well as with Mecca and Basra.
The Eighteenth Century
Territorial Disputes : By the end of the 17th century, Bombay had developed into an important local port. In 1715 Charles Boone became the Governor of Bombay. He implemented Aungier’s plans for the fortification of the island, and had walls built from Dongri in the north to Mendham’s point in the south. He established a force of Marines and constructed St. Thomas’ Church, within the fort.
Local Government : In 1728 a Mayor’s court was established in the town. In the same year the first reclamation was started, a temporary work in Mahalaxmi, on the creek separating Bombay from Worli.
The Ship-building Industry :The shipbuilding industry started in Bombay in 1735. The master shipbuilder, Lowjee Nusserbanji, was induced to move from Surat to Bombay, where he built the first docks and took the name of Wadia. Bombay began to grow into a major trading town. By the middle of the century Bhandaris from Chaul, Vanjaras from the Ghats, slaves from Madagascar, Bhatias, Banias, Shenvi Brahmins, goldsmiths, iron-smiths and weavers from Gujarat migrated to the islands.
Exit of the Portuguese
During this time the Marathas had become the paramount power in the Deccan and naturally came into conflict with the sea-faring Portuguese. A long dispute came to an outright war, the battles of Bassein, beginning in 1737. In a series of campaigns over the next two years, Baji Rao Peshwa’s army pushed the Portuguese out of the island of Salsette and forced their captain to cede the fort of Bassein.
Consolidation of British Power
The British response to the Maratha victory was to clear big stretches of grounds around the fort walls to provide a clear field of fire. This pushed the Indian settlements further north, into what has now become the inner city. Under new building rules set up in 1748, many houses were demolished and the population was redistributed, partially on newly reclaimed land.
The Fort and its Gates
This century saw an intense rivalry between various powers, the British, the French and the Marathas, for the control of India. Much of British policy in Bombay during this uncertain period was directed to this power play. In the twenty years starting from 1746 the Fort was improved. Many batteries and bastions were added. The depredations of the British, perhaps more than the black basalt walls, gave rise to the name Kala Killa for the fort.
The fort walls had three main gates. One was the Apollo Gate, near the present day location of the St. Andrew’s Church. The most well-known was Church Gate, named after St. Thomas’, standing almost exactly on the spot that the Flora Fountain now occupies. The third was the Bazaar Gate, right opposite the present dome of the General Post Office, which lends its name to the area even now, long after the gate itself has disappeared.
In 1769 Fort George was built on the site of the Dongri Fort. In the next year the Mazagaon docks were built. In 1772 an order was promulgated to segregate Indian and English houses, both within and outside the Fort. A more important development came five years later, in 1777, when the first newspaper in Bombay was published.
The First Maratha War
Following the First Maratha War, between 1772 and 1775, Nana Fadnawis managed to cobble together a coalition of all the Maratha kingdoms along with Hyder Ali and the Nizam into a force against the British. Although the British, through diplomacy and bribery, broke this coalition, they were defeated in a series of battles. Through the treaty of Salbai, in 1782, they were forced to cede all the land they had won to the Marathas in exchange for Salsette, Elephanta, Karanja and Hog Island.
In 1795, the Maratha army defeated the Nizam. Following this, many artisans and construction workers from the Andhra migrated to Bombay and settled into the flats which were made livable by the construction of the Hornby Vellard. These workers where called Kamathis, and their enclave was called Kamathipura.
With British control of Bombay confirmed, city planning began. In the mid 80’s roads began to be built at right angles to each other; restrictions were placed on the heights of buildings; segregation was enforced. In the Indian parts of the town, rule by panchayats was set up. Indians became more active in local politics, and in 1777 Bombay’s first English newspaper, the Bombay Courier was printed by Rustomji Kashaspathi.
The first major work of reclamation was the Hornby vellard at Breach Candy. Completed in 1784 during the Governorship of William Hornby, it joined the main island of Bombay to Worli, and prevented the flat lands to the north of Bombay from being flooded at every high-tide. Reclamations at Worli and Mahalaxmi followed immediately.
In the beginning, the civil administration of Bombay was directly under the President of the East India Company and his Council. Beginning at the end of the 18th century, a regular civil administration was put in place. Apparently, this was thought to be necessary, since, in a count made in 1794, it was found that there were 1000 houses inside the fort walls and 6500 outside.
The Nineteenth Century
The Taming of the Sea (Reclamation) : The modern city of Bombay took shape in the 19th century. The city was built by the joining together of many islands, a process that was more or less completed by the first half of the century. Reclamations were then started, a process that continues till today. During the latter half of this century, the importance of Bombay as a center of cotton trade, specially during the American Civil War (1861-65), created a pool of wealth, not only among the British, but also among Indians. Much of this money was channeled into rebuilding the core of the town into a grand showpiece. The First Indian War of Independence, in 1857, makes a convenient watershed between these two streams of development. Before the War of Independence, India was governed by the East India Company; after the war it reverted to the Crown.
The Great Fire
A crowded town had grown up north of the walled fort and the eastern port district of the British town. In 1803 a fire raged through the Indian part of the town, razing many localities. The tragedy was to have a positive effect in that the town could be built anew, to a better plan. Already residents were paying taxes to the civil authorities for the upkeep and cleaning of streets. In 1812 an Ordinance was promulgated which, among other things, set out the possibility of demolition of encroachments.
The Hornby Vellard had already been built towards the end of the 18th Century. By joining together Bombay and Mahim, it began the process that was to be completed in this century. The next step was the completion of the Sion Causeway in 1803.
The Fall of the Marathas
The Maratha empire under the Peshwas fell to the machinations of the East India Company at the beginning of the century. The decisive battle was at Kirki in November 1817. Montstuart Elphinstone was then made Commissioner of the Deccan in 1818. With the opening of the Deccan to the British power, improved communications between Bombay and its hinterland was to become necessary. The existence of such communication, in turn, fed commerce through the port of Bombay.
Elphinstone was the Governor of Bombay between 1819 and 1827. He was the first person to build a bungalow for himself on Malabar Hill. This began the process of wealthy residents moving out of the central fort area.
This process accelerated with the completion of the Colaba Causeway in 1838. Even before the island was joined to Bombay, it was a cantonment area; it remains so even now. The Cotton Exchange was established in Colaba in 1844, establishing this newly opened up section as an important commercial area.
The Mahim Causeway was not built by the government. Avabai, Lady Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy donated the entire sum of money required to join Mahim to Sion by a causeway. This work was completed in 1845, but the development of Mahim and Bandra had to wait another half a century.
The physical setting of the modern city was almost complete by now. A new development took place with the opening of railways in India. In 1849 the Great Indian Peninsular (GIP) Railways was incorporated by an Act of the British Parliament. It immediately entered into an agreement with the East India Company. Under this agreement, the first rails were laid for a 21 mile stretch between Thane and Bombay. The line was inaugurated on April 6, 1853.
The Governor of Bombay at this time was John, Lord Elphinstone. He was the first to realize that the Fort walls were now superfluous, since all the enemy powers were now subjugated. He suggested the removal of the fortifications. However, the population of Bombay was not yet psychologically prepared for this step. There was strong opposition to this move, and the walls were not removed.
The First War of Independence
1857 marks a watershed in Indian history. The first War of Independence broke out this year. Under the leadership of several Princes, the Sepoys in the Company militia revolted. The revolutionaries were brutally suppressed; but the Company was accused of mismanagement. India reverted to the British Crown. Bombay was hardly affected. By the time the newspapers had confirmed news of the war, it was over. The police commissioner, Charles Forjett arrested large numbers of Indians, and claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy to blow up the town during the festival of Diwali. Nothing happened, but Forjett had the alleged ring-leaders blown from cannon on that day. A commemorative tablet in the gardens of the Afghan Church record about 30 British deaths, several from outside of the city.
Urbs Prima In Indis
The black soils of the mainland near Bombay were ideal for growing cotton. This had long been a mainstay of Bombay’s commerce. From 1857, with the opening of Bombay’s first cotton mill, it was to become an important part of the city’s industry.
The Cotton Mills
When cotton exports from the USA were interrupted by the Civil War, Bombay gained paramount importance in the world cotton trade. There was a rapid increase in the number of mills. The labor force was constituted mainly of Marathi speaking migrants from the ghats, adding yet another flavor to Bombay’s ethnic soup. However, this economic boom was at the base of one of the major problems of the developing city.
Most often, the mill workers were men whose families stayed back in their villages. To begin with, employers accommodated these workers in specially constructed chawls near the mills. Modeled after army barracks, each building had three floors. Every floor contained rooms, each given over to one person, and a common toilet. Sometimes, several such chawls would border a common enclosed space. Such a group of chawls was called a wadi. With the rapid increase in the number of mills, the rooms were often occupied by several people. Eventually, families of workers began to migrate to Bombay, and each room in a chawl would have to accommodate the whole family. Later, even this became impossible, and slums developed around the mills and the harbor.
The Walls Come Down
In the meanwhile, Sir Bartle Frere became the Governor of Bombay, and in 1864 had the walls of the fort removed. The old wall can now only be seen as part of the boundary wall of St. George Hospital, near the Victoria Terminus.
This act allowed a rebuilding of the core area of the city with the money that the cotton boom was bringing in : VT, university, BMC, town hall, etc.Victorian Gothic revival. The Asiatic Society ,The plague and the Haffkine Institute, The founding of the CIT and the new suburbs.
The Twentieth Century
The Remaking of Bombay : The last years of the 19th century ended with a textile manufacturing boom, and attracted huge numbers of workers to a city unprepared to give them healthy living quarters. Slums spread across the city and epidemics of plague added to the already high mortality rates. The 20th century began with a damage limitation exercise.
The fashionable areas of Bombay in the 19th century were the inner suburbs on the east– Parel, Sewri and Bycullah. The mills and their effluents began to push the British and the Parsi merchants out of these areas. The plague completed this process and transformed these areas along with Worli into working class areas. The upper classes moved into Malabar Hill. Other opportunities had to be developed for the middle classes.
Several city planning agencies were set up in the aftermath of the plague epidemics. The City Improvement Trust developed the suburbs of Dadar, Matunga, Wadala and Sion to house about 200,000 people. New roads connected the inner city to these suburbs. By 1925 electrified suburban trains were running in the city, and the distant northern suburbs were already being built.
In the first years of the century, the inner city was already as congested as the rest of Bombay became in the 1980’s. The CIT sought to open up these areas by building wide roads through them to channel the westerly breezes from the sea. The decreasing mortality over the years was probably not due to this, but to other health schemes which were slowly put into place.
Modernizing the Transport System
As the distances within the city grew, the transport system had to be modernized. In 1901, Jamsetji Tata was the first Indian to own a car. By 1911 motorized taxis were already plying in Bombay, and on July 15, 1926, the first motorized bus ran between Afghan church and Crawford market. Trains began running on the harbor line in February 1925. Electrification of the railways began at the same time.
The New Heritage
Meanwhile, the Fort area had already become a business district. The Gothic revival of the late 19th century gave way to the exuberant Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The first building in this style was the General Post Office. A spate of Bombay’s loveliest buildings followed– the Prince of Wales Museum, the Gateway of India, the Institute of Science, the offices of the BB&CI Railways (now the Western Railways), and many others. This phase of British imperial confidence, culminating with George V’s Delhi Durbar 1911 was to come to an end with the new political developments set into motion when the lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, returned to India from South Africa in 1915.
A Midnight’s Tryst
The early stalwarts of the Indian National Congress were mainly Parsis from Bombay. Even after the congress became a truly national movement, Bombay retained an important place in the struggle for independence from Britain. The very notion that the Congress was not merely fighting for rights but for independence, swaraj, was first enunciated from this city. Gandhi, already famous for his non-violent struggle for rights in South Africa, returned to India through the port of Bombay. The merchants of Bombay financed the independence movement. The famous August 1942 call for the British to Quit India was issued from the Gowalia Tank Maidan at the base of the Malabar Hills. India gained independence at midnight, becoming a free country from August 15, 1947.
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.