Great Fire of Bombay

Great Fire of Bombay

On this day in 1803, a fire raged through Mumbai, India, destroying almost a third of the city’s houses. Densely populated Mumbai, then in possession of the British and known as Bombay, was devastated, and in its aftermath authorities pushed through major changes, greatly altering the urban landscape and uprooting communities.

Mumbai is comprised of seven islands that combine to form a large peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea. Built on the site of ancient fishing settlements, Mumbai is today the commercial capital of India and one of the most populous cities in the world. The islands have passed through the hands of a variety of history’s colonial powers, from the Muslim Sultanate of Gujarat, to the Portuguese and the British. Renamed Mumbai in 1996, today it is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra.

By 1803, the British East India Company had set up a considerable headquarters in Bombay, much of which was within the walls of the old fort. The fire of 1803 broke out on the 17th of February and quickly spread across the old fort and the densely packed markets and residential areas. The destruction was so devastating, that the British decided that the city had to expand out from the congested centres. A new plan for the city, solving the congestion problems, would be implemented—and in so doing, a relatively fluid cosmopolitan city was often segmented into communities of single religious and ethnic groups.

Ironically, considering the post-fire desire for space and expansion, Mumbai today is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Statistics dated from 2000 show Mumbai to have as many as 26,500 people per square kilometer. New York City, for purposes of comparison, has a population density of a mere 10,300 per square kilometre.

The city’s density continues to prove problematic today. Bombings in 1993, 2000 and 2008—which were coordinated alongside shootings—have all wreaked havoc on the city, and gruesomely taken advantage of the city’s density. More devastating than the attacks, in terms of lives lost, was a flood in 2005 that swept through the state of Maharashtra, and large parts of Mumbai, killing thousands. Like the great fire of 1803, the flood exposed considerable inadequacies with Mumbai’s urban state, and improvement projects are still underway today.

Photo Credit: © Rafiq Maqbool/AP/Corbis
Photo Caption: The density of Mumbai’s population continually proves to be problematic, especially when disasters such as fires and floods wreak havoc.