Unlike the other cities in India, which grew around sacred sites or trading routes, Mumbai is a colonial creation built by british to serve British mercantile interests. The long history of islands before they became the headquarters of the East India company, was merely a prologue to main drama that was to unfold.

7 islands of Bombay

Before its colonial incarnation, the seven islands of Bombay were home to Koli fisherfolk who migrated from Gujarat. Their shanties still occupy parts of the city's shoreline today. In the 2nd century BC the nearby island of Salsette was occupied by the Buddhist Satvahanas who began construction of Kanheri Caves. The seven islands-Mahim, Worli, Parel, Mazagaon, Old Woman's Island, Colaba and Bombay Island itself were known as Heptanesia to the Romans, and Pliny and Ptolemy recorded Roman and Persian trade with ports in the vicinity.

The Portuguese Era

Portuguese activity was concentrated in Bassein where they built an impressive settlement that administered the nearby islands of Bombay. The islands were divided between the Jesuit and Franciscan orders who fervently went about the business of converting the populace to Roman Catholicism by building churches, destroying temples and establishing schools. The targets of their attention were a few thousand Koli fisherfolk, Bhandari today tappers, Pathare Prabhu traders and Kunbi rice farmers.

East India Company

It's likely that Bombay would have languished as a swampy outpost if it hadn't been for the vision of Governor Gerald Aungier, who tried to persuade the East India Company to move its headquarters to Bombay. The advantages of Bombay over Surat lay in its sheltered harbour and the relative security of its island setting, which Aungier thought impregnable if properly secured. Failing to convince his directors he moved to Bombay himself in 1672 and set up a home in Bombay Castle, the fortified residence built partial out of Garcia da Orta's manor house. He then confidently went about laying the groundwork for 'the city, which by God's assistance is intended to be built'.

Precarious Years

Bombay's future looked precarious for several decades but things improved when Governor Boone finished construction of the Fort in 1716, lowered customs duties and abolished taxes on essential items in a bid to kick-start trade. He also improved the sea walls, protecting low-Iying land from flooding, and cleaned up the shifty business practices of many Company freeloaders. Boone proved that economic success was dependent on security, strength and effective government as much as on wheeling and dealing.

Growth the City

Throughout much of the 18th century bombay was divorced from the main events of imperial policy in India. Hemmed in by the Marathas, whose capital was just over the Western Ghats in Pune, Bombay operated as an isolated entrepot. Its vulnerability was underlined when the Marathas stormed Bassein in 1739, effectively ending Portuguese power plays in the region. Fearing attack, the Esplanade was cleared of all encumbrances in 1772 to provide a clear line of fire from the fort walls to the Arabian Sea.

20th Century Bombay

Despite the public health concerns and the Dickensian living conditions of many mill workers, the city remained buoyant. The Taj Mahal Hotel was built in 1903, the year plague finally disappeared. King George V visited Mumbai in 1911 amid much pomp and ceremony, and the first Indian feature film was released in 1913. The Back Bay reclamation scheme was announced in 1921, which would eventually reshape the city's ocean shoreline, and three years later the Gateway of India graced its harbour to commemorate King George's 1911 visit. The Gateway was an anachronistic gesture for the city had already experienced its first anti-British riots. Gandhi had become a frequent visitor to Bombay and calls for independence were increasing.

The City Divided

At Independence, Bombay became the capital of the bilingual Bombay State which encompassed a huge area of western India. Pressure to redraw the state boundaries on linguistic lines led to tension between Bombay's Marathi and Gujarati-speaking communities and violence in 1955 claimed 106 lives. There was some debate about Bombay becoming a separate Union Territory to preserve its cosmopolitan character until the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (SMS), a multiparty alliance which aimed to create a Marathi-speaking state, won control of the Bombay Municipal Council (BMC) in 1957. It claimed Bombay as the capital of Maharashtra and tensions between Gujarati and Marathi speakers in the city rose and flared into violence.

The city of Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai in January 1996. Many locals are clearly in favour of the name change since it has been part of the democratically elected Shiv Sena's agenda for decades. They believe the new name reclaims the city's heritage and signifies its emergence from a colonial past. Others see the change as an assertion of Maratha identity (Mumbai is the Marathi name for the city) that is inappropriate in a city that is home to people from all over India.

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