Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

Chennai's Fort St. George

Vantage view: Harbour of Madras in the making near Fort St. George (in the background on the left).   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan


I am Fort St. George — the first English (British) fortress in India. I am a mute spectator of all that happened (and happens) around me. Let me tell you the story of Madras.

But, there’s a story before my time. The Portuguese arrived in 1522 and built a port which they called São Tomé. The region then passed on to the Dutch, who established themselves near Pulicat (or Pazhaverkadu as it was called) in 1612.

The story of Madras begins when Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, representatives of the East India Company which had begun licensed trading at Surat, were sent to find suitable land along the Coromandel Coast to build a factory and warehouse for the company’s trading activities. They chanced upon a strip of land which was then under the rule of the Raja of Chandragiri, under the control of chieftan Damarla Venkatappa Nayak.

On August 22, 1639, Day and Cogan secured the grant for a piece of land in the fishing village of Madrasapatnam, giving over to the East India Company a three-mile long strip of land. This was the beginning of the settlement of Madrasapatnam.

Soon after, I entered the picture. My construction was completed on April 23, 1653, coinciding with the festival of St. George, and hence my name. Within my fortified walls lived British merchants, factory workers, and other colonial settlers. The settlement grew to include new and old settlements like Triplicane, Tiruvottiyur, Kottivakkam, Nungambakkam and Egmore.

Madras Day 2019: How Chennai grew from an English settlement

Change and growth

Life was good until the later part of the century when numerous wars, plagues, and genocidal warfare almost destroyed the town. But every time, my walls stood strong and defended those inside. The survivors of disease and conflicts, sought refuge within my boundaries. My walls steadily expanded with the growing population of the settlers.

In 1646, Golkonda forces under General Mir Jumla conquered Madras and that was a sad day. But, in 1687, the region came under the rule of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi. Under their protection, the city witnessed a period of peace and prosperity, and the East India Company was granted rights. During this period, several British and Anglo-American settlers arrived and the population boomed, so much so that there was a need for a formal administrative institution. During the Governorship of Elihu Yale (1687–92), the institution of a Mayor and the Corporation for the city of Madras was formed.

In the 18th century, the city became an important trade centre between India and Europe, and it continued to remain so until the country’s independence in 1947.

After independence, Madras became the capital of Madras State — renamed Tamil Nadu in 1968. Madras itself was rechristened in 1998 as Chennai after Chennapatnam, a nearby town named by Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka in honour of his father, Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu.

I now serve as the administrative headquarters for the legislative assembly of the Tamil Nadu state and house a garrison of troops in transit. Within my complex is St Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in India, the Fort Museum, and the Wellesley House. Did you know that the first ever flag flown after the independence is stored in my museum? Okay, enough about me...

I remain the heart of the city. One that has grown, transformed and blossomed ... the very thought gives me goosebumps.

Hopefully, I will continue to witness the ebb and tide of the city’s fortunes for centuries to come, and live to tell its stories.

Happy birthday, Madras!




Fort says...

The Pallava, the Chola, the Pandya, and Vijaynagar are the noticeable dynasties that ruled over Chennai and its surrounding regions.

Areas that were annexed to the then Madras settlement included Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur, Thiruvallikeni (Triplicane), Thirumayilai (Mylapore) which have existed for more than 1,000 years.

Elihu Yale, the British governor of Madras, after whom Yale University is named, was one of the first benefactors of the institution.

Many British merchants arrived in Madras and set up companies that were or continue to remain prominent in the city’s economic growth: EID Parry (popularly known as Parry’s), Binny & Co, Best & Crompton, Higginbotham's, Hoe & Co, and P. Orr & Sons.

Spencer's started as a small business in 1864 and went on to become one of the biggest department stores in Asia at the time.

During World War I, Madras was the only Indian city to be bombarded by the German light cruiser SMS Emden.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 6:12:06 PM |

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