It was 250 years ago this year that the British decided to raze the Indian settlement, Black Town, that they had encouraged to develop just north of the Fort's walls on what is today the High Court campus. And, as the settlement was cleared, the New Black Town, today's George Town, began to develop beyond the boundary of the Esplanade that replaced the levelled old town to provide the Fort's guns a clear field of fire.
To the northwest of Old Black Town, in what is now the Law College campus, was the first British cemetery in South India. Lockyer, who c. l703 saw the old burial ground, wrote, “(It is) adorn'd with many stately Tombs…Some with lofty Spires carved with different Fancies, after the Indian manner; others in a lower Sphere gravely express the Merits of the Person for whose sake they were erected; and all in general have the most curious Workmanship in India bestow'd on them.” When the creation of the Esplanade started in 1760, the cemetery too was flattened. Only two monuments, considered non-threatening, were spared and they still survive behind the Law College hostel, the Hynmer's Obelisk, where the child David Yale is also interred, and the Powney vault. The two monuments had, in the 19th Century, been considered isolated memorials. It was only in the 1890s that it was discovered that they were part of a burial ground; when excavation work began for the Henry Irwin-designed, Namberumal Chetty-built Law College, and large quantities of bones were unearthed!
The tombstones that survived the clearing operation were moved in 1763 to St. Mary's Church in the Fort, where they were used to pave the courtyard. But even these suffered further damage when they were dug out and used to serve as gun-platforms on the ramparts when Hyder Ali threatened the Fort. Today, after having been replaced in the yard haphazardly, only 104 survive.
The oldest British tombstone in South India, perhaps even in India — I don't know whether Surat or Machilipatnam have anything to say about that. It is now part of the St. Mary's courtyard, pieced together after fragments of it — collaterally damaged during the French 1758-59 siege — were found in the old burial ground. The inscription identifies it as the tombstone of Elizabeth Baker, wife of President Aaron Baker. She died at sea on their voyage from the Bantam settlement in Java, from where Baker was coming to Madras in 1752 to take charge of what had been named as the chief settlement of the British in the East. It was a position Madras was to enjoy till it was decided to transfer power to Calcutta in 1774. Elizabeth Baker died during childbirth shortly after leaving Bantam, and it was three weeks later than she was buried in Madras.
A new St. Mary's cemetery was established on The Island c.1761, next to what is now the Metropolitan Transport's headquarters.
When the postman knocked…
* My reference to Blackbird fountain pens made in India by P. Orr's (Miscellany, December 21) has had V. Theetharappan recalling that P.A. Sanjeevi started the Pilot Pen Company sometime before World War II with Japanese inputs. When the Pilot Pen Company closed, Sanjeevi opened the Pilot Theatre in Royapettah.
* Say something about the demolishing of the Binny's headquarters building on Armenian Street, “a beautiful heritage building,” says reader Rajesh Malhotra. What more can I say than what I said in July 2005, and I quote: “A landmark in George Town, the headquarters of Binny's, has passed into the hands of the Indian Bank… I only hope the 37,000 grounds…will not meet the same fate as so many other heritage properties owned by Government and units in the public sector. Most of these owners have the wherewithal to restore these properties, preserve a bit of our heritage and still earn something from them. But, the tendency has long been to pull down such properties and replace them with high-rises that earn already rich organisations substantially more. I hope that the Indian Bank will ensure that does not happen to a significant bit of Madras commercial history that it now owns…I hope…it will take its cue from Parry's where restoration has made an old landmark a striking monument to heritage.”