It was primarily opium that linked Bombay to the international capitalist economy and the western Indian hinterland in the nineteenth century. The essays in this book explore the linkages between the opium enterprises of western India and the creation of early Victorian Bombay. They dwell on some of the prominent features of urban development which reflect the relationship of collaboration and conflict between the capitalist class of the city and British colonial rule. They show opium as the crucial factor in the emergence of Bombay as a metropolis.
Amar Farooqui is Reader in History, University of Delhi. He is the author of Smuggling as Subversion: Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Bombay was still, as it had been since the middle of the seventeenth century when it came into the possession of the East India Company, a relatively minor British outpost on the west coast of India. Its transformation into one of the leading cities of the empire occurred fairly rapidly within the space of about four decades during the first half of the nineteenth century. Circa 1800-1840 Bombay became a major exporter of opium and raw cotton, mainly to China. The role played by these two commodities in the rise of Bombay and its capitalist class is generally recognized, but the centrality of opium has not been sufficiently emphasized.
Moreover, the structure of the opium trade in relation to the colonial economy of Bombay remains imperfectly understood. The only detailed, though by no means exhaustive, account of the subject is Asiya Siddiqi’s article ‘The Business World of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy’ published in 1982. In fact as John F. Richards has recently remarked, ‘South Asian historians are just beginning to address the complexities of the opium industry in India Siddiqi’s seminal paper, which has established itself as a classic, revealed the inner mechanism of the trade, underlined the importance of opium for capital accumulation in Bombay, and brought out vividly the limitations of indigenous participation in a venture that was ultimately designed to serve British interests. Her analysis, based on the extensive information available in letterbooks of the prominent opium exporter Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, confirmed that the commodity was crucial for the networks that sustained the ‘business world’ of Bombay.
The present essays attempt to explore the linkages between the opium trade and the creation of early Victorian Bombay. They outline the development of the port as a colonial urban centre against the backdrop of trafficking in the drug. Opium was the defining feature of the economic world of Bombay and its business class. This class had grown to maturity by the 1830s. The Bombay Chamber of Commerce, which included several Indian firms, was founded in 1836—a year before Victoria ascended the throne.
The term ‘early Victorian’ is used essentially in a chronological sense, while at the same time bearing in mind that the use of urban space and the evolution of architectural styles were determined by the experience of cities of Victorian Britain. Victorian attitudes and values also conditioned the cultural milieu of the indigenous elite of Bombay in very specific ways, as for instance the ‘westernization’ of the Parsi business class. To quote Asa Briggs, ‘In social texture as well as in architecture Bombay belonged unmistakably to Queen Victoria’s world’.
Early Victorian Bombay was a pre-industrial city, a city of the pre-railway era. Large parts of it were semi-urban, or even rural, in appearance. It did not yet have a municipal corporation. The imposing and exotic buildings which were to dot its skyline by the end of the century had not been constructed. But it had a brisk long-distance shipping trade, a thriving dockyard, and large scale commercial and financial activity. Indian business had a strong presence in the city. The diverse composition of the capitalist class in terms of the communities from which it was drawn — Parsi, Marwari, Konkani Muslim, Gujarati Bania, Bohra, Armenian, Indo-Portuguese, to name only a few—gave it a cosmopolitan character, which was reinforced by a relatively high degree of collaboration with private European traders. The openness that this implied rendered Bombay less of a Maharashtrian and more of an imperial city. We can locate herein the roots of that process which enabled Bombay to become the main centre of Indian cinema in the post-independence period, a cinema that could communicate in a national idiom giving to it an all-India appeal.
The first essay deals with the problems of early colonial Bombay that were responsible for its relative obscurity till the end of the eighteenth century. There was a distinct possibility even in the last quarter of the eighteenth century that the settlement might be downgraded to the status of a small commercial establishment even though it had an excellent harbor. Maintaining a large administrative apparatus for governing the city was an expensive proposition for the East India Company since Bombay was unable to sustain itself financially. Opium and raw cotton completely altered this situation and by the turn of the century the company was looking forward to the substantial benefits that the port now seemed capable of yielding. The second essay discusses the place of opium in the network of commercial and economic relationships of Bombay in the early nineteenth century. Opium, especially Malwa opium, played a pivotal role in integrating Bombay with the west coast of India, Rajasthan, Sind and Malwa, as well as with China. It was primarily opium that linked Bombay to the international capitalist economy. This was also the time when Bombay became the main commercial and financial centre of western India. The emergence of an indigenous capitalist class centred on the port can be directly traced to the participation of Indian business groups in the opium enterprise and the profits they earned from it. The third essay outlines some of the prominent features of urban development in Bombay during the early Victorian era, and how these reflect the collaboration and conflict that characterized the relationship between the capitalist class of the city and British colonial rule.
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