Bombay: History of a City

The City of Bombay

Bombay, now known as Mumbai, is home to around 10 million people. It is a thriving cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city, and is the centre of India's entertainment industry.

Mumbai has been growing for five hundred years, even though it was built on what initially looked like very weak foundations.

At first there were just seven islands separated by swamps: the land was dangerous and unhealthy. A thousand years ago the islands were part of the Magadhan empire. Later they belonged to the Silhara family and in 1343 they became part of the lands of the Sultan of Gujarat.

In 1534, the Portuguese captured the islands and established a trading centre (or 'factory') there. The Portuguese called the place Bom Bahia, meaning 'the good bay', which the English pronounced Bombay.

This trading place slowly grew, with local people trading products such as silk, muslin, chintz, onyx, rice, cotton and tobacco. By 1626, there was a great warehouse, a friary, a fort and a ship building yard. There were also new houses for the general population, and mansions for the wealthy.

The English arrive  

The first Englishmen to visit Mumbai were raiders. In October 1626, whilst at war with Portugal, English sailors heard that the Portuguese had "got into a hole called Bombay" to repair their ships.

They attacked Bombay, but the ships had already left. The English burned down buildings, and destroyed two new Portuguese ships "not yet from the stocks".

In May 1662, King Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza, whose family offered a large dowry (a gift made by the father of the bride to the groom). Part of this gift was the Portuguese territory of Bombay. However, Charles II did not want the trouble of ruling these islands and in 1668 persuaded the East India Company to rent them for just 10 pounds of gold a year.

As Bombay was a deep water port, large vessels were able to dock there. Bombay needed a fort and a garrison of soldiers to protect it from Dutch fleets and Indian pirates.

Unfortunately, it was an unhealthy climate for the English - it was said of Bombay that "three years was the average duration of European life"; "two mussouns (i.e. monsoons, there was one every year) are the age of a man"; and of children born there "not one in twenty live beyond their infant days". Men who lived there were encouraged to marry local women, although English women were also "sent out".

The Company's City Schemes

Within a few years the Company had transformed Bombay. Governor Gerald Aungier set about building up the port, with a new quay, warehouses and a customs house.

The Company supported him and encouraged him to build a new city - they even sent him the plan of London as it was to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666.

In this "city which, by God's assistance, is intended to be built" people could buy land and build their own houses. Aungier started a complex building programme: causeways to link the islands; forts and a castle to protect people; a church, a hospital, and a mint where coins were made.

Settlers came from many local communities, as well as from Britain. In the 1670s, the Company had 1,500 soldiers in Bombay (both English and local) to protect people living there.

By 1675, the population was around 60,000. In 1687, the Company made Bombay their Indian headquarters. The headquarters stayed there until 1708.

The Mughals attack  

English, Dutch and Portuguese ship captains regularly raided and captured foreign ships, if they thought they could get away with it. In 1688, during a conflict between the English and the Mughals, fourteen Mughal ships were captured and taken to Bombay harbour. A fleet of barges was also captured. The Mughals responded: in February 1689, a force entered Bombay harbour and landed Mughal men.

Since most people lived outside the Castle they rushed there for safety. They must have been frightened as it was said of them that "the poor ladies, both black and white, ran half naked to the fort and only carried their children with them".

The Castle was laid siege, and it did not go well for the Company. In December, men were sent to the Mughal court to seek peace. They got peace but at great cost to the Company.

The population of Bombay fell to a fraction of its earlier size. Many people, both Indian and English, lost their lives. Plantations were devastated and houses destroyed. Bombay became known as a "dismal desert".  

Trading capital

Bombay soon grew again: by the end of the 1700s it was "The Gateway to India". Early in the century the Company sent ships to patrol the sea off the Malabar (West) coast of India - it needed protection from the many dangers posed by foreign ships.

The Company built up a fleet, called the Bombay Marine, which brought some peace to the West coast of India in the first half of the century. The Bombay Marine eventually became the Indian Navy.

Because Bombay was a secure place offering a range of employment opportunities, people with all sorts of skills moved there to start a new life.

There were goldsmiths to make fabulous jewellery, weavers to create extraordinary textiles, merchants to trade the goods, and money-lenders in case the merchants or anybody else needed cash, as well as ironsmiths, planters, and servants. Bombay did not only trade in local products; many other goods were brought from all over India and beyond. In the 1730s, ship builders moved into Bombay, creating a new industry.

Raw cotton was shipped from Bombay to England where it was manufactured into cloth prior to being sent back to India for sale. In 1854 the first Indian cotton mill was opened.

The Empire and afterwards

In the early 1800s, much engineering work was carried out in Bombay. The city's swamps were completely filled in, and by 1845 the seven small islands that had previously made up Bombay had been turned into one large island.

In 1853, the first Indian railway opened, which stretched from Bombay to Thana. The employment created by the new railway attracted more people to settle in Bombay. To keep control, the Company created a number of government buildings. These were in a style very similar to city halls built in England at the time.

The city has continued to grow. In 1864, there were 816,562 living there. By 1991, the population of the whole of Bombay (which had spread beyond the islands) was 9,900,000.

The city changed its name in 1995 to Mumbai, after Mumbadevi, the stone goddess of the deep-sea fishermen who originally lived on the islands before they were driven out by the East India Company.