Bounding Matharpacady on the west, Mascarenhas Road is named after Dr M. Ubaldo Mascarenhas, who hailed from Bastora village, Bardez, Goa. An Indian freedom fighter who was evicted from Goa, he later became the 19th Mayor of Mumbai (1948–49). The descendants of his family still live at 16 Matharpacady. Image courtesy: Ankita Jain

Ilhas de Bom Baim

Mazagon was one of the islands of Bombay (Ilhas de Bom Baim) acquired by Portugal from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat under the terms of the Treaty of Bassein. This treaty, signed on December 23, 1534, also granted Portuguese control of territories in Vasai, Chaul, Thane, Kalyan, Salsette, Daman, and Diu. In 1547, Viceroy João de Castro appointed Antonio Pessoa as the landlord of Mazagon (and some other territories), on condition of rendering military assistance to the Governor, paying lease rent, and remitting taxes collected from the island. Lessees earned revenue from trade in fish, coconut, toddy, paddy, salt, and other products and by levying taxes on merchants who traded in the islands.

Portuguese Mazagon

At the time of the Portuguese takeover, Mazagon was known for its mangoes, which were transported all the way to the Mughal court in Delhi. The hilly island was separated from Bombay to the south and Parel to the north by shallow creeks. Worli lay to its west, separated by the Great Breach and low-lying swamps that flooded during high tide. To protect the island from sea raids, the Portuguese built a small fort atop Mazagon Hill, overlooking the harbour. In the 19th century, many hills on the islands were razed to quarry rocks; only Mazagon Hill has survived. The British demolished the Portuguese-era fort, and constructed an underground tank and a public garden in its place, named after Kaka Baptista, a prominent leader of the East Indian community.

Origin of the Name

Named after the fishing settlement, Machch-gao, the Portuguese gave the island the name Mazaguao. Dr John Fryer, an East India Company surgeon who visited this area in 1672–81, wrote that Koli fishermen used canoes to paddle around the shallow creeks in search of bombil. He mentioned Massegoung, a major fishing town known for its bombil (Bombay Duck), a staple diet of the locals.

Native Population

Though the islands lacked an urban core, Koliwadas (Koli villages) dotted the coastline. The local population consisted of a mix of castes and communities, both native and migrants. Among the early migrants were Pathare Prabhus, Panchkalshis, and Palshikar Brahmins, among other groups, who had arrived in the 13th century when Raja Bhimdev established his capital at Mahikawati (Mahim). Groups engaged in traditional occupations were the Kolis (fishing), Bhandaris (toddy tappers), Kunbis and Agris (paddy cultivators), Mitha Agris (saltpan workers), and Kumbhars (potters).

The East Indian Community

Franciscan, Jesuit, and Dominican missionaries worked with the colonial authorities throughout Portuguese rule, facilitating the administration of recently conquered lands through religious conversions. When Portuguese and Indians married and had children, a new order of Roman Catholics was added to the social mix. To set themselves apart from Catholics of non-Portuguese descent, they designated themselves as East Indians in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The missionaries were only partially effective though, and a sizable portion of the local populace continued to be non-Christian. Kolis, who didn’t convert, followed their traditional beliefs and practices. Kolis and East Indians are among the oldest communities living in Mazagon, which over the centuries, has seen plenty of inward and outward migration.

The British East India Company

On January 23, 1661, the English Crown acquired Bombay under the provisions of the Marriage Treaty signed between England and Portugal. The alliance was part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, when she married King Charles II of England. Unwilling to govern the remote islands, the English Crown leased the islands to the British East India Company (BEIC) in 1668 for a yearly rent of 10 pounds.

However, Mazagon was not part of the Marriage Treaty. Alvares Peres De Tavora, the Portuguese landlord at the time, retained the island by paying a quit rent to the BEIC and rendering military service to the governor. This arrangement lasted till the 18th century when Tavora’s descendants sold the estate to BEIC. The lease of Mazagon as a single large estate expired on May 11, 1768. Thereafter, it was divided and leased to individuals as smaller holdings. Over time, Mazagon ceased to be an island, as it was physically and administratively integrated within the Bombay Presidency.

Having secured a foothold on India’s west coast, the BEIC shifted operations from Surat to Mumbai. The first governor of Bombay, Gerald Aungier, was responsible for the initial growth of the city. Aungier fortified Bombay Castle, set up a town within its walls, and guaranteed freedom of religion and the right to own property for the native population. To maintain harmony, he set up panchayats based on each community to empower self-governance. Attracted by religious freedom and business opportunities, mercantile communities from various regions of India migrated to Mumbai.

The Wadia Family

BEIC identified Mumbai’s strategic advantage as a harbour. In a letter dated December 15, 1673, Gerald Aungier wrote, ‘The island is happy in several bays and havens for shipping, for their security against the violence of the sea and weather, as also in docks to haul them ashore, to clean and repair them, together with very convenient places to build and launch ships and vessels from 400 to 40 tons burden. By the end of 1673, BEIC had constructed a full-fledged dockyard at Mazagon. For the next century, ships up to 200 tons were anchored and hauled ashore for cleaning and repair at Mazagon.

A large number of Parsis had migrated to Mumbai, and they were the early entrepreneurs, willing to invest capital in new technologies and explore foreign markets. In 1736, Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia, an early patriarch of the Wadia family of shipwrights and naval architects, secured contracts from the BEIC to build ships and develop docks in Mumbai. The Wadia family had already established shipbuilding yards in Surat, from where they brought their expertise to Mumbai. In 1774, the Mazagon Dockyard was established under the supervision of master shipbuilders of the Wadia family.

Shipbuilding at Mazagon

Mazagon Dockyard became one of the leading shipbuilding and repair facilities in India, contributing significantly to the British Royal Navy and the East India Company fleet. Rustomee Maneckji was the first Wadia master shipbuilder to work at Mazagon Dock. He designed the 800-tonne Thomas Grenville, launched in 1808. To overcome the size limitations of the dry docks, a slipway was used to build and launch Thomas Grenville. Another ship built on the slipway was the 866-ton Sir Charles Malcolm, launched in 1828. By the early 19th century, Mazagon was building warships for the East India Company. Sphinx, displacing 235 tonnes and carrying 12 guns, was launched on January 25, 1815. Another warship, the Cameleon, built to the same plan, was launched on January 6, 1816. The first Royal Navy warship constructed outside Britain, the 74-gun Ganges-class HMS Minden, was designed by Lovji Wadia's son, Jamsetjee Bomanjee Wadia, and launched on June 19, 1810.

Age of Steamships

Mumbai was an early beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution, which started in Britain around the 1760s and quickly spread across Europe. Among the important inventions of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine. The development of powerful steam engines and improvements in ship design enabled the construction of ocean-going steamships capable of long-distance voyages. Steamships were faster and more reliable than sail ships, which negated any dependence on seasonal trade winds. As steamships became more efficient and reliable, it gradually brought an end to the Age of Sail.

The first steamship built at the Bombay docks was the 400-ton Hugh Lindsey, designed by Nowrojee Jamsetjee Wadia. Fitted with two 80 HP engines that arrived from London, the Hugh Lindsey started her maiden voyage on March 20, 1830, and reached Suez after 21 days, travelling at an average speed of six knots with coaling halts at Aden and Jeddah.

Inspired by the success of Hugh Lindsey, Ardaseer Cursetjee, a descendant of Lovji Nusserwanjee Wadia, imported a 10 HP steam engine from England and fitted it on the Indus, which was launched on August 16, 1833. Indus was the first steamship built at Mazagon Dock. Ardaseer Cursetjee was promoted to the BEIC steam factory and foundry in Mumbai as its chief engineer on April 1, 1841. On February 16, 1851, Ardaseer Cursetjee launched the 80-tonne steamer Lowjee Family at Mazagon Dock in honour of his shipbuilding family.

The Opium Trade

By the late 17th century, the BEIC was involved in the opium trade, exporting opium from British-controlled India to China. After a ban on opium imposed by the Chinese Emperor Daoguang, Britain sent troops equipped with advanced warships to bombard Chinese ports, resulting in the First Opium War (1839–1842). In 1842, the ruling Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty included provisions such as the cession of Hong Kong to Britain, the opening of five Chinese ports for trade, and the payment of indemnities to Britain. This gave Indian merchants access to Chinese ports, and the lucrative opium trade resulted in a shipping boom at Mazagon.

To cater to ships for Indian merchants, in 1835, the Mughal dry dock was built adjacent to Mazagon Dock. Here, the 350-ton Mary Gordon, was built in 1839 for Furdonji Limji. Other ships built at the Mughal dry dock were the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy in 1848, for Jeejeebhoy Dadabhoy and Sons, and the Mountstuart Elphinstone in 1854, for Cowasji Jahangir Readymoney. Even foreigners, like the Imam of Muscat, placed orders for ships, which were built at the Mughal Dock, like the 750-ton frigate Queen Victoria, launched in October 1839. This ship was designed by Dhunjibhoy Rustomjee (son of Rustomee Maneckji). Impressed by the Queen Victoria, the Imam of Muscat ordered another ship, a sloop-of-war named England, which was launched from the Mughal dry dock on November 1, 1841.

The Royal Mail Service

The Royal Mail service between India and England evolved over time, adapting to technological advancements and changes in transportation infrastructure. Towards the mid-19th century, steamships began to play a more significant role in transoceanic travel. Earlier, ships had to navigate around the southern tip of Africa, a journey that took several months. The BEIC was keen to develop a new route via the Red Sea to cut the distance between India and Europe. Ships travelling via the Mediterranean Sea disembarked their mail, cargo, and passengers at Alexandria, in Egypt, which were transferred overland to Suez, on the Gulf of Suez, which is an arm of the Red Sea. Steamships from Suez then completed the journey to Mumbai, with a coaling halt at Aden. This new route opened up easy travel to India. European tourists disembarked at Mumbai port and travelled inland via the railway network.

The Suez Canal

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 substantially reduced travel time between Europe and Asia. The Suez Canal facilitated the expansion of steamship services, as steam-powered vessels could navigate the canal more easily than sailing ships. Steamship companies, such as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), offered regular services between England and India. P&O was at the forefront of technological advancements in steamship design and navigation. P&O’s dockyard at Mazagon had a reputation for its skilled shipbuilding capacity. In the 1850s and 1860s, land reclamation projects along the eastern seaboard created space for new docks, like Prince’s Dock, Victoria Dock, and Alexandra Dock (now Indira Dock), all lying south of Mazagon Dock. By the end of the 19th century, Mumbai was one of the most important ports of the British Empire, linking Suez to Singapore and Shanghai.

Suburban Railway

Another technological wonder of the Industrial Revolution was the invention of the steam locomotive. The steam locomotive made its first journey between Bori Bunder and Thane on April 16, 1853. This line, laid over a 34-kilometre route, became the core of the Central Line, which runs between Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), the site of the old Bori Bunder station, and Kalyan. A new line, the Harbour Line, connecting the harbours on the eastern seaboard, opened on December 12, 1910. The first stretch started from Kurla, via Sewri and Wadala, and terminated at Reay Road. In 1925, the Harbour Line was extended from Reay Road to CSMT with a stop at Dockyard Road, built by carving up part of Mazagon Hill. When the Harbour Line was completed in 1925, it was the first electric line to operate in India. In 1951, the line from Kurla was further extended to Mankhurd, on the Thane Creek. Vashi, which lay across Thane Creek, was connected to the Harbour Line in 1992.

Cotton Mills

Mumbai had been a major centre for the cotton trade since the 17th century. The city's strategic location on the west coast of India made it a hub for the storage and export of cotton. The Industrial Revolution resulted in new methods of mass production, giving rise to factories producing textiles. Cotton mills in Mumbai adopted the latest textile machinery and technology imported from Britain, including spinning frames, power looms, and other mechanized equipment. In 1854, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company was established by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar, and the first cotton mill was established at Tardeo with machinery imported from England. As the number of mills increased, it transformed Mumbai's landscape with the construction of large factory complexes, warehouses, and worker housing in areas such as Parel, Byculla, and Girgaon (the mill district).

Influx of Migrants

The Indian Railway network penetrated to the interiors, connecting suburban areas to the major cities, and facilitating the transportation of goods and passengers. The improvements in transportation resulted in a large number of migrants arriving in Mumbai in search of jobs. Rural areas in various parts of India faced challenges such as poverty, landlessness, indebtedness, and agricultural distress. Push factors such as crop failures, famines, and socio-economic disparities compelled many rural dwellers to migrate to urban centres like Mumbai in search of livelihoods. Foreigners, like Baghdadi Jews, migrated to Mumbai to escape religious persecution in their homelands. Migrants also arrived from far-flung British colonies, like the Chinese, who came from Canton in southern China and established a Chinatown in Mazagon. Labour migration contributed to the cultural and social diversity of Mumbai, with migrants bringing their languages, traditions, and customs to the city.

Modern Mazagon

Mazagon’s proximity to the sea has historically made it an important area for trade, shipping, and naval activities. Mazagon is home to the historic Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL), one of India's leading shipyards, and its Koliwada is among the oldest in Mumbai. Apart from the shipbuilding industry, Mazagon is an important transport hub, which facilitates the movement of workers and migrants. It is home to a mix of communities, including Parsis, Muslims, East Indian Catholics, and others, contributing to its cosmopolitan mood. Several architectural landmarks and heritage buildings reflect its colonial and industrial past. These include old warehouses, bungalows, chawls, markets, public spaces, religious structures, and residential units built by diverse communities. Overall, Mazagon's unique blend of naval heritage, industrial legacy, cultural diversity, and coastal location makes it a distinctive part of Mumbai's maritime history and urban landscape.

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