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Updated: May 23, 2014 20:16 IST
melange: hidden histories

Making gunpowder in Mylapore

Sriram V.
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The Powder Mill street, just off Bazaar Road.
Special Arrangement The Powder Mill street, just off Bazaar Road.

Last week saw me wandering around the Bazaar Street area of Mylapore. The car festival of the Karaneeswarar Temple (Coronation Pagoda in ye olde times) was the chief attraction but in the process I learnt much else.

I had never known that there was an entire area that went by the name of Powder Mill, just off Bazaar Road. And what’s more, there were at least three streets in it. A rabbit’s warren of houses, it was quite challenging walking around it. It is evidently a throwback to a time when gunpowder was made in this area. Returning home, I checked Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras only to find that he makes no mention of such a facility in Mylapore/Santhome. He lists five others – on the Island, at Perambur, at Egmore, at Black Town, and one more in the Peddanaickenpet part of Town. But nothing on a Mylapore powder mill. I had to obviously search elsewhere.

Given that British sources are otherwise silent on the subject, it was quite likely that the powder mill in Mylapore dated back to the Arcot Nawabs, or to the Golconda forces, or the French or the Portuguese, in short, to a time when Santhome was an independent fortified town.

The Livro do Estado da India Oriental by Captain Pedro Barretto de Rezende dating to 1646 and partially translated by HD Love gives a clue. At the height of its glory under the Portuguese, de Rezende records the artillery might of the fort – “thirty iron guns and one of brass, three, six and nine pounders. There is also a swivel gun of forty iron hoop, twelve falcons and four wall-pieces. For these guns there is enough ammunition and powder in the magazines to enable the occupants of the fort to offer resistance”. The west gate of the fort was at the intersection of Bazaar and Kutchery Roads and it is likely that a powder mill was close by.

That was not enough to prevent the Golconda forces from taking over the town in May 1662. In 1672 came the French, who occupied it till 1674. During these two years, the powder mill must have been busy, given that the Golconda forces, aided by the Dutch, besieged Santhome and re-occupied it in 1674.

The jubilant Dutch and the more circumspect English in Fort St George were keen that the fortifications of Santhome be brought down. Governor Langhorne’s letter to Venkatapati, the British political agent at Golconda recommended the blowing up of the fort with the gunpowder left in it. There was “gunpowder enough left to doe the worke,” he wrote. And if it had decayed it could be made anew “with noe greate charge”. More evidence of a powder mill in the vicinity?

The walls of Santhome were finally demolished and not blown up, but that was in 1697, long after the Powder Mill here must have gone silent. Would any of the residents here be aware of their locality’s violent history?

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