Madras miscellany Columns

From merchant to General

As the 374th anniversary of the founding of Madras draws near (August 22), it would not be out of place to remember that the early years of the settlement were troubled ones and that the Council of Fort St. George lived in constant fear during the first 25 years of settlement of being ousted from Madraspatam. One of its greatest fears was caused by the Chief Merchant of the Dutch, a man of many names, who enjoyed a close relationship with Raja Sri Ranga of Chandragiri, that last vestige of the Vijayanagar Empire. Mollay, as he was best known, was also called Mollaya and Mallai. But his real name appears to have been Chenana or Chinanna Chetti.

Mollay succeeded in getting the Rajah to dismiss Venkatadri Naik, who had granted the English East India Company the 3 sq. miles of ‘no man’s sand’ from where Madras grew, and appoint him Naik of all the territory from Pulicat to San Thomé and inland to Wandiwash, Venkatadri’s headquarters, and beyond; in effect, Tondaimandalam. It was an appointment that made Francis Day, then Agent at Madraspatam, write to London, “Such a storme is preparing for us that ‘tis to bee feared will even whorle us from this coast. Our neighbours the Dutch have bine long a projecting and now they have wrought it that Mollay, their Merchant, is Like to be as Powerfull with the King…And to ingratiate him thoroughly into his favour, they have assisted Mollay with men and Gunns for the subdueing of the Castles of our Nague for the King, or rather their owne use…And is very probable that hee will governe all the Seaports even to the verges of Cealon…”

By early 1645, however, fortunately for the English, Mollay and the Dutch fell out and Mollay, having added considerably to the army he had launched against Venkatadri Naik, began to besiege the Dutch in Pulicat. Raja Sri Ranga advised the English that he had declared war on the Dutch and would like them (the English) to assist his commander, Chenana Chetti, with munitions. The English grabbed the opportunity and sent Henry Greenhill to negotiate with the Raja and he returned with a new cowle that assured the English of “our old priviledge, with some addition, new confirmed by this King…under the Kings own hand.”

Mollay who is said to have raised an army of 50,000, now suddenly found himself being attacked by General Mir Jumlah’s army sent to Tondaimandalam by the Nawab of Golconda and surrendered with hardly a fight. He appears to vanish from the pages of history thereafter, leaving the Carnatic to Mir Jumlah who in 1647 confirmed the grant of Madras to the British. Much conflict was to continue for a couple of more decades before it could be said that Madras was a settled settlement administered by the English.

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Flagging off Manikkodi

It was the year after Kalaimagal (Miscellany, July 15) that another high quality Tamil journal was launched, the weekly Manikkodi, deriving its name, “our beloved flag”, from a word used in one of Bharati’s nationalist songs. Befitting that title, its focus was on politics and freedom, leavened with some literary contributions. Within weeks, the pinch was felt and it became a fortnightly. By March 1935, it became a journal focused on short story writing — and soon began to set the standards for Tamil short story writing.

The founders of the magazine were K. ‘Stalin’ Srinivasan, who got his sobriquet from the Stalin-like moustache he sported and who left to work with The Free Press Journal in Bombay, V. Ramaswami, better know as Va Raa, who left to edit the Virakesari in Colombo after differences with T.S. Chockalingam, who himself left to become the editor of the newly started — by Sadanand of the Free Press JournalDinamani, and another journalist, A.N. Sivaraman, all of them friends, with the immense talent necessary to make it a journal of literary excellence, even if it had started on a shoestring. But none of them had the wherewithal to sustain a publication.

Joining this foursome as they struggled to keep the magazine afloat was B.S. Ramiah, a playwright and short story writer. And it was into his hands that the quartet entrusted the journal as they one by one severed ties with it. Ramiah, on his part, changed the character of the magazine that had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bharati’s India. Ramiah made it a monthly short story magazine, but one which would set new standards for Tamil short story writing. The young avant garde writers who contributed to it, it has been said, created a renaissance in Tamil writing. Among this galaxy were Pudhumaipithan (S. Vridachalam), Chitti (P.G. Sundarajan), and Sangu Subrahmanyam.

There was a rare camaraderie amongst this group whose focus was original writing, not adaptations of international fiction. Lacking financial resources, they were as happy discussing their ideas on the sands of Triplicane Beach, eating sundal and vér kadalai, as they were in a curtained off corner of the Manikkodi office where many of them slept.

Manikkodi’s first office was in Sembudoss Street, George Town, where it also provided residential space for many of the founders. Ramiah moved the magazine into larger accommodation in Saleh Mansion, on nearby Tucker’s Lane, but many a contributor continued to use it as a bit of residential space. And amidst cluttered space and loud discussions, many of them wrote what might be considered the forerunners of modern Tamil literature.

Sadly, quality alone is not enough to sustain a journal, and by the end of the 1930s, the Manikkodi era came to an end. But not before giving Tamil literature a host of talented young writers who provided the springboard for the emergence of the post-Independence contributors to Tamil literature.

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Nothing new under the sun

Indeed, that there’s nothing new under the sun I was reminded of once again after a request from Colombo triggered a Madras memory. My Sri Lankan friend had sought some information on R.L. Brohier, a senior Irrigation Department official in Ceylon 60 years ago, one of the fathers of the Gal Oya Scheme which greened the Island’s Eastern Province and brought to an end the Island’s dependence on imported rice, and a distinguished historian. It was thanks to him, whenever he brought in articles on ancient Sri Lanka for The Sunday Times (of Ceylon) I was editing and stayed to chat over a cup of horrible tea, that I first got interested in the history of the Island and South India. Mention of his name in that request suddenly reminded me that there had been a Brohier who had played a significant role in early Madras. Was there a connection, I wondered.

When the British returned to Fort St George after the French occupation, they arrived with the conviction that anything the French could do they could do better. So Benjamin Robins, Engineer-General, was ordered to convert a trading settlement that called itself a fort into a fortification worthy of a professional army that was being raised. He requested the appointment of Lt. John Brohier, an artilleryman, as his assistant. No sooner the request was made in 1751, Robins passed away and the Council appointed Brohier to carry out Robins’ plan for the fort that grew into today’s Fort St. George. From his death-bed, Robins had advised the Council, “The Works here will be finished by Mr. Brohier, who has full instructions from me… He is certainly the properest Person for that Work I know and I recommend him as such. He has hitherto behaved, I believe, with great integrity …” Famous last words, they were to be in time.

Brohier, on becoming Engineer-in-charge of all British territory in India, nominated his assistant, John Call, another Robins protégé, to make Fort St. David in old Cuddalore a better fortification, while he strengthened Fort St. George and improved access to it. In June 1757, his work almost complete, he was transferred to Calcutta to draw up plans for Fort William. In his final report he stated, “(on the completion of the little that’s left to be done by Call) the Place (will be) in such a State of defence as will, with a good Garrison, Ammunition and Provisions, frustrate all Attempts of our Enemy’s…” And it did, Lally’s siege proving a failure in 1758-59, though he then took, and razed, Fort St. David. Meanwhile, Brohier had taken with him all his plans for Fort St. George and Call had to rely on his memory for the oral instructions he had received and the new plans he had to draw up.

In Calcutta, Brohier got down to work on Fort William, but in 1760 Calcutta reported to London that “great Frauds (had been committed) in carrying out the new Works…” Calcutta reported that Rs.344,565 had been shared among several of those working on the project, including Rs.99,484 Brohier admitted to being “the share of those immediately under him, and this he Attributed to his want of Caution over them, owing to a long illness.” But Calcutta went on to state, “We have some reason to believe, from his conduct, the above sum was his own proportion of the Gains…”

The conduct the Calcutta Council referred to was Brohier’s: after being let out on parole following his initial arrest, he fled from Calcutta with his European Assistant Engineer and a Luso-Indian clerk. It was later reported that Brohier had fled to Ceylon, then Dutch territory, where he settled, his assistant had escaped to Batavia (Jakarta today), also Dutch territory, and the clerk was arrested as an absconder in Madras.

As I said at the beginning, there’s nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to civil construction. In Brohier’s case, there were straws in the wind. He was responsible for the construction of the Wallajah Bridge, near the glacis of Fort St. George, the cost of which he had estimated would be 8,000 pagodas; the final bill was “upwards” of 18,000 pagodas! Many years later, while researching what I hoped would become a biography of Robert Chisholm — no one deserves one more than this builder of many a landmark in India and I hope someone will one day do what I got sidetracked from — I discovered that the Madras Government had on several occasions questioned bills that Chisholm had passed as well as claims he had made.

As for the R.L. Brohier of Ceylon, one of the most upright persons I’ve ever met, he does not appear to have descended from the John Brohier of Madras and Calcutta. The Dutch Burgher Union in Ceylon has long worked on genealogies and, presumably, R.L. Brohier’s, which is reported, comes from that source. He, it is said, was of French Huguenot descent and descended from a Capt. Jean Brohier who came out to Ceylon in the Dutch East India Company’s service in 1777. But ‘Jean’ and ‘John’? And could 1777 have been 1757; such errors were common in those days. My mentor would have been as intrigued as I.

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