The story of Fort St. George Chennai

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In those times a well travelled person was the most sought after man in the country. His publicity surpassed even the Queen or the King of the country. He would be invited in parties, probably entertained a private dinner with the King to discuss all that he saw and experienced in his journeys. Take the case of Vasco Da Gama for instance, his visit to India became a legend, told and retold with irrepressible zeal and passion. However little do we know that he landed on India with a band of convicts, unpardonable prisoners who were in plain terms guinea pigs of a new experiment that Europe was undertaking- the exploration of the East. To sum up this paragraph, Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese who landed on Calicut, a hundred years later the Dutch were here, and close on the heels of the Dutch the English landed.

But that doesn’t explain much the phrase-the English landed; it fails to give an overview. Actually by 1589 few English merchants applied to Queen Elizabeth for a leave (kind of business permission) to trade with India. The permission was granted three big ships were built, they sailed off, two of them gave up, one struggled and touched the shore of Western India. This amazing journey was purely private with few rich merchants acting as investors. But when the returns were equally amazing (sometimes even two hundred percent) it obviously gave all necessary inspiration to form a company. This way exactly in 1600 the East India Company was founded and it hired the same man who had successfully touched the shore of India to be again the Captain of the ship and guide the ship to India. His name is James Lancaster, much forgotten name, but very significant indeed. He made good progress and he was able to bring rich profits back home.

Portrait of Sir James Lancaster 1596

Although the profits were mind boggling but trading in India was never easy it involved great risks. The most troublesome and dreaded part of this trade was the long which involved a six to seven month journey from England. Even though the English were “sea faring”, but no one knew how the ship would perform in tropical climate. The cables were rotted; the wood was attacked by worms which gradually made it weak. The drinking water was kept in casks, which often got polluted; the food in stock mostly perished or became unfit for consumption. The journey was never luxurious the cabin was far below decent there would be only an ordinary English bedstead. A sailor had to make best use of fresh meat, fishes, and of course fruits in fact the sailors were particularly serious about taking fruits, to prevent scurvy which was a sea menace. He bathed in bucketful of salty water which was irritating. The seamen had to keep all his provisions, clothes locked up in strong chest to prevent theft because the crew were not saints. There were always danger of terrible storms, fires, diseases and also rebellion. I hope you all know about the Mutiny on the Bounty. So you had all these dangers, and add it to the threat of notorious pirates. All the dangers and perils of course cannot be narrated in just one paragraph but without mentioning these, the story would be incomplete. But beyond all dangers was the call of huge fortune and unparallel glory, which was the biggest motivation above everything.

View of Machilipatnam IN 1676

In the year 1611, Machilipatnam became the first British trading centre in the Bay of Bengal. However due to the growing rivalry with the Dutch and the native ruler, the English looked for a secured place to carry on trade. The English not merely wanted a perfect place for a trade centre but beyond it a place which they could fortify. There was no chance of getting such a land in the territory of the Mughals. So basically they needed a place which would provide good anchorage for the ships, protection against raiding enemy armies, and it had to be within the profitable market region. The English found all these scopes in a place of land along the shore, a mile broad and six miles in length. It was certainly not the best place to be in, here there was brackish sea water quite unfit for irrigation and nasty smell of rotten seaweeds all along the coast. The terrain probably was inhospitable but scenic beauty of this place overrides all other seemingly unpleasant factors. The wide open sky above and the gorgeous sea below with all its turbulent and noisy waves was a treat for the eye. So inspite of all the difficulties and limitations the English finally made up their mind to settle on this land. On first of March 1639 they negotiated and signed a deal with the Raja of Chandragheri, the ruler of that place and the entire agreement was drawn upon a plate of gold. According to the agreement the English were to pay twelve hundred pagodas or six hundred pound sterling a year to the Raja. It was preserved carefully for over a century by the English until 1746 when they lost Fort St. George to the French, in which time the gold plate disappeared. The fortifications of the fort had began and by 1644 2294 pounds was spent over it still the company was falling short of 2000 pounds which would provide a garrison of 100 soldiers.

South East View of Fort St George, Madras,Artist and engraver: Daniell, Thomas (1749-1840)

However in between victory and defeat are number of things to be said and told. That part of Madras was gradually becoming cosmopolitan. There were number of Portuguese, Indo-Portuguese born here in India, acting as interpreters to the Europeans and the native businessmen. They sort of acted as a middlemen between the “English buyer and the Hindu producer”. Gradually the Portuguese also built their houses inside Fort St. George virtually under the shelter of English guns. A Governor’s house was already established where all the company’s servants took dinner. Some of them were older folks living in separate houses with their wives. But, when it was dinner all of them gathered in the central dining hall. It was a thriving business and officers were deployed in various sections to oversee everything. There was a council consisting of the Governor, Book keeper, Warehouse keeper, and of course the Custom. All these officers, member of council met every Monday and Tuesday at eight o’clock for the transaction of the business. The secretary would meticulously record the discussions of the meetings and a copy of the record book was sent to England once in a year. The Court of Directors sitting in England carefully went through the entire document and sent their reply. However the salary was too low for the employees. The Governor would only get 300 hundred pounds a year, the second in council drew 100, the third drew 70 and the fourth only fifty. Writers received ten pounds and apprentices only five pounds. The accommodation and food was free for all. In addition to these people there was a priest who prayed every day and preached on the Sunday. There was school teacher at fifty pounds a year, who taught the Portuguese and the native children. So from these account perhaps you can understand that the English community was gradually growing and so was the periphery of the fort.

Fort St George in 1733

In 1652 the agent and council of Madras were raised to the rank of a Presidency. And with the growing sphere of British influence all sorts of problems were coming up in early 18th century. In 1701 there was a fear among the English that the natives would bribe the Arab fleets to attack the fort. In 1702 Daud Khan one of Aurangzeb’s general was tormenting John Pitt the Governor of the fort. In 1708 the native employees fought over precedence; the right side caste demanded more authority from the left side caste and vice versa. However in spite of all these unique problems the revenue collection in 1709 touched 8,00,000 pagodas.

Surrender of The City of Madras 1746

The English suffered the most in 1744 when the fort was besieged by the French from Mauritius under M. De la Bourdonnais, at that time the inhabitant in and around the fort were 2,50,000 souls. The English only numbered 300, out of which 200 were soldiers, on the 7th of September the assault kicked off and ended on the 10th. The French gained control of the fort and in 1749 they had to evacuateit under the treaty of Aix la Chapelle. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was result of the war of Austrian Succession in Europe by which France gave away Fort St George but regained Cape Breton Island. The French returned again in 1768 under Lally (Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally,) with 3500 French soldiers, 2000 sepoys, and 2000 native and European cavalry. It was a desperate attack to pull down the English fort defended by 1758 Europeans and 2220 native sepoys. During the siege the French fired 26554 shots from the canons, 7502 shells from the mortars, hurled 1990 hand grenades, and spent 2,00,000 cartridges! This battle was extension of the war going on in Europe, the seven year’s war, from 1756-63, where France and Britain were belligerents. In those times whatever was happening in Europe, either war or peace was reciprocated in India as well. Nevertheless after just when the French had succeeded in making a breach in the walls a fleet carrying 600 Englishmen landed on the coast. Lally seeing the reinforcements wasted no time in lifting the siege and on the next day the French army retreated. The lessons learnt by the English from this siege was enormous, they immediately went on offensive and attacked the French strongholds of Wandiwash and Pondicherry, which was lost in no time. This was a very significant episode in the colonial history since by this move the English virtually checkmated the French. Rest will be only the British history in India!

Apart from the political lesson I mentioned above another technical lesson was learnt by the English which actually influenced the re-planning of the English establishments. During the siege the English had taken notice of the importance of an open field on the not-sea-facing side of the fort. Thus in 1760 they decided to “create an open esplanade extending 400 yards northwards from the walls of the fort to provide a clear line of fire”. Wherever there is a fort there must be an open area to maximize the benefits of cannon shot. Calcutta too has its own esplanade surrounding Fort William but this is how Chennai got its own Esplanade!

St Mary’s Church, Fort St George, Madras’. Drawn and engraved by J.W. Gantz, Vepery, 1841.

Inside the fort there is a lovely church- St. Mary’s church. During the governorship of Streynsham Master (1677-82) the initiative to build a church started, eventually it was designed and built in 1680 by Edward Fowle. Mr. Fowle was the master gunner of the fort which actually meant-chief engineer however in those times engineers and gunners were all the same. Initially it was a small stone and brick edifice with a rounded roof. The present tower that we see now is not the original one. In 1759 during the siege, the French under Lally fired so many shots that it collapsed the tower. The repair work was wanted and eventually after some delay for want of funds it was finally rebuilt and obtained the shape that we see now. The present tower is taller than the older. It was in this Church that Job Charnock’s children were baptised, when he came down to the Fort St. George. There is an entry in the baptismal register book of this church which reads-“August 19th, 1689, Charnock, Mary, Elizabeth, Katherine, daughters of Job Charnock, baptised by J. Evans. Francis Ellis Godfather, Anne Seaton and Margery Heathfield, Godmothers.” It is to note that it doesn’t contain the mother’s name which was not the usual custom. Could it be because Job Charnock and his Hindu wife were never really married, they just lived together? Whatever be their relation it is a fact that Mr. Charnock loved his wife very much, and even when she was dead and buried, he used to visit her grave in her every death anniversary and sacrificed a cock!

Detailed plan of Fort St George, Madras 1726 (click to enlarge)

Another man whose career in India began from Fort St. George needs a mention. He is of course none other than Robert Clive, when he was still seven his uncle mentions his temper as fierce and, “out of measure addicted to fighting”. He left England in 1743 for India, which turned out to be most difficult journey as his ship was driven out of its course and landed in Brazil. He stayed couple of months there, utilised his time by learning Portuguese which turned very useful while commanding his Indo-Portuguese troops in India. He landed near Fort St. George after this long tiresome journey, once near the gate the sentry showed him his room. On the next day he was informed of his clerical job, a job he never found worth doing. Partly because of this and due to his hot temper he developed a quarrel with his immediate senior it turned into a fight and the matter was escalated up to the Governor. The Governor asked him to apologise because of his insubordination, and Clive did what was asked. His boss being a gentleman and understanding the boy’s loneliness invited him for a dinner. Clive refused the invitation outright by saying, “the Governor did not command me to dine with you”! It was in the Writer’s building of the fort where Clive attempted a suicide. He triggered a loaded pistol in his own forehead, twice he fired and on both occasions it misfired. Clive jumped up exclaiming, “I am reserved for something.” I will soon come to what he was, “reserved” for but before that one of the most important event in his life needs a mention. Inside this fort in 1752 he was married to Miss Margaret Maskelyn and soon after his marriage his health declined to such extent that he had sail back home. He came back in July 1755 and as the news of the English disaster at Calcutta reached Madras, he was despatched in early December 1756 to retake all that was lost. His forces arrived, attacked and won the fort at Budge Budge by 29th December 1756. Rest is all well known history, and Clive actually achieved more than what he was sent for; he not only snatched Calcutta but laid the foundations of the British Empire in India. He was perhaps destined to achieve this incredible task.

I will end the long story of Fort St. George with the interesting story of Captain P Anstruther. Captain Anstruther of the Madras artillery was surveying in Chusan (Chusan refers to: Zhoushan, also known as Chusan, city in Zhejiang,) where he was seized by the Chinese peasants. He was bound hand and foot to a long bamboo and transported to Ningbo. Here he was forced inside a small wooden cage, an iron ring was put around his neck, his hands put into a handcuff locked to a stick which was fastened to the ring on his neck. Very heavy leg irons have been put on him when at the magistrate’s. These iron he supposed weighed 191 pounds and worn for four weeks. “I found my head”, he wrote, “handsomely laid open to the bone, and my legs and arms covered with bruises.” Fixed in this horrible cage in the most cramped position he managed to sketch some beautiful art which actually melted the hearts of his captors. They allowed him a larger cage, 3 feet 6 inch by 2 feet! On 22nd February 1841 he was finally let off and sent abroad HMS Blonde from the port of Chsuan to return to Madras. But he never forgot the cage where he was once caged, sometime after he managed to transport it to Fort St. George where it is still preserved. Captain Anstruther’s looks was forgettable, he looked quite ugly indeed and he never allowed anyone to sketch his face. He always carried a gold mohur with himself which roused everyone’s curiosity until one day he found a stranger uglier than himself and exclaimed,” By God Sir, you are uglier than I am, here’s a gold mohur for you.”


Fort St. George, Madras a short history of our first possession in India by Mrs. Frank Penny 

Early Records Of British India: A History Of The English Settlements In India, As Told In The Government Records, The Works Of Old Travellers And Other Contemporary Documents, From The Earliest Period Down To The Rise Of British Power In India by James Talboys Wheeler 

Historical record of the honourable East India Company’s first Madras European regiment: By James George Smith Neill, Staff Officer

The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai edited by C. S. Lakshmi

 The Story of Fort St. George By Douglas Muir Reid 

The English Illustrated Magazine, Volume 12

Wikimapia view, the red circled portion is the Fort St. George


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Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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