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History Of Bombay

Compiled and abridged from several sources by
Ardeshir B. Damania

The city of Bombay ("Bom" "Bay" in Portuguese meant Good Bay) originally consisted of seven islands namely Colaba, Mazagaon, Old Woman's Island, Wadala, Mahim, Parel, and Matunga-Sion. This group of islands, which has since been joined together by a series of reclamations, formed part of the kingdom of Ashoka, the famous Emperor of India. After his death, these islands passed into the hands of various Hindu rulers until 1343. In that year, the Mohammedans of Gujarat took possession and the Kings of that province ruled for two centuries. The only vestige (mark) of their dominion over these islands that remains today is the mosque at Mahim.

In 1534 the Portuguese, who already possessed many important trading centers on the western coast, such as Panjim, Daman, and Diu, took Bombay by force of arms from the Mohammedans. This led to the establishment of numerous churches which were constructed in areas where the majority of people were Roman Catholics. There used to be two areas in Bombay called "Portuguese Church". However, only one church with Portuguese-style facade still remains; it is the St. Andrew's church at Bandra. The Portuguese also fortified their possession by building forts at Sion, Mahim, and Bassien which, although in disrepair, can still be seen.

A hundred and twenty-eight years later the islands were given to the English King Charles II in dowry on his marriage to Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662. In the year 1668 the islands were acquired by the English East India Company on lease from the crown for an annual sum of 10 pounds in gold; so little did the British value these islands at that time. The Company, which was operating from Surat, was in search for another deeper water port so that larger vessels could dock, and found the islands of Bombay suitable for development. The shifting of the East India Company's headquarters to Bombay in 1687 led to the eclipse of Surat as a principal trading center.

The first Parsi, (the Parsis, originally from Iran, landed on the west coast of India seeking refuge around 700 AD) to arrive in Bombay was Dorabji Nanabhoy Patel in 1640. However, in 1689-90, when a severe plague had struck down most of the Europeans, the Siddi Chief of Janjira made several attempts to re-possess the islands by force, but the son of the former, a Parsi trader named Rustomji Dorabji Patel (1667-1763), successfully warded off the attacks (1689 to 1690) on behalf of the British with the help of the 'Kolis', the original fisher-folk inhabitants of these islands (who call it "Mumbai" after the shrine dedicated to Mumbadevi, a Hindu goddess) at chowpatty. The remnants of the Koli settlements can still be seen at Backbay reclamation, Mahim, Bandra, Khar, Bassien and Madh island near Malad.

Sir George Oxenden was the first British Governor of the islands, and he was succeeded later by Mr. Gerald Aungier who made Bombay more populous by attracting Gujerati traders, Parsi ship-builders, and Muslim and Hindu manufacturers from the mainland. He fortified defenses by constructing the Bombay Castle (the Fort, since then vanished) and provided stability by constituting courts of law.

The inroads of the sea at Worli, Mahim, and Mahalaxmi turned the ground between the islands into swamps making Bombay an extremely unhealthy place at that time. Many commuters going to the Fort by boat between islands lost their lives when there was a storm during the monsoons. During the next 40 years much was done to improve matters. Reclamation work to stop the breeches at Mahalaxmi and Worli were undertaken. The Hornby Vellard was completed in 1784, during the Governorship of Mr. Hornby. In 1803 Bombay was connected with Salsette by a causeway at Sion. The island of Colaba was joined to Bombay in 1838 by a causeway now called Colaba Causeway and the Mahim Causeway was built in 1845 at the cost of Rs. 1,57,000 donated entirely by Lady Avabai Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, wife of the first baronet Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. By 1862 the town had spread over the reclaimed lands and from this date we have the rise of the modern city of Bombay.

In 1858, following the first War of Independence (the British called it the "Sepoy Mutiny") of 1857, the East India Company was accused of mismanagement and the islands reverted to the British Crown. In 1862 Sir Baartle Frere was appointed Governor, an office which he held until 1867. In 1864 fountain was to be erected in his honour at the Victoria Gardens by the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India. Somehow, the plans were changed at the last moment and the fountain, named after the Greek goddess Flora, was placed in the centre of the city on what used be known as Hornby Road. Unfortunately, no plaque is placed on the fountain to commemorate the name of the donor (Rs. 20,500/-), a Parsi named Cursetjee Fardunjee Parakh, nor the Governor in whose memory it was supposed to have been erected.

On Saturday 16th of April, 1853 a 21-mile long railway line, the first in India, between Bombay and Thana (Thane) was opened. The Great Indian Peninsular (GIP) and the Bombay Baroda and Central India (BB&CI) Railway were started in 1860 and a regular service of steamers on the west coast was commenced in 1869. Also during this period Bombay enjoyed great economic wealth. Raw cotton from Gujerat was shipped to Lancashire in England through Bombay port, and after being spun and woven into cloth, returned to be sold in the Indian market. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 increased the demand for cotton in the West and several personal fortunes were made during this period from the resulting trade. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought the West closer to Bombay, and as the city became even more prosperous, many schemes were launched for reclaiming additional land and building more roads and wharves. Bombay began to attract fortune hunters by the hundreds (and probably still does) and the population had swelled from 13,726 in 1780 to 644,405 by 1872, in a little over a hundred years. By 1906 the population of Bombay was to become 977,822( And today it is 12.5 million!).

The later half of the 19th century was also to see a feverish construction of buildings in Bombay, many of which such as, the Victoria Terminus, the General Post Office, Municipal Corporation, the Prince of Wales Museum, Rajabai Tower and Bombay University, Elphistone College and the Cawasji Jehangir Hall, the Crawford Market, the Old Secretariat (Old Customs House) and the Public Works Department (PWD) Building, still stand today as major landmarks. The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of king George V and Queen Mary for the Darbar at Delhi in 1911.

The docks at Bombay are a monument of the industry, enterprise and integrity of a Parsi family, the Wadias which moved in from Surat at the instigation of the British. In 1870 the Bombay Port Trust was formed. In 1872, Jamshedji Wadia, a Parsi master ship-builder constructed the "Cornwalis", a frigate of 50 guns, for the East India Company, a success which led to several orders from the British Navy. In all the Wadias, between 1735-1863 built 170 war vessels for the Company, 34 man-of-war for the British Navy, 87 merchant vessels for private firms, and three vessels for the Queen of Muscat at Bombay docks.

The Princess Dock was built in the year 1885 and the Victoria Dock and the Mereweather Dry Docks in 1891. Alexandra Dock was completed in 1914. The closing years of the 19th Century were tragic for Bombay as the bubonic plague caused great destruction of human life once more. One significant result of the plague was the creation of the City Improvement Trust which in later years encouraged the development of the suburbs for residential purposes to remove the congestion in the city.

The Port Trust Railway from Ballard Pier to Wadala was opened in 1915. Along this railway were built grain and fuel oil depots. The kerosene oil installations were developed at Sewri and for petrol at Wadala. Around 1860 the water supply from Tulsi and Vehar lakes (and later Tansa) was inaugurated. One reform which met with much superstitious opposition before it was implemented was the closure or sealing of open wells and tanks that bred mosquitos. A good drainage system was also constructed at the same time. In 1915 the first overhead transmission lines of the Tata Power Company were erected, and in 1927 the first electric locomotives manufactured by Metropolitan Vickers of England were put into service up to Poona and Igatpuri on the GIP railway and later electric multiple rake commuter trains ran up to Virar on the BB&CI railway.

The Fort (downtown) area in Bombay derives its name from the fact that the area fell within the former walled city, of which only a small fragment survives as part of the eastern boundary wall of the St. George's Hospital. In 1813 there were 10,801 persons living in the fort, 5,464, or nearly 50%, of them Parsis. With the growth of the city more people came from the Fort to such suburbs as Byculla, Parel, Malabar Hill, and Mazagaon. European sports clubs for cricket and other games came in to existence early in the 19th Century. The Bombay Gymkhana was formed in 1875 exclusively for Europeans. Other communities followed this example, and various Parsi, Muslim, and Hindu gymkhanas were started with fierce sports competitions among them being organized on a communal basis. This was opposed by several secular minded persons, such as the late A.F.S. Talyarkhan, and sports teams based on community, especially cricket teams, came to an end gradually after independence from British rule in 1947.

Ardeshir B. Damania
Genetic Resources Conservation Program
University of California, Davis
CA 95616-8602, USA.
Phone: (916) 754-8507
Fax: (916) 754-8505
Email :

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