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Numbers didn't count: the streets of colonial Bombay and Calcutta*


Street and house numbers are part of the modern state's geo-locational regime, by which people and places are made legible to distant governments and bureaucrats. Some writers have suggested that they were important in colonial cities, where urban regulation and political control was often insecure, but we know little about their extent and significance in such settings. Bombay and Calcutta c.1901 are significant test cases, being two of the largest colonial cities in the world, as well as being recent sites of major disease outbreaks. City directories in Bombay, together with property assessment and census evidence for Calcutta, show that house numbers were rare for all types of property and people. Local residents used other methods to navigate the city, while British administrators did not believe house numbers to be an important aspect of colonial rule. Fragmentary evidence for other colonial cities suggests that the experience of these Indian cities was broadly typical.

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We would like to thank Nick Lombardo for assistance with the analysis and maps. We are grateful to the editors of this special issue, together with an anonymous reviewer, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided financial support.

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1 Benjamin, W., One Way Street (London, 1979), 170.

2 Joyce, P., Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003), 197; Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community: urban house numbering, city directories, and the production of spatial legibility’, Journal of Historical Geography, 34 (2008), 293; Shaw, G. and Tipper, A., British Directories: A Bibliography and Guide to Directories Published in England and Wales (1850–1950) and Scotland (1773–1950) (Leicester, 1988), 9; Tantner, A., ‘Addressing the houses: the introduction of house numbering in Europe’, Histoire & Mesure, 24 (2009), 14; Thale, C., ‘Changing addresses: social conflict, civic culture, and the politics of house numbering reform in Milwaukee, 1913–1931’, Journal of Historical Geography, 33 (2007), 128–9.

3 Rose-Redwood, R., Alderman, D. and Azaryahu, M., ‘Geographies of toponymic inscription: new directions in critical place-name studies’, Progress in Human Geography, 34 (2010), 461.

4 Pels, P., ‘The anthropology of colonialism: culture, history and the emergence of western governmentality’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 26 (1997), 176. Also, see Yeoh, B., Contesting Space: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment in Colonial Singapore (Oxford, 1996), 229–31; Bissell, W., Urban Design, Chaos and Colonial Power in Zanzibar (Bloomington, 2011).

5 The English spelling of gulli, mohalla and bazaar, as well as kutcha and pukka, varies. We use these versions, except in direct quotations.

6 For example, see Porter, T., The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (Princeton, 1986); Hannah, M., Governmentality and the Mastery of Territory in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge, 2000); Scott, J., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998); Mitchell, T., Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, 2002).

7 Hannah, Governmentality and the Mastery of Territory, 119.

8 Peabody, N., ‘Cents, sense, census: human inventories in late precolonial and early colonial India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 43 (2001), 819–50; Cohn, B., Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, 1996); Edney, M., Mapping and Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago, 1997), 36; Ludden, D., ‘Orientalist empiricism’, in Breckenridge, C. and van der Veer, P. (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, 1993); A. Appadurai, ‘Number in the colonial imagination’, in Breckenridge and van der Veer (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament; U. Kalpagam, ‘The colonial state and statistical knowledge’, History of the Human Sciences, 13 (2000), 37–55; Kidambi, P., The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890–1920 (Aldershot, 2007), 9; Prakash, G., Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), 135.

9 Joyce, Rule of Freedom, 248. This point has been emphasized in several recent studies. For a review, see Nair, J., ‘Beyond nationalism: modernity, governance and a new urban history for India’, Urban History, 36 (2009), 330.

10 Hasan, N., ‘The morphology of a medieval Indian city: a case study of Shahjahanabad’, in Banga, I. (ed.), The City in Indian History (New Delhi, 1991), 92–3; Bannerjee, S., Dangerous Outcasts: The Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Bengal (Calcutta, 1998), 84–5.

11 Bandyopadhyay, R., ‘The inheritors: slum and pavement life in Calcutta’, in Chaudhuri, S. (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, 2 vols. (London, 1990), vol. II: The Present and the Future, 80; Rousselet, L., India and its Native Princes (London, 1882), 596.

12 Gokhale, B., Poona in the Eighteenth Century (Delhi, 1988), 18; J. Frey, personal communications, 9 Aug. 2010 and 14 Aug. 2010; P. Datta, personal communication, 27 Nov. 2010; Furedy, C., ‘Whose responsibility? Dilemmas of Calcutta's bustee policy in the nineteenth century’, South Asia, 5 (1982), 27; Furedy, C., ‘Interest groups and municipal management in Calcutta 1875–1890’, Historical Papers, Canadian Historical Association, 8 (1973), 196.

13 Annual Report of the Municipal Commissioner of Bombay for the Year 1872 (Bombay, 1873), 20, 80; ‘Bombay Municipal Corporation’, Times of India, 10 May 1898, 3; ‘Bombay Corporation’, Times of India, 30 Apr. 1901, 3.

14 Personal communications from J. de Barros, 16 Nov. 2010; J. Hosagrahar, 23 Nov. 2010; G. Myers, 16 Nov. 2010; L. White, 18 Nov. 2010.

15 Chattopadhyay, S., Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny (New York, 2005), 152; Mukherjee, S.N., Calcutta: Essays in Urban History (Calcutta, 1993), 127; Furedy, ‘Interest groups’, 127 n. 2; S. Legg, personal communication, 4 Aug. 2010.

16 The Times of India, Calendar and Directory for 1900 (Bombay, 1900).

17 Low, S., A Vision of India (London, 1911), 10, 40; Masselos, J., ‘Appropriating urban space: social constructs of Bombay in the time of the Raj’, South Asia, 14 (1991), 34. Also, see R. Lewis and R. Harris, ‘Segregation and the social relations of place: Bombay, c. 1901’ (unpublished paper, 2010).

18 Directory listings were cross-referenced with maps produced for the 1901 census of India, with Sheppard, S., Bombay Place-Names and Street Names (Bombay, 1917), and sometimes with the Google Maps address locator. House numbers appeared on 363 named streets, most of which were short and easily located by Section. Those in indeterminate positions on longer streets, amounting to 9 per cent of the total, could not be mapped.

19 Europeans, and others deemed to be sufficiently literate or influential, were allowed to complete their own schedules. Nominally, so too were residents of Bombay before 1901, although in practice even there many enumerators took information and gave assistance. Accessible summaries of census procedures in a fairly typical year are in Baines, J., ‘Administration of the imperial census of India, 1891’, Journal of the Society of Arts, 40, 2064 (10 Jun. 1892), 717–29; Baines, J., ‘On census-taking and its limitations’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 63 (1900), 4171. For a summary of the evolution of procedures, 1872–1911, see Gait, E.A., East India (Census) 1914: General Report of the Census of India (London, 1914), ivii.

20 Natarajan, D., Indian Census through a Hundred Years, Census of India Centenary Monograph 2, Part I (New Delhi, 1972), 350; Hooker, R., ‘Modes of census-taking in the British dominions’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 57 (1894), 355.

21 India Census Commissioner, 1901, India: [Vol. I] Administrative Volume with Appendices (Calcutta, 1903). Also, see Gait, East India (Census) 1914.

22 The following were used: Beverley, H., Report on the Census of Bengal 1872 (Calcutta, 1872); Beverley, H., Report on the Census of the Town of Calcutta Taken on the 6th April 1876 (Calcutta, 1876); Beverley, H., Report on the Census of the Town and Suburbs of Calcutta Taken on the 17th February 1881 (Calcutta, 1881); Maguire, H., Report of the Census of Calcutta Taken on the 26th February 1891 (Calcutta, 1891); Gait, E.A., Report on the Census of Bengal, 1901: Administrative Volume (Calcutta, 1902), including Appendix I, The Bengal Code of Census Procedure, also published separately; Blackwood, J.R., Census of India, 1901: Vol. VII, Census of Calcutta, Town and Suburbs, Part II. Report (Administrative) (Calcutta, 1902); O'Malley, L.S.S., Census of India, 1911: Volume V, Bengal and Sikkim, Part IV, Administrative Volume (Calcutta, 1913); O'Malley, L.S.S., Census of India, 1911: Volume VI, City of Calcutta, Part III, Administrative Volume (Bengal, 1913). For Bombay, we used India Census Commissioner, Census of the Bombay Presidency Taken on the 21st February 1872: General Report on the Organization, Method, Agency, etc. Employed for Enumeration and Compilation, Part I (Bombay, 1875).

23 Baines, ‘Administration’, 724; Natarajan, Indian Census, I, 369; Yeatts, M.W.M., ‘Indian census’, Sankya: The Indian Journal of Statistics, 5 (1941), 243–4.

24 Beverley, Report on . . . Town of Calcutta . . . 1876, 2; Beverley, Report on . . . Town and Suburbs of Calcutta . . . 1881, 4–7.

25 Beverley, Report on . . . Town and Suburbs of Calcutta . . . 1881, 4, 7; Maguire, Report on . . . Calcutta . . . 1891, 10–11; Bellavance, C., Normand, F. and Ruppert, E., ‘Census in context: documenting and understanding the making of twentieth-century Canadian census’, Historical Methods, 40 (2007), 96; Patriarca, S., Numbers and Nationhood: Writing Statistics in Nineteenth-Century Italy (Cambridge, 1996), 182–3; Perrot, J. and Woolf, S., State and Statistics in France, 1789–1815 (New York, 1984), 54; Rose-Redwood, ‘Indexing’, 298; Tantner, A., Ordnung der Häuser, Beschreibung der Seelen: Hausnummerierung und Seelenkonskription in der Habsburgermonarchie (Innsbruck, 2007).

26 Blackwood, Census of Calcutta, 1901, 3. Despite this experience, Blackwood recommended that, for the 1911 census, enumerators should again use tax records as a base. Using paid staff, this was done, but with predictably mixed results. Blackwood, Census of Calcutta, 1901, 4; O'Malley, Census of India . . . Calcutta, 3, 5.

27 Blackwood, Census of Calcutta, 1901, 3. An alternative, used in 1911, was to number houses sequentially within an entire circle. The first in a particular block would be circled, the last set inside a triangle. O'Malley, Census of India . . . Calcutta.

28 Beverley, Report on . . . Calcutta . . . 1876, 6; ‘The census proceedings in the district of Burdwan’, Burdwan Sanjivani, 30 Dec. 1890; Indian Newspaper Reports, Bengal, 1891, 5; ‘The census in Bombay: a morning with the workers’, Times of India, 27 Feb. 1901, 4; Glover, W., Making Lahore Modern: Constructing and Imagining a Colonial City (Minnesota, 2007), 53; Gait, Report on . . . Bengal, 1901, 15–16; and Bengal Code, ix; cf. O'Malley, Census of India . . . Calcutta, 3.

29 Clarke, G., The Post Office of India and its Story (London, 1920), 88–9; Sinha, P., Calcutta in Urban History (Calcutta, 1978), 53; Sharma, K., Urban Development in Metropolitan Shadow (New Delhi, 1985), 74; Glover, Making Lahore Modern, 50.

30 Glover, Making Lahore Modern; Furedy, ‘Whose responsibility?’, 25; Masselos, ‘Appropriating urban space’, 34, 39. Also, see Bannerjee, S., The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta (Calcutta, 1989), 24; Mizutani, S., ‘Degenerate whites and their spaces of disorder: disciplining racial and class ambiguities in colonial Calcutta (c. 1880–1930)’, in Tambe, A. and Fischer-Tine, H. (eds.), The Limits of British Colonial Control in South Asia: Places of Disorder in the Indian Ocean Region (London, 2009), 155–91; Chattopadhyay, S., ‘Blurring boundaries: the limits of “White Town” in colonial Calcutta’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 59 (2000), 154–79; Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta, 75–9.

31 Kipling, R., The City of Dreadful Night, and Other Places (Allahabad, 1891), 33; Gupta, N., ‘Calcutta: form and function (1690–1990)’, in Grewel, J.S. (ed.), Calcutta: Foundation and Development of a Colonial Metropolis (Chandigarh, 1991), 46; Steevens, G.W., In India (London, 1899), 74; Low, A Vision of India, 218.

32 Kipling, City of Dreadful Night, 31. For descriptions, photographs and plans of Indian houses, see Burnett-Hurst, R., Labour and Housing in Bombay (London, 1925); Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta; Glover, Making Lahore Modern, 99–158; Hosagrahar, J., Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism (New York, 2005), 1546.

33 Clarke, Post Office of India, 23, 69, 90, 94, 97.

34 Quotes are from Masselos, J., ‘Power in the Bombay “Moholla”, 1904–1915: an initial exploration into the world of the Indian urban muslim’, South Asia, 6 (1976), 77–8; Lynch, O., ‘Rural cities in India: continuities and discontinuities’, in Mason, P. (ed.), India and Ceylon: United and Diversity (London, 1967), 146; Low, A Vision of India, 13, 25. Also, see Dasgupta, K., ‘Mapping the spaces of minorities: Calcutta through the last century’, in Banerjee, H., Gupta, N. and Mukherjee, S. (eds.), Calcutta Mosaic: Essays and Interviews on the Minority Communities of Calcutta (New Delhi, 2009), 2269; Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta, 206; Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1961); Furedy, personal communication, 28 Nov. 2010. On the microgeography of Indian cities, also see Bannerjee, Dangerous Outcasts, 97–8; Bayly, C., The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880–1920 (Oxford, 1975), 271, 273; Catanach, I., ‘Who are your leaders? plague, the Raj, and the “communities” in Bombay, 1896–1901’, in Robb, P. (ed.), Society and Ideology: Essays in South Asian History Presented to K.A. Ballhatchet (London, 1992), 200; Joyce, Rule of Freedom, 253–4; McPherson, K., The Muslim Microcosm: Calcutta, 1918 to 1935 (Wiesbaden, 1974), 47; Sinha, Calcutta, 17.

35 Masselos, ‘Appropriating urban space’, 39; Dasgupta, K., ‘A city away from home: the mapping of Calcutta’, in Chatterjee, P. (ed.), Texts of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal (Minneapolis, 1955), 164. Our emphasis on the importance of landmarks is confirmed by personal communications received from several historians: P. Datta (27 Nov. 2010), C. Furedy (28 Nov. 2010), J. Hosagrahar (23 Nov. 2010) and S. Legg (14 Nov. 2010).

36 Sinha, Calcutta, 54; S. Bhattacharya, ‘Traders and trades in old Calcutta’, in Chaudhuri (ed.), Living City, vol. I: The Past, 205; Masselos, ‘Appropriating urban space’, 38; Geertz, C., Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernisation in Two Indonesian Towns (Chicago, 1963), 30.

37 Catanach, ‘Who are your leaders?’, 200; Chandavarkar, R., History, Culture and the Indian City (Cambridge, 2009), 223.

38 Nair, ‘Beyond nationalism’, 330.

39 Mehta, U., Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999), 69; Valverde, Mariana, The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1925 (Toronto, 1991), 134.

40 Colombijn, F., Under Construction: The Politics of Urban Space and Housing during the Decolonisation of Indonesia, 1930–1960 (Leiden, 2010), 110; Colombijn, personal communication, 14 Nov. 2010; Jellinek, L., The Wheel of Fortune: The History of a Poor Community in Jakarta (Boston, MA, 1991), 105; Bigon, L., ‘Urban planning, colonial doctrines and street naming in French Dakar and British Lagos, c. 1850–1930’, Urban History, 36 (2009), 443; Bissell, Urban Design, 128; Yeoh, Contesting Space, 229–31; Farvacque-Vitkovic, C., Godin, L., Leroux, H., Verdet, F. and Chavez, R., Street Addressing and the Management of Cities (Washington, DC, 2005), 12; L. White, personal communication, 18 Nov. 2010; J. de Barros, personal communication, 16 Nov. 2010; Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 112.

* We would like to thank Nick Lombardo for assistance with the analysis and maps. We are grateful to the editors of this special issue, together with an anonymous reviewer, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided financial support.

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