by Rahul Srivastava

For centuries the seven islands that make up this port city remained mosquito-infested spits of land separated by creeks and swamps. Despite their ordinariness, Ptolemy marked the islands in his maps and the ancient Greeks knew them as Heptanesia (literally, ‘Seven Islands’).

The Portuguese explorers arrived in 1508. To protect their shipping routes, the Portuguese fortified the islanded region with forts; establising cannon-equipped outposts at Mahim, Sion, Bandra and Bassein or Vasai. It was around this time that the region got a new name – ‘Bom Baia’, meaning ‘Good Bay’ in Portuguese.

The British East India Company got their hands on the islands in 1661, when the islands were given to King Charles II as a dowry for his marriage to Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza.

Bombay’s early population mostly comprised Koli fisherfolk, East India Company officials and migrants from Gujarat who set up shop to service the outpost. Among these migrants were an émigré community of Iranian Zoroastrians known as Parsis who were to become a decisive commercial and political force in Bombay’s develoment.

The city’s main activity was as an import-export hub: diamonds, tea, paper, porcelain, raw silk, calicoes, pepper, herbs and drugs sailed out to Britain and lead, quicksilver, woolen garments, hardware and bullion sailed in. The city was also notoriously part of the opium trade network that the British Company Officials had developed all over Asia.

Bombay’s status was boosted by an increase in cotton trade with China from 1770 onwards, an exchange that continued over the next century.

During this period, the city saw a continuous migration of traders from Surat which further energized the economy. In the subsequent years, the islands began to attract many Gujarati traders (both Hindu and Muslim), including Parsi ship-builders from the mainland. Most people lived in and around a fort at the heart of the colony, originally built by the Portuguese and further developed by the British. Known as Bombay Castle it was essentially a walled township in the area of the city today known as Fort. As it became crowded and often prone to disease, richer inhabitants, including the Parsis, began to move out to new townships beyond the walled city, building bungalows and mansions in Byculla, Mazagaon and Malabar Hill.

From the nineteenth century onwards, a sizeable middle class population emerged that created a huge demand for newspapers, schools and colleges. Both the new media and colleges were largely patronized by children of Gujarati merchants and traders, the indigenous Christian populations created by the Portuguese and the local Maharshtrian communities. Middle-class suburbs sprung up in the new neighbourhoods of Kalbadevi, Girgaum, Gowalia Tank, Mohammad Ali Road, Thakurdwar and Walkeshwar.

By the middle of the ninteenth century, the basis of a modern city had been created with land measuring 170 square miles – a landscape of fields, coconut groves and outsize colonial structures, of cosmopolitan enclaves and sleepy villages.

It was in the 1860s that the British began a systematic programme of architecture that was about announcing to the natives that they were here to stay.

Thus they began some Titanic building. Victoria Terminus, the Prince of Wales Museum, Rajabai Towers, Bombay University, the General Post Office, the Old Customs House, Elphinstone College, the Public Works Department Building—all were begun in the 1860s. And despite all the problems dogging the city it began to be described in typical colonial hyperbole as the first city in India, urbs prima in Indis.

Cotton now dominated trade through Bombay. Raw cotton from Gujarat was shipped to Lancashire in Britain, processed into cloth and then shipped back via Bombay to be resold in the Indian market.

By 1870, around 13 mills were in operation in the city. The shipping of raw cotton was still the main engine of the city’s economy, however, and was given a massive boost when the American Civil War broke out in 1861.

With the growth of the mills, Bombay’s population rapidly increased as thousands of Maharashtrians migrated to the city to work the looms. They lived in chawls that sprung up around the mills. In local parlance these neighbourhoods were often referred to by one name – Girangaon – the ‘Village of Mills’. It was a dynamic cultural space and spawned generations of writers, poets and dramatists in Marathi and Gujarati. As the city expanded, additional land was reclaimed and more roads, causeways and wharves were built.

From its early beginnings, Bombay had always been a vibrantly diverse city of Europeans and Indians from across the subcontinent. By the 19th century, lines between communities had been firmly drawn, though an uneasy tolerance persisted.

By the early twentieth century, Bombay had become quite a hot-bed of politics, especially since Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa in 1915. It was at the Mani Bhavan in Girgaum that Gandhi started mobilizing local citizens. A number of businessmen, traders, workers and professionals from the city became his votaries.

Dadasaheb Phalke made the first full length feature film Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Within seven years there was a regular film industry functioning in the country with Bombay being its main player.

After independence the city expanded beyond Mahim and Bandra – the erstwhile Portuguese areas and incorporated the region known as the ‘salsette’ into the city’s structure as we know it today. Thus the city came to include all the land up till Mankhurd, Mulund and Dahisar. Bombay remained the capital of the Bombay State that included contemporary Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The sixties saw a dynamic political scene with the communist ideology dominating the working class mill areas and influencing the city’s political fabric. Newspaper and publications proliferated in many languages. But then a splinter of the Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan (a movement demanding the seperation of Maharashtra from Gujarat) metamorphosized into a nativist movement – the Shiv Sena, which influenced the politics of the city like nothing had done in a long while.

After the economic liberalization process in the country, the city has figuratively transformed itself into a global city, in a spirit closer to its erstwhile identity as shaped by the ninteenth century. However, its villages have been degraded into large slum neighbourhoods in which the poor struggle to live. The middle-classes have been squeezed into tiny apratments in far-flung suburbs and the privileged live in its new luxury complexes.

(extracted from a text written by Jerry Pinto and Rahul Srvivastava for a forthcoming book for young adults).