The statue under the stairs

I wonder how many of us in Madras have visited the Fort Museum. I strongly recommend a visit, particularly as it is quite well kept these days. It is a treasure house of early Madras history, each exhibit having a story to tell. If you have a storyteller with you, it would be an even more enjoyable experience. My Australian friends who spent a morning there recently, however, had to wait till they caught up with me at lunch to hear the story of the bas relief frieze encircling the pedestal of the Lord Cornwallis statue, now rather hidden beneath the Museum’s main staircase.

Lord Cornwallis, the Governor-General (presumably an appointment made as a gift for losing the American colonies!), arrived in Madras from Calcutta in December 1790, to oversee the operations against Tipu Sultan in what became known as the Third Mysore War. General William Medows was in command of what the Madras Courier described as “a Force certainly unequalled ever in this Country, and perhaps never surpassed in Europe.” The Force, comprising about 18,000 men and about ten times that number of camp followers, marched out on February 5, 1791, and a year later, was besieging Seringapatam, after having fought numerous battles along the way, seizing Bangalore and several hill forts during that march.

Tipu Sultan now sued for peace and was forced to accept rather ruthless terms. He agreed to cede half his dominions, pay Rs.33 million (Rs.3.3 crores) as reparations for the cost of the war to the East India Company, release all prisoners, and hand over two of his sons as hostages till he met all his commitments spelt out in the treaty. He, however, insisted that the two boys, ten-year-old Abd-ul-Kilak and eight-year-old Musa-ud-din, be in the charge of Col. John Doveton (later a Lieutenant-General and owner of Doveton House, now the administrative building of Women’s Christian College), whom he had befriended in between the Mysore Wars. Doveton schooled the boys and introduced them to Madras Society which feted them throughout the year-and-something they spent as Lord Cornwallis’s ‘guests.’

Among the territories ceded to the British in 1792 were the Salem, Dindigul and Malabar Districts, and Coorg Province. Much of the rest of the dominions Tipu ceded went to Hyderabad and the Mahrattas, who had offered support to the Company.

Recollection of this British receipt of Salem District coincided with my receiving a note from Reader Godfrey Pandian who remembered his own connection with Salem town in the context of my item on the Fowke family (Miscellany, December 10). He remembers as a boy having played in a large open space called ‘Fowke’s Compound’ in the midst of which was a large, dilapidated, old mansion called Fowke’s Bungalow. As I had written in that earlier item, the first Fowke, Randall, appeared to have arrived in Madras in the late 17th Century and his sons served the Presidency around the mid-18th Century. Any Fowke who lived in Salem would very likely have done so only after the cession of the territory to the Company in 1792. So, the family, it would seem, served in Madras for at least 100 years. I wonder whether there was any further service by a Fowke in the Presidency. If so, it would have made them one of the longest serving British families in Madras.

Getting to know Castle Geldria

Several years ago, INTACH-Chennai was asked to provide a blueprint for the revival of Pulicat, to enable it to be developed as a heritage destination. There was nothing heard for years after that, but I’m glad there’s talk once again of giving new life to what was the chief Dutch settlement on the Coromandel. Working towards this happening are a local NGO, the AARDE Foundation, and the Dutch Embassy. Both, no doubt, have benefitted from someone who called on me the other day, Prof. Bauke van der Pol, who has been visiting this area regularly and whose latest book is The VOC in India. For the record, VOC is the abbreviation for the Dutch equivalent of ‘The Dutch United East India Company’ which was founded in 1602 and was in business till 1795. Those letters have been created into a monogram that the Dutch claim is the oldest trademark in the world.

Given the state of History in our school syllabi, I don’t know how many realise that there was once a strong Dutch presence, mainly a trading one, on the Coromandel, beginning with Masulipatam and then in Bheemanipatnam, Pulicat, San Thomé, Covelong, Sadras(patnam) and, eventually, in Negapatam (Nagapattinam). In all these towns, relics of the Dutch years can still be found. And in the Tamil Nadu Archives, digitised with the help of the Netherlands’ National Archives, can be found the most complete record of the Dutch in their four main areas of settlement in India - Surat, Malabar, Coromandel and Bengal - from 1643 to 1825.

I didn’t need to trawl those records to find out a bit more about what interested me the most, Castle Geldria in Pulicat, now in ruins but which, I’m sure, will reveal much if excavation is proceeded with. Thanks to Prof. van der Pol, I discovered that Fort Geldria was raised by the Dutch Agent Wemberich van Berchem (1580-1653) in 1610. He named it after the province where he was born, Gelderland, and in his home town there, Doesburg, he is remembered in a marble plaque in the ‘Big Church.’

The Dutch were given permission to build the fort by a local governor, but had to pay all the costs. What with settling the bills and not really making a success of the export of cotton textiles, van Berchem sought to be relieved because “Pulicat had given him grey hairs.” After van Berchem’s time, however, Pulicat boomed with the export of textiles and saltpetre.

The Dutch moved their headquarters from Pulicat to Negapatam in 1687, due to the latter’s proximity to their possessions in Ceylon. But when the British seized Negapatam in 1781, Pulicat once again became the Coromandel headquarters of the Dutch and remained so till 1825 when a transfer to the British through a treaty was negotiated. But 20 years before that during the Anglo-Dutch wars, much of Castle Geldria was demolished by the British.

Reporting on the act of transfer, van der Kemp, a Danish historian, recorded, “On the first of June 1825, at noon the official ceremony was held. A resident, Obdam, and the Englishman Krawley, both garlanded and carried in palanquins, arrived in procession, followed by dancing girls, drums and trumpets. At the flagstaff there awaited them the document of transfer on a silver plate covered with a gold cloth. After the proclamation was read, the Dutch flag was lowered and the ceremony closed with a 21-gun salute.”

And, so, Pulicat and Castle Geldria became British.

When the postman knocked…

Andhra Jyothi, a monthly which I referred to in last week’s column, was started by Bysani Narasimhulu Gupta of George Town in 1936, writes Ramineni Bhaskar. When he wanted to start a Kannada magazine in Bangalore a year or so later, Gupta sold Andhra Jyothi to Nagi Reddy. The magazine was thereafter edited at different times by Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani, who appeared to take turns in concentrating on it. But when they decided to focus on Chandamama's numerous editions in 1955, they decided to close Andhra Jyothi and its last issue appeared that April with a farewell message.

Reader E.S. Fernando of Colombo referring to my recollection of M. Sathasivam’s deeds in Madras, wonders whether he recalls right in remembering that at least one of Satha’s teammates in that 1947 match later played for a Madras club. Indeed, he’s right. Ben Navaratne, once described by Don Bradman as “the best wicketkeeper in the world”, did turn out for a season for the MCC while he was with the Ceylon Deputy High Commission in Madras. This was in the mid-1950s and U. Prabhakar Rao remembers his performance for the Club that season as being “positively brilliant and consistently so.” Navaratne snared 57 victims behind the stumps, including 30-plus stumped, often standing up to the pacemen. If memory serves me right, another team-mate of Satha and Navaratne, off-spinner R.L.de Kretser, played in a few matches in Madras when he was posted on transfer to the Madras branch of a British bank. I wonder whether there’s anyone who can refresh my memory on that.

What was the first newspaper in any language in Madras, asks reader N. Sabarathnam. It was the Madras Courier, first published on October 12, 1785 by Richard Johnston, the Government printer, but in this instance doing so in his private capacity. The paper survived till 1821, inspiring along the way competition and the birth of a competitive Press in Madras.

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Madras MiscellanyJanuary 6, 2013