Dadabhai Naoroji’s London and Bombay

Map of Bombay from 1900, showing Fort, the central commercial district.

Dadabhai Naoroji’s life primarily unfolded in two cities: London and Bombay (now Mumbai). He was born and grew up in the “Urbs Prima in Indis,” seeing the city evolve from a roughly-built town founded on cotton and opium exports into the subcontinent’s primary metropolis, a city famed for its cosmopolitanism and public spirit. During the 1840s and 1850s, Naoroji helped shape the city: he contributed to its fabric of public institutions, helped establish an important newspaper, and spearheaded programs of social, religious, and political reform. But Bombay also shaped him: its cross-communal networks buoyed his political career in faraway Britain.

In 1855, Naoroji embarked on his first journey to the United Kingdom, where he joined fellow Parsis in establishing what was reputed to be the first-ever Indian mercantile firm in the heart of the empire. While he resided in Liverpool for his first few years in the country, he was eventually drawn to London, where he spent much of the next five decades of his life. London, at the time, was indisputably the world’s greatest city. But it was also an extraordinarily difficult place in which to live, especially for an Indian. Aside from the usual problems such as terrible pollution (ever-present smoke and the stench of sewage from the Thames) and dreary weather, there was also an unfamiliar and occasionally hostile culture, racism, bad food (especially for an Indian palate), loneliness, and exorbitant living expenses. These took a toll on Naoroji. He suffered from persistent respiratory problems for the duration of his life. Meanwhile, the wealth and extravagance of London, which contrasted so markedly with the poverty of India, left an undeniable imprint on his political and economic views.

During his decades in London, Naoroji strove to ameliorate conditions for resident Indians: he was a mentor to countless Indian students, assisted destitute countrymen (and, increasingly, countrywomen) with financial and moral support, and presided over community groups such as the London Indian Society. And, occasionally, he managed to arrange an Indian meal or even import mangoes for his co-nationals, momentarily breaking up the monotony of English cuisine.

The maps below list landmarks associated with Naoroji’s life in London and Bombay. Red markers indicate Naoroji’s houses, schools, places of work, and other places directly related to his life (his doctor, publisher, lawyer, etc.). Blue markers indicate houses, offices, and institutions associated with his colleagues and contemporaries, as well as other assorted landmarks.

We have a far richer record of landmarks in London: addresses were listed more precisely and many of the original structures still remain. In many cases, however, road numbering has changed, so locations of landmarks on the London map might not precisely match original locations.

It is much more difficult to map locations in Bombay. Many addresses in his correspondence simply referenced the name of the street, vicinity, or the building (“Girgaum,” “Victoria Buildings,” etc.). The shape and layout of the city has fundamentally changed: Bombay underwent vast urban reconfigurations from the 1860s onward, when Fort’s walls were pulled down and programs of land reclamation began apace. In comparison to London, Bombay has, to say the least, a far poorer record of historical preservation and historical mapping of the city. Lastly, much of Naoroji’s early correspondence, from his youth in Bombay and his return visits to the city, has been lost. All of this means that I have been unable to verify the precise locations of any of Naoroji’s houses in Bombay—a striking contrast with London, where, in 2012 and 2013, English Heritage was able to verify locations of most of his London residences for a proposed blue plaque for Naoroji.

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