Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fort St. George, Chennai, is 375 years old today

Fort St George is 375 years old today. Much has changed in the fort: the sea no longer laps at the fort walls. But here is what the fort looked like in the mid 1700s. You can see the British flag flying on top.
A Perspective View of Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast, belonging to the East India Company, copper engraving by the Dutch engraver Jan van Ryne in the mid 1700s; later printed for J. Hinton at the King's Arms in Newgate Street
As you can see from the photo, the natural harbour was quite shallow. Ships had to anchor over 1 km offshore, and cargo was brought to the shore in small catamarans and 'masula' boats. Cargo losses were high - the masulas in fact usually had 2 men on board to constantly bale out water! Pilferage was also a big problem. In the painting below, you can get a closer look at these masula boats, and challenges of bringing valuable goods onshore in the rough water. Visiting Europeans were also hoisted onshore on top of the fishermen's shoulders :D :D
South East View of Fort St George, Madras, by Thomas Daniell in 1797, photo from the British Library
Naturally, there was a crying need for a proper dock/pier. Efforts began in the late 1700s, but funding was scarce, and building efforts in the first half of 1800's didn't work well. There were multiple problems, year after year, mainly due to the annual storms. But a working port was established in the second half of the 1800's, and the sea began to recede from the fort.

Under Francis Spring, the first Chairman of Madras Port, major changes were done between 1905 and 1911. Mainly, the entrance of the port was shifted from the eastern side, to the norh eastern side, which provided better protection from the elements. Land was reclaimed from the sea, docks and quays were built, and during this process, the sea was pushed further away from Fort St George. A big road came up between the fort and sea (Rajaji Salai, which was called North Beach Road). 

Today when we drive on Rajaji Salai from San Thome, we see Marina Beach to our right, and Fort George appears to our left. The docks are to our right, but all of it is not clearly visible from the road. To the north of the fort is 'Black Town', which was the residential and bazaar area where Indians lived. You can understand it better by seeing the map below:
Between the fort and the sea, there is now at least a kilometer of land.
If you are driving past that area today, stop and take a look at the fort walls. You'll see the Indian tricolour flying high!

No comments:

Post a Comment