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Chapter 8: The church in the fort

St. Mary's Church within the walls of Fort St. George is the oldest Protestant church in India, and, except for some of the oldest bits of the Fort walls, it is the oldest British building in Madras city, and even in India itself. It dates from 1680.

When Madras was rising upon its foundations, the Company's employees were not only without a church but also without a pastor; for the Company did not think it necessary to go to the expense of providing a chaplain for so small a community. But it was an age in which religious services on Sunday were seldom neglected; and it may be conceived that, in default of a chaplain at Fort St. George, the Governor himself or his delegate read the Church Service on Sunday morning and evening, in the hearing of the assembled employees of the Company, and perhaps also some selections from the published sermons of distinguished Elizabethan divines.

In the Portuguese settlement of San Thomé there were numerous Roman Catholic priests, and some of them ministered to the numerous Portuguese and other Roman Catholic residents of White Town around Fort St. George, as also of Black Town close by. So numerous indeed were the Roman Catholic residents of White Town within three years of the foundation of the Fort that the Governor permitted a French priest to build a chapel in the Town. It was thus not a little anomalous that in a British settlement, founded under the auspices of such a redoubted antipapist as Queen Elizabeth, there was a Roman Catholic church with a priest in charge, yet neither a church nor a pastor of the established religion.

In 1645, however, the Company's Agent at Fort St. George forwarded to higher authority "a petition from the souldiers for the desireing of a minister to be here with them for the maintainance of their soules health;" and in the following year a chaplain was sent out. There was still no Protestant church, but the celebration of religious services was held in careful regard; for the chaplain read morning and evening prayers every day of the year in a room in the Fort appointed for the purpose, and it was compulsory upon all the youthful employees of the Company to attend regularly, under the penalty of a fine.

Chaplains came and chaplains went, and for some sixteen years they continued their ministrations in the room in the Fort. A small church was then built; but, with the Company's developing trade, the population of White Town increased so rapidly that before long the little church was too small for the number of the worshippers. When Mr. Streynsham Master, after a long term of years in the Company's service, was appointed Governor of Madras, one of his first acts was the circulation of a voluntary subscription paper for the building of a church that should be worthy of the Company's rapidly developing South Indian possession. He headed the list with a subscription of a hundred pagodas (Rs. 350), a sum which represented much more than it does now; for it was more than Mr. Streynsham Master's pay for a whole month as Governor of Madras. Subscriptions from the Councillors, as well as from the factors and writers and apprentices, were proportionately big; and on the 28th of October, 1680, St. Mary's Church was solemnly opened, and the guns of the Fort roared forth loud volleys in honour of the event. The steeple and the sanctuary were added later; but, for the rest, the present church, except for details, is the very same church that was built some two hundred and fifty years ago, in the reign of Charles II.

It is interesting to note that the church at Madras was built during a period when in London a great many churches were being built--or rebuilt--after the Great Fire. Church-building was in vogue, with the distinguished Sir Christopher Wren as the builder in chief; and it is not unlikely that what was being done so energetically in London was one of the influences that inspired Mr. Streynsham Master to be so earnest over a scheme for building a church in Madras. It may be noted, moreover, that St. Mary's Church within the Fort at Madras is of a style that was very much in fashion in London at the time.

In deciding to build a new church, the Governor and his colleagues realized that if ever the Fort should be bombarded, a shot from the enemy's guns was as likely to fall upon the church as upon a fortified bastion; so the roof of the church was made 'bomb-proof,' in preparation for possibilities. Events proved the reasonableness of the measure; for on more than one occasion the church was a factor in war.

In 1746, when the French were besieging Fort St. George, the British defenders lodged their wives and children and their domestic servants in the bomb-proof church, and they took refuge there themselves in the intervals of military duty. During the three years that they occupied Madras, the French, fearing that they might be besieged in their turn, used the bomb-proof church as a storehouse for grain and as a reservoir for drinking-water. The church organ they sent off to Pondicherry as one of the spoils of war.

At the end of the war Madras was restored to the Company, but a few years later the Fort was besieged by the French again. During the interval, some of the houses had been made bomb-proof, and in these the women and children were lodged, but St. Mary's Church was used as a barrack, and its steeple as a watch-tower. Lally, the French commander, failing to capture Madras, had to march away with his hopes baffled; but, notwithstanding its bomb-proof roof, the church, as also its steeple, had been badly damaged during the destructive siege, and the necessary repairs were considerable.

A few years later the English had their revenge. They captured Pondicherry, and they destroyed its fortifications. They recovered, with other things, the organ that had been looted from St. Mary's; but, as a new one had in the meanwhile been obtained for St. Mary's, the recovered instrument was sent to a church up-country. According to accounts, moreover, they took toll for the Frenchmen's loot by sending to St. Mary's from one of the churches in Pondicherry the large and well-executed painting of the 'Last Supper,' which is still to be seen in the church. The origin of the picture is not known for certain; but it is believed with reason to be a fact that it was a spoil of war from Pondicherry on one or another of the three occasions on which that town was captured by the British.

The stray visitor who wanders round St. Mary's without a guide is apt to be astonished at what he sees in the churchyard. A multitude of old tomb-stones, of various ages and with inscriptions in various tongues, lie flat on the ground, as close to one another as paving-stones, in such fashion that the visitor must wonder how there can be sufficient room for coffins below. As a matter of fact, the coffins and their contents are not there, and the inscriptions of 'Here lyeth' and 'Hic jacet' are not statements of facts. The explanation is an interesting story, which is worth the telling.

In the Company's early days, the 'English Burying Place,' (vide Map, p. 10) lay a little way outside the walls of White Town, in an area which is now occupied by the Madras Law College with its immediate precincts. Later, when a wall was built round old Black Town, the Burial Ground was included within the enclosure of the wall. An English cemetery in a corner of an Indian town was not likely to be treated with any particular respect; and on various counts the 'English Burying Place' was a sadly neglected spot. Nearly every Englishman that died in Madras was an employee of the Company, and was a bachelor, without any relatives in India to mourn his loss. His colleagues gave him a grand funeral; but his death meant promotion for some of those selfsame colleagues, and his place in the Company's service was filled up by an official 'Order' on the following day. A big monument in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar ugliness was piously built over his remains, and possibly there was genuine regret at a good fellow's loss; but water is less thick than blood, and there was no near one or dear one in India to take affectionate care of the big tomb; so it was left to itself to be taken care of by the people of Black Town. An unofficial description of Madras dated 1711 speaks of the 'stately Tombs' in the English cemetery, and an official Record of the same year speaks of the unhallowed uses to which the stately tombs were put. The Record says that "Excesses are Comitted on hallowed ground," and that the arcaded monuments were "turned into receptacles for Beggars and Buffaloes." We have seen in a previous chapter that the French, when they captured Madras, demolished the greater part of old Black Town together with its wall, and that the English, when they were back in Madras, completed the work of demolition. In the two-fold destruction, both French and English had sufficient respect for the dead to leave the tombs alone. But, now that Black Town was gone, the big tombs were the nearest buildings to the walls of White Town and Fort St. George; and when the French under Lally besieged Madras a few years later, they used the 'stately Tombs' as convenient cover for their attack on the city. The cemetery now was a receptacle not for beggars and buffaloes but for soldiers and guns. The siege lasted sixty-seven days, during which the cemetery was a vantage ground for successive French batteries. It is therefore not to be wondered at that when Count Lally had raised the unsuccessful siege, the authorities at Fort St. George decided that the 'stately tombs' were to disappear. The tombs themselves were accordingly destroyed, but the slabs that bore the inscriptions were laid in St. Mary's churchyard. At a later date some of them were taken up and were removed to the ramparts, for the extraordinary purpose of 'building platforms for the guns,'[2] but eventually they were restored to the churchyard and were relaid as we see them to-day.

[Footnote 2: Rev. F. Penny's Church in Madras, vol. i, p. 366.]

When the burying ground was dismantled, two of its monuments were allowed to remain. They are still to be seen on the Esplanade, outside the Law College, and the inscriptions can still be read; and the two tombs are interesting memorials of the past. One is a tall, steeple-like structure, which represents a woman's grief for her first husband, and for her child by her second. Her first husband was Joseph Hynmers, Senior Member of Council, who died in 1680, her second was Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras, whom she married six months after the death of her first. When her little son David died at the age of four, she had him buried in her first husband's grave. The other monument covers a vault which holds the remains of various members of the Powney family, a name which figured freely in the list of the Company's employees throughout the eighteenth century. When the cemetery was dismantled, members of the Powney family were still in the Madras service, and it was doubtless in respect for their feelings that the vault was not disturbed.

It may be added that amongst the gravestones that pave the ground outside St. Mary's Church there are several that record the death of Roman Catholics. It is supposed that they were taken from the graveyard of the Roman Catholic church in White Town, which was demolished by the Company when they recovered Madras after the French occupation.

Although the gravestones around St. Mary's Church bear the names of persons who were buried elsewhere, there are memorials within the church itself which mark the actual resting-place of mortal remains. Most of the monuments in St. Mary's are of historic interest, and it is fascinating indeed to stroll round the building and study

Storied urn or animated bust;

but it is noteworthy that no inscription records the very first burial within the walls of the church. It is noteworthy too that the forgotten grave was not the grave of an obscure person, but of Lord Pigot, Governor of Madras; and, in view of the extraordinary circumstances of his death, the first burial is the most notable of all.

George Pigot was sent out to Madras as a lad of eighteen, to take up the post of a writer in the Company's service. He worked so well that he rose rapidly, and at the early age of thirty-six he was appointed Governor of Madras. It was in the middle of his eight years' governorship that the French under Lally besieged Madras for sixty-five days; and Governor Pigot's untiring energy and skilful measures were prime factors in the successful defence. After the war he did great things for the development of Madras; and when he resigned office at the age of forty-five and went to England, the strenuous upholder of British honour in the East was rewarded with an Irish peerage. Well would it have been for Lord Pigot if he had settled down for good on his Irish estate! But twelve years later he accepted the offer of a second term of office as Governor of Madras. It is not infrequently the case that a man who has been eminently successful in office at one time of his career fails badly if after a long interval he accepts the same office again. Times have altered and methods that were successful before are now out of date. In Lord Pigot's case the conditions at the time of his second appointment were very different from those at the time of the first. On the first occasion he had risen to office with colleagues who had been his companions in the service. On the second occasion he was sent out to Madras as an elderly nobleman selected for the job, and as a stranger to his colleagues, who moreover were particularly given to factious disputes. It is not unlikely too that Lord Pigot himself had become touchy and overbearing in his declining years. Any way, he quarrelled with his Councillors almost immediately, and within six or seven months there had been some very angry scenes. He had been accustomed to being obeyed, and in his wrath at being obstinately resisted he went to the length of ordering the arrest not only of some of the leading members of Council but also of the Commander-in-Chief. The Councillors check-mated the Governor's order by arresting the Governor! It was a daring proceeding. He was arrested one night after dark, while driving along a suburban road on his imagined way to a friendly supper, and he was sent as a prisoner to a house at St. Thomas's Mount. He was in captivity for some nine months, while the triumphant Councillors were representing their case to the Directors in England; and then he died, in Government House, Madras, to which when he fell ill he had been transferred. It is on record that his remains were specially honoured with burial within St. Mary's Church--the first burial within the building--but no permanent memorial was raised to the unhappy Governor's memory; and the particular spot where he was buried is only a matter of conjecture.

St. Mary's Church is less than 250 years old. Compared with hundreds of the grey-walled or ivy-covered churches in England, St. Mary's at Madras is prosaically new; but it is of exceeding interest nevertheless. Madras itself is a great and historic city, which owes its existence to British enterprise, with Indian co-operation, and St. Mary's Church, as the oldest British building therein, is the earliest milestone of progress. It is not a church that is best visited, like Melrose Abbey, 'in the pale moonlight,' but in the bright daylight, when the inscriptions on the tomb-stones without and on the monuments within can be clearly read.