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  • Refiguring the Colonial CityRecovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854–1918
  • Preeti Chopra (bio)

To understand the major role local inhabitants play in making a colonial city, we must learn to recognize the many ways that they presented themselves and also acknowledge the processes by which their contributions were obscured. This article takes up this general challenge by focusing on colonial Bombay from 1854 to 1918. It shows that what was at stake was not only the varied processes of building, including obviously Western stylistic influences on local architecture, but that the colonial government had the power to selectively read the cultural landscapes created by local inhabitants, rendering the landscapes of the latter as potentially inconsequential. Although other factors and players were important in shaping the city, in this article I will look at vernacular architecture and urbanism to focus on the role of the local inhabitants in the construction of colonial Bombay.1

Colonial Bombay was the product of the fragmentation of two modes of urbanism: the colonial and the local. In this article I will first highlight the impact of the colonial government's selective reading of the local landscape by focusing on the neighborhood of the Memon community. I then argue that, in contrast to the architectural regularity seen in colonial buildings, the coherence of "native urbanism" lay in the specific activity that took place in the space and in the community that dominated it. Following this, I suggest that the process of transculturation might be useful in helping us understand the Western influences on local architecture. I conclude by showing that only by taking vernacular architecture and urbanism into consideration can we refigure the colonial city, allowing us to see that it was not simply the product of the colonial regime but the result of varied processes of making and imagining the city.

Selective Reading of Local Cultural Landscapes

The British Crown acquired Bombay in 1661 as part of the matrimonial and military alliance concluded between Britain and Portugal. However, Bombay's real transformation took place after 1668 when it was transferred to the East India Company for an annual rental fee of ten pounds, as Charles II found it too expensive to govern. Under the East India Company these islands off of the west coast of India were joined together and expanded by dams and reclamations over the following centuries to form the Island of Bombay. The growth of the Presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in India were a result of the East India Company's well-defined strategy of developing land bases to facilitate trade. In the case of the East India Company, the broad outlines of this policy were to use naval power in the Indian Ocean and on the coasts of India itself, combined with the building of fortified bases as well as enclaves in English factory ports. This strategy was based on the calculation that the land-based Mughal regimes did not have an effective way of repulsing a sea attack. By 1709, the Company had permanent factories at the Gulf of Gombroon and Basra, major settlements in the Presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, and another large base at Bantam or Java to oversee the spice trade.2

While the island of Bombay had been under British control since 1661, Bombay's urban development began with the construction of [End Page 109] the Fort from 1715 to 1743. The Fort formed the nucleus of colonial settlement well after the fort walls were torn down after 1862 (Figure 1). The British and Indians viewed Bombay in different ways. These alternate readings of the city had great consequences, as the colonial government had the power to read and render local cultural landscapes as inconsequential, as we shall see in the case study of the quarter of the Memon community.

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Figure 1.

Plan of the City of Bombay, 1909. The destruction of the fort walls after 1862 opened up an arena for the construction of substantial public buildings fronting the Esplanade. The native town grew up to the north of the Esplanade after 1803. From The Gazetteer of...


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pp. 109-125
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