Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Mystery Man of Bombay

- By Deepa Krishnan

Nearly 350 years ago, the people of Bombay listened to a speech by a man they knew and respected. The speaker, Gerald Aungier, was the Governor of Bombay from 1672 to 1677 and famous for his impartial dealings with both 'natives' and foreigners. 

Mumbai in the 17th century, during Gerald Aungier's time.
It was a very small settlement then.
Very few people in Mumbai today have even heard of Gerald Aungier. But city historians call Aungier the 'Father of Bombay' because he played a major role in the formative years of the city. In fact, I would even say that he was almost single handedly responsible for kick-starting the city's emergence as a great trading centre.

Unfortunately for us, there are no portraits of Aungier, not even any descriptions of what he looked like. We do not know when he was born, or where. We do not know where he studied, or at what age he came to India. So even though he is the founding father of Bombay, he is a Mystery Man to us. 

The only clues we have about Aungier are from his letters and speeches, as well as what other contemporaries wrote about him. The speech that I read gave me my first real glimpse into Aungier's mind. It was delivered by Aungier at the inauguration of the first British Court of Justice in Bombay in 1672. 

In his speech that day, addressing himself to the newly appointed Judge, Aungier said:
"The inhabitants of this island consist of several nations and religions, English, Portuguese and other Christians, Moores and Gentoos, but you, when you sit in this seat of justice and judgment, must look upon them with one single eye as I do, without distinction of nation or religion, for they are all His Majesty's and the Hon'ble Company's subjects as the English are, and have all an equal title and right to justice."

Fine sentiments, and very relevant to the Mumbai of today, don't you think? If this speech had been made by someone else, I might think it was just fancy talk. But I have reason to believe Aungier truly meant what he said - that everyone in the city should get fair treatment under the law. To understand why, we must go back to Aungier's previous experiences in India.

Before coming to Bombay, Aungier was the Governor of Surat, the largest trading centre on the West coast at the time (in fact, the earliest written records we have on Aungier are about his days as Warehouse Keeper in Surat). The Mughals had made Surat their most important port city in Western India, and even established an Imperial mint there. Arab ships called into Surat, so did Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships. To quote the Portuguese trader Duarte Barbosa, Surat was "a city of very great trade in all classes of merchandise". Apart from its famous bazaars, Surat was also the major departure point from India for the Haj to Mecca. 
Panoramic view of Surat, 1672, a Dutch engraving
If you click on the photo, you will be able to see how large and well developed the port city is, especially when compared to Bombay.
Having lived in Surat, Aungier had dealt firsthand with the indigenous business communities of the West coast - Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Parsis. Most importantly, he had handled many political skirmishes between the Marathas and the Mughals; always making sure he stayed neutral

His experiences in Surat helped Aungier understand that a successful trading city in India needed to be multicultural and cosmopolitan No one knew better than Aungier how critical it was for the merchant communities to have peace and order, to have a working system of arbitration and justice, and to prevent religion and politics from coming in the way of business.

I found an interesting photo of some of the communities of Bombay. Although it is from the 1800's it will give you an idea of the kinds of people Aungier invited to Bombay to live and trade.
Hindu and Parsi traders doing business using the closed system of bidding, while their assisstants inspect the goods (in this case, they are inspecting lengths of cloth)
Source: The Graphic, 1870, found on ebay
When Aungier came to Bombay in 1670, he found many complaints about the Deputy Governor Captain Henry Young. He set about investigating and resolving the allegations. Dr. John Fryer, an Englishman employed as Surgeon with the East India Company says "He came and took the Government in 1671, where these three years he has regulated affairs with that prudence that whereas he found a disaffected and incongruous Council, he has now knit them into a bond of at least seeming friendship, and does daily study to advance the Company's interest and the good and safety of the people under him."

By setting up a Court and appointing a Judge, Gerald Aungier laid the foundations of the Indian legal system (in the form in which it exists today)
Bombay High Court today
Their website describes in detail, the parade and speech 
given by Gerald Aungier
But that was not all Aungier did. He grouped the people of Bombay into communities and set up Panchayats, so that each community could regulate itself. 
The BPP was formed in 1672 and
is still active today, 

see their website here
The British courts were not accessible to the common man, so by initiating these Panchayats, he not only provided access to justice to everyone in the Fort, but more importantly, he ensured that each community took responsibility to maintain good behaviour amongst its members. 

In "The Making of Bombay", author Phiroze Malabari tells us that "Aungier was the author of a series
Bombay Police
somewhere in the 1800's
of reforms" to encourage the growth of the city. This included practical things like better fortifications, the setting up of the Bhandari Militia (the origins of today's Bombay Police), settling land disputes, signing deeds so that people could come to Bombay and be free to practice their own religion, setting up a mint, building a church, hospital and constructing other public buildings. He also negotiated a treaty with Shivaji, to keep Bombay free of Maratha incursions. 

In fact, the amount of work he accomplished in his short 5-year stint in Bombay is actually incredible. During Aungier's tenure the population of the city grew from ten thousand to sixty thousand. No wonder then, that he is called the Father of Bombay.

In 1665, due to failing health, Aungier went back to Surat, but he continued to administer Bombay from there. He died in 1677 and was buried in Surat, in the same garden area where his predecessor George Oxenden as well as several other Englishmen were buried. 

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly which monument is Aungier's grave. In death, as in life, he remains a Mystery Man.
English Cemetery in Surat, photo sourced from here.
Aungier is somewhere buried in one of these grand tombs...


Ekuldom said...

Its great that the world knows of the reforms of our society. But does anyone know of the indigenous population [East Indians], Kokni tribes, Koli's, Kulbis, Kumbhars.

Unknown said...

I saw the episode of Foodie where u have shown Mr. Kunal various Pallakad /Tamil delicacies and from there i got to this blog. Must admit that you have very in-depth knowledge of Mumbai. Will continue to read your blog.

Unknown said...

I saw the episode of Foodie where u have shown him various Pallakad /Tamil delicacies and from there i got to this blog. Must admit that you have very in-depth knowledge of Mumbai. Will continue to read your blog.

Pankaj Asthaana said...

Good job!