Karachi before the Raj


An undated photograph of Karachi harbour from the 19th century PHOTO/Arif Hasan’s Archives

Many people believe that Karachi was a nondescript fishermen’s hamlet before the British took its control in 1839. This is contrary to the facts. Actually, Karachi has a history spanning over at least 2,500 years and it was a thriving business centre as well as a developed town before 1839.

However, it is a fact that, during the course of history, its names as well as their spellings have changed: Crochey, Krotchey Bay, Caranjee, Koratchey, Currachee, Kurrachee and, finally, Karachi, to mention just a few appellations.

The earliest mention about the town believed to be in place of present-day Karachi is with reference to Alexander’s navy staying here in 326 BC, while travelling from the Indus Delta to the Euphrates under the command of Alexander’s close friend, Admiral Nearchus. Dr William Vincent (1739-1815), Dean of Westminster, declared that Karachi — with its ancient name Krokala — was the “first harbour in the Indian Ocean in which a European navy ever rode.” He even mentioned the exact date of this stay, which was October 8, 326 BC.

Then, in the relatively recent past, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) mentioned the “Kalachi jo Kun” meaning the “Whirlpool of Kalachi” in which lurked a sea monster that challenged the wit and courage of seafarers. He devoted one full Sur or chapter to this, under the name of Ghatoo, in his poetic collection Shah jo Risalo.

However, these sporadic references notwithstanding, most of Karachi’s history remains in the dark, till the late 18th century, when the British developed interest in the place. The basic reason for this interest was the location of the Karachi harbour in the extreme western fringes of the Subcontinent, which acquired importance in view of tensions with Persia, coupled with fears of Russian inroads towards their Indian empire through Afghanistan.

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