I am truly amazed by what the Corporation of Madras that is Chennai proposes to do. It is going to green the city - with 2 million Palmyra palms, a tree with hardly any green to it!

Now, I've got nothing against the Palmyra tree which was declared the State tree. It is a most useful tree, almost every part of it being regularly used. Its leaves are used for thatch, making crude umbrellas and, if you want to go back in time , writing material. It 'branches' contain fibre that can be used, like its leaves, to make mats and tats, its wood could be used for fences and other constructions, and its fruits and flowers provide summer quenchers today as well as palm sugar and jaggery. The only thing it can't do, unlike the coconut palm, is provide greening and shade. So what is the purpose of making this the tree of choice for providing green cover (emphasis mine) for the city?

Speaking of these trees to be planted on the banks of the Adyar and Cooum rivers, what's left of the Buckingham Canal and on the bunds of lakes and tanks, His Worship the Mayor said, “Chennai had a large number of Palmyra trees in the past. Urbanisation led to disappearance of the species. We will revive it.” Now why did the authorities allow the scene shown in my picture today disappear? The picture is of the south bank of the Adyar and all those Palmyra trees were felled to develop Kotturpuram and Kottur. Now, while crying over spilt milk, what do we do for what were once Palmyra-rich stretches?

It's all well and good to say that a study has shown that Palmyra trees were found suitable for the “climatic and civic conditions of Chennai.” Of course they were. My picture of 60 years ago clearly shows that - as can any old-timer in Madras attest, without the benefit of any studies. The Palmyra palms indeed flourish here, earn an income when fully grown and after they are felled. But what will be the greening they do? Perhaps someone from Nizhal can explain all this to me.


The early women


The other day I received an enquiry about when the College of Pharmacy, Madras, was founded and searching for an answer - still to be found - I stumbled across half an answer to what I had been searching. Four women students were admitted to the Madras Medical College in 1875 and I had always listed them as the Misses Mitchell, White and Beale, all- Anglo-Indians, and Mrs Mary Scharlieb, who was English. I had never been able to find the initials of the three Anglo-Indian students and that's what I have now found. But I wish I could find out what 'S' stands for in Mitchell's name, 'D' in White's name and 'M' in Beale's name. The present search also indicates that Mitchell might have been married. Is there a reader out there who could help.

I also discovered that among the second batch of women admitted - that was in 1881 - there were two on Bengal Government scholarships - Ellen D'Abreu and Abala Das. The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal had regretted at the time that “some Bengali ladies fully qualified by educational attainments for admission to the College have had to take themselves to the more liberal Presidency of Madras, there to proceed with their medical studies from which the council of Calcutta Medical College had excluded them.” Following this telling observation, Calcutta opened its doors to women medical students in June 1883. Grant Medical College, Bombay, had done so in May 1883. That second batch of women students in Madras included D'Abreu, an Anglo-Indian, and the first three “native Indians”, Das, Rose Govindurajulu and Gurdial Singh. They received the LMS.

Responsible for this early admission of women to medical college in Madras was Dr.Edward Balfour, who was the Surgeon General of Madras and who has figured in this column for various other contributions to Madras ranging from the Madrasa to the Museum. Balfour first made his proposal in 1872 but it was turned down. But when he made it again in 1874, Dr.Furnell, the Principal of Medical College, supported him and the proposal was implemented the next year.

To encourage women to study medicine, the Countess Dufferin Fund was created in 1885. It offered a monthly stipend of Rs.25 for four years to each successful applicant. In its first year of service, the Fund supported six women students in Madras, 18 in Bombay and three in Calcutta. The Fund survived till 1915-16 when it was taken over by the Surgeon-General of India for continued implementation.

It would appear that the first woman from the Madras Presidency to receive a scholarship for study abroad was a Mrs Kamalarkar, L.M.S. from Madras.A scholarship of Rs.4000 was awarded to her in 1907 by the Rajah of Pittampore (Pithapuram?) for study in Europe. I wonder whether any reader has further details about her.

With Madras Medical College planning to belatedly celebrate its 175th anniversary it's time it began to review its history, a glimpse of which is given here.


The first one legally qualified

With Madras 50 years older than Calcutta and 22 years older than Bombay I'm likely not to be wrong in saying that an arrival in Madras 325 years ago was probably the first legally qualified person to hold legal office in British territories outside the Home Countries. A lawyer, who had been the Recorder of Plymouth, Sir John Biggs, arrived in Madras on July 22, 1687 to serve as Judge Advocate. And he got down to work with a will.

The first case he prosecuted was that of four men, Mannangattti Thambi, Pandaram, Veeraraghava and Thannappa. He not only had them all found guilty of robbery but also sentenced to death for it, the penalty he had sought. There appears to have been some sort of appeal against the punishment or a review of it, because the next thing we hear is, “The Court considering that justice inclined to mercy, and that these were the first crimes they were charged with and probably instigated thereso by youth, the temptation of a notorious rogue their ring leader…upon which consideration it is agreed that the principal and bold offender. Mannangatti Thambi, do suffer death…..to deter others from the like crimes and that the other (three) criminals… be burnt on the shoulder and banished… to Sumatra, where they are to remain slaves… to the Company during life, and never to return hither upon pain of death.”

Mannangatti Thambi was duly hanged and then decapitated. His head was impaled on a pole which was placed at a “remarkable place, to deter others from such notorious robberies.”

In 1690, the Government replaced the Judge Advocate with a court of Judicature and Biggs became one of its five judges. When he died, John Dolben, a lawyer, came out to replace him. Acting independently he gave a ruling in favour of ex-Governor Elihu Yale in a case where the East India Company had pressed charges against Yale. But it soon became a case of the biter bit, when Dolben was found accepting a bribe. He was dismissed - but instead of returning to England, he became a free merchant in Madras and made a fortune. Invited back in 1694 to serve the Court, he turned his back on it stating that he was not in need of employment given the state of his financial health at the time. And so he merrily continued with his China trade.


A lesson in local historySeptember 29, 2013