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Chapter 1: Before the beginning

Three hundred years ago, Madras, under the name of 'Madraspatnam' was a tiny rural village on the Coromandel Coast. Scattered about in the neighbourhood there were other rural villages, such as Egmore, Vepery, and Triplicane, which are crowded districts in the great city of Madras to-day. In Triplicane there was an ancient temple, a centre of pilgrimage, dating, like many village temples in India, from very distant times; this was the Parthasarathy temple, which is the 'Triplicane Temple' still. A little fishing village called Kuppam, lying directly on the seashore, sent out, even as Kuppam does now, its bold fishermen in their rickety catamarans in perilous pursuit of the spoils of the sea. There was one small town in the neighbourhood, namely, the Portuguese settlement at Mylapore, where the tall façades of the several churches, peeping over the trees, formed a land-mark for the Portuguese ships that occasionally cast anchor in the roads.

Such was the scene in 1639, the year in which our story of Madras begins. The Portuguese had already been in India for nearly a century and a half; and under their early and able viceroys they had made themselves powerful. The stately city of Goa was the capital of their Indian dominions, and they had settlements at Cochin, Calicut, Mylapore, and elsewhere. But the influence of the Portuguese was now on the wane. For nearly a century they had been the only European power in India and the Eastern seas; but merchants in other European countries had marked with jealous eyes the rich profits that the Portuguese derived from their Eastern traffic, and competitors appeared in the field. First came the Dutch, who in India established themselves at Pulicat, some twenty-five miles north of Mylapore. Holland had lately thrown off the yoke of Spain, and was full of new-born vigour; and Dutch trade in the East--chiefly in the East India Islands--was pushed with a rancorous energy that roused the vain indignation of the decadent Portuguese. Six years later, in 1600, came the English. The English traders were employees of the newly-established East India Company, and were sent out to do business for the Company in the East; and they had to face the opposition of the Dutch as well as of the Portuguese. Their earliest enterprise was in the East India Islands, and it was eleven years before they gained their first footing in India, at Masulipatam. Here they established an agency and did very considerable business; later they formed a fortified sub-agency at Armagaum, a good way down the coast, not far from Nellore. At first their fortunes went well; but local rulers exacted ruinous dues, and at Armagaum in particular the local ruler, alarmed at the influence that the English merchants had gained, set himself so seriously to the work of handicapping their trade that Mr. Francis Day, the Company's representative at Armagaum and a member of the Masulipatam Council, proposed to the Council that he should be allowed to seek a field for commercial enterprise more favourable than either Armagaum or Masulipatam. To Mr. Francis Day was committed the business of finding a suitable spot for a fresh settlement.

It was an important commission. The East India Company's existence depended entirely upon the profits of their trade. The Company's enterprise at Armagaum was hopeless; at Masulipatam it was very unsatisfactory; and Mr. Francis Day was appointed to find a place where the commercial prospects would be bright.

It should always be remembered that the East India Company was established purely as a commercial association, with its head office in London, and that its employees in India were men with business qualifications, appointed to carry on the Company's trade. The prime concern even of an Agent or a Governor was the making of good bargains on the Company's behalf--and sometimes on his own--getting the best prices for European broadcloths and brocades, and buying as cheaply as possible Indian muslins and calicoes and natural produce, for exportation to London, where they were sold at a large profit. Any fighting in which the Company's servants engaged was merely incidental to the pursuit of business in a land in which the ruling sovereigns, as well as the many small chiefs, were constantly at war. It is a maxim that 'Trade follows the Flag;' but in the case of India the Flag has followed Trade.

It is as a commercial man, therefore, that we must picture Mr. Francis Day setting out on his commercial mission; but it can be imagined that the English merchant, starting on an expedition in which he would be likely to seek personal interviews with rajas and nawabs and bid for their favour, set out in such style as would do the Company credit. In our mind's eye we picture Master Francis Day, Chief of Armagaum, standing on the deck of one of the Company's vessels lying at anchor in the Armagaum roads, and receiving his colleagues' farewells. His garb is that of a substantial merchant in the days of King Charles I. It has none of the extravagances that were the fashionable affectations of gay Cavaliers, but its sobriety makes it none the less smart. He wears a purple doublet and hose, a broad white collar edged with lace, and a gracefully-short black-velvet cloak. Curly hair falls beneath his broad-brimmed black hat, but not in long and scented ringlets such as were trained to fall below the shoulders of fashionable gallants at King Charles's court. He is in every way a fitting representative of the Honourable Company.

The bo'sun has piped his whistle, and the last good-byes have been said. The anchor's weighed, and the white sails are spread to the breeze. Master Day waves his hand to his colleagues in the surf-boat which is taking them shoreward, and the ship is headed to the south. The expedition is important--yes, and it was much more important than Master Day imagined; for something more serious than profits on muslin and brocade was on the anvil of fate.