The magnificent white building that stands tall along the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Chennai, houses within itself a rich history of not just the then city of Madras but the overall history of colonial rule in India. Established in the year 1639-1640 CE, Fort St. George is seen as the first English fortress in India. What began as a trading post for the British East India Company, after enduring numerous wars, plagues, and hostility, led to the birth of the colossal city of Madras. Today, the fort serves as the administrative headquarters of Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly as well as a base for military troops in transit to several areas of Southern India.
The initial construction of the fort was concluded on April 23, 1644 CE, which is also celebrated as “St. George’s Day” in several nations. Hence, this auspicious name was conferred on the fort. However, numerous constructions and reconstructions were carried out after 1644 CE as well. The Fort St. George we see today is considerably different from the one built in 1639-1644 CE. After independence, the fort was declared as a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
By the early 17th century, the East India Company had already established its first base for commercial trading in Surat. However, to expand their trade they decided to venture towards the coast nearer to the Malacca straits. In 1637 CE, Francis Day, an English merchant and representative of the East India Company, set on a voyage to the Southern Coromandel coast. This led him to the little village of Madrasapattinam. What met his eyes was merely barren land with low sandy dunes and a small collection of fisherman’s huts in the distance. But Francis Day and Andrew Cogan (the first agent of English East India Company to rule Madras), saw beyond the wilderness and could visualise the strategic importance of the site.
On August 2, 1639 CE, administrator Francis Day after negotiations with the Raja of Chandragiri, bought the strip of territory on the Coromandel coast. The land was leased out for 500 Pagodas per year. The English gave permission to Portuguese traders to build houses and settle here - an agreement judiciously carved out to sustain a mutually beneficial relationship between the two trading powers. This was the first time the English East India Company was going to own territory in India and fortify it. A factory of brick was built upon the island and mounted with cannons and branded as “Fort St. George”.
Fort St. George was initially built between 1639 and 1644 CE and later expanded in the 1760s and 1770s. The first design of the fort was just a small square (which now is the Assembly and the Secretariat building). The fort underwent a long journey of transformation before reaching the present form.
In 1640 CE, under the agency of Andrew Cogan, a trading outpost of the factory was erected within the first enclosure of the “inner walls”. Over time, two distinct groups of settlements emerged in the fort. The one within the enclosed walls of the fort was the “White Town” - the residence of the English and the Europeans. This also included a warehouse for the Company’s goods, houses for officials, and dwellings for the Company’s servants. On the other hand, small huts of weavers, washers, painters to the north of the fort, came to be referred to as the “Black Town”- settlement of the natives. The Black Town expanded and got assimilated with the fishing villages on the coast. Eventually, it led to the birth of the city of Madras. Its establishment created a domino effect in and around the city, making it a hub of merchant activity, eventually establishing various trading zones and markets. The territory of the fort also expanded with time.
Fort St. George endured many attacks from its enemies, one of which was the French siege in 1746 CE. A French fleet under Admiral de La Bourdonnais attacked the fort and it capitulated in a matter of 3 days. During the siege, the interiors of the structure were clobbered. The Black Town was ruthlessly pillaged and San Thome was captured by the French. The monument least harmed was the church due to its scrupulously planned architecture. The fort was held captive for a period of three years. In 1749 CE, it was handed back to the British East India Company as a result of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Following the attack, a new design for re-building the fort was made and reconstruction was initiated, which continued till 1783 CE. The fort has remained more or less unchanged since then.
Within the fort exist various monuments and structures, that symbolise the journey of Fort St. George from its genesis to its present.
St. Mary’s Church is regarded as the oldest Anglican Church in the whole of Asia. Its foundation stone was laid on March 25, 1678 CE. Governor Streynsham Master collected 800 Pagodas from each house in the White Town to build the architectural marvel. It took 2 years to complete the construction and was it duly christened on “Lady Day”, i.e., March 25, 1680 CE, from which it earned its name.
Meticulously designed and built by Edward Fowle (Master Gunner and the Chief Engineer of the Fort), St. Mary’s Church retains most of its original form. Built of solid masonry, the walls of the church are 4 ft. thick, whereas the (curved) roof is 2 ft. thick. The centre aisle commemorates the memorials of two admirals - Sir Samuel Hood and Drury. Today, the Church is decorated with beautiful teakwood pews, netted in cane, and can seat around 500 people. The altar has a magnificent painting depicting Christ’s Last Supper, painted by George Willison in the 18th Century. The beautiful curved staircase outside goes up to an intermediate wing that connects the Steeple to the rest of the Church, and on the inside, to the elegant wooden gallery that forms the first floor. The Gallery is made of Burma Teakwood and fine tracery work. The Chancel steps look down at tombstones, all made of Granite, of various representatives of the East India Company. Amongst them, also lies the oldest English gravestone belonging to Elizabeth Baker, wife of Aaron Baker, Governor of Madras. These stones were originally in the cemetery on which today stands the Madras Law College. When the French attacked the fort, they set up camp on the burial ground, removed the tombstones and mounted their cannons, and began to bombard Fort St. George. When the fort was returned to the English, they removed these cannons and laid them around the Church of St. Mary’s.
In 1790 CE, the Fort Exchange was established within the fort - a place used for the exchange of goods and commodities by the merchants. It was completed in 1795 CE. It was later converted to the Fort Museum. The museum is the only ticketed institution of the ASI in Fort St. George. It welcomed the public for the first time in 1948, before which it served as the office of the Madras Bank. The Fort Museum conserves the history of three centuries of British rule in India, depicted in 3661 registered antiquities. This includes artefacts such as swords, daggers, riffles, medallions, coins, original letters, and so on.
The Museum has ten galleries spread over 3 floors some of which are the Porcelain Gallery, Portrait Gallery and Indo-French Gallery. Another important structure within the museum is the marble statue of Lord Cornwallis. It is said that the marble statue held the record of being the single largest and heaviest object to be shipped to Madras city at the time. A public holiday was declared for the people to come and see the statue being offloaded and brought on to the shore. Lord Cornwallis served as the Governor-General of India twice. It is said that one of the reasons behind this grand gesture by the British government was the belief that he could achieve something which was deemed nearly impossible at that time - subduing the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. The Museum also houses another treasure - the flag of the country which was flown on August 15, 1947.
Another important remnant of the British rule in India is the flagstaff of Fort St. George. The flagstaff has stood erect in the fort since 1688 CE and is believed to be one of the tallest in the country, rising as high as 148 ft. Originally, the flagstaff belonged to the mast of a ship and was made of one long piece of teakwood. On 12 June 1688 CE, Elihu Yale, the then Governor of Madras, acquired permission to hoist the Union Jack in the flagstaff. Legend says that there were only two instances before Independence when the Union Jack was replaced or lowered. One was in 1746 CE when the French East India Company captured the fort; and the second was on January 26, 1932, when freedom fighter Arya Bashyam managed to climb up to the top and managed to tear the Union Jack down and hoist the Indian tricolour. For this daring act, he was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. Once he was released, he again participated in the Indian Freedom Struggle. After this incident, it was only on August 15, 1947, that the Union Jack was lowered and replaced by the Indian tricolour.
It’s crucial to remember that the fort was once also very much a town for its residents. One such portion of the fort is the Charles Street. It is acknowledged for two principal buildings that stood there at its prime - the Wellesley House and the Clive House.
Although very little of it survives today with one half of it having fully collapsed, the structure was once admired for its grandeur. It is a majestic building with large windows, king-size rooms, wide staircases and spacious halls. Built in 1796 CE, it was believed to have housed the Wellesley brothers - Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington and Richard Wellesley, Governor-General of India. In 1808 CE John Hoppner painted a portrait of Arthur Wellesley, which was displayed at the Banquetting Hall and later shifted to the Fort Museum.
Just a few feet away from the Wellesley House, lies one of the most magnificent buildings in the fort which retains its eminence till today - the Clive House, which is now the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India. It is a three-storey building with extremely high ceilings, large centrally placed halls on all floors and an ambience fit for dignitaries. The house was built in the 18th century by a rich Armenian named Coja Nazar Jan for himself and his family. In 1749 CE, once the fort was reclaimed by the British, it became the residence of Richard Prince, the Deputy Governor of Madras. In 1753 CE it was let out to one of its most important occupants - Robert Clive. In the same year, he got married to Margaret, at the St. Mary’s Church in the fort. By the late 1700s, the house became the office of the Accountant General, and it continued to serve this purpose till the mid-20th century, when the ASI took it over. The ASI has designated one part of the building as “Clive’s Corner”, which displays various portraits and copies of documents pertaining to Robert Clive’s life.
Although at present both the appearance and significance of the fort are entirely different from the original structure set up in 1640 CE, it has not ceased to be an eminent symbol of the country. Today, it not only houses both the legislative and administrative branches of the Tamil Nadu Government, but also functions as a base for the Indian Army and the Navy, as well as the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Assembly building is one of the most elegant buildings that exists in the fort today. However, it does not welcome casual visitors as it houses various offices. Although the structure of the building we see today is relatively more recent, its foundation stone dates back to colonial times. The building serves multiple functions - the Assembly chamber is located on the East, the secretarial offices are in the back, and offices of the ministers of the Tamil Nadu Government are on the top floor. For a short period in 2010, the legislature and secretariat were shifted to the Omandurar Government Estate on Annai Salai, where the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital stands today. In 2011, the Assembly and the Secretariat were re-established in the fort.
St. George stands as the testimony to the might of the British in India, and most importantly to the changing vicissitudes of power of the Indian subcontinent.