Chennai was not founded for spices or gold, but cloth. In fact, an array of fabric was procured from here and sent to locations such as Bantam, Manila and London!

Madras according to Francis Day, its accredited founder, was “the only place for paintings, so much desired… and likewise great store of longcloath and morrees.”

By paintings, he meant chintz, on which coloured designs were imprinted using wooden blocks, or traced with hand. And by morrees, he meant blue cotton cloth. He wrote this on August 27, 1639, with great excitement, to his superior Andrew Cogan.

Day was returning after a tour of the Coromandel coast and had made up his mind that Madras was the place. Damarla Venkatadri, the local Naik, had behaved just as a modern-day Chief Minister would when trying to impress prospective overseas investors.

“I was entertayned with much Honnour by the Nague himself. After some parlay with the Nague, I had free leve to vizt his towne and soe discourse with Merchants, Painters and Weavers, whoe brought mee musters of all their sorts of cloath. I was not furnisht to buy, but only to inquire of their prizes…” And what he heard impressed him further. Cloth here was 15% cheaper than at Armagaon.

Thus was Madras founded, not for spices or gold, but for cloth. But then an amazing variety of fabric had been exported from the Coromandel coast since ancient times. And it was to be the stock-in-trade for Madras city. A bewildering array of cloth — longcloth, salempores, and cloth with gold thread being just a few examples — was procured from here and sent to locations such as Bantam, Manila and London.

To cater to this, the rudiments of supply chain management, as we would call it today, began to fall into place. The East India Company appointed chief merchants who would in turn enter into contracts with it for the supply of different types of cloth, and within each variety, there would be an almost infinite range of fineness. These merchants would have agents who would fan out into the interiors and procure cloth from weavers. Money would be advanced to the weavers to facilitate production. Fortunes were made by the middlemen, the dubashes.

This golden period lasted till the 1760s. By then, the East India Company was more interested in conquest than trade. The Industrial Revolution saw India as a market for British textiles. The business houses of Madras began importing ‘piece goods’ and selling them here, slowly driving the native weaver out of business.

All that is old hat, and now even the name Madras has gone off the maps. But internationally, the name continues to be synonymous with check-patterned cotton cloth. Patchwork Madras is various plaid strips of cloth stitched together to form a design. And Bleeding Madras is cloth that has dyes that run with every wash, thereby giving a new look each time. In certain tribes of Africa, Madras cloth is used for ceremonial occasions, and as headgear. Somewhere, the memory of Madras lives, commemorating the commodity for which the city was first set up. Francis Day must be smiling.

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