Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay

This is a summary and outline of my doctoral and post-doctoral dissertation research in the Program in Science Technology & Society (STS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) submitted in late 2013 and developed as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS), 2016-17.


Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay is a social history of technology and urbanisation in the “commercial capital” of modern India. It spans the period from Bombay’s first boom and bust during the American Civil War – when the city emerged as a gateway for the global cotton trade – to its rise into one of Asia’s largest industrial centres following World War I.

The principal sources for this historical study are newly opened municipal archives and private papers that chronicle the growth of the colonial port city from the 1860s to 1920s. Six interlocking themes and periods are explored in chronological chapters on the history of share trading and merchant banking; railway, shipping and telegraph infrastructures; urban land acquisition and valuation; clocks and time-keeping; cadastral surveying and property rights; and the place of street networks in the city’s built environment.

Modern Bombay developed within and against empire. Imperial hegemony was often most insecure in its urban seat of command and control, even as external trade and factory industry fuelled the city’s rapid expansion. Attempts to impose modern practices of commodity exchange, standard time, market value and private property were neither taken for granted, nor simply resisted or rejected. Neither “urbanisation” nor “industrialisation” unfolded smoothly, as elite strategies and mass struggles over finance, labour and land shaped the paths of technological and social change.

1. Markets

This first chapter chronicles the “share mania” in raw cotton that overtook Bombay’s banks and businesses during the final years of the U.S. Civil War. This war temporarily suspended shipment of cotton from the slave plantations of the American South to the textile mills of the “workshop of the world”, Manchester, in what became known as the worldwide “cotton famine”. This global supply crisis had profound effects for British India and its western port city, as the price for Indian cotton soared in demand, and Bombay was soon awash in gold and silver. A frenzy of speculative investment in shares and betting on commodity futures peaked and crashed in 1865. The end of the American war triggered the collapse of Bombay’s stock markets and colonial state finances, which remained intertwined since the abolition of the East India Company and proclamation of Crown rule in 1858. The fiscal and banking crises of the late 1860s led to the creation of the city’s docks and Port Trust – out of liquidated shipping and reclamation concerns floated during the boom – as well as a new Stock Exchange, a re-chartered state bank and reformed Municipal Corporation.

2. Networks

The late nineteenth century saw the first global “Great Depression”, as British capital sought an investment sink and safe haven in railway and steamship companies guaranteed by the colonial state in India. With the completion of overland and submarine telegraph cable links between Britain and India, and the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1870s, the flow of people, capital and goods through the port of Bombay intensified. The intersection of these infrastructures in this new “gateway city” achieved connectivity to its expanding territorial hinterlands in western India and maritime frontiers in the Indian Ocean. Steamships and railways, electricity and telegraphy formed an interlocking web which reordered money, time and space for both colonisers and colonised. This chapter explores the financing and construction of these new technological networks which dramatically restructured market oppportunities for Indian business elites, who transformed Bombay’s raw cotton trade into a modern, mechanised textile industry, now in competition with Manchester.

3. Plots

The new centrality of the “Second City of the Empire” to the global economy revealed its vulnerability as a centre of imperial command and control. An epidemic of bubonic plague rapidly spread from colonial India via Bombay, prompting panic and crisis throughout the port cities of the British Empire. In its wake, the colonial state established the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in 1898 to “clean up” the city. Armed with draconian powers of eminent domain to demolish slums, build broad boulevards and sanitary urban housing, the BIT emerged as the city’s single largest land-owner, while it simultaneously attempted to arbitrate the “market value” of land in general. Land conceived as a bundle of overlapping rights and customary uses based on agricultural fertility yielded to an urban economy in which value was determined by absolute area and central location. Through a study of landlords’ legal and financial disputes with the BIT over compulsory acquisition and compensation, this chapter explores the creation of a market in urban real estate in the wake of the plague epidemic in colonial Bombay.

4. Clocks

By the turn of the century, the completion of networks of rail, steam, electricity and telegraphy across India and the Empire made possible the transmission of coordinated time signals both inside and outside the port city. However, colonial efforts to institute a uniform “standard time” in 1905-6 confronted a multitude of visible and audible signs in the urban environment – public clocks, factory sirens, office shifts, railway timetables, sunlight and sunset. Electrification of city streets and factories altered people’s orientation to day and night. Daily and seasonal rhythms of labour earlier measured by tasks and not by time confronted the new disciplines of the clock and calendar. This chapter explores the patchwork of temporal standards that resulted from rival claims to time-keeping by railways, ports and observatories, and persistent defiance of “Indian Standard Time” by religious leaders, traders and workers in a nationalist protest that promoted the everyday practice of maintaining local “Bombay Time”.

5. Maps

The rule of law and the institution of private property were the cornerstones of British imperial rule. The municipal franchise in colonial Bombay was limited to a small number of prominent landlords, seen by colonial rulers as their natural allies. With the expansion of the city’s area and population, traditions of laissez-faire in private property became increasingly contested through disputes over ownership and title over valuable urban properties. The outbreak of the First World War disrupted the city’s industries and halted its external trade. Money fled into safer investments in urban real estate, prompting widespread speculation and a “house famine”. This chapter examines the colonial state’s attempt to map the city both topographically and legally, by demarcating the boundaries of landed property and enumerating its owners in a centralised registry. This cadastral survey, undertaken during World War I, encountered widespread resistance and was withdrawn amidst protests by landlords, solicitors, and municipal politicians defending their property rights against colonial state power.

6. Streets

This final chapter focuses on the urban built environment and networked infrastructures constructed in Bombay in the years before and after World War I. In this period the city more than doubled its population, as migrants thronged into what had become India’s commercial and industrial capital. A dense ecology of railways, docks, factories and markets now wove through its streets and neighbourhoods, arenas of increasingly militant labour protest, civil disobedience and communal violence. This widespread discontent was harnessed by aspiring communist and nationalist leaders into demands for revolution and independence. Conceding to popular demands, the colonial state was reorganised, and more power devolved to Indians, especially in large cities. The BIT was dismantled and absorbed into a reformed Municipal Corporation, now elected on an expanded franchise based on rent payment and not property ownership. It was in this transformed landscape that the young lawyer Mohandas K. Gandhi returned to Bombay from South Africa, to begin his three-decade mass campaign to end British rule in India.


Urbanisation and technological change in colonial Bombay did not arise from a preordained narrative, but was the outcome of strategic attempts by urban elites to resist their subordination within new financial, industrial and spatial hierarchies. These leaders and populations married the technologies of global imperialism to the incipient language of Indian nationalism. These early nationalist forms of urban protest dramatised disruptions to seasonal and daily rhythms of life and work previously oriented and valued in terms of tasks and not time.

Early colonial rule brought parallel change in the vectors and circuits of money – as the moral economy of precolonial markets and their diversity of exchange instruments was replaced by long-distance commerce and state-issued currency based on metallic standards – and of space – as a bundle of overlapping rights, customary uses, and chains of title measured by fertility yielded to an urban land market whose values were determined by their absolute area or central location.

This history of the colonial state’s effort to construct a dis-embedded and self-regulating “market society” in Victorian Bombay unfolded within a pecular dialectic. By the turn of the century, these disjunct transformations of money, time and space encountered much wider resistance within the life-worlds and human economy of the rapidly growing urban population. The universals of standardisation, measurement and valuation confronted particulars of culture and identity, mistranslation and informality, and claims of customary rights and vernacular “difference”.

Whether materially as prices, hours and distances, or symbolically as calculation, control and coordination, the urbanisation and colonial power depended for both rulers and ruled on this crucial strategic and everyday calculus of money, time and space. The colonial city was neither simply a physical container nor discursive stage, but a complex socio-technical assemblage, in which games of language and number showed that colonial power was often most insecure in its urban centres of command and control.

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