A vintage postcard of Colaba Reclamation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Not much is known of Colaba before the 1600s, journalist and author Shabnam Minwalla notes in a new book on the southernmost precinct of Mumbai. Part of publisher Speaking Tiger’s local history series, Colaba narrates historical anecdotes from this beloved and lively part of the city, known by many for landmarks such as the Gateway of India, but cherished by fewer for that time Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy page played an impromptu gig at the now-defunct club, Slip Disc.
Read an excerpt below from the chapter “History of a Little Island”, taken from Colaba, written by Shabnam Minwalla and published by Speaking Tiger. Historians trace the name “Colaba” to the Koli community that inhabited the two islands it comprised, but why was one known as the Old Woman’s Island?
History of a Little Island
What do we know about the history of Colaba? Almost nothing before the 1600s. And even then, what is available is fragmentary and random. Newspaper reports about jackals sighted and churches built. Travellers’ accounts with as much substance as a stray blog post on the Net. The histories of colonialists by colonialists—arbitrary spotlights that fall on the European tea parties and tailorbirds in Colaba, but leave its Indian denizens in impenetrable darkness.
In his 1932 book, Bombay, Samuel Sheppard mentioned a writer who introduced his work with the warning that the early history of Bombay is ‘sunk deep in the Night of Time’. ‘When historians make a beginning like that,’ Sheppard quipped, ‘one may be sure that there is indeed not much to be said.’
It’s inevitable, then, that the writer attempting a history of Colaba will have to blunder about in the dark, hoping to stumble upon a skimpy fact, a lucky guess—even more than the writer seeking knowledge about the other, better-documented parts of Mumbai. Still, there are a few things we do know.
We do know that this ‘thin prolongation called Colaba’ is made up of fine-grained diorite, composed of feldspar and hornblende. That over time, mangroves and palm trees must have appeared on this rocky strip. That gauzy-winged dragonflies must have dropped in during their multi-generational migration from India to Africa. And that Kolis from the mainland, sufi saints from Baghdad, and sailors on their way to more important ports, somehow washed up here.
Historians believe that it is from the Kolis that Colaba got its name. ‘Successive waves of Koli settlers seem to have invaded and occupied the different islands of these archipelagos, and in spite of subsequent occupation by many other settlers in later days, the Kolis have survived in these islands till today,’ stated Edwardes in the Gazetteer. ‘In what localities they precisely built their scattered groups of huts is difficult to say. That they undoubtedly existed in two of the southernmost islands is apparent from the fact they acquired the name of Kolabhat or Kolaba, the Koli estates. Immigrants of a later period gave the smaller of the two islands the name, the island of Al Omanis or deep sea fishermen.’
Although the explanation for Colaba is widely accepted, the more picturesque and awful name of Old Woman’s Island threw up a colourful multiple choice. ‘A rudely carved red-smeared goddess, a venerable Portuguese dame, a wrinkled fate-reading fisherwoman, an antique mother of harlots, have all been invented to explain the name Old Woman’s Island,’ said Sheppard in Bombay Place Names and Street Names. Sadly, these have been discarded in favour of the more humdrum etymology: Old Woman’s Island seems to be a typical British misinterpretation of Al Omanis, the Persian phrase used to describe those who fished in deep waters and ventured further in the direction of Oman.