Saturday, December 8, 2007


Display at Fort St. George Museum

Fort St. George, a memorial relic - Today

Fort St. George, a memorial relic - Today
Fort St. George - Today

Fort St George - line engraving by Jan van Ryne 1712-1760

Plan of Fort St. George and the City of Madras, by Herman Moll, published by Bettesworth & Hitch, London, 1726, 1739

Thomas Pitt 1710

Madras 1746

Fort St. George in a copper engraving in 1700 from a Dutch source

A view from King's barracks in 1804 by Swain

Merchant's building in 1829 by J.W. Gantz
Trade and Custom House in 1824

Lord Bentik's building in White Town in 1841 by J.W. Gantz

An European house 1n 1841 by J.W. Gantz

An European house 1n 1841 by J.W. Gantz

Hindu pilgrims in Madras in 1841 by J.W. Gantz

St. Mary's Church in 1841 by J.W. Gantz

Fort St. George at the distance in 1785 by Elisha Trapaud

View within the walls of a Pagoda in 1807 by Edward Orme

Fort Square, from the south side of the Fort St. George in 1807 by Edward Orme

Aquatint of Madras in 1807 Edward Orme

A view of part of St Thome Street, Fort St. George in 1807 by Edward Orme

A view of the North Street, Fort St. George in 1807 Edward Orme

A view from the King's barracks, Fort St. George in 1807 by Edward Orme
Surf boats at Madras - a pen and ink wash drawing in 1807 by Chinnery

Western entrance of Fort St. George in 1820 William Daniell

The Government House, Fort St. George in 1820 by William Daniell
The Assembly rooms on the Race ground in 1820 by William Daniell

The Armenian Bridge, near St Thomas's Mount in 1820 by William Daniell

Southwest View of Fort St. George in 1820 by by William Daniell

Part of the Black Town in 1820 by William Daniell
Entrance to Fort St. George in 1820 by William Daniell
East India Company was started in the year 1600 AD in India. Twelve years later, the British established their first factory at Surat under the protection of the Mughals. Yet to access the resources of Southeast Asia they needed a base on the east coast, especially on the Coromondel coast, where flourished a thriving textile industry under the patronage of the Nizam of Golkonda.

The British first attempted a landing at Pulikat, about 40 km north of modern Chennai, but due to the strong presence of the Dutch, they abandoned their plan. From Pulicat, the British moved to Masulipatnam, the chief port of the Nizam of Golkonda. But the British had to abandon the port and look for a new place. Mr. Francis Day, a member of the Masulipatnam Council made a voyage of exploration in 1637 down the coast as far as Pondicherry with a view to choose a site for a new settlement.

At that time the Coromondel coast was ruled under the Rajah of Chandragiri who was a descendent of the famous Rayas of Vijayanagar. Under the Rajah, local chiefs known as Nayak, ruled over different districts. One of these Nayaks was Damalra Venkatapathy Nayak, who ruled all over the coast from Pulikat to the Portuguese settlement of San Thome (a locality in Chennai). His brother Ayyappa Nayak resided at Poonamalle, a few km to the west of Madras, and looked after the affairs of the coast. Ayyapa Nayak had invited Francis Day to choose a site and examine the possibilities of trade there. Day was quite impressed seeing the prospects of the new sight at Madraspattnam. He secured a grant giving over to the English the village of Madraspattnam for a period of two years and empowering them to build a fort and castle at that place.

The main problem for the British in that time was however the lack of fund. At last in February 1640, Day and his colleague Cogen, accompanied by a few factors and writers, soldiers, artificers and a Hindu powder maker called Naga Battan, proceeded to Madras and started the English factory on 20th Feb 1640.

The fort was located within the traditional limit of the village of Madraspattnam. The nucleus area had extended along the coast between the mouth of the Cooum River and the northern end of the present George Town. Within this area lay the island and the North River (than called Elambore river), which flowed parallel to the sea along the western side of Madraspattnam village. The two rivers had formed a wide shallow backwater at their joint outlet. At the point where the North river bent east, there was only a narrow neck of land about 300 yards in length that separated it from Cooum as it curved towards the sea. At this point, the river was artificially bifurcated several years after the foundation of the city to equalize the flood levels.

The Fort

The fort was planned nearly square, with a bastion in each corner and the factory house was in the centre of the fort. It was named Fort St. George. It took 14 years to construct the fort and was finished only in 1653.

The Fort St. George was essentially a trading post in its earlier days. The motive of its founder, i.e., the East India Company was profit rather than glory and therefore the Fort St. George never matched in aesthetic with other well-known forts of the Subcontinent such as the Golkonda Fort or the Red Fort. According to the reports of the East India Company, some of the governors and founders had been heavily charged due to their creative ambition towards beautifying the fort. Andrew Cogan for example, a co-founder of the fort was summoned by the company in 1645 to answer the charge that he had extravagantly and irresponsibly built Fort St. George at a time when the Company’s stock was so small.

Defence was of paramount importance because the fort was surrounded by hostile local powers on the one hand and by the European rivals on the other. In Europe, when the impregnable character of medieval castles began to be undermined by the arrival of gunpowder, a series of brilliant innovations were carried out in defence fortifications. The British had brought those innovations in the fort building for the first time in India.

In Fort St. George, the inner fort, work on which was entrusted to local labourer under British supervision, extended 108 yards east to west. Constructed as a simple rectangle or tetragon, it had an ‘arrowhead’ bastion at each corner. As early as 1644, the governor, Thomas Ivie, had written to the company expressing his confidence that when the fort was finished “wee nee not feare inland Enemy neare unto us in these ports’, a confidence vindicated when the Mughal governor Mir Jumla’s attack was successfully repulsed. By 1659, the inner fort was further strengthened by an artwork with bastions at four corners while the European part was walled up in the next two years.

Dr. Fryer, a visitor in 1673 provided the most celebrated account of the early years of Fort St. George. In his account: the governor’s mansion was built at an angle to the inner bastions in order to deflect cannon fire. The second defensive feature was to restrict the height of the houses inside the citadel so that they were not an easy target for enemy fire. The outwork was walled with stone of good height, to blunt a canon bullet.

Thomas Pitt was appointed as the governor of Madras in 1710. In a map of 1710, a comprehensive view of the town, showing rustications of the artworks, give enough hints about the nature and foundation of defence in Fort St. George. Pitt brought to completion the early fortifications by enclosing the Black Town with a strong wall to counter the threat from a local ruler, a system that lasted until 1742.

Life in the Fort and its surrounding

Indian merchants and artificers were attracted to the settlement and encouraged to build houses therein under a promise of exemptions from import taxes for a period of thirty years. Within the first period of settlement, there arose some seventy to eighty large houses to north and south of the fort, within the village of Madraspattnam nearly four hundred families of weavers had come to settle permanently. The presence in Madras of members of the Tamil weaving caste, who produced the essential export commodity - textiles and chintz, was vital to the existence of the East India Company. Following is an interesting account about the Tamil weavers of early Madras, found mentioned in Surat letters to the East India Company – Vestiges of Old Madras.

now the building is in great forwardness, and 3 or 400 families of weavers, Painters and other Artificers come to live under your protection. So that it is become a place of great hopes, hence you may acquire yearly very great quantities of long Cloth for England…The other conveniences and profits that may from this Fort accrue to you … will deserve your consideration (29 December 1640).

Now the greatest part of them (walls) are finished, and may happily stand to do good service; for, without such defensible places, your goods and Servants among such treacherous people are in Continuall hazard…in those parts abundance of good and good cheape Cloth is said to be procurable…the effort is Conveniently enough scited (27 January 1641/2).

Besides weavers, there were also a substantial other Indian communities who lived in early Madras. Local architects and masons played a significant role in the establishment of the early British settlement. While the main planner or architect in Madras was British – this task usually falling to the ship’s gunner on account of his technical expertise – the masons and builders were without exceptions local. Fort St. George to Company, 1 November 1677, mentions Muttamara, the chief carpenter, and Nallana, the chief bricklayer.

Black Town

To the north of Fort St. George is the George Town, a bustling commercial area of modern day Chennai. George Town has a history going back to the early years of Fort St George. Earlier, it was called ‘Black Town’. Initially it was essentially a settlement of dyers and weavers, and called also Chennapattanam by the native settlers.

In 1746, the British fought a war against the French. As a result, a large part of the Black Town was severely damaged. When the British recovered from the seize of Fort St. George by de Lally’s French forces, a decision was made to create an open esplanade, extending 400 yards northwards from the walls of the fort and providing a clear field of fire, they razed Black Town. Army engineers like Call, Ross and Benfield worked in the post-war period of mid 18th century on a gridded layout town. Indian homes with courtyards occupied its northern half and were protected by a massive town wall. The southern boundary was named Esplanade Road, and Rattan Bazaar, Evening Bazaar and China Bazaar occupied long stretches of its northern edge. North of them were the homes of the European subordinate staff, as well as those of non-British (like the Portuguese, Armenians and Jews) and the wealthier Eurasians.

Over an area of 850 acres which comprised of Black Town had shrines of all faiths, reflecting the religious harmony of the settlement. The first were the Hindu temples built between the year 1640 and 1680 by the leading merchants, most of whom were the middlemen of British merchants and business houses. Street after street in the central part of Black Town was occupied by settlers from Saurashtra and Rajasthan. The area even today is known as Sowcarpet, where one can find celebration of festivals – Diwali, Holi and Ganesh Puja in the north Indian manner. The first Jain temples were built in the 18th century. Moor Street is the name reflecting the settlement of early Muslim communities. The first mosque in Black Town was built here in the 1670s. Today’s Coral Merchant Street was once been a synagogue, where the Portuguese Jews who dominated this street in the 17th and 18th centuries worshipped. Though the Jewish presence is no longer here, the Armenian Church remains a magnificent relic.

Black Town in the writing of Thomas Salmon (1699)

Where the Portuguese, Indians, Armenians and a great variety of other people inhabit…is built in the form of a square…better than a mole and a half in circumference, being surrounded by a brick wall of seventeen feet thick…The Streets of Black Town are wide, and trees planted on some of them; and having the sea on one side of a river on the other, there are a few towns so pleasantly situated or better supplied; but except some brick houses the rest are miserable cottages, built with clay and thatched and not So much as a window to be seen on the outside…but I must say not withstanding all this appearance of poverty, I never was in a place where wealth abounded more, or where ready money was more plentiful about 20 years ago…Beyond the Black Town are gardens for half a mile together planted with mangoes, coconuts, guavoes, oranges…where everybody has a liberty of walking and many purchases the most delicious fruits for a trifle.

The revised plan of the Fort St. George

Invasion of Madras by the French in 1740s had crucially exposed the weakness of the early fortress system. After the French invasion, F.C. Scott was appointed as the Engineer general to modernise defence by redesigning the fort in 1753. It was however finally completed in 1770 by Patrick Ross. The fortress adopted a tenailled (serrated) semi octagon, with a complex series of bastions, glacis, ravelins, and other devices to stagger and dissipate sustained gunfire.


Friar Domingo Fernadez de Navarrete (1618 – 86) 1670

On the second of May 1670 we anchored before Madras. I had an extraordinary desire to be ashore. A Portuguese came aboard, and I got into the boat that brought him, so did others. Those are very odd boats, they have no nails or pins, but the boards are sewed together with ropes made of Coco outward shells, and tho the infidels assured us they were safe, yet we could not but be in great fear. When they come towards the shore, they take the surges, which drive them up so that we step out of the boat upon the dry sand. Thousands of souls waited there to know the ship, and who came aboard it. I went immediately to the church of the French capuchins, who resided there, to give God thanks for having delivered us from the Sea.

When we came to this place, we found it besieged by the king of Golkonda’s army, but without his orders; their design was to extort something from the English, but they were disappointed. It is on the coast of Coromandel, half a league short of the city of S. Thomas, otherwise called Meliapor. Here the English have a noble fort; they have other walls but small, within which live all the Portuguese, who after the losing of Jafanapatan, Nagapatan, and S. Thomas, went to seek places to dwell. The English received them, and they live under their protection and government. They stand the English in stead, for upon occasion they make use of them, as they did at this time, when all men took arms and guarded the walls. The enemy had stopped all the avenues, so that provisions grew scarce. There is neither port nor water, this last they get out of some small wells they have dig’d. Ships lie safe six months, then they go away till the fair weather comes again. The English allow a public Church, kept by two French capuchins, and tho there are several clergy-men, they all have to say mass there, with no small subjection and dissatisfaction; but the English who are Masters there, favouring the religious men, they must have patience per force.

It is about twelve or thirteen degrees of north latitude, and an excellent climate, any nice man may live there; the convenience of buying cloths is great, all those people living upon it.

Letters to Madras (June-October 1834)

At last ninety days after leaving Falmouth, I was summoned on deck at five o'clock in the morning of Tuesday June the 10th, to see Madras. Since we lost sight of the Lizard, I had never looked on any land except the blue outline of the mountains of Ceylon. There was Madras lying close to the sea like Brighton, and we were anchoring about a mile or a mile and a half from the town. The effect was very striking, --great, white, masses of buildings scattered amidst a rich profusion of deep dark varnished green. The sun was just about to rise. The town was quite still, and for some time we saw no signs of life.

At last a catamaran was discernible amidst the waves. Do you know what a catamaran is? It is simply a raft composed by tying two or three long pieces of wood together. On these rafts the fishermen of Madras venture on the sea in all weathers, in defiance of winds, waves, and sharks. The appearance of the little black boatman beating the water with his paddle, and seeming as familiar to the element as a duck, was the first glimpse that I caught of the people among whom I am to live. He came on board with nothing on him but a pointed yellow cap, and walked among us with a self-possession and civility which, coupled with his colour and his nakedness, nearly made me die of laughing.

In the meantime we had given notice by signals of the name of our ship, and soon boats arrived from a frigate which lay in the roads [=a bit offshore], and from the shore. I now learned that I had been very impatiently expected.

The officers who came on board informed me that though Sir Frederic was absent we were to go to the Government House and to be entertained as we should have been if he had been on the spot. In the afternoon accordingly we went on shore. I do not know whether you ever heard of the surf at Madras. It breaks on the beach with such fury that no ship's boat can venture through it. The only conveyance in which people can land with safety is a road boat made and guided by the natives. It is a large, clumsy barge-like looking thing, made of rough planks stitched together, and so elastic that it readily yields to the pressure of the waves. A boat of this sort was sent off for us, and a dozen half-naked blacks, howling all the way the most dissonant song that you ever heard, rowed us with great skill to the shore....

I can give you no idea of the bewildering effect of this our first introduction to a new world. To be on land after being three months at sea is of itself a great change: --but to be in such a land-- nothing but dark faces and bodies with white turbans and flowing robes, --the trees not our trees, --the very smell of the atmosphere like that of a hothouse, --the architecture as strange as the vegetation. I was quite stunned. On we drove, however. Our very equipage, though English built, was new in form and fitting up. There was a window behind to give us a thorough draught of air. There was an oilcloth below, because a carpet or rug would have been too hot; --and at each door trotted a boy in an oriental costume of scarlet and gold. These boys run by the side of a carriage without being distressed for fourteen or fifteen miles at a time.
Life at Government House
At last we came to the government house. As we drove up the Seapoys on guard presented arms; and when we stopped under the portico, a crowd of figures with beards, turbans, and robes of white muslin came to receive us, and to conduct us to our apartments. Captain Barron and his wife, a very kind and agreeable young woman, represented our absent host and hostess. Each of us was provided with a sitting room, a bed room, a dressing room, and a bathroom. My man was lodged near me, and Hannah's maid close to her.

The size of the rooms is immense. My dressing room is as high as a church and has four great doors, each as large as the door of a house in Grosvenor Square. These doors are not solid; but are made after the fashion of Venetian blinds, so that the wind is always blowing through the room. The beds are immense, as hard as bricks, and completely surrounded with mosquito net. The furniture looks scanty in the large apartments. There are no carpets, but the floors are covered with matting, which looks neat enough. The ceilings are of timber painted white, and the walls of a remarikable plaster called chunam, which is made of fishes' bones, and which, when very fine, really looks exactly like the whitest and purest marble....

At half after eight breakfast is served for Hannah and me. We are waited on by four or five servants; and, what is much more to the purpose, the coffee is excellent, --the butter good and cool, --the bread, the eggs, the milk, all quite equal to those of an English country house. As to the fish and fruit which they regularly put on the table, I do not trouble them. The fish is insipid: and all the tropical fruits together are not worth any of our commonext English productions-- cherry, strawberry, currant, apple, pear, peach. The mango eats like honey and turpentine, --the plaintain like a rotten pear. --The pine-apple is the best fruit that I have found here, and is as far inferior to the pine apples of an English pinery as the grapes on a wall to hot house grapes.... I should tell you that they have a way of cooling liquors by immersing the bottle in a pail of water and saltpetre, which answers admirably, and makes all our drink quite as cool as we wish to have it.....

[By] half after four or five.... the sea-breeze is generally coming in: and the good people of Madras take their airings. I go out in a carriage for two hours with Captain Barron. Hannah goes in another with the lady. We drive through different parts of Madras and its environs, and come back at about seven.

The drives are very pleasant, particularly when the sea-breeze is blowing. For some miles round the whole country is a garden. The English at Madras have only their offices within the walls of the fortification. They live in villas which stretch far into the country on every side. Each villa is surrounded by a pleasure ground of some acres, which is here called a compound. The roads are bordered with rich tropical vegetation, and crowded by an innumerable swarm of natives, some walking, some riding, some in carts drawn by bullocks. Every here and there you come to a native village or town. From what I have yet seen I should say that these are much on an equality with the villages of Wales and Scotland-- Llanrwst for example, or Laidler-- two which I particularly remember. They consist of low whitewashed huts of one story with [a] projecting roof which forms a sort of piazza in front of the dwellings. There are some signs that the people in these huts have more than the mere necessaries of life. The timber over the door is generally carved, and sometimes with a taste and skill that reminded me of the wood-work of some of our fine Gothic Chapels and Cathedrals. The crowd and noise in the streets is prodigious during business hours. But if you pass late at night, the people are sleeping before their doors on the ground by hundreds, with scarcely any covering. Indeed they need none in this climate.

As to the European villas, they are large and sometimes very shewy. But you may see at a glance that they are the residences of people who do not mean to leave them to their children or even to end their own days in them. There is a want of repair-- a slovenliness... which marks that the rulers of India are pilgrims and sojourners in the land. You will see a fine portico spoiled by a crack in the plaster which a few rupees would set to rights, --gaps in the hedges-- breaches in the walls-- doors off the hinges, and so on. As no Englishman means to die in India, and as very few have any certainty that, even while they remain in India, they shall reside at the same place, nobody pays the attention to his dwelling which he would pay to a family house. It is curious that the neatest and most carefully kept houses which I have observed are those of half-castes and Armenians, who mean to end their days here....