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Chapter 5: 'The Wall'

Skirting a thoroughfare in Old Jail Street, in North Georgetown, is still to be seen a part of 'the Wall' that protected Black Town in bygone days. This interesting remnant of the Wall of Madras might before long have been levelled to the ground, either by successive monsoons or by philistine contractors in want of 'material;' but, with a happy regard for a relic of Old Madras, the Madras Government have recently undertaken the task of preserving the ruin, which they have officially declared an 'historic memorial.'

The 'Wall of Madras' is worthy of a meditative visit, but, in order that the meditation may be on an historic basis, it is necessary to know something about the Wall itself.

We have seen that when the Company established themselves at Madras, in 1639, they first built a small fort for the protection of themselves and their goods. Around the walls of the Fort a number of Christians--English and Portuguese and Eurasians--settled down, and what was called 'White Town' came into being. Within a term of years this White Town was itself enclosed within fortified walls, which were finally identical with the wall round Fort St. George to-day. There was thus 'a fort within a fort;' but in course of time the inner wall was pulled down.

Immediately outside the northern wall of White Town lay Black Town, inhabited by Indians--employees and purveyors of the Company, as well as merchants, shop-keepers, industrialists, and the rest. It should be borne in mind that the site of this original Black Town was altogether different from the site of the later Black Town, the 'Georgetown' of to-day. Old Black Town, as already explained, extended from the northern wall of the Fort to what is now called the Esplanade Road, and it covered the ground that is now taken up by the Wireless Telegraph enclosure, the grounds of the High Court, and those of the Law College (vide map, p. 10).

Black Town was at first without any wall, and, as the times were unsettled, the place was exposed to the serious danger of being raided by any adventurous band of marauders. Very soon, however, a beginning was made of enclosing the town with a mud wall; and in the reign of Queen Anne a wall was built with masonry. Meanwhile, moreover, numerous houses and streets had sprung up outside the wall, on the site of the Georgetown of to-day.

In 1746 the French captured Fort St. George; and they destroyed not only the Black Town Wall but also Black Town itself. It was a disastrous episode in the history of Madras. For six years the English and the French had been at war in Europe, and the relations between the English and French colonists in India were naturally strained; but they were settlers within the dominions of Indian rulers, and, although both the English and the French had ships and soldiers for the protection of their settlements, they realized that they were not at liberty to make war upon each other. The settlers, moreover, were employees of mercantile companies, working for dividends; and war, with its calamitous expenditure, was not within their design. But Dupleix, the talented French Governor of Pondicherry, had ambitious ideas for the extension of French influence in India, and, in defiance of Indian rulers, war broke out. In the beginning there were several engagements at sea between a French squadron under Labourdonnais and an English squadron under Captain Peyton. The English squadron was worsted, and had to put into Trincomalee Harbour, in Ceylon, to refit. Thereupon Labourdonnais, after making quick preparations at Pondicherry, sailed for Madras; and the alarm in the Fort and in the city must have been great when his ships appeared off the coast and proceeded to bombard the settlement. His guns, however, did but little damage, and the citizens woke up the next morning to find, to their great content, that the enemy had sailed away during the night. Meanwhile Captain Peyton, having repaired his ships, was unaware of what had happened at Madras, and sailed from Ceylon to Bengal, without touching at Fort St. George. Possibly he was lured to Bengal by bogus messages of French origin; for, as soon as he was out of the way, Labourdonnais reappeared off Madras, better prepared than before. Having succeeded in landing a considerable force, he erected batteries on shore and from various points he bombarded White Town, which was now the actual Fort St. George. At the end of an unhappy seven days the garrison capitulated. The French marched into the Fort, and all the English residents, civil and military--including the Governor and the Members of Council, and also Robert Clive, who was then a young clerk--were sent to Pondicherry as prisoners of war.

For nearly three years the French flag flew over Fort St. George, until, in accordance with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, made between the combatants in Europe, Madras was restored to the Company.

During their occupation the French had made great changes. Feeling the necessity of strengthening their position, their military commanders realized what had apparently not been recognized by the Company's employees, untrained in war--namely that a weak-walled native town lying right against the northern wall of Fort St. George was a serious danger. The houses offered convenient cover for any enemies that might attack the Fort; and, moreover, any disaffected or venal townsman was in a position to give the assailants valuable help. The French Governor set himself, therefore, to the deliberate destruction of Black Town. He first destroyed the Town Wall, and then--for a distance of 400 yards from the northern wall of White Town, or the present Fort St. George--he demolished every house. The area that is now represented by the Wireless Telegraph Station and the grounds of the High Court thus became an open space. Meanwhile they constructed a moat and glacis round the walls of White Town, which, with certain alterations, are the moat and glacis of Fort St. George to-day.

The Records express the melancholy interest with which the Company's employees, when they re-entered Madras, took note of the changes that the enemy had made in the familiar settlement. The Councillors apparently conceived that it was in a wanton spirit of destruction that the greater part of Black Town had been wiped out; for they formally decided that the streets that had been destroyed should be rebuilt. It may be supposed however, that their military advisers counselled them otherwise; for, so far from the old houses being rebuilt, those that had been left standing were destroyed. The open space was allowed to remain; and 'New Black Town'--the modern 'Georgetown'--began to be developed. It continued to be called 'Black Town' until the visit of the Prince of Wales (afterwards King George V) to Madras in 1906 when it was formally re-named 'Georgetown'--ostensibly in Prince George's honour, but in reality to meet the wishes of a number of the residents who sought an opportunity of getting rid of what they regarded--quite reasonably--as an objectionable name for the locality in which their lot was cast. The disappearance of the historic name is a matter for historic regret, but a concession had to be made to the intelligible wishes of residents.

The Company, bearing in mind that the French had been able to capture Madras, realized that it was necessary to strengthen the defences of Fort St. George and also to provide adequate protection for the new native city that had grown up outside the Fort's protective walls and was absolutely without defence. The defences of the Fort were taken in hand at once, though the work was by no means completed; and the Directors in England readily sanctioned the construction of a wall round New Black Town. It was well that the security of the Fort was looked to without any long delay; for in 1758, a large French army under Count Lally besieged the Fort again--but so unsuccessfully that, after sixty-seven days of persistent endeavour, they beat a sudden retreat. It was a good many years, however, before the building of the wall round Black Town was taken seriously in hand--and then only because the Company had been given a succession of sharp warnings that it was absolutely necessary that new Black Town should be protected.

The French themselves had given the first warning during the siege under Count Lally; for, although they were powerless against the Fort, they were able to enter Black Town without opposition, and they made use of some of the houses for the purpose of the siege. The next warning was given a few years later when Tipu, the son of Haidar Ali, Sultan of Mysore, after ravaging the country round Madras, came so near to the city itself that parties of his horsemen were scampering about in the suburb of Chintadripet. Tipu's raid induced the Company to bring forth the approved but long-shelved plans for a wall round Black Town; but there was still much more discussion than work. The Company needed yet another awakening; and they got a stern one two years later. We quote the story from the Company's official records, published by the Madras Government. It is contained in a minute in the official Diary of Fort St. George, dated the 29th of March, 1769, which runs as follows:--

About 8 o'Clock this morning several Parties of the Enemy's (Haidar Ali's) horse appeared in the Bounds of this Place at St. Thomé and Egmore, from which latter place some guns were fired at them.... At eleven o'Clock a fellow was caught plundering at Triplicane and brought into Town, who gave Intelligence that Hyder himself was on the other side of St. Thomé with the greatest part of his horse. In the afternoon Advice came that the Enemy's horse were moving from St. Thomé round to the Northward with a design, as was supposed, to make an attempt on the Black Town.

It would have been difficult to have defended the unwalled town; and on the following day the Council of Fort St. George sent Mr. DuPre, Chief Councillor and succeeding Governor, to Haidar Ali's camp, on the other side of the Marmalong Bridge, to come to terms with the invader; and within three days a treaty had been made. The treaty, said Mr. DuPre, writing to a friend, "will do us no honor: yet it was necessary, and there was no alternative but that or worse."

After this humiliation the building of the Wall was regarded as a pressing necessity; and within a year the work was practically finished.

It was well indeed that the work was done; for a few years afterwards, on the 10th of August, 1780, Haidar's cavalry raided San Thomé and Triplicane, killing a number of people; and the terror in Black Town was so great that crowds of the inhabitants took flight. Fortunately, however, the Governor was able to issue the following notification for the reassurance of the public:--'A sufficient number of guns have been mounted on the Black Town wall,' and 'nothing has been omitted that I can think of for the security of the Black Town.' Haidar was not sufficiently venturesome to attack the fortified town; but the terror of the inhabitants was by no means at an end; for a little later came the disastrous news that a British force sent out to meet the invader had been cut to pieces at Conjeevaram. Eventually, however, the Mysoreans were defeated, and the treaty of peace was a triumph for the Company.

The long delay in the building of the Wall was chiefly due to the fact that the representatives of the Company, being commercial men, naturally gave their chief attention to the Company's mercantile business, and were apt to disregard the immediate necessity of expensive schemes which the Company's military officers put forward as strategic requirements. When the Wall was first talked about, after the recovery of Madras from the French, the Directors in England, who always kept a tight hand on the Company's purse-strings, declared that the inhabitants of Black Town ought to be made to pay for the cost of their own defences, and should be taxed accordingly; and the name of the 'Wall Tax Road,' which runs alongside the Central Station to the Salt Cotaurs, is a standing reminder of the Directors' decree, while the road itself is an indication of the alignment of the western wall. The people protested indignantly against being taxed for the purpose, and, as a matter of fact, the representatives of the Company in India doubted whether they would be within their legal rights in compelling them to pay; and the tax was never actually levied. What with the Wall Tax Road on the west and the seashore on the east, the existing remains on the north, and the Esplanade on the south, it is not difficult to form a general idea of the direction of the four sides of the wall within which the later Black Town was enclosed.

Such is the story of 'The Wall;' and the remains are an interesting relic of lawless times when at any minute it was possible that crowds of terror-stricken folk would suddenly be pouring through the gateways of the city at the alarming news that strange horsemen were dashing here and there in one or another of the suburbs, demanding money and jewels from the people and slaughtering unhappy individuals who tried to evade a response.