Fort of history

Print edition : September 05, 2014

St. Mary's Church, built in 1680, is the first Anglican church in India. Elihu Yale and Clive were married here. Photo: V. GANESAN

FORT ST. GEORGE is now under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle. It is a protected monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Validation and Amendment) Act, 2010. There are 13 protected monuments inside the Fort under the ASI’s purview. Three of them are under the ASI’s control. They are Clive’s House, St. Mary’s Church and the old British Infantry Officers’ Mess, housing the Fort Museum now. The Army has occupied the remaining 10 monuments under an agreement with the ASI—the “Arsenal” building; Big Warehouse; Wellesley House; Chaplain’s House; Garrison Engineers’ Depot; Guard Room; King’s Barracks; Last House on Snob’s Alley; Nursing Sisters’ House; and the ramparts, gates, bastions, ravelins with vaulted chambers, moats and glacis.

There is a palpable sense of history in every nook and corner of the Fort. This despite the swirling mass of a few thousand people thronging the Tamil Nadu government’s Secretariat housed there and the Army trucks thundering up and down the narrow streets. Boards announcing the Army canteen are seen almost everywhere. A 10-storeyed building inside the Fort, housing the State government’s offices, incongruously spikes the air. The ASI allowed the Tamil Nadu government to build it right in the heart of the Fort in 1969. There are boards indicating St. Mary’s Church, Clive’s Building, Sea Gate Street, James and Charles Street, King’s Barracks, Fort Museum, and so forth.

The steeple of St. Mary’s Church towers over visitors entering Fort St. George from one of the two sea gates facing the Bay of Bengal. “Do write that services are regularly held in this church. It is a live church, not a dead monument,” a church official tells this writer. It is the oldest Anglican church in India. Reverend Charles Herbert Malden, in his handbook St. Mary’s Church and Its Monuments, published in 1905, says: “It is not only the oldest place of worship built by the English settlers in India and now in use, but it is believed to be the oldest British building of any kind in the whole of India.” It was a chapel that grew into a church. Streynsham Master of the East India Company, who became the Governor and Commander in Chief of Fort St. George and the town of Madrasapatnam, was instrumental in building the church. Its construction began in 1678 and the consecration took place on October 28, 1680. Its architect was probably William Dixon, Master Gunner of the Fort. The first marriage to be solemnised in the church was that of Elihu Yale to Catherine Hymners on November 4, 1680.

Yale started his career as a writer of the East India Company but rose to become Governor of Madras for five years from 1687. Yale University in the United States is named after him because he gave a handsome donation to it. Robert Clive, the clerk-turned-soldier who laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, was married to Margaret Maskelyne on February 18, 1753, in this church. A prized possession of the church is a reproduction of Raphael’s painting The Last Supper. There are marble monuments in memory of the Governors of Fort St. George, their families and the Swedish missionary Frederick Christain Swartz, a portrait medallion of Thomas Munro and paintings of George Pigot, Streynsham Master and Elihu Yale, who were all Governors of Fort St. George/Madras.

In the churchyard are laid a number of tombstones, with epitaphs carved in beautiful calligraphy. But there are no coffins below. Thereby hangs a tale. Glyn Barlow, in his book The Story of Madras, says that the “English Burying Place” in those days was where the present Dr Ambedkar Government Law College is situated. By 1711, these stately tombs were “turned into receptacles for beggars and buffaloes”. When the French under Comte de Lally besieged Madras from December 1758 to February 1759, they used the tombs as a cover for their attacks on Fort St. George. After the French siege was broken, according to Barlow, the English destroyed the tombs but brought the slabs that bore the epitaphs and laid them in St. Mary’s churchyard. Opposite St. Mary’s Church, on Charles Street, is Admiralty House, which is now called Clive’s House. Robert Clive, who went on to become the Governor of Bengal, lived in this building for some time. A circular plaque embedded in the wall of the building says: “Robert 1st Lord Clive lived in this building in the year 1753. Truly Great in Arms and in Council.” The façade of this tall building has Ionic columns. It has a spacious banqueting hall. According to ASI officials, the building was used for holding courts to deal with interlopers and hence it was called Admiralty House. It now houses the offices of the ASI, Chennai Circle. In a corner of the building, the ASI has organised a permanent exhibition on Clive.

On the ground floor of Clive’s House were jail cells and strongrooms. The inner walls of the prison cells are sheathed with steel sheets and the ceiling is made of iron beams. The strongrooms are made of perforated iron sheets with iron grills and sturdy latches. There is a small tunnel too.

The Exchange building, housing the Fort Museum, is also replete with history. Upstairs was the “Long Room” or the Public Exchange Hall for the bartering of goods among the merchants of Fort St. George. On the roof was built the first lighthouse of Madras in 1796. P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Jodhpur Circle, said: “At its peak, the building was a beehive of commercial activity. On the ground floor were the offices, a warehouse, an auction room and a subscription library.” Madras Bank started functioning from this building in 1807. It later became Bank of Madras, and merged with Bombay and Calcutta Banks to form the Imperial Bank of India, now State Bank of India.

The Fort Museum is a period museum. Among the exhibits are uniforms worn by British Raj sepoys, their pistols, rifles, blunderbusses and flintlocks; expensive porcelain from the collections of the East India Company and the Nawab of Arcot; Clive’s letters, written with a wry sense of humour; aquatints of Thomas Daniell and William Daniell on the Madras of the 1790s; and portraits of Streynsham Master and Arthur Havelock, Governor of Fort St. George, done by Raja Ravi Varma.

T.S. Subramanian

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