Monday, March 3, 2008


We all know Mumbai, the financial nerve centre of India was erstwhile Victorian city, yet do not know how incredible was its beginning. Mumbai’s origin can be traced a specific location to a modest Manor house, which was built by a Jewish-Portuguese physician and botanist Garcia de Orta. Born in 1501, Gracia’s parents were Spanish Jews. They had been forcibly converted to Chrstianity in 1497.

Garcia studied medicine, arts and philosophy at the Universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca in Spain. After graduation he returned to Portugal in 1523, two years after his father's death. Due to the fear of the increasing power of the Inquisition, and fortunately evading the ban on emigration of New Christians, he sailed for India in 1534 as Chief Physician aboard the fleet of the Viceroy Martim Afonso de Sousa. He travelled with the Viceroy on various campaigns, then, in 1538, settled at Goa, where he soon had a prominent medical practice. He was physician to Burhan Shah I of the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Ahmadnagar, and concurrently to several successive Portuguese Viceroys and governors of Goa: one of these granted him a lease of the island of Bombay.

The island was known Bom bahia, the good way and was surrounded by a spaciaous garden that perhaps served as a botanical laboratory for his research. The Manor House was probably built by Garcia. The large H-shaped island of Bombaim formed one of the eight administrative divisions of the Portuguese capital at Bassein or Vasai. The Portuguese called Bombay ‘A ilha da boa vida’ – the island of good life. It was on this island that Garcia Da Orta built his Manor House amidst a few thatched huts and mud flats.

In 1661, Arab marauders partially destroyed the house, leaving only the walls intact. In the same year, the King of Portugal gifted the islands to King Charles II of England when he married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The Portuguese authorities in India, however, refused to deliver the islands of Salsette, Mazagaon, Varli and Parel, which the English claimed as part of the marriage treaty.

The evidence of the marriage treaty was the dowry map, in which it was mentioned that ‘the English King was to receive the port and island of Bombay in the East Indies, with all the rights, territories, and appurtenances whatsoever there unto belonging; and together with the income and revenue, the direct, full and obsolute domination and soverginity of the said port, island and premises’.

The map was put on display at the home of the Earl of Southampton, when the Privy Council sat there, but then it seems to have disappeared. As the struggle with the Portuguese continued there was a diligent search for this important document, but no trace of it could be found. It may well have been pasted on cloth, perhaps put into a frame, and then taken home by one of the clerks when it no longer seemed to be useful.

In the maentime, the Council of Plantations, one of the new bureaucratic organisations set up to handle the growing English possessions abroad, tried to sort out the problems of Bombay. One of the most active on the Council was William Blathwayt, and when he retired from office many years later, he took home with him an atlas of maps acquired by the Council, which appeared to be out-of-date. As a result of this we have a large of Bombay dating from not later than 1685. It was perhaps the exact copy of the original Portuguese map, with some addition and corrections.

Anoter interesting map had been drawn by Antonio Bocarro, bound in Pedro Baretto de Rescende’s ‘Historical and Topograpical account of the Portuguese settlements in the East Indies’, Pavia, 1646. In this map we see that Portuguese were better established on the island of Caranja (right) than on Bombay itself, shown on the left, with part of Salsette above. Possibly this is why they were prepared to offer Bombay to the English, hoping to maintain control of the harbour from their forts on Caranja and at Bassein.