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Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: November 28, 2010 15:48 IST

Madras Miscellany - When Pondy was wasted

S. Muthiah
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Subramanyam Chandrasekar
Subramanyam Chandrasekar

Some years ago, Army headquarters in Madras had a discussion with a few of us to discuss the possibility of developing a tourist trail covering the famous battle sites near Madras, as is done in many countries abroad. Jaspar Utley, then heading the British Council in South India, heard about this suggestion and promptly decided to reconnoitre the sites and then did a series of articles on them for Madras Musings. One of those he wrote about was Wandiwash, once the headquarters of Venkatadri Naik who granted those three square miles of ‘no man's sand', as I've often described it, to the East India Company.

Last January marked the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Wandiwash, the first step towards completely smashing the French dreams of an Indian empire and the kindling of British dreams of one. December will mark the 250th anniversary of a siege that led to the second step, the laying waste of Pondicherry, shattering further French ambitions in India.

The destruction of Pondicherry had its beginnings in Lally's unsuccessful 67-day siege of Madras in 1758-1759. Col. Stringer Lawrence, the ‘Father of the Indian Army', who had successfully conducted the defence of Madras during those touch-and-go days was, understandably, given his age, exhausted by the siege and decided to retire and return to England. Major Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumly') Brereton held the fort till Lawrence's replacement arrived.

That successor was Col. Eyre Coote, who had fought under Robert Clive's command at Plassey. Coote arrived in Madras in October 1759 and immediately marched out to follow the retreating French. On January 22, 1760, the French turned to meet Coote's forces at Wandiwash — but Coote was not to be stopped. Pondicherry was his destination — and he took Wandiwash in his stride. Then, it was on to Pondicherry.

By November 1760, British ships had bottled up Pondicherry from the sea and Coote had invested the town on the land side. On January 16, 1761 Pondicherry surrendered. Coote claimed the French Indian capital for the Crown, but Madras's Governor, George Pigot, threatened to stop supplies to Coote's forces if the town was not surrendered to the East India Company. He received Pondicherry on January 24 and ordered the destruction of its fortifications and public buildings; everything owned by Government was to be confiscated. The demolition — and the loot — of Pondicherry was completed by October 1761.

Pigot had cited in Council ‘The Law of Retaliation' to justify this; Lally, who had destroyed Fort St. David, threatened to raze Madras, and French prisoners, being sent back to France on a French ship under an exchange-of-prisoners programme, had attacked a Company settlement. These were causes Pigot sited for retaliatory action.

Pondicherry was to be returned to the French in 1770, but recaptured in 1778, then restored to the French in 1783 before the final capture in 1793 and subsequent restoration, after which the French stopped dreaming of empire. But 1760-61 had shown that from then the British were in a position to thwart French ambitions at any time.

The die was cast for a British Indian empire.

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The delayed Nobel

Working on an article on the contribution to Science by persons from Madras, I recently came across a reminder that it was 75 years ago that Sir Arthur Eddington, an eminent international figure in the world of Astronomy had rubbished the theory of a young Indian astrophysicist on stellar evolution at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. Many feel that if Subramanyam Chandrasekar, then at Cambridge, had stood his ground more firmly at the time, he might have got the Nobel Prize for Physics earlier than in 1983. Chandrasekhar later ruefully remembered, “I had gone to the meeting thinking I would be acclaimed for making a startling discovery, but Sir Arthur made a fool of me. I was distraught. I did not know whether to continue my career or not.” But continue he did — and his due came to him in time.

Chandrasekhar believed — and was not happy about it — that the Nobel Prize was awarded to him for “my work in 1930, which is related to the maximum mass of slight white dwarfs” and not for his lifetime contribution. That 1930 work had been done during that same year, eighty years ago, when his father's brother, C.V. Raman, was awarded the Prize. I wonder whether it was a unique occurrence in Nobel Prize history for two members of the same family to be awarded the Prize in the same discipline many years apart.

Just a month before Chandrasekhar was awarded the Prize, his alma mater, the University of Madras — which did not have a teaching post for this Presidencian in 1936! — awarded him, as almost an afterthought, an honorary doctorate. His first research paper, prepared while at Presidency, ‘The Thermodynamics of the Compton Effect with Reference to the Interior of the Stars', was published in the Indian Journal of Physics just four days before his 18th birthday. Eighteen months later, he was off on a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge — and his journey to eminence had begun.

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When the postman knocked…

* Professor S. Kannan, reminded of another distinguished alumnus of Madras Christian College (Miscellany, October 25), recollects a tale told in this column before (Miscellany, November 27, 2000) and retailed by Joshua Kalapati and Ambrose Jeyasekaran in their recent history of the College — namely, the Chemistry Department's K.S. Krishnan holding ‘Lunch Hour Classes' in Physics for any student from any college who wished to listen to him clearing doubts in a generous display of volunteerism. But what Kannan has to relate new about the man who went from MCC to Calcutta, and played a significant role in C.V. Raman's research that was to win a Nobel Prize, is the fact that Dr. K.S. Krishnan was an authority on the hymns of the Alwars and took part in the Prabhanda Khostis whenever he visited Kancheepuram. Krishnan, though he spent most of his working life in Calcutta and Delhi (where he headed the National Physical Laboratory and was an informal scientific adviser to Prime Minister Nehru), never lost touch with Tamizhagam; he was one of the founders of the Calcutta Tamil Sangam and then of the Delhi Tamil Sangam.

* A reader wants to know how Chamier's Road got its name. The road, I've learnt, was developed between 1798 and 1816. And that was the period when John Chamier of the Madras Civil Service became Chief Secretary (in 1803). But he owned no property in Adyar, so, given that in those days roads were generally named after the owners of large properties they led to, it is unlikely that the road owes its names to him. On the other hand, a leading Armenian merchant, Jacob Nazar Shawmier, owned Gambier's Gardens, a property just off the road around this period, so it could well have been Shawmier's Road that became Chamier's Road. John Chamier's son Henry also became Chief Secretary of Madras — in 1832 — but there is also no record of his having lived in this area. Henry Chamier was the founder-president of the Madras Club in 1832 — but the Club at that time was situated at the end of Club House Road, leading off Mount Road; it was to be over 130 years before it moved to Adyar and not far from Chamier's Road. The Chamiers were of French origin, adapting the original family name Deschamps, to a more Anglicised form. John Chamier's uncle, a Deschamps, was a well-known name in Madras commercial circles in the 1770s.

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