A FORTIFIED PAST

Fort St George is where the story of Chennai began in the modern context. DR S SURESH writes about many such forts that have endured over the years in the city.

During the ancient and medieval times, many cities were protected by massive walls of fortifications. Remnants of such structures can be seen in cities such as London and Delhi. In Chennai, the European powers erected several forts.

The biggest and most important fort of Chennai is undoubtedly Fort St George. The establishment of this fort is closely linked to the very birth of our city. In August, 1639, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, two officials of the English East India Company secured, on lease, the site of the fort from the local ruler Venkatadri Nayak of Poonamalle. On this land, the Company established a trading outpost within a fortified enclosure. The construction of some of the fort walls and the first buildings within this fort was completed by April, 1640 and the Company officials formally inaugurated these buildings on April 23 – St George’s Day – being the death anniversary of St George (275/281- 303 AD), the patron-saint of England. Hence, the fort was named after him.

Fort St George has been the seat of administration right from the time of its inception to this day. It was the scene of historic battles between the English and the French. Gradually, the British acquired many of the neighbouring villages and thus, the trading settlement evolved into a major city.

Barely 20 years after the erection of Fort St George, the Portuguese built a fort around Santhome, mainly to protect themselves against the British. In 1749, the British acquired Santhome and in 1751, they built another fort called the Santhome Redoubt in the area, the old Portuguese fort having collapsed by now. Built for the Mylapore Garrison, the walls of this new fort were over 1m thick and 4m high. The fort was surrounded by a moat around 12m wide. This fort was used at least till the end of the 18th century. Ruins of this fort can still be noticed on the northern side of some of the houses in Leith Castle Street.

In order to protect Chennai from the attacks of the French and the South Indian kingdoms including Mysore, the British built many more forts at places such as Egmore, Purasawalkam and Nungambakkam. Details about the date and precise location of some of these forts are not known. According to archival records, the forts at Santhome and Egmore were larger than those at Nungambakkam and Pursawalkam.

The fort at Egmore, called the Egmore Redoubt, was built in 1715. It was located on a mound behind the present Egmore Railway Station. The British frequently used this fort while fighting against Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the rulers of Mysore in the late eighteenth century.

Around the year 1770, the British attempted to build a wall around the present George Town area. They levied a tax to finance this construction. The local people opposed this tax. At present, the only reminder of this half-built fort wall is the name Walltax Road given to the road near the Chennai Central Railway Station.

By the early nineteenth century, the British had conquered the French and most of the native South Indian kingdoms. Thus, the use of the forts slowly began to decline. At present, except Fort St George, all the other forts in Chennai are partially or entirely destroyed.

A FORTIFIED PAST 1 A FORTIFIED PAST 3 A FORTIFIED PAST 2

The writer is Tamil Nadu
Convener, INTACH

QUICK BYTES:

  • IN AUGUST, 1639, FRANCIS DAY AND ANDREW COGAN, TWO OFFICIALS OF THE ENGLISH EAST INDIA COMPANY SECURED, ON LEASE, THE SITE OF THE FORT FROM THE LOCAL RULER VENKATADRI NAYAK OF POONAMALLE
  • 1640 AND THE COMPANY OFFICIALS FORMALLY INAUGURATED THESE BUILDINGS ON 23 APRIL-ST GEORGE’S DAYBEING THE DEATH ANNIVERSARY OF ST GEORGE (275/281- 303 AD), THE PATRON-SAINT OF ENGLAND. HENCE, THE FORT WAS NAMED AFTER HIM
  • THE PORTUGUESE BUILT A FORT AROUND SANTHOME, MAINLY TO PROTECT THEMSELVES AGAINST THE BRITISH. IN 1749, THE BRITISH ACQUIRED SANTHOME AND IN 1751, THEY BUILT ANOTHER FORT CALLED THE SANTHOME REDOUBT IN THE AREA

Courtesy / Source:  Times of India | December 14, 2013

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