Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

The eastern seafront of Bombay has not featured in popular imagination in recent times. However, with the advent of the Eastern Freeway, a lot more traffic flows through or rather over this quaint neighbourhood. Naturalists and birders have been frequenting the mudflats of Sewri ever since the Flamingoes mysteriously started appearing here in the 90s. More recently, the proposed Mumbai Trans Harbour Link linking Navi Mumbai to Mumbai brought these mudflats into focus. The project threatens this unique urban habitat that supports not just flamingoes but also various other local and migrant birds that inhabit the region. Further to the south lies the Mazagaon Dockyard, a strategic shipbuilding establishment and next door lies the Daarukhana – interestingly Bombay’s only ship breaking yard, the Ferry Wharf that connects Mora, Uran and Rewas to Bombay by ferry boat services and the Mazagon Fort (now a garden) rises to the west. 

This neighbourhood although might have lost some of its erstwhile glory, it remains alive in the annals of the history of the city. For here, happened a unique event in history that had the potential of completely changing the course of Modern Indian past we know it. But before we get there, let’s travel back in time to the year 1600 when the Queen of England would sign a charter granting the East India Company the sole permission to trade with the East. And thus would begin a saga that we all know too well. The coming of the Company officials to India, the meeting with the Mughals, the subsequent expansion and the wars with regional Rajahs, the divide and rule and the transfer of power to the Crown and then the freedom movement and then eventual Independence with partition. 

The company gained foothold slowly by establishing factories on the coasts, which essentially were godowns meant to store the consignments to be exported to the European markets. The first factory was set up at Surat, a few hundred miles away from Bombay. But with the transfer of the seven islands of Bombay to the British under the Marriage treaty signed between the Portuguese and the British, some of the trade soon shifted there. Recognising the potential of the excellent natural harbor, the Company soon got the possession of the islands from King Charles on lease for a princely sum of 10 pounds a year in 1668. Soon after the Governor of Bombay decided to permanently shift operations from Surat to Bombay. 

The East India Company then tried to secure trading privileges across the Mughal empire, at the time ruled by Aurangzeb, to consolidate their trade. In 1682, the English sought a firman, a decree from Shaista Khan (the same Governor who lost his 3 fingers in a skirmish with Shivaji). However, Josiah Child, the company’s governor in England interfered with the negotiations which was not appreciated by Aurangzeb. In 1987, Sir John Child the then Governor of Bombay announced that they would not hesitate to get the British sword out against the Mughals. This war like posturing helped them to assert their position against the Moghuls and even the Portuguese. He assumed that if they maintained this position, the regional Marathas would side with them. However, in 1689 Sambhaji the son of Shivaji was captured and executed and hopes of siding with the Marathas were dashed. The threat of confrontation remained with the Siddis – the Abyssinian mercenaries who ruled the formidable Janjira fort, nearby and considered themselves the Vassals of the Mughals. 

In the meanwhile a new Mughal governor was appointed at Surat who under the mask of extending a hand of friendship to the British opened negotiations. But instead the governor captured the traders in Surat and announced a reward to anyone who would capture Sir John Child – dead or alive. Sir Child was not a man to be threatened, in retaliation he captured 40 mughal traders and a few cargo ships belonging to the Siddis.

The Siddis are known to have arrived on a slave ship named Al Habshi in 628. Another batch of Siddis came as members of Mohammad Bin Qasim’s army a few hundred years later. In the Delhi sultanate Jamal Ud Din Yakut was a close confederate of Razia Sultan. Siddis were known for their strength and were often used as mercenaries by the regional kings. Another prominent Siddi in the Maratha history is Malik Ambar who established the town of Khirki or modern day Aurangabad. As we move further down in time we come to the life and times of Yakut Khan, an admiral of the Siddi fleet of Janjira. 

Janjira, a marathi corruption for the term Jazeera which means Island in arabic is a strategic wonder. The fort that has managed to become impregnable had been a Siddi stronghold. Around the 17th century, during the reign of Aurangzeb, the Siddis under Yakut Khan allied with the Mughals. 

Enraged at hearing the news of the capture, he warned Sir Child that he would ransack the island if the prisoners weren’t let go. Child being confident in his capability said that they would easily ward off the attack of the 400 odd sailors that would come with Yakut Khan. But it was not to be so. On 15th February 1689, the city of Bombay was attacked by the Siddis led by Yakut Khan. He arrived without announcement and that night, the British fired 3 canons from the Fort to signal a foreign invasion. Child deputed his lieutenant to ward off the attack but he returned to inform that Yakut Khan had in fact brought with him not 400 but 6000 men from the eastern front. 

The attack took place first at Sewri Fort. Sailing from Murud, they passed Middle ground and following the route documented by an old British sailor they came with the intent to plunder, pillage and destroy. The fort naturally was ill equipped to defend the attack and was soon overpowered. Suree as Sewri was then known, had fallen. Within no time, the troops spread to the nearby Mazgaon fort and captured it. While they moved further north to the island of Mahim and ransacked it. People fled their homes, bewildered surprised at the sudden attack. 

They ransacked the neighbouring islands and set up guns at Dongri to target the Fort. The siege on Bombay had begun. All negotiation with the Admiral failed. Bombay’s military infrastructure was barely two decades old and it was only in the 1670s that the Dutch invasion took place. The fall of Bombay was shocking and the fact that it fell so easily was even more so. Around September three subordinates representing Child met at Daman with the representatives of Alamgir. He concluded a deal by which he ordered Khan to move, and he did so but not before blowing up Mazagon fort on Bhandarwada hill to pieces. Alamgir saw Child in very low light as he was a brash, inconsiderate Governor with no respect for his contemporaries. As per the deal, the Company was to pay off all losses incurred by the Mughals and Sir Child to be dismissed from service. But before the Company could act on it, Child died in 1690. 

The siege almost decimated the Company rule in India at the time. Had the seige not ended and the negotiations between the Company and Aurangzeb failed once again, it would have led to a probable ouster of the EIC from India, at least temporarily. Would the history of India been any different?

Earlier published in 2017