The commissioner who left Bombay bankrupt. Nearly

Updated: Jan 12, 2020, 07:59 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

A new book reveals the corruption-tainted legacy of the man behind Crawford Market and its far-reaching impact on the Bombay Presidency

A sketch of Arthur Crawford
A sketch of Arthur Crawford

The man behind one of South Mumbai's most frequented and well stocked markets is also the guy responsible for giving Bombay its electric streetlights. They were called Crawford's Fireflies, after Arthur Teavers Crawford, the city's first Municipal Commissioner. The lights installed at Esplanade, Churchgate, Bhendi Bazaar and the surrounding areas led to a drop in crimes, much to the relief of residents.

The man's legacy, however, is a checkered one, leaving you with the same feeling that you experience after stepping out of the chaotic market named after him on an even more chaotic street. In his zeal to improve conditions in the city, Crawford indulged in irreversible financial mismanagement that continued even during his time as commissioner of the southern division of the Bombay Presidency. He was charged on numerous counts, from corruption to borrowing money from local subordinates, but he managed to skip severe punishment.

Oregon-based scholar, Dr Michael Metelits, traces the man's questionable intentions in the just-released title, The Arthur Crawford Scandal Corruption, Governance, and Indian Victims (Oxford University Press). The Indian subcontinent was under the direct rule of The Crown. In 1862, Sir Bartle Frere became the first Governor of Bombay under this new rulebook. Seeing the unplanned development of this fast-growing commercial centre of the Empire, the farsighted administrator decided to break down the walls of the Fort to facilitate decongestion and open up the city. Public utility services like broad roads, sanitation and drainage were on top on his list. Enter the shrewd town planner Crawford, who aligned with Frere's vision. Frere was keen to build a wholesale market, and arranged for a design competition. William Emerson's plan that married Moorish architecture and vernacular influences, bagged the first prize; the building was erected in 1868 and the market opened for business in 1871. With Frere's blessings, Crawford, whose term extended from 1865 to 1871, took his role too seriously in trying to clean up the system he had inherited, leaving Bombay on the cusp of bankruptcy.

William Emerson won the design competition for the market, because it was believed to be most feasible for the city’s climate. The corner site was picked to ensure accessibility to the Black (Indian) and White (British) Towns of the original island city, as well as its proximity to the CST terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)William Emerson won the design competition for the market, because it was believed to be most feasible for the city's climate. The corner site was picked to ensure accessibility to the Black (Indian) and White (British) Towns of the original island city, as well as its proximity to the CST terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)

Dr Metelits first learnt of Crawford's corrupt legacy in 1970, while researching his doctoral dissertation at the Maharashtra State Archives in Kala Ghoda. "I found a pamphlet published by the Pune Sarvajanik Sabha about a public meeting in Pune that wanted to urge the Viceroy to retain the promise by the Bombay government to protect mamlatdar (senior official of a taluka) witnesses of immunity from prosecution or career harm if they would testify truthfully about payments to Crawford. I was struck by the rationale of speeches by Tilak and Gokhale." Although the subject of that meeting wasn't linked with his dissertation, the account stayed with Dr Metelits.

"Decades later, shortly after retiring from government service, I read a book about the British who staffed the Indian Civil Service. It was a panegyric, pure and simple. In the book, Crawford was termed a 'black sheep' among the otherwise self-sacrificing men who spent most of their adult life away from home. I felt the remark as little more than a 'weak slap on the wrist' about someone who ruined lives. So, when I returned to Mumbai a decade later, I decided to research the Crawford scandal in detail."

The result was the book. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Why was Crawford's term as Bombay Municipal Commissioner tainted?

Crawford borrowed heavily and often rewarded friends and persons to whom he was indebted, with contracts to carry out municipal works such that it nearly ran the city bankrupt. Secondly, when he was called to book for the financial situation, he feigned poor health and fled to England. Once out of India, the law couldn't extradite him. He repeated this act later when his corruption was exposed in Pune.

Did his civic projects see the light of day?


Nearly all of them saw completion. They were necessary and fundamentally well done. It's no accident that the central market in the city was named after him. He introduced electric lights. The cost of each project and the number of projects are what ran the city coffers nearly dry.

How did he manage to outsmart the law?

I was keen to shed light on the Indian victims of the scandal. However, it became apparent that their harassment required me to also document it. Crawford got away without any career or financial penalty, and then again as commissioner of the southern division. Furthermore, he constantly reshaped and developed his system of extortion in each station. He may have also assumed that British officials would never convict him based on the testimonies of Indian witnesses. It's this last point that is disturbing and is the reason why my book examines the Hanmantrao trial [centred on Crawford's chief agent, who was tried and found guilty while Crawford was declared innocent] in detail, but not the records of The Crawford Commission [enquiry set up by the British government using English laws. It was a questionable one with biased interpretations, according to the author]. The latter was a disgrace to the British notion of justice.

How critical was it to document the role of mamlatdars?

I have great respect for the mamlatdars. The difficult part was to get them to testify under oath about accepting money for career favours. It is only when they promised witnesses immunity from prosecution and career damage that some testified. They were the low-hanging fruit, easy to harvest and full of relevant information. As educated persons, they had imbibed moral values that the Raj proudly espoused when it was convenient to do so.

Then how did Crawford continue to remain popular?

Inscription of Arthur Crawford’s name on a friezeInscription of Arthur Crawford’s name on a frieze

He was popular in Bombay. He had many friends, and after the financial embarrassment passed, his reputation reflected the many improvements like sanitation, and connecting various parts of the city. In fact, when the Presidency government wanted to try him before a special commission, Crawford insisted that they meet in Bombay, where he had influential friends. When the government insisted that the commission convene in Pune, he requested for judges from outside the Presidency.

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