To anyone impatiently waiting for the Mumbai local at Dadar station, frantically shouldering their way through a crowd at the Gateway of India, or zipping through the gullies of Dharavi in a rickshaw, it is clear that the city of Mumbai is overflowing. On the Western shore, high-rise buildings scrape the sky while the factories on the Eastern shore puff smoke into it. Whether at a bazaar, port, or station, either along the west or east coast, either in the city-centre or suburb, Mumbai chants – Move!

But we need to stop (something rare for a Mumbaikar), so we can ask, where did this movement begin? The story of Mumbai goes beyond even the BEST busses or kali peelis. It began when the city was not the city of ‘Mumbai’ at all. It begins when Mumbai was seven marshy unconnected islands called Bombay, inhabited by agricultural and fishing communities. When, instead of the Bandra Worli sea link, inhabitants used boats to stay connected with each other. When instead of chanting ‘move!’, the islands listened to the soft sea breeze blowing through the mangrove forests.

In 1661, the meagre population of Bombay was unaware that a royal match was being made in Europe that would change their fate forever. When the King of Britain Charles II first met the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, it is rumoured that he said, “My God! They have brought me a bat” (primarily it was heard, because of her hairstyle) . It is perhaps for this reason that the British crown received the largest dowry the world had ever seen. The seven islands of Bombay were part of this dowry that sealed the marriage between the two monarchs. 

The community of Bombay was quite unconcerned as the city was tossed around between European crowns. The East India Company, however, was always aware of the true potential of the well-sheltered port city of Bombay. Underplaying its worth to the British crown, the company managed to rent all seven islands from the British crown for only ten pounds a year! Charles II only urged that the Company make Bombay represent the promise of equal opportunity so that tolerance would become the hallmark of the city.

Enter General Aungier, of the East India Company, and he declared that he would raise “a city which by God’s assistance is intended to be built”. The money-making agenda of the East India Company is not unknown to anyone familiar with Indian history. Thus, as usual, hungry for the resources of India, Aungier began evaluating the potential of Bombay.

While the islands showed great promise, 1/3 of its primary commodity – land, was drowned daily by the high tide. Confident that he could reclaim the overflown land, Aungier began to make arrangements. Three areas were identified as appropriate places to begin the land reclamation – Mahim, Worli and Dharavi. If barriers were created at specific narrow points in these areas, the tide could be kept out and the drowned land could become useful. Unfortunately, after the inspection was complete a few years later, he realised the task was more expensive and difficult than he had imagined. The project was postponed.

In the year 1771, against the advice of his superiors, Governor William Hornby took up the land reclamation challenge again. On his orders, the narrow points in Mahim, Worli and Dharavi were filled repeatedly with rocks and stones. Despite these continuous efforts, the sea kept sweeping through the barriers into the areas between the islands of Bombay.
During this time, a government contractor named Ramji Shivaji was working on these reclamations. On one night, when a particularly strong Arabian sea tide had furiously destroyed the barriers, he had a dream. In this dream, the goddesses Mahalaxmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati came to him and told him a secret. They said, when Sultan Mubarak Shah’s men captured Bombay many years ago, the goddesses hid in the Kshirsagar creek. Rumour has it that Ramji Shivaji rescued the idols of these goddesses from the creek and installed Mahalaxmi in a temple. To show their thanks, the goddesses showered their blessings on the city. The next attempt to build the seawall was successful. The seawall protected Bombay against the sea, uniting the islands and changing the city’s fate forever. Mahalaxmi’s temple stands protectively on the Mumbai shore to this day.

Having been fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, Bombay still lacked a few pieces before it could really flourish.

The first piece was an Act passed by the British government in 1813 that withdrew the East India Company’s monopoly on trade. After this, anyone had the freedom to trade in Bombay, not just the East India Company. This led to more trading businesses being opened, many of them owned by Indians.

Bombay was still, however, separated from central India by Peshwa territories. Traders travelling into the hinterland of the country were never guaranteed safe passage. Fearing for their lives and loss of goods, many did not want to make the journey. This changed in 1818 when the East India Company defeated the Marathas in the Third Anglo-Maratha war and conquered the Peshwa territory. Bombay was now open to India by land. Roads through the Western Ghats were also constructed later, which encouraged many traders to make the journey they once feared.

In 1853 another iconic element was introduced to the city. On the afternoon of 16th April, a steam locomotive puffed its way out of the station at Bori Bunder. It was a day of celebration and spectacle as the whole city was given a holiday to witness history in the making.

These pieces, having finally fallen into place, allowed the city to finally take on its title of the ‘City of Dreams’. Although Ramji Shivaji’s dream is vital to the formation of the physical landscape of Bombay, it is not the reason Bombay gained its title.

The Story of Bombayite – Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, much better explains the origins of this title.  

Jejeebhoy came to Bombay as a poor boy, after his father died young in Gujarat. His first job in Bombay was selling empty liquor bottles for his uncle. At the young age of 20, he began making trading trips to China with his family. On these trips, he built vital connections that he put to use when he started his own company with partners from the Jain, Muslim and Goan-Catholic communities. Selling opium, the company made Jejeebhoy one of the richest men in the country. JJ School of Art, JJ Hospital and JJ Flyover are tokens to remember the 2.5 million rupees he spent on charity and public infrastructure. The Chinese opium trade through Bombay is something we like to forget but remains an important part of the city’s growth. Many mills were funded and run by the opium trade profits and his multi-community partnership is an important reminder of Bombay’s unity in the name of profit. His story is one of the first rags-to-riches stories that became central to Bombay’s title of the ‘City of Dreams’.

In 1854 an important structure was built. In it, one could find enormous machines spinning and whirring constantly that did not require men to operate. These machines could produce, in one day, what would take a man 50 years. It was the first mill in Mumbai and was called the ‘Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company.. Motivated by its success, other mills were also opened rapidly.

On the other side of the world, in 1861, America was fighting a civil war. Because of the war, the plantations in the southern states stopped producing cotton to feed their mills. India stepped in to fill the gap left by America. Bombay, with its growing mills, excellent connection to the rest of India’s cotton plantations, and efficient port, exported great amounts of cotton to Britain. Indian cotton exports jumped from 16 crores to 40 crores in 5 years.

In 1892 Bombay had 68 mills that employed 65087 workers. The mill area in Bombay was unofficially titled Girangaon – the village of mills.

Looking back on this story of how Bombay began, we find so much evidence in the city around us. The Mahalaxmi temple reminds us of the land reclamation efforts. The remnants of the mangroves along the coast remind us of the creeks that once occupied the space between the original islands. The Worli koliwada visible from the sea link reminds us of the original inhabitants of the city.

Even the spirit of Bombay which began as early as the 1600s is not lost. Charles II’s wish for Bombay to become a space for all communities is still alive as commerce carries on today in Mumbai between different communities. Even Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy’s rags-to-riches story is still relevant as people continue to throng to Mumbai looking to become part of the city’s growth story, and secure for themselves a brighter future and better livelihood. 

The story of Bombay is far from over. Its current citizens are very much still a part of it. So, it is important to remember where the city came from so that we can be responsible for where it is heading. What is it that we need to do so that we can continue to call Mumbai the ‘City of Dreams’?
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