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The 'City of Gold' and Its China Connection

Sneh Mahajan

Edited by Madhavi Thampi and Shalini Saksena
The K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai, 2009, pp. 176, Rs. 700.00


Critics have complained about the incessant output of books on Bombay/Mumbai. Each book has, obviously, a story to tell. This ‘Maximum City’, which is the second most populated city in the world and the richest city in India today, was a sparsely-populated, sleepy hamlet of mud-houses till the mid-eighteenth century. But, by 1780s, it began to replace Surat as a major port on the western coast of India and, by the end of the nineteenth century, emerged as a thriving metropolis rivalling Calcutta and as the power centre of the British. In this study, Thampi and Saksena argue that this metamorphosis of Bombay was the result of the growth of trade with China from the end of the eighteenth century to early twentieth century. They have also attempted to study how Bombay merchants made their fortunes in China trade and the impact of the emergence of this commercially oriented elite on the cityscape and its culture. The text covering 107 pages, consists, besides, introduction and conclusion, of six chapters. In addition, there are 28 plates depicting the Bombay traders, the places they frequented and some artifacts. A very interesting and useful part of the book is the Appendix that gives information about some three hundred of these traders along with the names of their firms, relatives, dates of their presence in China, and their activities in Bombay along with the source of information for each of them. A word here about the use of the name ‘Bombay’ would not be out of place. The historian is always faced with the problem of choosing between the new name and the older name of places in the interest of historical authenticity. The authors here have chosen to use Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Canton for what are now known as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Guangzhou, though they have used new names for places in China less known to their readers. In this book, two chapters are devoted to the growth of trade in cotton, opium and textile. This trade between western India and China stemmed from the growing demand for Chinese tea in Britain during the eighteenth century. There was little that the British could sell in China. From Bengal, silk and cotton piece-goods, and opium were shipped which proved insufficient to pay for Chinese tea. However, in the 1790s, demand for cotton increased tremendously following a famine in south China which made farmers ...

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