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Chapter 2: The beginning

Mr. Francis Day was not sailing southward without definite plans. As the result of enquiries for a promising spot for a new settlement, it was his purpose to see if there was a favourable site in the neighbourhood of the old established Portuguese settlement at Mylapore. The Portuguese authorities at Mylapore, with whom Mr. Day seems to have corresponded, were not unwilling to have English neighbours. The ill-success of the English merchants at Masulipatam had probably allayed any fears that they would be formidable rivals to Portuguese trade at Mylapore; and furthermore the Portuguese welcomed the idea of European neighbours who would be at one with them in opposition to the forceful Dutchmen at Pulicat, up the coast, who showed no respect, not even of a ceremonious kind, for any vested interests--commercial or administrative--to which the Portuguese laid claim.

So Mr. Francis Day's vessel, standing no doubt well out to sea as it sailed past the foreshore of the Pulicat lagoon with its unfriendly Dutchmen, kept its course till the Mylapore churches were sighted and showed that the place where the first inquiries were to be made had been reached. The sails were furled and the anchors were dropped, and we may imagine that a salute was fired in honour of the King of Portugal, and was duly acknowledged.

It was in winter that Mr. Francis Day arrived--a time of the year when Madras looks its best and when the sea-horses are not always at their wildest tricks; and Mr. Francis Day landed without accident, and was pleased with the scene. There are always breakers, however, on the Coromandel Coast, and Mr. Day found the landing so exciting that in his report to the Council at Masulipatam he wrote of 'the heavy and dangerous surf'. But after an inspection of the surroundings he was satisfied with the conditions; he considered that at the mouth of the Cooum river there was an advantageous site for a commercial settlement; and the local ruler, the Naik of Poonamallee, following the advice of the Portuguese authorities, encouraged him in the idea of an English settlement within the Poonamallee domain.

It is not surprising that Mr. Francis Day was pleased with what he saw; for Madras is not without beauty. In those idyllic days, moreover, the Cooum river, which was known then as the Triplicane river--and which even to-day can be beautiful, although for the greater part of the year it is no more than a stagnant ditch--must have been a limpid water-way; and to Mr. Francis Day, seeing it in winter, in which season the current swollen by the rain sometimes succeeds in bursting the bar, it must have appeared almost as a noble river, rushing down to the great sea--a river such as might well have deserved the erection of a town on its banks. The fact that the Portuguese had been at Mylapore for more than a century showed that a settlement was full of promise--and the more so for men with the energy of the English Company's representatives; and the conditions were such that Mr. Francis Day felt himself justified in entering into negotiations with the Naik for the grant of an estate extending five miles along the shore and a mile inland.

The negotiations were successful: but the Naik was subordinate to the lord of the soil, the Raja of Chandragiri, who was the living representative of the once great and magnificent Hindu empire of Vijianagar; and any grant that was made by the Naik of Poonamallee had to be confirmed by the Raja if it was to be made valid. Two or three miles from Chandragiri station, on the Katpadi-Gudur line of railway, is still to be seen the Rajah-Mahal, the palace in which the Raja handed to Mr. Francis Day the formal title to the land. The palace still exists, and it is a fine building, though partly in ruins. It is constructed entirely of granite, without any woodwork whatsoever; but its abounding interest lies not in its structure but in the fact that it was in this palace that the British Empire in India may be said to have been begotten.

There is no little interest in the thought that it was the Raja of Chandragiri that delivered the deed of possession to Mr. Francis Day. The Raja was an obscure representative of a magnificent Indian Empire of the past; Mr. Francis Day was an obscure representative of a magnificent Indian Empire that was yet to be; and the document that the Raja handed to Mr. Francis Day was in reality a patent of Empire, transferred from Vijianagar to Great Britain. It was at Chandragiri that the British Empire in India was begotten; it was at Madras that the British Empire was born.

Mr. Francis Day had fulfilled his mission. He had secured territory where the conditions seemed to give promise of success; and his work was approved. His superior officer, Mr. Andrew Cogan, Agent at Masulipatam, came away from Masulipatam to take charge of Madras, and with the co-operation of Mr. Francis Day he set about the development of the Company's new possession.

Of Mr. Francis Day's personal history we know little or nothing except that he was one of the Company's employees, and that he founded first an unsuccessful settlement at Armagaum--represented to-day by no more than a lighthouse--and afterwards a successful settlement at Madras. Later he was put in charge of the second settlement that he had founded, but he was relieved of, or resigned, the office at the end of a year. He then went to the Company's head-quarters at Bantam, in Java, and afterwards to England. What finally became of him is apparently unknown.

It would probably be difficult to say whether Mr. Francis Day was a great man with great ideals, or was merely a shrewd man of business, reliable for an important commercial mission. Remembering that the Company was strictly a commercial concern, we may think it likely that, in fixing upon Madras as a site for the Company's business, he was guided almost entirely by the question of trade-profits, and that in his mind's eye there were no prophetic visions of imperial glory. And it has been asked indeed whether or not he really chose well in choosing Madraspatnam by the Triplicane river as the site of the proposed new settlement; for there are those who have argued that the prosperity of Madras has been due to dogged British enterprise and placid Indian co-operation, not to natural advantages, and that Madras has prospered in spite of Madras. We must bear in mind, however, the limited geographical knowledge of the times and the limitations to Mr. Francis Day's choice; and, whatever the verdict may be, the fact remains that the Madraspatnam of Mr. Francis Day's selection is now a vast city, and that the Empire of India which was born at Chandragiri is now a mighty institution.