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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese History of Mumbai

With the G20 wrapping up today in New Delhi, the world's eyes are on India. While the Portuguese history of Goa, India's smallest and also its wealthiest state*, is fairly well known, that of the country's famous commercial megalopolis, Mumbai, is often forgotten. Formerly known as Bombay, and centre of the Indian movie industry referred to as Bollywood, Mumbai has a glamorous side that is often seen through the lens of its English-speaking glitterati. However, the name Bombay used by the English comes from the Portuguese Bombaim, itself a corruption of the Marathi मुंबई (Mumbai), said to be derived from the name of the patron Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. Some historians have written that Bombaim is a Portuguese term for "good bay", i.e. bom baim or boa bahia, but this is etymologically unlikely.

Known to the ancient Greeks as Heptanesia (cluster of seven islands), Mumbai was controlled by the Sultanate of Gujarat when the Portuguese arrived in India in the late 15th century (see related post here). Less than 30 years later, the Muslim conquerer Babur invaded northern India from central Asia and established the Mughal Empire.


By this time, the Portuguese were already well entrenched in Goa. They were also active in the Gulf of Cambay more than 500 kilometres to the north, so when Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat was already unnerved by the growing power of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, the Portuguese took the opportunity to wrest control of Vasai through the Treaty of Baçaim, the Portuguese name for the village north of Mumbai.


Curiously, the treaty, signed on 23 December 1534 on board the galleon São Mateus, was facilitated by an envoy of the Ottoman Empire, and it included almost as a minor detail the seven islands of Bombay being ceded to the Portuguese. The Catholic orders started constructing churches while the military built forts, and many of these can still be visited today. These include the abandoned ruins of the St. John the Baptist Church (Igreja de São João Batista) that incongruously lies today within the SEEPZ, the Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone, and said to be one of the most haunted places in Mumbai.


After Portugal became part of the Iberian Union with Spain in 1580, other European powers started to muscle in on the trade with India. The British in particular recognized the strategic importance of Bombaim's natural harbour and its natural isolation from land attacks. Although the English and the Portuguese were bound by the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 to "perpetual friendships, unions [and] alliances" (today the world's oldest military alliance still in force), Portugal's dynastic union with Spain meant that such niceties could be set aside. In 1612, the English even engaged in the Battle of Swally in the Bay of Cambay, which the Portuguese lost.


When Portugal regained its independence in 1640, King John IV was faced with many diplomatic headaches, including being unceremoniously abandoned by the French, who had financially supported the Portuguese revolt, when Paris made peace with the Spanish with the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659. The old alliance with the British reasserted itself and King John IV married his daughter, Catherine of Braganza, off to the British King Charles II in 1661, making her Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. Aside from the introduction of tea and porcelain to the British Isles by the Portuguese princess, another point of historical importance was the fact that the British had negotiated for the Seven Islands of Bombay to be part of the dowry that she brought to Charles II. Charles II subsequently rented the islands to the East India Company, which later moved its Presidency there.


Despite attacks by the Dutch as well as Muslim forces, the company turned Bombay into the headquarters of all of its establishments in India. With the city's growth, land was gradually reclaimed and the seven islands eventually became a single peninsula attached to the mainland. Just as the geography is no longer recognizable, the city's Portuguese history has also receded in people's minds.



Note: *By GDP per capita.

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