The Great Mumbai Fire of 1803: Have we Learnt Anything?

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Across millennia, cities have risen and fallen. They have been sacked by invaders, crushed by natural calamities and have simply imploded due to the overindulgence of men. It is the latter reason that turned the fledgling city of Bombay into a tinderbox in the early 19th century, quite literally sending it up in flames. The disaster has gone down in history as the Great Fire of 1803.

This contemporary print (seen above), in the British Library shows what the fire looked like from across the bay, from Malabar Hill.

How did this manmade calamity transform Bombay, and what lessons have we learnt, if any?

Swamp to City

The original islands | TIFR
The original islands | TIFR

In the first decade of the 19th century, what later became the great metropolis of Bombay was still evolving from a swampy group of seven islands into a new urban centre. In fact, the seven islands were still being sewn together to form the island city of Bombay, a process that was completed decades later.

Bombay Castle | British Library
Bombay Castle | British Library

The Great Fire broke out in what is now referred to as the ‘Fort’ area in South Mumbai, the core around which the colonial British developed the new city. The British East India Company had acquired the seven islands of Bombay from the Portuguese as a part of a marriage treaty, and they turned it into a trading port. The epicentre of this new settlement was the Bombay Castle, a fortified area created by building walls from Dongri in the north to Colaba in the south, around this nucleus.

From Surat to Bombay

Surat in 1690 | Wikimedia Commons
Surat in 1690 | Wikimedia Commons

Till the late 18th century, the port of Surat had been the main trading hub in Western India but the collapse of the Mughal Empire and inland trade made it unsafe for trade and commerce. So the British and prominent Indian merchants relocated to the safety of Bombay. With the focus of trade shifting, Bombay saw a massive influx of immigrants from across India and a boom in construction.

In the north (today’s Kalbadevi neighbourhood, just outside the Fort walls) of the city and in the eastern port district of the Fort, a new class of small traders, artisans and workers from other parts of Western and Central India began settling. The boom resulted in terrific congestion, and by 1794 CE, around 1,000 houses were crammed inside the Fort walls, and 6,500 just outside.

It was a disaster waiting to happen. So, on 17th February 1803, when a fire broke out in the Fort’s super-populated zone, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. Being a trading hub, the Fort was packed with bales of cotton, oil and other flammable goods stored cheek-by-jowl alongside residential areas.

The area was so congested that the fire spread quickly. Before long, three-quarters of the Fort area was in flames. The toll was staggering: 471 houses, 6 places of worship and 5 barracks were destroyed.

Recounting the Tragedy

Sadly, there are very few published accounts of the Great Fire. A report of the Bombay Government to the Court of Directors of the British East India Company, dated 22nd February 1803, states:

‘On 17th February (1803), a most alarming fire broke out in a very extensive and populous bazaar situated within this Garrison (Bombay Fort). Notwithstanding surmises and suggestions to the contrary, in our opinion there is no sufficient reason to consider it arose from any other cause than accident. The fire broke out early in the day and the wind continuing unusually high, the flame increased with astonishing rapidity. So great and violent was the conflagration that at sunset the destruction of every house in the fort was apprehended...

During the whole of the day, every effort was used to oppose its progress, but the fierceness of the fire driven rapidly on by the wind baffled all attempts; nor did it visibly abate till nearly a third part of the town within the walls had been consumed."

Fort Bombay | British Library
Fort Bombay | British Library

Even worse, not only were homes destroyed by the fire but many were battered by artillery that had been stored in the Fort precinct and that was now inadvertently set ablaze. Among the residents of the Fort who suffered heavy losses was famous businessman and philanthropist Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, who lost both his home and much wealth, a few days before his wedding!

Sukriti Issar, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sciences Po, has done extensive research on the Great Bombay Fire of 1803 and its impact on the city. Her research paper, Chronicles of Property After the Great Fire of Bombay In 1803, mentions how a newly-formed Town Committee decided to limit the height of buildings as a means to control population density. The committee offered to compensate residents who were willing to allow their homes inside the Fort to be demolished and rebuild their houses on plots of lower value outside the Fort walls. The British administration too bought sites outside the walls for the import and storage of oil, tar, ghee and other inflammable substances.

These changes began to dramatically alter the cityscape, and new areas such as Girgaon and Bhendi Bazar were developed. A causeway between Bombay and Sion was built in November 1803, which improved connectivity between the island city and the mainland to the north, also called Salsette.

Improvements in the city were noticeable just five years later, when British writer William Wilburn published his Oriental Commerce: The East India Trader's Complete Guide. Describing Bombay as he saw it, Wilburn mentions a very different city from the congested and populous town that existed earlier:

"Between the two marine gates is the castle called the Bombay Castle, a regular quadrangle, well built of strong hard stones. In one of the bastions is a large tank or reservoir for water. The fortifications are numerous, particularly towards the sea, and are so well constructed, the whole being encompassed by a broad and deep ditch, which can be flooded at pleasure, that it is now one of the strongest places that the Company have in India...

In the centre of the town is a large open space, called the Green, which in the fine weather season is covered with bales of cotton and other merchandise, entirely unprotected; around the Green are many large well built and handsome houses; the Government House and the Church, which is an extremely neat, commodious and airy building, are close to each other on the left by the Church Gate. On the right of the Church Gate is the bazaar which is very crowded and populous and where the native merchants principally reside. At its commencement stands the theatre, a neat handsome structure… Since the fire of 1803, this part of the town has been rebuilt and the whole much improved..."

Reshaping the Cityscape

Elphinstone College in the late 19th century
Elphinstone College in the late 19th century | Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, many people such as Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy, Badruddin Tayyabji and others who had been reduced to penury after the fire, rebuilt their lives and accumulated vast fortunes. With the city now developing outside the Fort walls, educational institutions like Elphinstone High School (later Elphinstone College) and the Town Hall would be established in 1822 and 1833, respectively.

Land reclamation, which had been proceeding at snail’s pace, sped up and was completed by the 1830s. In addition, a carriage road was built along the Bhor Ghat, connecting Bombay to Pune, and a quicker steamer mail service to London was established.

From the ashes of the Great Fire of 1803, the foundation was laid for Bombay to rise as a grand metropolis. Sadly, there is little or no academic research on its transition.

But how easily we forget! Over time, indeed, Mumbai grew into an international city and financial capital, and the economic opportunities it presents still draws people to it from all over India, like a magnet.

As a consequence, Mumbai’s biggest challenge continues to be its over-population and complete disregard for safety regulations. However, rather than address these issues, the political and bureaucratic establishment has allowed the city to grow beyond its means.

We have had more than 200 years to learn a simple lesson but have chosen to look the other way, begging the question: Is there another disaster around the next bend?

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