Friday, June 17, 2011

Bombay as Dowry

Although the British ruled most of the Indian subcontinent, other European powers had small holdings. But what most people don't know is that Bombay started off as a Portuguese colony. In fact, the seven islands were named Bom Bahia ('the Good Bay') by the Portuguese, which was later corrupted into Bombay.

Once the Portuguese came to India, they began converting the local population to Christianity. Their targets included Bombay, Goa, Daman and Dui. However, as we recall, Bombay was controlled by the Islamic ruler of Gujarat. naturally, tensions flared. However, the Gujarat Sultanate was under pressure from the Mughals in the North as well. Finally, to ease some of the pressure, the Gujarat ruler signed the Treaty of Bassein and the Bombay islands were ceded to the Portuguese.

Little changed for most of the islands. Apart from a few churches such as St. Andrew's Church, the Portuguese made nothing but forts. However, the British East India Company had established a foothold in Calcutta and were looking for a strategic port on the West Coast, but how could they obtain Bombay? The British were unable to militarily take the islands, but finally, the marriage between Charles II of England and Princess Catherine of Portugal saw Bombay falling into British hands. The King swiftly handed over the islands to the Company, who went about establishing the mightiest port this part of the world had ever seen.

It was the second Governor of Bomaby, Gerald Aungier, who went about developing the city as a commercial hub. He gave several incentives to businessmen from Gujarat, Sindh and other parts to come to the islands. He met with tremendous response and Bombay grew. By 1700, the Company had shifted all its centres in Surat to Bombay and the city became the most powerful possession of the Company after Calcutta. Over the next century, the city grew commercially and its population swelled. But the British were just getting started.

At this time however, the Maratha Confederacy was in power in the region and the Company had to skilfully negotiate with the powerful Marathas. Then, in 1782, William Hornby became Governor of Bombay and Horby Vellard Project to reclaim land from the sea and convert the seven dispersed islands into one large, all-powerful landmass. Within a few years, the work had been done: the seven sisters had been united and the sea had to make way. The modern city of Bombay had been created.

Simultaneously, the British sided with the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was facing a Maratha onslaught, and ended up defeating the Marathas in the Deccan. With the fall of the Marathas and the previous annexation of Gujarat, Bombay faced no further danger from her neighbours. This sense of safety remained with residents of the islands, who were awakened only by the riots of 1993 to the reality that Bombay was still very much a part of India.

Next: The American Civil War and India

No comments: