Bombay Time: Clock Work in the Colonial City, 1870-1955

As a tribute to senior historian Professor Jim Masselos, the Department of History at the University of Mumbai, the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the University of Leicester hosted a conference of historians, scholars and researchers of the city at Mumbai University on 6-7 January 2017. Click here to download my presentation (PDF) on “Bombay Time: Turning Back the Clock, 1870-1955”.

Modern clocks and standard world time signify two of the great historical movements in the nineteenth century – globalisation and imperialism – whose connected histories were first articulated in the cities of colonial India and South Asia.

The theory of the “global city” originally described urban centres such as New York, London and Tokyo as key nodes in the flows of global capital, whose management clusters people and technology in urban centres. Much like these contemporary hubs, port cities such as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were nodes in imperial networks of command and control which extended across South Asia during British rule. Early industrialisation in the 1860s and 1870s made urgent the coordination across expanding territorial and maritime frontiers opened up by new railway, telegraph and steamship networks across the Empire.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Bombay City had emerged as a crucial node and commercial gateway of the British Empire in western India and the Indian Ocean. Electrical transmission of precise time signals from observatories in colonial port cities made possible unprecedented, simultaneous communication across the subcontinent.

Clock time performed a key function in the control of people, money and machinery in the colonial urban context. By the 1880s the necessity of unifying control of lands previously conceived of as separate spaces and times governed by sunrise and sunset into a world-wide web of longitudinal time-zones was fixed on the imperial meridian at Greenwich by British, European and American agreement.

Even as the “sun never set on the British Empire”, a patchwork of time-keeping practices resulted from rivalries between scientists, port, railway and municipal authorities in the emerging commercial capital of British India. The new standard time encountered stiff public resistance in the city and western India, where it was more than 30 minutes ahead of local solar time, and was hastily withdrawn from official use. Through the 19th century, the state’s efforts to standardise time-keeping in Indian cities confronted a multitude of visible and audible signs in the urban environment – public clocks, factory sirens, office shifts, railway timetables, sunlight and sunset – as well as zones across the vast Indian Empire, where local solar times varied by nearly two hours between Calcutta and Assam in the east and Karachi and Afghanistan in the west.

The introduction of “Indian Standard Time” (IST) by Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1905-06 amidst Lokmanya Tilak’s arrest and trial and the “Swadeshi” agitations prompted further protest in Mumbai and western India, from the stoning of public clock-towers to strikes by office employees and factory workers, as the state attempted to “turn back the clock” by more than half an hour. What thereafter became known as “Bombay Time” (BT) – more than half an hour later than IST – turned the city’s natural rhythms of work and local solar time into insignia of civic protest and everyday resistance by Indians against colonial rule. Both “Standard Time” and “Bombay Time” were seen and heard throughout the city’s divided urban spaces and social worlds, connecting shifts in the textile mills, office hours in government and private firms, and trading in the city’s commodity and money markets.

For Indian workers and office employees, “Bombay Time” meant more time for morning worship and a later start to work. Indian bankers and brokers could remain open for trading later than European commercial banks. Philanthropists and municipal nationalists sponsored public clocks at variance with official IST, and took side with a newly politicised urban public in the midst of the first mass agitations against British rule. Religious and civic leaders, traders, and the urban population in the city defiantly maintained BT from the 1870s until the 1940s. While both rulers and ruled rejected duelling clocks and demanded a single standard, what was at stake was more than the literal time of day. “Bombay Time” was an index of relations between colonizer and colonized, science and the state, and the city and its hinterland. Marx’s formulation of capitalism’s “annihilation of space by time” was reversed by citizens and subalterns in the public spaces of urban time discipline.

Modern Bombay City developed both within and against empire. A key arena for the circulation of global ideas and institutions, Indian cities were also sites for the creation of novel forms of modernity whose history is neither “colonial” or “national” but are part of a global history. Even as external trade and factory industry fuelled the city’s rapid expansion, attempts to impose universal standards and practices of time, labour, and life were not simply resisted or rejected. Neither “urbanisation” nor “industrialisation” unfolded smoothly, as elite strategies and subaltern struggles over time and space shaped the outcome of social and technological change. Imperial cities were often most insecure in their urban centres of command and control.

My research revisits Jim Masselos’s essay “Bombay Time” (Meera Kosambi, ed., Intersections: Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2000, pp.161–83), seeking to complement and deepen Masselos’s pioneering research into the standardisation of clock time in the colonial city. I explore how “Bombay Time” dramatised the social construction and moral economy of time, extending Masselos’s original insights on the transformation of urban life in the context of technological change with new material from the municipal and state archives, and up to the demise of “Bombay Time” during World War II and after Independence.

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