It was at a get-together of several erstwhile ‘boxwallahs’ in the City, to which I had been invited as someone who could possibly contribute something about the history of that ‘community’, that I suddenly remembered that the 225th anniversary of the arrival of one of the first ‘boxwallahs’ in Madras, Thomas Parry, had virtually been forgotten. Parry arrived in Madras on July 17, 1788 and before long was trading on his own. That might be considered the year that the seed for what grew into EID Parry (India) Ltd. was planted. And the first shoot was sprouted the next year as a formal partnership, Chase and Parry. Thomas Chase was a government servant but was allowed to trade and, so, teamed with Thomas Parry no sooner the Welshman got his licence, on February 12, 1789, to trade as a free merchant. Parry was just 21 when he started on the road to building a commercial empire.

That Parry landed in Madras safe and sound he would undoubtedly have been more than grateful for. For his voyage on the troop-carrier Manship was as eventful as a voyage could be. The voyage from Gravesend to Madras was completed in 105 days, one of the fastest sailings for the time. But mishap after mishap had dogged the vessel along the way.

Even before the Manship began its voyage, one of the newly recruited soldiers fell overboard while loading the ship and drowned. Then, a few days out of Dover, there were angry demonstrations by a group of soldiers, “a young black boy”, William Gorden, and John Bell being the ringleaders. The next month, heavy gales battered the ship and made life a nightmare for those aboard. In the middle of the following month, there was a sailors’ brawl and a sailor knifed another seaman, receiving “3 dozen lashes” for the offence. Six days later, and still 20 days’ sailing from Madras, another army recruit fell overboard. Thereafter, the voyage was uneventful.

On July 14, 1788, the Manship greeted Madras with a nine-gun salute and was welcomed in the same fashion. Three days later, Thomas Parry landed — and took the first steps towards becoming a legend in Madras history and leaving his name for posterity in Parry’s Corner.

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A hanging example

All this discussion on to hang or not to hang had me looking up when capital punishment was first implemented in Madras. It would appear that in the view of the first Agents, the chiefs of the English settlements, hanging was a perfectly acceptable practice. After all, the gibbet was regularly used in England. Andrew Cogan, considered one of the founders of the city, was the first to order a hanging — of not one man but two found guilty of murder.

The case came up before the settlement’s first Agent in 1641 but not before Cogan had consulted with the Nayak, the local governor of the Vijayanagar ruler who had granted the land to the Company. The Charter granted to the Company was vague about what judicial powers the English had. The Nayak, however, was quite certain: Try those committing crimes in your settlement under English Law. “If justice be not done, who would come and trade here, especially when it is reported that it is a place of theeves and Murtherers?” he asked rhetorically. He went on to state that if Cogan did not act, he would try the accused under country law. Cogan then decided to do something, stating that he was “unwilling to give away our (authority) to those who are too readie to take it…” And so was brought to trial by the Agent and his Council a ‘native’ accused of murdering his wife.

The crime itself was an intriguing one, having as it did hints of another issue being discussed today: homosexuality. When the body of a “native woman” was brought ashore from the North River (now the Buckingham Canal), one of the rescuers claimed a reward from the authorities. A bystander immediately pointed out that “he had no reason, of all men, to require any such thing, for she had maintayned him and his consort for a long time together.” Then another in the crowd around the body pointed to blood on the ‘rescuer’s’ torn veshti. And a third bystander spotted a part of the ‘rescuer’s’ veshti midst the wrappings on the body. Off went Authority to search the man’s house — and there were the clothes of the victim and her jewellery. Taken into custody, the man confessed that he had committed the crime together with his “male consort”. Whereupon “we did justice on them (the “Second Murtherer” too) and hanged (them) on a Gybbet, where they hung till the 11th of Xber (1641)…”, being cut down only because the Nayak was due to visit.

Legal action thereafter continued to be haphazard to say the least. In 1665, after Ascentia Dawes had been acquitted in a murder case (Miscellany, August 6, 2007) the then Agent had written to the Directors, “We found ourselves at a loss in several things for want of instructions, having no man understanding the laws and formalities of them to instruct us as to whether anything more had to be said to the Jury when they brought in such an unexpected verdict (one of ‘not guilty’). We proceeded in those and other particulars according to the best of our judgments… but if any like case shall occur we shall need the direction and assistance of a person better skilled in the law and formalities of it than any of your servants here are.”

In response to that request there arrived in Madras on July 22, 1687 a lawyer from Plymouth, Sir John Biggs, bearing the title Judge Advocate. Biggs opened his innings trying four “natives” for robbery. He won a conviction and the four were sentenced to death. But the Court expressed the view that “Justice inclined to mercy” as it was the first crimes of the three youths and they were exiled into slavery; only the ring-leader, “a notorious rogue”, was hanged (Miscellany, September 16, 2013). And so Madras witnessed its first hanging in 1687 under a more formal system of justice.

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The Future of the Past

As part of Art Chennai, perhaps the largest festival of Art to be held in Madras, a two-day conference was organised to discuss “The Future of the Past” — and that was a title that immediately hooked me. The Future of Tradition, the Museum, the City (any city, any Indian city or Madras, I was not quite sure), Painting, and Art were the five subsections that the conference divided the Past into. Here was a great opportunity to play forecaster, or astrologer, if you will. But in practice there was hardly any sticking out of necks.

On the issue of Tradition, the consensus appeared to be that the only thing constant in life was change. That profound thought was complemented with the thought that change was not necessarily for the better. And one speaker offered the example of true Dasiattam being gentrified into Bharata Natyam, the former focusing on movement below the waist and the latter on movement above the waist. With no dancer I recognised in the audience, I had no one to tell me what the future of this tradition would be in the course of further refining the earthy.

In the case of Museums, I learnt that the crowds Indian museums draw did not include too many wishing to improve their knowledge; to most it was just a day out, a tamasha. So where do we go from here? The British Museum had an answer; use the New Media to attract millions to look at on home screens the hundreds of thousands of holdings the Museum has. Also hold innovative special exhibitions, like one on Bengal which was dominated with a giant Durga who was, after all permissions, immersed in the Thames. The exhibition drew a huge Bengali crowd and, no doubt, Londoners learnt all about Durga when the immersion ceremony took place. Or create a garden of Indian flora outside an Indian exhibition and encourage visitors to walk through it.

On Cities, I was sad to hear that Bombay was in the process of being ‘ghettoised’, with Bohra neighbourhoods, other Muslim neighbourhoods, Tamil neighbourhoods etc. being carved out. And when it came to me, all I could contribute was that the future of Madras was chaos unless Governmental will pushed the administration into implementing all the splendid laws it has to, to make the city more liveable. As for heritage, particularly built and environmental heritage, we could only look forward to indifference in a city where the struggle in the present is all that concerns its citizens.

Of Painting and Art — which the city was full of during the week — I know nothing, and so gave both a miss. But the enthusiasm displayed by all those offering the products of their creativity could well indicate these two fields may hold greater hope for their practitioners in the future than in the other fields discussed.