City Connections: Mumbai and Boston

If you have read previous posts of the City Connections series, you might’ve noticed that I tend to pick cities to connect with Mumbai which have harbours. This one is no exception; Boston was a colonial city that started from the Shawmut Peninsula on the East Coast of North America. The first colonial city to be matched with Mumbai in this series, I picked Boston because of an interesting story related to trade between the two cities. Being one of the most populous cities in the US, Boston isn’t as fast-paced as New York, and in my opinion, is a more beautiful city with its Federal-style architecture. It grew from a small port town to a bustling center of finance, trade and industry. I remember studying its industrial history as part of my thesis research (using cities as case studies to see how they preserve/develop their industrial heritage) and discovering the Charles River Museum– a wonderful adaptive-reuse scheme of an old mill into a cultural center. It shares two important characteristics with Mumbai: being a former colonial city and a former industrial hub. Hold on tight, I feel like this post is going to be a long one!

Mumbai and Boston were not at all easy to connect on the globe!

Colonial Roots

The areas that formed these cities have been inhabited by a range of people from pre-colonial times. Mumbai was occupied initially by fisherman, then taken over by a bunch of empires, from the Mauryans to the Gujrati Sultanate. Boston, on the other hand, was settled by an Englishman, William Blaxton, and later occupied by the Puritans, a religious group who fled persecution from England. Mumbai’s colonial history begins in the 1540s, when the Portuguese took over the islands, while Boston’s colonial history begins in 1620, with the establishment of Plymouth Colony by Pilgrims, with whom the Puritans later merged.

The coastline of the area was dubbed ‘New England’ by Captain John Smith in 1614 to make it sound attractive for European settlers (whose exposure later diminished the local Native American population by spreading smallpox to a people who had no immunity against such a foreign disease). The Puritans placed a lot of importance on education, thus Harvard University, Boston Latin School and a few other institutes were founded. They were however, rather intolerant of other religions– being a Quaker or celebrating Christmas was a crime. The ‘City upon a Hill’, as described by John Winthrop, a leading Puritan figure and English lawyer, was meant to serve as model city for European Protestantism. This led to Boston being rather homogenous in nature compared to other British colonies, with white, middle-class European Puritans. Boston was under the English for about another century, during which its denizens had become restless with the English taxing them like crazy. After some events like the passing of the Stamp Act, the Townsend Act and perhaps the most famous, the Tea Tax ,so that Britain could pay its debts, the Bostonians started revolting, most famously by dumping tonnes of tea into the sea (Boston Tea Party). The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and Massachusetts became the 6th state in the US in 1788.

Bombay, as the British named it (from Bom-Bahia of Portuguese), changed hands from the Portuguese to the British through Catherine of Braganza’s marriage to King Charles II of England on 8 May, 1661. It was only in 1664 that Bombay Island was actually handed to the British, with Salsette, Wadala, Mazgaon, Parel, Worli, Dharavi and Sion being under the Portuguese. In 1668, with Charles II not being very well aware of the islands’ potential, gave them to the East India Company, for an annual rent of a mere 10 pounds, which adjusted for inflation, is ~Rs 1,50,000 today! The British built the Fort in what is now South Mumbai, and invited people from all over the country, and some foreigners, to Bombay to do business. This move played a crucial role in the city’s cultural history as well and lent to its diversity. With Parsis, Jews and Muslims coming from other urban trade centers, Bombay grew into an extremely profitable bunch of islands, which led to the reclamation of land to create one large city mass. This was done under William Hornby, who was the Governor of Bombay then. Many schools and public institutions were built in the 1700s, with a big surge in urban development. The University of Bombay was established in 1857, with Western principles to educate Indians. It was around this time that the city developed into an industrial hub, being dubbed as ‘Manchester of the East’. It was on 15 August, 1947, that India gained Independence and Mumbai saw a surge of refugees which led to the development of cities in the large metropolitan region such as Kalyan and Ulhasnagar.

While both cities have very different colonial histories, they still have massive British influence in their architecture, city planning and some administration, and thus are connected through this identity.

Colonial Boston Map from 1722 (Source :
Colonial Bombay Map, 1700s – date unknown (Source: Columbia University)

Industrial Centers

My thesis was based on Mumbai’s industrial history and a major part of my research was looking at other former industrial cities and their efforts to preserve their industrial history. I was studying Glasgow, Manchester, Boston, Detroit and the Ruhrgebeit region in Germany. One of the most popular responses, and a succesful one, was to create musuems of industrial history, some being designed in existing warehouses/mills. This is how I came to connect Boston to Mumbai in my studies, but another story that sparked this connection was related to ice. More on that later, as this section deals with industries in Mumbai and Boston.

The waves of the Industrial Revolution in England hit New England in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Boston and surrounding areas saw an uptick in cotton textile mills with the Boston Manufacturing Company building the first integrated spinning and weaving factory in the world at Waltham, Massachusetts, using water power. The Waltham System was developed as an improved version of Rhode Island System; these were methods used to maximize labour and production. The industrial movement allowed for migration of people from rural areas into these industrial areas for a ‘better life’. While Boston itself had few mills, it grew into an important trade center and seaport. Its major exports were rum, fish, salt and tobacco. It received sugar from the Caribbean and would refine it to rum and molasses. This also caused a boom in confectionery manufacturing and by 1950, there were 140 candy companies in Boston. It became the largest manufacturing center in the States after it gained the status of ‘city’ in 1822. The rivers formed a transport network for the city and allowed for transfer of goods to smaller industrial towns and mills. By the 1850s, the Boston Associates were responsible for a fifth of America’s cotton production. But in the early 1900s, the city’s growth stagnated and by 1980, there were 19 other cities bigger than Boston.

Bombay is also a seaport and became a major exporter of cotton in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first mill in Mumbai (Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company) was set up in the 1850s by an enterprising Parsi businessman, Cowasji Nanabhai Davar. By the 1900s, there were over a 100 mills. Cotton was exported to Britain, after which finished products were sold in India at high costs. Primarily, mills were owned and operated by Indian families like Tatas, Petits, Wadias, Sassoons and Currimbhoys. Like in New England, the textile mill boom caused a massive migration to Bombay from other parts of the state and country. These workers were housed in ‘chawls’, a housing system built by the British. The area where the mill workers lived covered Lalbaug, all the way up to Worli and Dadar, and was known as ‘Girangaon’ or the ‘Village of Mills’ (read about my artwork on this here). In the early 1900s, there was a decline in the mills due to competition from Japan. This led to a lot of protests from the 30s, right up to the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, with nearly 2,50,000 mill workers on strike. After this, the number of active mills went down drastically and Bombay transitioned into a post-industrial Mumbai.

Mumbai’s dilapidated mills can be seen all over the Island City, especially if you’re driving on the JJ Flyover. The chimneys, some broken, stand out the most. Conversely, Boston has converted most of its old industrial structures into buildings of varied uses. I studied the architecture and planning of Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, located in Waltham, for the way they converted it into a successful cultural center.

Boston Manufacturing Company, 1813– Unkown artist (Source : Wikipedia Commons)
The Great Bombay Textile Strike, 1982 (Source: LKN Consultants)

A Rather ‘Cool’ Story

Once, somewhere in the 1830s, Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy held an exclusive party for Bombay elites where a bunch of people got a cold. The next day, the local newspaper, Bombay Samachar, wrote that it was a worthy price to pay. For what, you ask? For the first ever ice, imported to Bombay all the way from Boston! A domed structure was used to store this, with thick walls so that the ice would not melt. This ice house, or its remains, are located between St. Andrews Church and Hornby House, right opposite the Naval Dockyard in Fort, Mumbai. Ice was a big luxury in those days; it was nearly impossible to acquire it in Bombay. The British thought it too tedious to bring down from the Himalayas and the ice in rivers nearby, if there was ever any, was too slushy. It was Frederic Tudor, a wealthy Bostonian businessman, who decided to grow his riches by shipping ice all over the world. He worked with Samuel Austin and William Rogers, two traders who decided to become ice agents for Calcutta. In May of 1833, a ship named Tuscany arrived in Calcutta with 100 tonnes of ice as locals watched. Described as ‘crystal blocks of Yankee coldness’, the locals were absolutely stunned and asked questions like whether ice grew on trees in America. Soon, this trade flourished. Jahangir Nusserwanji Wadia’s firm began distributing ice through the city. But this trade only lasted till the 1870s, when modern methods of ice making took over. The old ice-house in Mumbai is perhaps the only relic of this trade in Mumbai.

Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher, once said, “the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well”, after noticing the ice harvesting in Walden Pond. New England’s ice had a different composition that allowed it to melt at a slower speed, thus being ideal for worldwide trade.

The Ice-House dome peeking from St.Andrews Church, 1850. By Charles Scott (Source: British Library)

The Drug That Built 19th Century Bombay & Boston

Opium. A debelitating drug that ruined lives funded civic buildings and infrastructure in both these cities. While the British controlled 90% of opium trade into Canton, the Americans left with 10% profited enough to build railroads, mills and many public buildings. In the 1800s, it is fair to stay that there was a dependence on opium trade for both these cities. Opium was shipped from Massachusetts Bay to Turkey, then from Turkey to China, and finally from China to Boston where the crates were filled with porcelain, silk and tea. In India, opium was grown in Malwa, shipped from Bombay to a trading house in Canton.

Perkins and Co. was one of the first companies in America to start selling opium in squash sized balls to China, and also the most profitable one. By this time, opium was illegal in China, thus these traders had to smuggle in the opium through Canton. Thomas Perkin’s wealth grew to over $1 million dollars– equivalent to $25 million today. Multiple people connected to Perkins became millionaires through this trade. Those who worked in this business were known as the Boston Brahmins- the Cabots, Cushings and Forbes. This money was used to invest in railroads connecting mills and manufacturing plants. The tax revenue collected from this trade was used to fund police stations, libraries, schools and many other civic amenities. The Perkins family used their profits to found Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital and the Boston Athenaeum. Many orphanages were built too. This illegal trade in China allowed for the development of Boston into the city it is today. The benefactors of the trade, their names are engraved into the walls of these institutions.

Similarly, in Bombay, the man who cracked the China opium trade was none other than Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy. A chance meeting on the British ship of Brunswick, with its resident doctor, William Jardine, led to Sir JJ building a massive empire amassing enough wealth to develop and connect the city of Bombay. JJ had been captured by the French on his fourth trip to China and was being taken hostage to South Africa on the Brunswick. It took him four months to get back home. Jardine’s plans to open a trading house in Canton capitalized on the British demand for tea and the Chinese populations dependency on opium. By the time JJ was 40, he had made over $3 million– back in the 1820s. His firm, Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy and Co, was a partnership between him and three other men of different communities; Motichund Amichund, a Jain; Mohammed Ali Rogay, a Konkani Muslim; and Goan Catholic Rogerio de Faria. By 1855, JJ devoted himself to philanthropy and public life. He founded many institutes, including the famous JJ School of Arts. His wife, Avabai, single-handedly funded the construction of Mahim Causeway, connecting Bombay to Salsette (Bandra). Additionally, he funded 2/3rd of the waterworks for the nearby city of Pune. The British saw this work as a common interest in continuing colonial rule.

It is hard to ignore the morals of this trade. It had a long lasting impact on the Chinese economy and its fair to say that this exploitation led to a disproportionately profitable development of two cities far away from the population that was being destroyed by it.

Thomas Perkins, founder of Perkins and Co. (Source: Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography)
The Bombarment of Guangzhou during the first Opium War in 1840 (Source: NYT/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy, 1st Baronet. Stamps of India, 1959 (Source: India Post)

Parsi Influence on New England

After the Declaration of Independence in America, the businessmen set out to create trade links between New England and other countries. In India, they found the Parsis to be an agreeable community to have ties with. The goods that were traded were mostly cotton and other types of cloth. There was a cultural exchange too, with Nusserwanji Wadia, a Parsi businessman, sending a portrait of himself in traditional attire along with a crate of goods. This type exchange led to curiosities in New England about Parsi culture. All these goods are now displayed in various museums and cultural centers across the East Coast of the US. I found a wonderful book about these cultural ties. Unfortunately, I have not read it yet but it seems to offer a deep insight and information about trade between Boston and Bombay, and the Zoroastrian influence on Boston and surrounding areas.

Between Boston and Bombay: Cultural and Commercial Encounters of Yankess and Parsis, 1771-1865 by Dr. Jenny Rose. This book can be bought here.

Pandemic and a plague

With a current pandemic going on, I felt it important to include this section as infectious diseases have shaped cities and their populations for centuries. Both these cities were affected in the early 1900s. While Boston went through the Spanish Flu which eventually killed 50 million people across the globe, from 1918 to 1920, Bombay experienced a Bubonic plague epidemic in 1900, which led to many deaths and a reverse migration.

It was assumed that the flu was brought from Europe on a military ship back to the shores of Massachusetts, and that it could be contained in military institutions. But the overcrowded barracks and unhygienic conditions meant it spread extremely fast through Boston and beyond; public schools in Gloucester were closed and on September 17, 1918, Boston was urged to do the same. Dr. William Creighton Woodward, the Health Commissioner of the time, knew that the Flu hit the oldest and the youngest hardest. But this outbreak proved that men in their 20s were the hardest hit group. Dr Woodward was appointed to lead an emergency committee and under him the ‘Gathering Ban’ was put into place; all theatre, movie halls, dance and concert halls, schools, small businesses had to stay closed. Food halls and restaurants had to sterilize their cups and utensils and transport had to be disinfected daily. It was on October 21, after a decline in number of deaths, that Dr. Woodward declared the epidemic over (even though it wasn’t, especially in other parts of the country). The 1918 Flu Pandemic killed upto 3% of the world’s population. The life expectancy in the US was lowered from 51 to 39.

In Bombay, the first case of bubonic plague was detected in 1896. It spread rapidly, with 1500+ estimated cases per week in 1900. Many fled from Bombay, with its population falling to 7,80,000. The spread of the plague was due to the cramped conditions in chawls and slums. This led to Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas, a Goan doctor who had detected the first case, to launch a campaign to clean up slums and exterminate rats. The Governor of Bombay then invited WM Haffkine, a Ukrainian bacteriologist who had formulated a vaccine for Cholera, to create one for this epidemic. The Haffkine Institute was set up in Parel. The city government responded by isolating the sick, setting up detention camps and conducting forced evacuations in certain hard hit areas. The mortality rate was 2.2%, much lower than that of cholera and typhoid, but it was dangerous because it spread so easily (similar to COVID-19). The city later created ‘Bombay City Improvement Trust’ which was meant to make roads and public spaces which would channel air through crowded parts of the city.

While being a bustling city with a high population generally leads to economic success and development, crowded public spaces and cramped housing can be terrible for human hygiene and development, and disastrous in times of epidemics. The lockdown imposed in Boston was seen as a massive success in containing the spread of influenza and thus should be remembered in the times we are currently in.

Spanish Flu in Boston, 1918 (Source: The Boston Globe)
Late 19th century plague hospital in Bombay (Source: Wellcome Collection)

Great Fires & Rebuilding

Both cities went through a series of fires and explosions in the past centuries. The dense nature of cities increases the fatalities of such accidents and this was one of many reasons as to why the British wanted to expand the city beyond Fort (Mumbai).

The Great Fire of Boston took place on March 20, 1760, in downtown Boston. The cause is unknown, but it spread and destroyed over 300 buildings. The wind supported it and led it eastwards, damaging warehouses on the Long Wharf. It reached a deposit of gun-powder which caused an explosion so loud that it could be heard all the way to New Hampshire. Fortunately, no one was reported dead but the loss estimated was around ~$60,000 at the time. The city received relief funds from the British Empire and others. New acts and rules were set in place to prevent accidents like this; wooden buildings higher than 7 feet would be fined. This led to the homes in the area being rebuilt in brick or slate. Later, in 1872, the title would be taken by another great fire that caused even more destruction of Boston.

In February of 1803, a massive fire broke out in the crowded old town of Fort, Mumbai. It engulfed houses and markets at a time when around 10,000 people lived there. Around 466 structures were damaged and this led to the British rethinking the development plans for Bombay which focused on decongestion of Fort. Similar to Boston, restrictions on building height were put into place.

A view of Bombay Fire from Malabar Hill (Source: British Library)
Great Boston Fire of 1872 (Source: Historic Ipswich)

Mumbai and Boston have had many historical links as you have read above. There are also a lot of Indian immigrants who live in Boston now, creating a cultural exchange. No doubt Boston has bunch of Indian restaurants and cultural centers, and even something called the ‘Bombay Bicycle Club’. Part III of this series was the most interesting one to work on, and probably the strongest connection that I’ve written about till now.

Sources and further reading:

How Ice Shipped All the Way From America Became a Luxury Item in Colonial India

Ten Cities That Made the British Empire

Why Deadly Flu Pandemic Began in Boston

How the Bombay Plague of 1897 Played Out

Boston’s Opium History

How Bombay Parsis Cracked the Opium Trade

Published by Simran Arora

An architect exploring cities, cultures and histories.

One thought on “City Connections: Mumbai and Boston

  1. Wonderful post, Simran. 🙂

    I particularly enjoyed the bits about the pandemic response and the fires that both cities were struck with.

    The stories about sore throats due to ice and Nusserwanji Wadia’s portrait being sent to Boston are wonderful too!


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