Barring a few local heritage communities who recalled the historic date on social media, the day passed on unnoticed. June 23, 1661 was a red-letter day for history buffs in the city. It was when the marriage treaty was signed between King Charles II of England with Portugal's Catherine of Braganza. As part of the dowry, her family offered the seven islands of Bombay to the English monarch. And with it, the course of history of this sea-facing destination had been altered forever.
All those centuries ago, the islanders would have probably had no inkling of the fate of this tropical 'dowry'; nor would they have imagined how the winds of change from Europe would reshape their destinies and the geography of the land, in the centuries to follow. When we discovered these fascinating chapters of our history, courtesy the tomes lying inside the dusty, endless cauldrons of the Asiatic Society Library, it blew our mind.
The area where we seated inside the library was part of the Bombay Fort; within a radius of 4-5 km, wars were fought, sea-worthy ships were built, and wise men envisioned the birth of a city. Time-weathered pages of books revealed how Portugal had captured the islands from the Sultan of Gujarat and had created a chief trading centre along the west coast of India. They called it 'Bom Bahia' [the good bay] since its deep waters ensured that ships could dock right by its large natural harbour. However, it was possible that they hadn't gauged its full worth, and hence passed it on to the shrewd English as part of the dowry.
Charles wasn't keen to rule the seven islands, and offered it to the enterprising East India Company to rent them for just 10 pounds of gold a year. By then, however, word had spread that Europeans could not survive more than two monsoons here, and not one in twenty would survive their infant days. Despite these dangerous signs, the Company seized the opportunity with both hands and set about to create their imprint on the seven islands. They reclaimed and connected each isle into one mass, and transformed it into a prosperous hub for their trade, industry and transport. By the 1800s, a thriving city had arrived on the global map - the Gateway to India.
A few years ago, Madras/Chennai had celebrated their 400th year, and the year-long festivities were of humongous proportions - the city came to life, and its residents revelled in the pride and legacy of their beloved city; it was a treat to watch its residents come together to join in the bonhomie.
When the recent date of the marriage treaty came by, a thought crossed the mind: isn't it time that the city we call home gets a foundation year of its own? While we're pretty sure that options for dates will fly thick and fast, and rake up plenty of controversy from diverse voices and groups, it would also be a great way to showcase the city and its rich history that included dynasties [Magadha, Silhara], European powers [Portuguese, British] and original inhabitations besides countless migrants and communities who arrived here via sea and land. To avoid bias of any kind, a panel of respected historians and scholars could decide on this date in a democratic, transparent manner. It could act as a magnet around which our cultural institutions, museums and landmarks create a year-long calendar of events, festivals and exhibitions.
It would make for a fabulous, deserving salute to the city. After all, didn't some wise man say that lessons from the past can help shape the future?
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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