Signpost of an empire

Heritage

Historic Fort St George in Chennai witnessed the wedding of Elihu Yale, after whom the Yale University is named. Photos by Megarajan Sivaprakasam

All that East India Company needed was a warehouse for their trading activities, a place where they could source an uninterrupted supply of ‘painted cloth’ for sale in Britain. Demarcated on two sides by rivers and on the east by the sea, the natural features of this ‘no man’s land’ must have appealed to Day, even though for years to come, crossing the unruly sea between ship and land would be a feat in itself.

At that potent moment on August 27, 1639, when the village of Madraspatnam was given to the Company by Damarla Venkatappa Nayak for a period of two years, along with the right to build a fort, issue coins and govern the area, Francis Day could not have foreseen the far reaching consequences this simple act would have. A fort was duly begun in February 1940, and a rudimentary fort house, all of 100 yards square, completed by April 23, which happened to be St George’s Day.

The outer ramparts of the fort enclosed the WhiteTown of about 70 houses, away from the Black Town where some 300 families of weavers and craftsmen lived. This, then, was the extent of Madras and the only structure on the skyline. Slowly, the number of British and Portuguese living in the fort grew, as did the inhabitants of the area just outside the outer fort which took 13 years to complete. The walls were not particularly high and the moat not impregnable, as the British were to learn when the French, under Dupleix, took control of the fort in 1746 and caused widespread damage.

In time, more villages were added to the first one, but they lay outside the boundaries of the fort, and as the city of Madras grew to its present size, so did the number of villages included within its greater area, while the fort itself did not grow substantially past its outer perimeter of about 100 acres.

The oldest Anglican Church in India, St Mary’s, is also the oldest surviving building in the fort. Completed in 1680, it shelters the first British inscription in India, on the tombstone of Elizabeth Baker who died in 1652.

The first wedding recorded was that of Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named. But it is another wedding that assumes significance in the light of later events — that of Robert Clive to Margaret Maskelyne in 1753.

Robert Clive came to Madras as a ‘writer’ or clerk in the East India Company, and was disheartened enough during his stay at Fort St George to attempt suicide. Deputed to fight against Dupleix, Clive succeeded in defending Arcot and was promoted. In 1757, 32-year-old Clive was sent to Bengal, where he won not only the Battle of Plassey but everlasting fame. He discovered within himself the makings of a strategist and returned to Bengal in 1765 from Britain as the governor and commander-in-chief.

This time he secured the territory of “Bengal, Bihar and Orissa” from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. Amassing riches as the spoils of war, Clive returned to England for good in 1775, having planted the flag of the British Empire in India. Thus, the story of India’s subjugation to the British began in Fort St George in Madras. The house where Clive lived with his wife can still be seen here.

Since Madras was the Company’s base, there are many links between Fort St George and the Company’s expansion into Calcutta. Job Charnock, who established the British presence in Calcutta by 1690, had his three daughters baptised in St Mary’s. The baptismal font, used ever since its inception, is made of a kind of black granite called Charnockite after him.

The romance between Warren Hastings and his already-married love, Maria Chapusettin, also thrived in the breezy environs of the fort. Hastings and Maria and her husband Baron von Imhoff moved on to Calcutta, now independent of Madras and its governor. Hastings waited patiently for Maria’s divorce before marrying her and she became the ‘governess’ of the governor-general in Bengal. Interestingly, both Clive and Hastings faced charges of corruption on their return back to England.

Recently, in 2006, Robert Clive’s pet, Aldabra Giant Tortoise, named Advaita, died in the Calcutta zoo, aged about 255 years.

The officer’s mess at Fort St George, where the governor down to the lowest clerk once dined together, has been turned into the fort museum. This building was also used as an exchange. The register of baptisms, marriages and burials on display at the fort museum, noting Robert Clive’s wedding in copperplate handwriting, instantly evokes that bygone period.

Paintings, uniforms, coins, crockery, prints, maps and a fine collection of arms are on display. But, perhaps, the most curious thing to be seen here is the ‘travelling’ statue of Cornwallis. Carved on its base is the poignant scene of Tipu Sultan handing over his two sons as hostage. Shipped from Britain, the statue and its cenotaph were located at many places in Madras before being separated. Cornwallis was finally installed inside the fort’s museum while his cenotaph lies closeby, outdoors.

Since 1640, many buildings have been built, demolished and replaced inside the core 42 acres of the fort, and the main fort house itself amalgamated into the secretariat building. Today, Fort St George is studded with well-maintained heritage buildings, others gone to seed such as the later Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley’s house, and the forbidding PWD concrete blocks that house government offices. Army personnel, government staff, MPs and MLAs as well as tourists crowd the place.
The tallest flag mast in the country triumphantly bears the Indian flag, a happy ending that took 300-odd years to achieve.

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