Birth of a city

Birth of a city


Birth of a city

Stately: Cannon outside Fort Museum

Standing on the pavement of the Napier Bridge and watching the horizon, I looked at the thin blue lines painted by the river and the sea with a stretch of sand amidst them. It seemed like a painting, the stillness of it all, reflecting the mood of the city, in the wee hours of the morning. The Iron Bridge built originally in the 19th century by Francis Napier, the then governor of Madras, is not just another symbol of the British Raj. It is, among other things, a part of a chronological timeline that reflects the birth of a city. 

Many centuries ago, this patch of land was just another fishing hamlet along the Coromandel Coast. Ports, towns, temples and several kingdoms along the coastline had already made their way into the history maps of the past, even before the Europeans landed on the shores. 

The British, however  were the last to arrive. Their European counterparts had already established their settlements and their trading routes along the coast. The Portuguese, for instance, were ruling over Santhome, and the Dutch in Pulicat.

The British who tried their luck at Pulicat, Nizampattinam, Masulipatnam and Durgarayapatnam finally landed at Madraspatnam. Two gentlemen, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, representing the East India Company, with the help of local aides, Beri Thimmanna and Nagabattan, negotiated with Venkatappa Nayak, the local chieftain, who granted them a sandy strip of land surrounded by the sea, rivers and canals. The deal was apparently signed on August 22, 1639, the day we celebrate as the birth of a settlement called Madras, which eventually grew into a metropolitan city. 

The foggy outlines of the ships in the distant horizon on the Marina came to view as the sun lit the waters. The lighthouse at the extreme corner was still bathed in fog.

It was hard to believe that here were two warring settlements, fighting on the shores of Coromandel Coast. As the British fortified their little hamlet and called it Fort St George after their patron saint, Santhome was well under the Portuguese. 

I recalled reading an extract from Narasiah’s book on Madras — an incident about how two priests were kidnapped in their respective settlements. During the early days of Fort St George, a French friar, Father Ephraim, had written to the governor of Santhome about some of the abuses prevalent in his town. He was later invited to Santhome, but was captured near Luz Church and dragged through the streets chained, and even sent to Goa for an inquisition.

The author says that the British tried to intervene, but when they failed, they retaliated by arresting the chief ecclesiastic of Santhome. It was only after two years that the priests were released after an agreement was signed between the respective heads of the settlements. Ravaged by wars and owned by various rulers, from the Golconda kings to the Europeans — Portuguese, French, Dutch — the old settlement of Santhome was eventually destroyed much later.

I retraced my steps towards Fort St George, built originally in the sandy strip between the river and the sea. The factory or the fort took almost 14 years to build and the initial structure was constructed in a square with bastions at the corner. As the construction of the fort began, an entire town grew around it, later known as the White Town. The walls came up around it and The Black Town sprung up outside it, housing several weavers, merchants and artisans. Temples were built and Madras had its very first settlement, as the Indian town came to be called Chennapattinam or George Town.

Walking inside Fort St George today, I could still see old streets, parade grounds, houses and churches. The walk took me to the Madras of 400 years ago. At the Fort Museum, various maps and illustrations depict the evolution of the settlement and the many modifications to the fort itself. The museum is a treasure house, showcasing some wonderful paintings of the city among other memorabilia.

My next stop was to the Church Street to see the oldest Protestant church, St Mary’s Church, where Robert Clive apparently got married. Built in 1680, the church is filled with memorials dedicated to governors, merchants, soldiers and officials. I asked to see Clive’s marriage records and while I was waiting for the register, my eyes wandered to a painting — a reproduction of Raphael’s ‘Last Supper’ by an unknown painter. The British apparently brought it here from Pondicherry in the 18th century. The church, I read with interest, was apparently designed by a gunner, William Dixon, and the roof was built to withstand the gunfire from sea and land.

The grand house on Charles Street, which was Robert Clive’s House or Admirality House, now housing the ASI, old residences including Arthur Wellesley’s home, Secretariat Buildings, Exchange Building, Kings Barracks, the Parade Ground — they still exist today.

The Secretariat Buildings was the seat of power even during Day’s days. The Exchange Building was the hub of trade and the long room was used to hold public meetings and for entertainment. Today, it houses the Fort Museum and the long room is a portrait gallery. I learnt that the roof of the building once housed a tall lighthouse, almost 90 feet above sea level. 

The British were not the only ones who ruled Madras. The French defeated them in the 18th century and controlled it for over three years, when the Black Town was almost destroyed. The entire fort was fortified all over again. More gates added, the course of the river diverted, and as you see the various maps in the museum, you realise that the trading company had slowly become the ruling authority. It was the Madras Presidency and the first seat of power for the British East India Company, long before Kolkata or Mumbai took over. 

Meanwhile, the settlement grew into a city. Santhome was annexed, Triplicane leased. Then came areas like Egmore, Purasaiwalkam, Tondiarpet, Tiruvottiyur, Nungambakkam, Vepery, Adyar, Guindy, Saidapet, Mambalam among many others. The young settlement added into its folds villages with a longer, complex history and culture. The cultural landscape of Madras soon evolved over time as the settlement gave birth to the city, Madras or Chennai, as we call today.