The Portuguese merchant-prince

John de Monte’s story is itself film-worthy without having to go and look for ghosts in a ‘colony’ which was developed in the 1960s where his huge garden house had once been.

March 22, 2015 02:39 pm | Updated March 23, 2015 03:32 am IST

Powis Castle, now a National Trust property.

Powis Castle, now a National Trust property.

I was struck by the news the other day that an enterprising young film-maker was getting ready to release a film he had titled de Monte Colony . Will the film tell the story of John de Monte, a Portuguese merchant-prince who was a major land-owner in early 19th Century Madras, or will it narrate imaginative tales about his property, now a ghostly enclave a little north of the Park Sheraton on the eastern side of TTK Road?

Frankly, John de Monte’s story is itself film-worthy without having to go and look for ghosts in a ‘colony’ which was developed in the 1960s where his huge garden house had once been. That story begins with a small-time businessman arriving in Pondicherry — and doing well enough there to buy a significant share in one of Madras’s largest business houses. That firm had started as Francis Lautour & Co. in 1777. With George Arbuthnot, a free merchant, joining it in 1800, it became Lautour, Arbuthnot & Co in 1803. When Lautour retired in 1810, de Monte, who had joined the firm two years earlier, picked up his share and the business became Arbuthnot, de Monte & Co. With de Monte’s death, the firm became Arbuthnot & Co., the largest merchant house in South India and a pioneer in manufacture.

With Arbuthnot, de Monte & Co flourishing and the several other investments he made proving immensely successful, de Monte became one of the biggest land-owners in Madras, comparable to Subramaniam Pillai — better known as P. Venkatachalam — of a later period. Among these properties was the 105-acre Moubray’s Garden , now in abbreviated extent home of the Madras Club. In its de Monte days it stretched from the Adyar river to Chamier’s Road, from Greenway’s Road to Gandhi Mandapam Road, none of which names existed for the coach tracks of the time. Across from Chamier’s Road, on either side of what became Moubray’s Road, was much property de Monte owned, including the acreage where he had his house in. He also had much property in Egmore, across from where the Police Officers’ Mess now is, and much elsewhere in the city and beyond, including in Covelong.

But for all his wealth, de Monte lived a life full of tragedy. First, his wife became mentally ill. He moved her to his house in Covelong and provided her every comfort. And on his property he built the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for her worship. The Church was built sometime in the first decade of the 19th Century. Today it has become a pilgrim centre and celebrates an annual festival.

Mary de Monte was a German, Mary Bilderbeck. Her mental illness may have had something to do with childbirth, for it is stated that her son, Christopher Bilderbeck de Monte, was sent to Germany as an infant to be brought up by her parents. When he was 22, his studies finished, Christopher de Monte decided in 1816 to join his father in India. But on the eve of his departure from Germany, some say on board his ship, he was killed, many accounts stating it was in a duel. His body was brought to Covelong to be buried in the family church. In 1821, John de Monte, aged 56, joined him and, some years later, so did his mother.

Given Mary de Monte’s condition, John de Monte (not ‘Sir’ as many titled him, but certainly a papal knight, a Chevalier) willed all his property to the Archdiocese of Mylapore. It was the Church which developed de Monte Colony in the mid-1960s. There were about a score or more charming little houses, each with a little garden within a perfectly square plot. They were all occupied, mainly by executives of the Easun Group, and seemed full of life and activity at the time. I often felt that I’d like to own one of those houses, ‘cute’ the best word to describe them. But then one year, they began emptying one by one and soon they were all empty and beginning to go to seed.

Was it a rumour about ghosts that led to this exodus and making it the ghost colony it now is with a future uncertain? If so, whose ghost? Did John de Monte die there? He shuttled between his house here and a house in Egmore and used Moubray’s Cupola as a weekend retreat. In which of them did he die? It has also been bandied about that he had a mistress or two (one in each house? not unknown for the times). Did one of them die in de Monte Gardens ? Is the film based on one of these stories?


The wealth of Powis Castle

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on August 12, 1765, a corporate venture in India, the East India Company, began its transition from a business house into becoming a governing authority that would eventually lead to Britain acquiring an empire over which the sun took a long time to set. On that day, Robert Clive, Deputy Governor of Cuddalore and erstwhile Steward of Fort St. George, who led the expedition to Bengal and then found himself appointed Governor of Bengal, received from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam in Allahabad a scroll that handed over to the East India Company the governance of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Then began the plunder of Eastern India.

Clive of Madras was transformed from the receiver of petty commissions he got while acquiring supplies for Fort St. George to being the richest “self-made man in Europe” with the £250,000 he took back from Calcutta. The Company benefitted to the tune of ten times that. In today’s money, you would need to multiply those figures by a factor of 100!

A record of that momentous scroll, virtually handing over power to Clive and all those he represented, is to be seen in a painting by Benjamin West that hangs in Powis Castle . But it is almost an insignificant holding in Powis Castle , the present home of the Clive family. The castle in Welshpool in Wales was the home of the Earls of Powis. But when Lady Henrietta, daughter of the then Earl of Powis, married Edward Clive in 1784, and two fortunes were joined, the son of Robert Clive changed his family name in 1804 to that of the Powis family’s, Herbert, and as Edward Herbert became the first Earl of Powis of a re-created line that exists till today. Much of Robert Clive’s material wealth was used by Edward Herbert to embellish his new house.

There are in this private mansion more gold-plated or inlaid or bejewelled Mughal artefacts and a wealth of sculptures and paintings than there are in any Indian museum, it is said. They all belong to the 6th Earl of Powis who, ironically, is married to a Bengali woman, according to William Dalrymple in a recent article he wrote as a prelude to his next book, which will focus on the East India Company.


The ships that brought ice

As I’ve often said before, the reach of this column constantly surprises me. This time it is American researcher Jeanette Knazek from Georgia who has been getting in touch with me, very kindly stating that I might like to know something about the ships that brought ice to Madras. One of the ships was the Arabella , very similar to the one in the sketch she has sent me and which I use today. The Arabella made two voyages to India, carrying ice and other goods, in the 1850s.

The 696-tons Arabella , one of the largest merchant vessels of the time, was named after Arabella Rice, daughter of one of the ship’s co-owners, Capt. Robert Rice of Maine. Her other owner was William H. Bordman Jr., who was very much into New England’s export trade from 1826. Arabella Rice, 41 at the time, became the sole heiress to the fortunes of her parents in 1863. She died a spinster when she was 50, leaving $172,000 to be divided among various good causes. $30,000 of that fortune was left to establish a library in memory of her father in his birthplace, Kittery, Maine. In the Rice Public Library are records of Robert Rice’s overseas trading activities.

Knazek is at present curating a centenary exhibition at the Tasha Tudor Museum in Battledore, Vermont. Tasha Tudor (1915-2008) was a well-known American children’s book author and illustrator. She was also the great-grand-daughter of Frederic Tudor of the Tudor Ice Company which shipped ice out to Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Her mother, Rosamand Tudor, was an artist and it was she who sketched the full-rigged ship we see here today. Tasha herself had in her early years done a watercolour of the Madras Ice House as seen in its heyday. This sketch was based on the original which is in the Baker Library Historical Collections at Harvard University’s Business School.

Knazek is co-curating a travelling exhibition on Tasha Tudor and her work. May I urge the U.S. Consulate-General to bring the exhibition and Knazek out this August to be part of the Madras Week celebrations?

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.