The Need for Docks in Bombay in the Nineteenth Century

By Janhavi Lokegaonkar, Research Associate, Maritime History Society

As we study the history of Bombay, we realise how important it is to have an interdisciplinary approach. There are many reasons that have shaped the city that we see today. It is important to assess the importance of the role of maritime trade and economy in addition to the Indian and International political affairs that the city bears witness to.

Noted scholar Prashant Kidambi in his book titled ‘The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay 1890-1920’ has alluded Bombay’s growing commercial significance and its flourishing economy as a result of its increased ‘internal and international communication’ and improvement in the trade network communication that had increased at an alarming rate. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 came as a boon for the Indian economy. Bombay’s fortunes doubled during this period. The mills and industries at Lancashire were forced to turn to the Indian markets for the supply of cotton that ultimately resulted in a massive economic growth of India, particularly the fortunes of the city of Bombay which quadrupled in a short span of time.

The need for better docking and banking facilities at such a juncture is self-
explanatory. The undertaking of construction for new dock building and related facilities was deemed necessary and beneficial for improving the efficiency of the maritime trade and commerce. But the Cotton Boom was eventually busted with the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Gillian Tindall in her book, ‘City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay’ mentions this as a ‘financial bubble.’ 2 As things normalised in America, post-Civil War, Britain reinstated their trade with America by importing their cotton that triggered a financial slack ruining some of the biggest names in Bombay’s commercial world of stakeholders who had invested in many ventures.

Another aspect for increase in the improvement in the maritime arena was the opening of the Suez Canal which was of utmost importance and had wider implications. Post the busting of this Cotton Boom, the city recovered fairly rapidly. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the distance to London was halved, thus, making Bombay’s port facilities a much more viable for exporters. Prashant Kidambi writes that the continued improvements in internal communications, especially the rapid expansion of the rail network, served to widen the island’s access to an ever-widening regional hinterland.

With improved road connectivity, coming of the railways, increasing shipping activities, better connectivity through improved telegraph and postal services, a profound impact on Bombay’s fortune and destiny can be noticed. The development of Bombay’s economy and trading activities was largely mounting due to the aforementioned parameters. Thus, there was a need to form a governing body to administer the affairs at the Bombay Port. This was felt necessary due to increase in trading activities along with the growth of monopoly acquired by private companies of the landing and shipping facilities of the Port. Thus, under ‘The Bombay Port Trust Act of 1873’ the Bombay Port Trust was established which provided for the creation of a corporation under the name and style of the Trustees of the Port of Bombay.

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