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Chapter 3: Fort St. George

When the tract of land at Madras had been formally acquired, the European colony at Armagaum was forthwith shipped thereto (February, 1640). According to accounts, the colony, with Mr. Andrew Cogan at the head, assisted by Mr. Francis Day and perhaps another chief official, included some three or four British 'writers,' a gunner, a surgeon, a garrison of some twenty-five British soldiers under a lieutenant and a sergeant, a certain number of English carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers, and a small staff of English servants for kitchen and general work.

'Madras was a sandy beach ... where the English began by erecting straw huts.' So says an old-time chronicle,[1] the work of an early resident of Madras; and, if we take the word 'straw' in a broad sense, we can easily conceive the scene. In Madras the bamboo and the palmyra grow in abundance, furnishing materials for the quick provision of cheap and commodious accommodation; and we can picture the pilgrim fathers of Madras camped in palmyra-thatched mat-sheds on the north bank of the Cooum river, near the bar, the while that the houses within the plan of the fort are being built.

[Footnote 1: The chronicle was written by Manucci, an Italian doctor of an adventurous disposition, who, after varied and surprising experiences in northern India, settled down in Madras in 1686, and married a Eurasian widow. 'Manucci's Garden,' where he lived, covered a large area which is now occupied by a number of the houses at the Law College end of Popham's Broadway, on the side that is nearest the sea. The garden was watered by a stream that used to flow where the Broadway tram-lines now hold their course. Vide map, p. 10.]

The 'sandy beach' has been waked from its longaeval placidity. Trains of bullock-carts are lumbering along new-made tracks, bringing stone and laterite and bricks and timber from various centres; and endless files of coolies, with baskets on their heads, are bringing sand from the summer-dry edges of the bed of the Cooum river. In the foreground of the picture, scores of chattering village-labourers, from Triplicane and other hamlets hard by, are working under the directions of the mechanical employees of the Company, chipping stone, mixing lime, sawing timber, carrying bricks and stones and mortar, or laying them adroitly in place, with little dependence on line and level.

In the course of a few months the buildings were sufficiently advanced for occupation. The main building was the 'factory,' which formerly signified a mercantile office; and it was here that the Company's chief officials, who were styled 'factors' (agents), assisted by writers and apprentices, transacted the Company's business, and were also lodged. Included amongst the buildings were warehouses for the Company's goods, and also barrack-like residences for the Company's subordinate British employees, civil and military, according to their rank.

From the very beginning the settlement was called Fort St. George, but it was several years before the buildings were surrounded by a high and fortified wall. It was in no spirit of military aggression that the Company's agents enclosed their settlement with a bastioned rampart, from whose battlements big cannon frowned on all sides round. The Company's representatives were 'gentle merchaunts,' to whom peace spelt prosperity; but the times were lawless, and the gentle merchants were wise enough to recognize that days might come when it would be necessary to defend their merchandise and themselves, as well as the town of Madras, from the roving robber or the princely raider or the revengeful trade-rival, and that military preparedness was a dictate of prudence. The days came!

On such occasions the excitement in Fort St. George must have been great. We can imagine the anxiety with which, when the sentry gave the alarm, the gentle merchants climbed upon the walls and looked out at the horsemen that were to be descried in the distance, and asked one another disconsolately whether it was in peace or in war that they came. A brief notice of some of the occasions on which the Fort was in danger will be interesting.

Some fifty years after the Fort had been founded, a party of soldiers under the Commander-in-Chief of the Mohammedan King of Golconda pursued some of the King's enemies into Madras, "burning and Robbing of houses, and taking the Companies Cloth and goods," whereupon the Governor of the Fort sent them word that "he would use means to force them out of the Towne: Uppon which they retreated out of shott of the Fort." They returned, however, with additional strength, and for eight months they besieged the stronghold, but without success; and then they wearied of their hopeless endeavour, and marched away.

Later, a Dutch force, supported by Mohammedan cavalry, besieged San Thomé, which was then in the hands of the French; and for the purpose of the siege they occupied Triplicane village, mounting their cannon within the walls of Triplicane Temple, which they used as a fort. During the several weeks of the siege of San Thomé a powerful Dutch squadron blockaded the coast of Madras; and, as Britain and Holland were at war in Europe, there was constant anxiety in Fort St. George; but the Dutchmen contented themselves with the capture of San Thomé, and were prudent enough to let Fort St. George alone.

In the days of Queen Anne, Da-ud Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic, at the head of a large force, was reported to be marching to Madras. In Fort St. George there was much anxiety as to the purpose of his visit, and 'By order of the Governor and Council' various protective measures were immediately proclaimed. The proclamation is to be found in full in the Company's Minutes; and we find an amusing reminder of the Company's mercantile raison d'être in the fact that immediately after the military edicts comes the order 'That all the Company's cloth be brought from the washers, washed and unwashed, to prevent its being plundered.' The Nawab came, and he uttered threats, but he was mollified with luxurious entertainment. Inviting himself and his dewan and his chamberlain to dinner with the Governor and Councillors in the Fort, he was received with imposing honours, and was feasted in the Council Chamber at a magnificent banquet. The minutes relate that after dinner he was "diverted with the dancing wenches," and finally he got "very Drunk." At breakfast the next day in the Company's 'Garden,' His Highness again got "very drunk and fell a Sleep;" and a few days later he marched his army away. In his sober moments, however, he had been slyly measuring the Company's strength; and six months later he came back with a larger force, and blockaded Madras. He plundered all that he could, and on one occasion his spoil included "40 ox loads of the Company's cloth." For more than three months the blockade continued, and the Company's trade was entirely stopped, and provisions in Madras were exceedingly scarce. Da-ud Khan, eventually wearying of the unsuccessful siege, named the price that would buy him off; and the Council, fearing the wrath of the Directors at the loss of their trade, were glad to come to terms. The Company's Minute on the occasion is a brief but exultant record: 'The siege is raised!'

In 1746 there was a siege of a more serious sort. England and France were at war in Europe, and suddenly a squadron of French ships appeared off Fort St. George. After a week's siege, the English merchants capitulated to superior force, and they were all sent to Pondicherry as prisoners, and the French flag waved over Madras; but by the treaty which ended the war, Madras was restored to the Company. Twelve years later Madras was once more besieged by the French, but unsuccessfully, and eventually the French leaders marched their forces away, quarrelling among themselves over their ill-success.

On several occasions, bodies of horsemen in the service of the adventurous Haidar Ali of Mysore, raided the country almost up to the Fort ditch, and were sometimes to be seen shaking their spears in defiance at the sentries on its walls.

These were not the only occasions on which Fort St. George was assailed, but they suffice to show how necessary it was that the Company's employees and their wares should be housed within the walls of a fort.

Fort St. George in the beginning was very small. Its external length parallel with the seashore was 108 yards, and its breadth was 100 yards. When White Town, which grew up around it, was fortified, there was 'a fort within a fort' (vide Map, p. 10); but eventually the inner wall was demolished. At various times the outer wall has been altered, but the Fort as we have it to-day is the selfsame Fort St. George nevertheless, a glorious relic of bygone times, and verily a history in stone.

The gates of Fort St. George open towards main thoroughfares of Madras, and it is permitted to anybody to pass in and out; but it is not visited nearly so much as its historic associations deserve. Let us pass within, and see if we cannot catch something like inspiration from the scene where so much history has been made, and where a great Empire was born.

An old-world feeling comes over us directly we leave the highroad and make our way down the sloped passage and across the drawbridge over the moat, past the massive gates and under the echoing tunnel that leads through the mighty walls. Within we see the parapets on which in bygone days the cannon thundered at the foe. We pass on into the great spaces of the Fort; and in our imagination we can people them with ghosts of the illustrious--or notorious--dead. It was here that, in the reign of King James the Second, Master Elihu Yale assumed the Governorship of Madras, did hard work in the Company's behalf but also made a large fortune for himself, lost his son aged four, quarrelled long and bitterly with his councillors, and was at last superseded. It was here that Robert Clive, aged nineteen, newly arrived from England, entered upon his duties as an apprenticed writer in the Company's service, at a salary of five pounds per annum; it was here, in St. Mary's Church, eight years later, when he had won his first laurels, that he married the sister of one of the fellow-writers of his griffinhood; and it was here, in 'Clive's House,' which is still to be seen (now the Office of the Accountant-General), that he lived with his wife. The ancient Council Chamber is replete with historic associations; and St. Mary's Church offers material for many researchful and meditative visits. The streets have history in their names. 'Charles and James Street,' for example, which is a present-day combination of two streets of yore, is jointly commemorative of the days of the Merry Monarch and of his royal but unfortunate brother. Enough! It is not my purpose to produce a guide-book to Madras, but to promote an appreciation of the historic interests of the city; and I take it that the reader has realized that Fort St. George is interesting indeed.