A few days ago, a friend of mine who happens to be a Mumbaikar and I, a Surati were studying the map of Mumbai. No clue as to why and how we ended up doing it. We were marveling at the population density and the gigantic size of the city. He was explaining to me the railway lines, the different areas, the economic reasons of the growth and so on. We could not figure out as to where Mumbai really starts or ends. Thane is surely not in Mumbai, or is it? For popular usage, Kalyan and Navi Mumbai are part of Mumbai as well. Look these up on Google Maps and you will be awestruck at the size of the city.
We were then reminded of a popular saying: Mumbai is made up of seven islands, joining them by land to form the present city. We thought it would be fun to figure them out. Our list went something like this: South Mumbai, Thane, Vasai and that is it. We could not move further. We looked closer, but could not find anything more. I suggest that you try to make a list of your own. The answer will be more interesting then.
After giving up, we searched the seven islands and we were left bemused. We thought South Mumbai was one of the seven islands. Instead, South Mumbai, was the original city of Bombay, which was in turn was made of seven islands, the main island being Bombay. Incredible! Look at the image of the seven islands and what forms the bulk of Mumbai today were Salsette and Trombay. I had never even heard of them. If you start counting the small islands that were joined later on, seven would seem to be a very small number.
What is also surprising is the amount of land that has been reclaimed to join the seven islands and then with the mainlands. It is simply astounding. All this done in the 18th and 19th century. At that time, with limited technology, why do all this work? After all, what was so special about these islands? They form very good ports, yes, but there is the whole state of Gujarat. Why reclaim such amounts of land and spend so much money, when you could easily have gotten ports elsewhere?
This is what brings us to Surat. The British East India Company had their office in Surat in 1583, using it to enter India, then using it as a port and their main center. This makes sense, a ready to use city for their trading activities, just as we reasoned. Then, what is it that drove them out from Surat?
Here, geography plays its part. Surat is built on the river Tapti. During monsoons, the river would be in its full flow, making it difficult for ships to stay. Also, due to siltation, the port became unreliable for regular mainstream activity. Thus, the Britishers were on the lookout for a better port. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had control of Bombay and the nearby six islands and were using those as ports. As it turned out, they decided to give up the central island of Bombay to the Britishers in 1661. Not a big deal really. It was a very tiny island. Only a few kilometers wide and long. But that was all Britain needed.
The Britishers slowly and steadily managed to get all the islands from Portugal. By 1845, the land reclamation project was complete, in parallel to the major rails and roads work. They were on the lookout for one port and they got the chance. As Bombay kept growing, Surat kept declining. The Britishers even helped several Gujarati Surati’s migrate to Bombay, so that they could help the Britishers in their operations. Probably explains why so many people from South Mumbai are Gujaratis and rich.
The question is: Why did Portugal give up Bombay in the first place? The answer is: Dowry. Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese queen married King Charles II of Britain and Bombay was exchanged between the two as Dowry in the 17th century! And where it has led us. We were left stunned by the consequences of one marriage, one strategic alliance. The gigantic city of Mumbai today which spans close to a hundred kilometers was once a tiny stretch on the west coast of India, hardly a few kilometers long.
After struggling for long for finding such answers, we still had one unanswered question: Why did the Portuguese choose to give Bombay and not other territories they had in control? Why not Diu or Daman? One can only imagine if things had gone some other way.
History can sometimes be so entertaining. Being part of modern cities, most of us have no clue as to how these cities came about to be. Not that it is super important to know, but so much better and entertaining than the boring history we are taught.