Stray comments have often been heard on the appropriateness of the magnificent equestrian statue of Sir Thomas Munro looming over a major Chennai thoroughfare: why should a memorial for an East India Company official find pride of place in the city where the British colonisers had landed more than 375 years ago just a mile away as the crow flies?
In a previous instance, the statue of Colonel James George Smith Neil that stood on Mount Road, opposite Spencer and Company, in Madras was removed on November 22, 1937 when C. Rajagopalachari was Premier of Madras, after a decade-long satyagraha as part of the freedom movement. The colonel was responsible for the massacre of sepoys in Allahabad, Kanpur and Lucknow during the 1857 Revolt; he was hated as the ‘Butcher of Allahabad’. His bronze statue today stands in the Government Museum in Chennai.
But Thomas Munro, the enigmatic Governor of Madras (1761-1827) was no imperialist; on the other hand, he was one of the most popular British administrators in South India. His name is associated with the system of land revenue popularly known as the Ryotwari Settlement. It was considered favourable to the peasants.
Arriving in Madras in 1789 at the age of 18, Munro like many other Scots worked for the East India Company, in his case for nearly half a century. Initially he served the British forces that fought Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. He moved to administration and worked as assistant to Captain Read, Collector of Baramahal, now Salem. Here Munro experimented with the ryotwari system, which he improved later in the Ceded Districts, now Rayalaseema.
After becoming the Governor of Madras in June 1820, Munro reversed the policy of his predecessors as far as relations with the native people were concerned. He wanted them entrusted with greater responsibilities in administration. Munro laid the foundations of a form of district administration that has survived to this day with few changes.
After serving as Governor for about seven years, Munro wanted to return to England for a while. In June 1827 he went on a farewell tour to Rayalaseema, where he had worked as Collector. Unfortunately, there he passed away on July 6, 1827 of cholera, at Pattikonda, 30 km from Gooty. The epidemic was raging in the area.
Munro was buried in Gooty, but four years later his remains were removed to Madras and interred in St. Mary's Church in Fort St. George. At Pattikonda a mango grove was planted and a step-well built. At Gooty a choultry was constructed; here, for many years food was distributed free for the poor in the name of Munro. Newly married Christian couples visit Munro Choultry to invoke his blessings.
The admirers and friends of Munro both in India and England, with the assistance of Munro’s wife, raised funds through public contributions in 1831 and decided to perpetuate the memory of Thomas Munro by erecting his statue in Madras. Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841), an outstanding, self-taught English sculptor, was commissioned. He was a painter as well; his canvases are at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
On seeing the imposing completed statue of Munro, Lord Wellington, a friend of his, is reported to have exclaimed: “A very fine horse; a very fine statue, and a very extraordinary man.” The bronze statue weighed six tonnes and was in three parts — the man, the horse and the base. These were separately packed to be reassembled in Madras, and sent by the ship The Asia in 1839. In Madras it was erected on a granite pedestal built to specifications laid down by Chantrey. His assistant, Allan Cunningham, supervised the installation. It was unveiled on October 23, 1839.
The absence of stirrups for the rider is a much discussed peculiarity of the statue, but it is possible that having known Munro’s passion for bare-back riding, Chantrey avoided the stirrup, though some feel it was an oversight. He modelled the statue on his own earlier work of George IV, now in Trafalgar Square in London; here also there are no stirrups. The other equestrian statue Chantrey did was that of the Duke of Wellington, placed in front of the Royal Stock Exchange in London.
In the Rayalaseema area, where he spent some years as Collector, there are a number of temples with which his name is associated, such as in Kadiri, Mantralayam and Tirupati. Folk tales and ballads hail Munro as the incarnation of Mandava Rishi. Peasants even now name children ‘Munrolappa’. Munro’s best memorial lay in the hearts of the people.