Gerald Aungier: Founder of Bombay, City of Dreams

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    How edgy do you have to be to gaze at a group of seven small, marshy islands and visualise them as a city of dreams? Gerald Aungier may have lived in Bombay 350 years ago but he was a social reformer, a town planner and a crystal-ball gazer, all rolled into one. And it was his foresight that led to emergence of Mumbai as the great metropolis we see today.

    Aungier did this by attracting merchants across India to Bombay, and assuring them legal and political rights, along with religious freedom. He also developed a police force and robust systems of healthcare and governance. Perhaps his story offers lessons to our policy planners and political leaders of today.

    His incredible drive to build a new city based on little more than his own resolve arose from the belief that Bombay was “the city which by God's assistance is intended to be built".

    Who was Gerald Aungier?

    Gerald Aungier, an Englishman of Irish descent, arrived in Bombay in 1662 CE, as a lad of just 22. He was then a warehouse keeper in Surat, where the British had based their trading operations. Aungier was deputed to accompany Lord Marlborough to take possession of the islands of Bombay from the Portuguese. Only a year earlier, the British had won the islands as part of the marriage treaty between England’s King Charles II and Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal. The Portuguese had named the islands ‘Bom Bahia’ (‘Good Bay’).

    The next big step in the development of Bombay came in 1668 CE, when Bombay was transferred from the Crown to the British East India Company. George Oxendon was the first Governor of Bombay and he was succeeded by Aungier, President of Surat and then Governor of Bombay (1669 – 1677).

    Soon, Aungier began the mammoth task of moving his base from Surat to Bombay.

    Shifting the Company’s Headquarters

    In the 17th century CE, Surat was the third-largest city in India after Delhi and Agra, and the commercial capital of the Mughal Empire. It’s where European traders such as the English, French and Dutch had established their trading posts and managed their mercantile operations on the west coast of India.

    But political developments had made Surat increasingly unsafe and Aungier felt it was prudent that the East India Company shift base to Bombay. It was a leap of faith and Aungier took it. He gave up the luxury of Surat for the hard life of the new settlement.

    Bombay in the 1660s CE was a group of islands separated at high tide by the sea, which, when it receded, left a mass of malarious swamps. Mortality was very high among its European residents. Cholera had followed the trade route from China to Bombay, and the little European cemetery at Mendham's Point at Colaba was already overflowing.

    Fortification of Bombay Island

    Aungier strengthened the defences of Bombay. He rebuilt fortifications around the Portuguese Manor House, and the Mumbai Castle (now INS Angre in South Mumbai) became the Governor's residence. He built extensive fortifications for Bombay, from Dongri in the north to Mendham's Point in the south.

    It was just as well he did. In February 1673 CE, a Dutch fleet drew up to the shores of Bombay. The Dutch, with their eye on Bombay, sent a squadron of seven ships and 6,000 soldiers to drive out the English. As the British historian Robert Orme tells us, "Aungier exerted himself with the calmness of a philosopher and the courage of a centurion." Aungier made a display of force far greater than the reality. His disposition was so effective that the Dutch thought it prudent to retreat.

    There was also the ever-present danger from the pirates of the Malabar, who held a chain of strongholds between Bombay and Cape Comorin (now Kanyakumari). They would attack the residents of Bombay at will, plunder, burn hamlets and kill the inhabitants. Many were taken as slaves.

    Aungier did what he could against these pests, with a cruiser stationed at Bombay, light frigates in the neighbouring creeks, and a few guns over the ramparts.

    Religious Freedom & Business Communities

    In the early 1670s CE, one of the first things Aungier did to promote trade was to exempt all imported or exported goods from customs duties for five years. The next step was to attract enterprising inhabitants. Large parts of India were reeling under the hardline religious policies of Emperor Aurangzeb. It was the freedom to practice religion that made Bombay an attractive destination for many communities.

    For example, a wealthy Gujarati merchant from Diu named ‘Neema Parrack’ wanted to settle in Bombay on the condition the British East India Company would allow his community the right to practice their religion without interference. This patent, under the seal of the Company, was granted by Aungier on 22nd March 1677 CE. And this opened the door of immigration.

    Soon after, Bhimji Parak, one of Surat’s most eminent merchants, migrated to Bombay, apprehensive of the pressure to convert to Islam from the Mughal Governor of Surat. Also, 70 families of silk weavers were brought in from Chaul in Southern Konkan.

    Special incentives were given to Parsis from Navsari and Surat to settle in Bombay, to develop the shipbuilding and weaving industries. Modi Hirji Vacha founded a first Agiary in the Fort in 1671 CE. In 1673 CE, Aungier granted a site on Malabar Hill to the Parsi settlers from Gujarat, who built their first Tower of Silence there. In 1676 CE, he held out similar inducements to Armenian merchants and an Armenian church was built within the Bombay Fort.

    The result of this policy was that Indian merchants flocked to Bombay, and within a decade, the population went up from 10,000 to 60,000; revenue increased threefold, and the Company resolved that half its shipping from London should load directly for Bombay, without touching Surat.

    James Douglas, a Scottish historian in his book ‘Bombay and Western India: A Series of Stray Papers, Vol. 2’ aptly describes this: “It was Aungier’s great work to weld into one homogenous mass the discordant materials of Asiatic nationalities, to solve the problem, which had never been solved before, as to how a great multitude of men of diverse religions and races should live together in peace and harmony, free from discord within and aggression from without.”

    In 1672 CE, Aungier proposed to the Court of Directors of the East India Company, that the various ethnic communities and castes within the Company's jurisdiction should be represented by elected chiefs or consuls, ”to act as magistrates in petty cases”. His proposal was sanctioned and, with this, Aungier laid the foundation of a system of justice for Indians who lived here. Aungier would go on to establish three courts of justice in Bombay in 1676 CE – a tribunal for small causes, a Court of Appeal and a Court Martial.

    Establishing a Healthy Township

    As Indians from outside Bombay gained confidence and flocked to the now thriving city, its unsanitary conditions became terrible. In 1675 CE, Aungier employed Herman Bake, an engineering expert who prepared a map of the island specifically designed to highlight the inundated areas and the inlets that caused them. Aungier, then submitted to the Company Directors a scheme for draining the tidal swamps left by repetitive tidal action. After several surveys, the tardy consent of the Court was obtained. Thus, the first reclamation work began with the arduous task of draining the drowned lands.

    The first hospital of Bombay with a regular resident surgeon was established by Aungier in 1677 CE, on the Esplanade near the Cooperage. It was later transferred to Hornby Road in 1824 and thereafter temporarily located in the European Artillery Barracks in Fort George.

    It is now the government-run St George's Hospital (named after Sir George Oxendon, the first Governor of Mumbai), on P D’Mello Road. Aungier is thus credited with laying the foundations of both Fort George and St George's Hospital.

    First Anglican Church of Mumbai - St Thomas Cathedral (1676 CE)

    For the spiritual welfare of his countrymen, Aungier planned the first Protestant church in Bombay, to accommodate 1,000 people. Thus, he started building St Thomas Cathedral, and made arrangements to collect money for the Church building, for which he himself bequeathed a sum of Rs 5,000 in his will. Aungier presented the Church with a beautiful silver chalice, which is still preserved among its most precious possessions.

    Death in Surat (1677 CE)

    Aungier's unquenchable passion for reforms proved too much for his constitution. Worn out by over-work, he died at the incredibly young age of 37 and was buried beside his former chief in the Old Surat cemetery, on 30th June 1677 CE. No portrait of him has survived; even his tomb was unmarked for two and a half centuries.

    Gerald Aungier was an outstanding administrator and one of the most farsighted founders of the British Empire in India. Although nothing of what he built in Bombay remains, much of what he planned for the city survives. Its cosmopolitan character, the reclamation of large areas, the Anglican Cathedral, and the very fact that the city remains the centre of trade, not only of Western India but of the whole country, reminds us of his vision for Bombay. Aungier is, without a doubt, one of the most important founders of Mumbai as Urbs Prima in Indis, or India’s ‘first city’.


    Amit Bhagat is an independent researcher. He is currently working on the Megalithic and Stone Age culture of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

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