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Chapter 15: 'No mean city'

It is less than three hundred years since Mr. Francis Day, seeking a likely spot for a trading settlement, surveyed the desolate sea-beach near the mouth of the Cooum, and decided that the settlement should be there. A few scattered huts on the shore and a few catamarans out at sea were the only signs of human life, and the breakers that sported on the beach were the only manifestations of activity. But the years have gone by--wild times and quiet times, years of war and years of peaceful progress--and the scene has changed, and great is the transformation. In place of the scattered huts there are huge buildings on the beach, and behind them is a great and ever greater city. The catamarans have not disappeared, but great ships pass to and fro in the offing or lie within the shelter of the harbour walls. The little 'Factory' in the Fort, within which the Company transacted its mercantile business, has gone; but elsewhere in its stead there are big offices of numerous commercial firms; and, moreover, there are large 'factories' of the modern kind, such as are denoted by tall chimneys and the perpetual roar of whirring wheels.

The growth of Madras is a remarkable testimony to British enterprise, energy, and perseverance, and also to Indian appreciation of the new-comers and of their methods; and it is a matter of satisfaction that many illustrious Indians have played an energetic and conspicuous part in the development of the city and the promotion of its welfare. In many respects the conditions were altogether unfavorable for the foundation of a maritime city. There was no natural harbour, and the breakers beat continually on the shore; and the so-called river was of little practical use. The nearest Indian towns were a good many miles away, and the Portuguese merchants in the neighbouring settlement of Mylapore were commercial rivals, who might have been supposed to have absorbed all the trade that was to be had. Yet Madras is now a large city, with more than half a million inhabitants; and its commerce and its industries have been so successful that its population is still increasing rapidly. Houses are being built everywhere, yet the demand increases. Not only are the suburbs being extended, but moreover the gardens of existing houses are being everywhere divided, so as to provide further building-sites; and two houses or more now stand within grounds that were formerly occupied by only one.

But it is well for Madras that, except in respect of some of its streets and particular localities, it is not a crowded city, and that there is therefore room for such additions. Madras has been called the 'City of Distances,' and it still deserves the name; for within its limits there are some magnificent spaces, and in the garden of many a private house the resident can sit of an evening and imagine himself in a rural retreat, far from the madding crowd.

Like all cities, Madras has its drab--very drab!--quarters and its mean--very mean!--and straggling streets. Madras was not laid out on any definite plan. Like ancient Rome, it had in the beginning to attract outsiders to come and live there, and outsiders had to be given much license to do things their own way, and the city was allowed to grow just as it would; and in respect of many of its parts there is much room for criticism. But Madras is a fine city nevertheless, with a number of stately buildings, both public and private, and with great possibilities; and its 'Marina' can truly be called magnificent.

But the greatest charm of Madras lies in its history. It was here that the foundations of the Indian Empire may be said to have been laid. The history of Madras is not a story of aggressive warfare. The settlers were gentle merchants, whose weapon was not the sword but the pen, and whose only desire it was to be left alone to carry on their business in peace. But the rising city was a continual mark for the hostility of commercial and political rivals, both European and Indian. It was a storm-centre, and the storms were often fierce; and the merchants were often compelled to meet force with force. Moreover, the merchants were men, and their doings therefore were by no means always without reproach; but, with due allowance for human weakness, the history of Madras is a history of which Madras may be proud. The city has grown from strength to strength, and in its story there is much inspiration. This little book has merely told the story in part; but it will have served its purpose if it has in any way helped the reader to realize that the story of Madras is the story of no mean city.