Bombay before the British

August 29, 2011

August 2009/The Asian Age
From 2002, a team of researchers from the University of Lisbon and University of Coimbra have been working on an interesting project —- Bombay before the British. The project’s preliminary findings , presented recently here at a public lecture — are a fascinating glimpse into a long forgotten past of the now pulsing teaming city of Mumbai and its metropolitan area.

Mumbai’s urbanity is a mere 330 years old and is considered a creation of the British colonial empire and the East India Company’s trading needs in the region. But Portugal — once fierce colonial rivals of the British (or is it the other way around?)—- have a script to add to this rendering of history.

“The area of Bombaim was certainly not a desert when the British came in. It was a built territory, there were roads, pathways, bridges, watchtowers and habitation, fortified manor houses, besides convents and churches”, says project researcher Dr Paulo Varela Gomes. The Indo Portuguese layer in this region was often overlooked — partly due to Britain’s colonial rivalry with the Portuguese, and the fact that the Marathas conquered large areas of the Northern province back from Portugal in 1739. But 200 years (1534-1739) was a long enough time for Portugal to stamp its presence on the region.

The project Bombay before the British is all about revealing this layer. “There is a surprising amount of unpublished, forgotten or little known information about this historical reality… ruins, material traces of whole cities, parts of cities, towns (Bassein, Chaul, Tana, Bandra etc) forts and fortified manors, churches and convents, houses and villages, roads and bridges”. There’s also a historians’ treasure trove of cartography prints, engravings, drawings, photographs, manuscripts and documents from Portuguese, British, Indian and Italian archives, that the project eventually plans to collect and put online.

“We’d like eventually to open it so people can add on information to the findings”, says architectural research scholar Sidh Mendiratta.

It’s fairly well known that the isle of Bombay was handed over along with Tangiers to Britain’s Charles II by a 1661 dowry agreement when he took Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza as his bride. Bombay’s seven islands then was part of Portugal’s northern province in India — a territory it wrested by a treaty with the Sultan of Gujarat in the sixteenth century.

With its capital at the prosperous port town of Bassein, the wealth generated in the province— went into financing Portugal
s expansion plans in Japan and elsewhere.

Fewer would know though that Bombay’s transfer, signed in Lisbon, was not taken to too kindly by those running the affairs of the Estado da India, here on India’s west coast. The Portuguese Governor refused to hand over Bombay. Control was grudginly ceded, not before 1665. In some areas of Bombay, an undeclared war raged for some time between Portuguese and British forces.

Bombay castle, now inside Mumbai’s naval base, remains the best preserved remnant of that era. It was a Portuguese manor house, where the transfer of Bombaim took place in 1665.
It wasn’t made easy for the British to take over Bombay. They were told that everything outside the castle walls was privately owned. Only four of the seven islands were eventually handed over. Britain seized Parel and Mahim by force six months later, and had to purchase Colaba island from its Portuguese landowner.

In time the area was completly transformed. The research team’s attempts to find any Indo Portuguese layer in the main Bombay area proved nearly futile. “Outside of Bombay castle, precious little remains of the Portuguese era in the Bombay metropolitan area. Portuguese presence in the seven islands was almost eroded here” says Mendiratta. The fourteenth century Mahim fort still stands, built over by the British and now occupied by shanty dwellers.

Three years of on site and off site research, checking and cross checking local maps, old Portugese records, British maps, 1955 US army maps and GIS satellite imaging , gave the team an estimate of the erstwhile northern province’s 6000 sq km area. Mapping the area became crucial to the project, and came up with a larger area than previously believed to have been under Portuguese control for a while. Mendiratta says it stretched from Valsad, north of Daman down to Chaul and Revdanda in the south, eastwards to include Trombay and Uran, aorund 40 km inland in some places.

Does much remain from that era four and a half centuries later?

Mendiratta’s attempt to trace vestiges of that time came up with as many as 100 defensive structures, including fortified manor houses, convents and watchtowers strewn all over this province, many off course in ruins. Besides there are records in Portugal’s archives for some 480 villages, 85 % of which are still traceable by a process of cross verification. The team also located 90 churches and convents, only half of which are still around, albeit modified several times over, though many still bear their original names.
“In many churches, what remains of the original church are its ancient relics, statues and altars, deep inside the churches”.

Historians have off course in the past looked at the Indo-Portuguese influence in Thane, Vasai, Mount Poinsur, and the Salcette islands of Bandra, Manori, Madh and Erangal, where villages still survive in the former Portuguese pattern.

The last structure the Portuguese built was probably Thane fort, according to Mendiratta. Now a prison, nothing remains of that time, except the ramparts — as it changed hands to the Marathas in 1739 and the British in 1774. The team made a dramatic find in the hill top Asherigad (formerly Asserim) fort, identifying it as a former Portuguese fort 50 km north of Manori, from a slab with a Portuguese coat of arms found on this site now frequented by trekkers.

Some 60 watchtowers are strewn all along the area, including further north, though a few are being destroyed in the current urbanisation. Interesting bits of information have surfaced from the study. The famous Mount Mary church in Bandra was initially built by the Portuguese in the 1620s, and a new structure extended to it later under the British. Bandra itself was the source of conflict between the two colonial powers in 1722, when the British raided Elephanta island. There’s still the accusation that the British located a slaughter house on the site of Bandra’s Santana convent, built during the Portuguese era.

An interesting find are documentation of villagers demanding compensation for the submergence of their village during the creation of Vihar lake. “Its the first documented case of a mission village with a communal system of land ownership as in South America, and the priest was seeking compensation for the villagers who lost their lands” says Mendiratta.

Village histories of Kandivli, Marol and many others emerge from the study. Present day Marol is actually the relocated site, after the village was shifted from an original site, due to an epidemic.

As the layers emerge, the team’s initial conclusion is that Portugal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century presence in the area played a not so insignificant role in the region’s urbanistic expansion during the 19th and 20 th century under the British. (ends)