Fort St George’s lessons in history

Several rounds of frisking and many questions later, I make my way into the first British fortress in India: Fort St George, a structure associated with the very founding of Madras.

Now busy with roaring cars, ATMS, Army officers out on a jog and the general tussle of administration between ASI, the Army and Tamil Nadu Assembly, the fort has attained a new character.

But these tarred roads were once sandy pathways. The dilapidated buildings, with vines winding down them as if to tangibly trace the passage of time, were once mansions that housed British officials and their families. As Madras Inherited (an initiative which hosts heritage walks across the city, under Triple O Studio) in collaboration with ASI, takes a motley crowd around the sprawling complex, we are given the task of placing this space in context.

“Where we are standing has a history of more than 375 years. Andrew Cogen and Francis Day of the East India Company dropped anchor here, and bartered a piece of land,” starts Tahaer Zoyah, co-founder of Madras Inherited. She adds that the trade port started by the English, was evenutally met with reluctance from all sides — “the Dutch even bribed the Nayaks to not let this happen. The Portuguese coaxed them into setting the port up next to Santhome, so that they can keep an eye on it.”

Fort St George’s lessons in history

Standing in front of Clive House (that now houses ASI, Chennai Circle) with its characteristic square windows now painted in slate grey, we hear bits and pieces of stories from the life of the man behind it all, Robert Clive. “He was a governor-general, but started off as a writer,” Mirra Kannan, Research Assistant at Madras Inherited, tells us, “He came to Madras at the age of 19 in 1743 but didn’t like the place to begin with.” When the French attacked the fort, he escaped. On his return, he decided to contribute more effectively by joining the army. He worked his way up the ranks and proved himself to be a remarkable commander. A building now painted cream is where Clive and his wife lived on rent; it includes a library and multistoried banquet hall.

We then stride along the Charles and James street, towards a structure bathed in grey and covered in vines. It is easily one of the most dramatic buildings within the fort. “This was the house of Arthur Wellesley, who was Prime Minister of England and defeated Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. The ground floor had storehouses, while the upper floors were meant as residences. For a long time, it was used as a storage area for the army corps,” says Mirra. Situated right before Santhome exit, currently cordoned off by the Army, she says it was full of life back when the fort was a trading post.

Our next stop is an absolute marvel: St Mary’s Church, believed to be the oldest surviving church in the country, constructed 1680. The premises, lined with a beautiful garden, also house the first engraving done by the British, on the tomb of Elizabeth Baker, wife of the first English president of Madras. The church, with its stone floors and wicker pews, makes one pause to consider the architecture — today, a wedding is scheduled. As I walk through its grey walls, past hosts of bibles and busts, to the notes of the harmonising choir, it is almost cinematic.

Fort St George’s lessons in history

Community living

A lone tarred patch of empty land is impossible to miss — there was a time when everyone used to congregate in this square, once surrounded by residences, for celebrations. Mirra says, “The residences were demolished when the French took over in 1746. The entire fort has undergone so many changes that it no longer looks like what it started out as.”

The residence in the north west part of the fort

The North Western part of the fort is a treasure trove of worn-down buildings believed to have once housed families of soldiers. One of them is almost like a jenga tower with a protruding verandah. Tahaer says, “You see layers of time within that ; layers of material which let you trace when it was constructed.” We shuffle through dried leaves, walking towards the fort wall. I am perplexed by small blue doors that adorn the wall, till Mirra says, “Yes, people used to stay inside the walls. They are that wide.”

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