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Chapter 12: Madras and the sea

Madras is now a seaport of considerable repute; but it is interesting to recall the fact that less than forty years ago the city was without a harbour, and that ships which came there had to anchor out at sea. In the days of the Company, passengers and cargo had to be landed on the beach in boats; and, as the waves that chase one another to the shores of Madras are nearly always giant billows crested with foaming surf, the passage between ship and shore was not without its discomforts and also its risks.

Warren Hastings, when he was senior member of the Madras Council and was in charge of Public Works, wrote it down that he thought it 'possible to carry out a causeway or pier into the sea beyond the Surf, to which boats might come and land their goods or passengers, without being exposed to the Surf.' At various times different engineers devised plans for such a pier as Warren Hastings proposed, but nothing was actually done, and it was not until the sixties of last century that a pier was actually made. It was not a stone causeway such as Hastings seems to have had in his mind, but was a lighter and likelier structure of wood and iron; and it did excellent work, making it easy for passengers and cargo to be landed in fair weather. Madras was still, however, without a harbour; but before many years a harbour was taken in hand, and in the summer of 1881 its two arms, enclosing the small pier, were practically finished. There was much rejoicing; but the congratulations were short-lived, for on a certain night during the winter of the same year there was a cyclone off Madras, and the next morning the citizens saw that their harbour had been wrecked by the devastating waves. It was fifteen years before the harbour had been restored, upon an improved plan; and even then it was a poor apology for a haven; for when a storm was expected, ships were warned to put out to sea, as the cyclone had shown that a stormy sea was less dangerous than the storm-beaten harbour. Within recent years, however, the harbour has been so much altered and strengthened and developed that it is regarded as a splendid piece of engineering, and shipping business in Madras has benefited greatly. Large vessels can now lie up against wharves, to discharge or to load their cargo, and passengers can embark and disembark in comfort, and the increase in trade has been great. Much watchfulness, however, is still very necessary; for, on an exciting night a few years ago, part of the extended harbour-wall was washed away by a storm.

Yes, Madras is an important seaport; yet it is a fact that, except to men whose business is with the sea, Madras is much less like a seaside town than it was in its earlier years, and many of the people who live there seldom see the briny ocean--even though they may sometimes be reminded of its nearness when in the stillness of the night they hear

'The league-long breakers thundering on the shore.'

For one thing, the greater part of Madras is not so near the sea as it was in former times; for the southern wall of the harbour has acted as a breakwater, causing the sea to recede a very long way from the original shore; and houses in the thoroughfare that is still called 'Beach Road' are now a very long way from the beach, and it is only from upper stories that the sea in the distance is visible. Southward, moreover, the magnificent road that is still called the 'Marina' is fast losing its right to the name; for it is only across a broad stretch of ever-extending dry sand that the dark blue ribbon of tropical sea is beheld therefrom.

In earlier days Madras was verily a city of the sea. Both White Town and Black Town lay directly along the sea-beach, and the coming and going of the Company's ships were momentous events. Surf-boats used to land on the beach outside the 'Sea-Gate' of the wave-splashed Fort, laden with cargo from the Company's ships lying out in the roads; and the bales were carried through the gateway into the Company's warehouses within the Fort-walls. The Sea-Gate is still to be seen, and it still looks towards the sea; but the sea is far away, and the Sea-Gate is now one of the least used of the entrances to the Fort.

In former times the Company had a considerable fleet of first-class sailing-ships, and, owing to the frequency of wars with either the French or the Dutch, the Company obtained royal permission to equip their ships as men-of-war armed with serviceable guns, which could be turned against an enemy if occasion required. The voyage from England to India was by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and it lasted at least three or four months, and often very much more. For example, when Robert Clive came out to India for the first time, the vessel was so buffeted by contrary winds that the commander thought it best to run across the Atlantic and let her lie up so long in a South American port that Clive learned to speak Spanish with considerable fluency; and it was not till nearly a year after leaving England that the young writer arrived at Madras.

Furthermore, besides the various adventures that were natural to a sea-voyage, there was the contingency of a sea-fight, and the possibility of being taken to Pondicherry or Batavia as a prisoner of war instead of being landed at Madras as a paid employee of the 'Honourable Company.'

It was usual for several ships to sail together, for mutual protection; and passengers had reason to congratulate themselves when they were eventually landed safe and sound at Madras. It can be readily imagined that the sight of a vessel of the Company approaching in the distance caused a stir of excitement amongst the residents of Fort St. George. There were no telegraphs from other ports to give previous notice of a vessel's prospective arrival; and the fact that a ship was at hand was unknown until her flag[3] or her particular rig was discerned in the distance, or until one of her guns gave notice of her approach. The comparative regularity, however, of the winds in Eastern seas caused 'seasons' in which vessels might be expected; and when a season arrived, the look-out who happened to be on duty on the Fort flagstaff must have been particularly alert. Ay, and there must have been much hurrying to and fro in the streets of White Town when the signal had been given and the news had spread that the sails of a Company's ship had been sighted, and while the vessel, perhaps with several consorts, came nearer and nearer, till at last the anchors were dropped and salutes were exchanged between ship and shore.

[Footnote 3: 'The flag displayed by the Company's ships bore seven horizontal red stripes on a white ground, with a St. George's Cross in the inner top corner.'--Love.]

There was good cause for excitement. The ship brought letters from home--perhaps after several months of no news at all. There were the private letters that told the news about near ones and dear ones; there were the official letters that decreed appointments in the Company's service and promotions and penalties, and dealt with the Company's business; and there were the 'news-letters'--the old-fashioned predecessors of the modern newspaper, which were written by paid correspondents, whose duty it was to give their clients news of London and of England and of Europe. The news was often astounding, and was sometimes extraordinarily behind-time. For example, the Company's employees in India were still professing loyalty to the Most High and Mighty King James II nearly a twelvemonth after that monarch had fled to France and had been succeeded by William and Mary; and the employees at Madras were surprised indeed when a ship arrived one day from England with the belated news.

The salutes have been fired, and the vessel has been surrounded by a flotilla of surf-boats and catamarans. The commander and the passengers are being rowed ashore, and the Governor with his Councillors, dressed all of them in their smartest official attire, are waiting on the beach outside the Sea-Gate of the Fort to bid them a hearty welcome. Amongst the passengers there are probably some youths who have been posted to Madras either as apprenticed 'writers' or as military Cadets; and perhaps there is a senior employee who is returning to India after the rare event of a holiday in England. Possibly too there are some ladies, either wives of employees who have been willing to accompany or to follow their husbands to the mysterious East--or, as was not infrequently the case, young ladies who, with the consent of the Directors, have been shipped out to India by their parents or guardians or on their own account, in the hope that companionable bachelor employees, pining in their loneliness, will jump at the chance of matrimony.

The surf-boat comes nearer and nearer; and when it gets among the breakers there are feminine screams of terror. The alarm is not without cause; for at one moment the boat is being balanced on the top of a heaving wave, and the next it is almost lost to sight in a foaming hollow. The excitement in the tossing boat is tremendous; but it is brief; for there are only three or four breakers to be negotiated, and in less than a minute a curling wave has caught the boat in its clutch and hurls it with a thud into the shallows. Naked coolies rush forward and lay hold of its sides, lest the backwash should carry it seaward again; and, with the help of the next wave, they manage to haul the boat a little further on shore, and the passengers are able to disembark--splashed, perhaps, but safe and sound.

When the greetings are over, the Governor leads the way into the Fort, where a general meal is served and the news is told and the exclamations of surprise are many. In the evening there is a banquet, and after the banquet, 'when the gentlemen have finished their wine,' and have rejoined the ladies, the stately dances of the period are 'performed;' and it is not unlikely that before the assembly breaks up, some, if not all, of the newly-arrived young ladies have received and have accepted offers of matrimony; and it is possible that two or more gallants have had a serious quarrel about this young lady or that, and even possible that, out of the Governor's sight, swords have been drawn in her regard.

On the morrow the unloading begins; and for many days a fleet of surf-boats is busily engaged in bringing ashore the broadcloths and other English wares which the Company will be able to sell at a large profit--not forgetting the barrels of canary and madeira and other luxuries that have been imported both for private consumption and also for the general table in the Fort. And when the unloading is over and the ship has been overhauled after her long voyage, the surf-boats will then be engaged in carrying to the ship the calicoes and other Indian wares that are to be exported to England for the Company's profit there.

The sea-trade of Madras is very much greater now than it was in the days of old. Not a day now passes but at least one steamship glides into the Madras Harbour, and it is always a much larger vessel than was the very largest of the sailing-ships that in those bygone times tacked laboriously to an anchorage in the Madras roads. But the excitement has disappeared. The steamers come and go with as little stir--or not so much--as when a tramcar leaves a crowded street-corner.

In Madras there are still some reminders of the times when nautical affairs were in more general evidence in Madras than they are now. For example, the 'Naval Hospital Road' is still the name of a thoroughfare which leads from the Poonamallee Road, opposite the School of Arts, to Vepery, and it is a reminder of the fact that there were once upon a time sufficient naval men in Madras to make a hospital for sick seamen a necessity. The buildings of the old Naval Hospital still exist; they are the buildings in the Poonamallee Road opposite the School of Arts. In the early part of last century the Naval Hospital itself was abolished, and the buildings were converted into a 'Gun Carriage Factory'--and this is now no more. It is a good many years indeed since the Gun Carriage Factory was closed down; and in Madras at this particular time, when there is a very pressing demand for house accommodation, many people wonder that such spacious premises in so busy a quarter of the city should have been lying idle for so long and are hoping to see them once more serving some useful purpose.

Another reminder of the nautical conditions of those days is to be found in the existence of an 'Admiralty House.' 'Admiralty House' is a fine residence in San Thomé, and is now the property of the Raja of Vizianagram. It was apparently the San Thomé residence of the Admiral of the East Indian fleet. That official had another residence within the Fort, which used also to be called 'Admiralty House'--the house which Robert Clive occupied at the time of his marriage, and which is now the Accountant-General's office.

We will glance at one more reminder of the nautical Madras of bygone times. At Royapuram there is a large house which is now styled 'Biden House,' and is used as a harbour-masters' residence, but which until a few years ago was called 'The Biden Home' or 'The Sailors' Home.' It is not an ancient building, but it was nevertheless built in the days of the sailing-ship, and is a reminder of the times when sailing-ships used to lie out in the Madras Roads and the 'Sailors' Home' offered seamen entertainment more physically and morally wholesome than that which was provided in the low-class hotels and saloons which laid themselves out for the spoliation of Jack ashore--and of the time when the wreck of a sailing-ship on the Coromandel coast was not an uncommon occurrence and parties of distressed seamen were not infrequently to be seen in Madras, for whom a temporary 'Home' had to be provided. The 'Old Salt'--the picturesque sea-dog of sailing-ship days--has disappeared except from story-books--the old-fashioned seaman with earrings in his ears and a villainous 'quid' in his mouth, dressed in a blue jersey and the baggiest of blue trowsers, and lurching as he walked, always 'full of strange oaths', and larding his speech with nautical jargon. On shore, after a long sea-voyage, and with money in his pockets, the 'Old Salt' in an Eastern port was not always a factor for peace and progress. He was not uncommonly too frequent a visitor at what the Madras Records call the 'punch houses,' and the Records show that he often caused a disturbance. But he was a brave fellow, and at sea he did much for England's trade and for England's greatness. In an Indian seaport he was a picturesque, if troublesome, personage, and nautical Madras has changed with the Old Salt's disappearance.