Fort St George and the founding of Madras

Chennai Fort | Mittai Stories

Chennai is now a bustling metro with buildings squeezed every nook and cranny. In this modern concrete crowd only a handful of heritage buildings stand, some still significant while the others forgotten. One of these iconic buildings is the 17th century fort St. George, which is still the place from where the southern state is ruled. It’s not an over-hype to say that the beginning of the Madrasapattinam city is because of this palatial complex. From Parrys corner to Georgetown every early part of this city was due the presence of this significant fort. But hey, back in 1636, if you were to step in Chennai, you wouldn’t believe your eyes!

Francis Day and Andrew Cogan: The men who proposed Fort St. George

Wait, now that we are going back in time, let’s call a spade a spade shall we? So, yeah. Back in 1636, if you were to step in Madras you wouldn’t believe your eyes. A little summer land with not a human in sight was how it lay. Inhibited and cowboy battle-feild-ish, this lively city was then an endless piece of empty land. But not for long!

In 1637, Francis Day, a British official, set on a voyage to explore the southern Coromandel coast. While his primary mission was to explore the land, he was also determined to find a land suitable to be the base station for the British East India Company. On his trip down, he was shown a piece of land by Venkatappa Nayak, who ruled the coast from Pulicat up to Santhome. Impressed, Francis brought in his superior Andre Cogan to explore the land more.

The strategic location near a portuguese settlement Sao Tome (now: Santhome), availability of cotton, and vast uninhabited land looked like a perfect place for a settlement. A harbour, a factory, and a little town could all fit right in. Day and Cogan should have been excited that after so many attempts to find a place, the little village of Madrasapattinam  that was originally called Channarayapatnam or Chennapatnam, ticked all the right boxes. And in the little village was a fort ready to spring up!

A plan of the proposed Fort St. George and the City of Madras

Building Fort St. George

With the locals gathered and the British architects joining in line led by Day and Cogan, mission – building Fort St. George was on the floor. As these two oversaw the building plans and process, Fort St. George began to rise from ground up. 

With the British East India Company funding the project, it was lauded by several travellers as well for its strategic position and beautiful architecture. But not everyone was happy with it. Back then, Madras harbour was not as favourable as it is to merchants today. Rough tides posed a major feasibility issue in Day and Cogan’s plans for a city. The hesitation of the merchants and the English Navy was pretty evident. However, this didn’t stop Day and Cogan. Day and Cogen built India’s most sucessfull harbour – the Madras port. And there was no turning back from that point.

Day and Cogen along with good logistics and excellent availability of labour, built Fort St.George at a cost of £3,000. On 23 April 1644, St. George fort opened its doors and thereby set in motion the city of Madras.

Illustration of Fort St. George - Mittai Stories
Fort St George with the union jack flag in 1800’s- an illustration

Why the name Fort St. George?

April 23, the day Britishers opened their first ever fort in India was not just any other day in their calendar. It was the day of the feast of St. George. A day which is celebrated by various Christian Churches and by the several nations, old kingdoms, regions, states, countries and cities of which Saint George is the patron saint – including England. 

What better way to commemorate your first ever fort than to name it after your nation’s saint? St. George became the official christened name of the palace of Madharasapattinam. 

Chennai fort - Mittai Stories
Fort of St George at the Coromandel coast – A painting of Madras from 1700s

St. Mary’s Cathedral – A place of love, a place of life.

A notable structure within St. George fort is the St.Mary’s church. This single tower prayer hall holds more stories of the english-madras than any building in chennai, ever. A sweet reminder of life in British Indian times this is where many notable British officials married their love. The list includes the infamous Robet Clive – the game changer of Carnatic wars, and Governor Elihu Yale who was the first benefactor of the Yale university. Its significance and beauty bedazzled historians to name it the Westminster abbey of the East.

The story doesn’t stop there. St.Mary’s church is the only building you’d run to if Fort St. George was ever attacked or under siege. It’s 5 feet deep concrete roof and facilities to function as a granary saved the lives of hundreds of British officials during many wars on the Madras fort. The church also houses the tombstones of many early prominent figures in British history. 

St Mary's church Vepery art - Mittai Stories
St. Mary’s cathedral – An 1800’s illustration

The Chennai Fort and Madras presidency’s coat of arms!

A coat of arms is a heraldic visual depiction of a person, family, clan, or a country. It depicts the identity and prominence of its bearer. When the British government was well established in India, St. George fort was given a prominent position in the coat of arms of the Madras presidency. Infact, this feature is a testimony of the importance of Fort St. George in British India. 

Madras fort coat of arms - Mittai Stories
Fort St George in the British Coat of Arms for Madras presidency

Laying the plan for Madras – Fort St. George and the Whites town

Building Fort St George set in motion a domino effect. As the prominence and significance of the fort grew, settlements around the fort began to speed up. English officials from all over the subcontinent settled down in the streets surrounding the fort. Construction was in full swing and ships at the Madras Harbour were no longer a rare sight. With the city beginning to expand, the streets were britishers flooded was called George town. As days passed and with the natives moving towards the fort,, the place where the native people were was called the black town and the place of British officials called Whites town. 

Black town Madras | Mittai Stories
Black town in the 1800s – A prime location in Chennai

As the city grew the black townies were busy with construction and day labour whereas the white townies handled diplomatic and warfare decisions. The Madras port became a strong establishment for the English in India.

Prominent trade areas began to appear and areas like Moore Market, China Bazaar, and Parrys corner were established. Madras started looking somewhat similar to what we see today.

Chennai’s Fort St. George today

Today, the Chennai fort houses the legislative assembly of the state of TamilNadu. While the complex itself is not open to the public, you can always go and have a look at the museum and the Victoria memorial hall. The Church however is no longer prominent and is overshadowed by the noisy chaps next door trying to run a state. But I bet you can still sit in and let the serenity of its beauty soak you. 

The Chennai Fort has withstood a good share of calamities both diplomatic and natural. From the french wars and the 2004’s tsunami, let alone being a probable target during the world wars. However, it still stands in its place with all the respect it was meant to get. The owners have changed. It’s no longer a truly ‘Georgian’ Fot St. George anymore. The union jack is long gone with the tri color now flying high. The White town is obsolete and the Black town, well lets just say it houses more than just the native people these days. However, you still catch a glimpse of the old fort when you pass by for a stroll in the Marina nearby.

But hey, just because you reached the end of this blog doesn’t mean you can’t have another story about an iconic building. Why not read about – Ripon building, a white house in the middle of Madras! 

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