The name of the City Bombay came from the Portuguese word ‘Bom Baia’ meaning the ‘Good Bay’. In the early 16th century, the Mughals were growing powerful across India, and the Gujarat emperor handed the islands and some surrounding territory to the Portuguese, in return for protection.

The islands had nothing – no minerals, no town, nothing save a few small fishing villages. The Portuguese did nothing more than build a church in every village. They brought in the Catholic religion.

In about 1550, a Portuguese physician and botanist – Garcia da Orta – leased the large H-shaped ‘Bombay’ island for his private residence. He built himself a Manor house close to here, not far from the present Lion Gate of the dockyards. The house is now in restricted naval area.

And now, the tale gets romantic! In 1661, the Portuguese gave away the seven islands as dowry with their princess, who got married to then Prince Charles II of England. Such a hefty dowry!

The islands were now with the British crown. In 1668, the East India Company leased the islands, and started building a port here – which they needed because Surat in the North was becoming crowded and silted.

And Garcia da Orta’s mansion became the nucleus, around which Bombay took shape.

One of the first things the Englishmen did when they built their port was to build a castle, and then a fort, complete with a moat and drawbridges, around it. In 1687, they transferred their headquarters from Surat to Bombay.

Following the success of the port, the Portuguese realised the potential in these islands that they had given away, and so did the French. There were repeated attempts, but the British fought them off. By 1782, the British had extended their control to the areas north of the city, including Bassein and the Salcette Island.

In 1784, a project to amalgamate all the seven islands of Bombay into a single mass – the Hornby Vellard project was launched. It was completed by 1845, and the first train started from Bombay to Thane on the mainland, in 1851.

From useless swamps, meaningless to anybody, to the site of India’s first passenger rail, and the most ambitious civil works ever, in less than 200 years! This city has been a miracle child, from the day it was born.

Business via the port grew stupendously, and the East Company opened its doors to any who wished to trade anything at all. The city’s first important commodities were cotton and, ahem, Opium!

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, and put Bombay in easy access from Europe, and on a direct route to Southeast Asia. Now that, as they say, really set things afire. The civil works in the city got a major boost, supported greatly by the wealthy Parsi traders who were making their fortune here.

Ever since, the city has never looked back. It has always been India’s financial capital, and a major trading port.

By Abbas Muzaffar & Tanul Dilwali
 


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