“The Lord of the Universe is being marched down to his ship and this letter will have the honour of travelling with him as far as Rangoon,” – thus ran the communication dated November 29, 1885, from Col Agnew to Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff, Governor of Madras. By the Lord of the Universe he meant King Thebaw who had been defeated by the British and was being exiled to India.
The royal party arrived in Madras on December 15, 1885. “Received from Col. Le Mesurier, Commanding 2 Liverpool Regiment, the person of the prisoner King Thebaw of Mandalay, Upper Burma” – this was the acknowledgment from W Wilson, Acting Chief Secretary, Madras. Grant-Duff would have liked to sign the letter. “Fancy missing the chance of giving a receipt for a king” he was to write to a friend. The Governor’s Council met in the afternoon when a slip of paper was delivered. On it was written in pencil the passenger manifest:
13 Maids of Honour, etc.
The deposed king and his family were handed over to the custody of Col. Cox of the Madras Police. The city was no stranger to ex-royals. It had once been considered suitable for Napoleon before his victors decided on St Helena. The sons of Tipu Sultan were brought here as hostages. In the 1870s, the Gaekwar of Baroda was exiled to Doveton House in Nungambakkam, now home to the Women’s Christian College. Arrangements were therefore made to house Thebaw, his imperious, cheroot smoking wife Supayalat, and the rest of the retinue in a three-storied residence called The Mansion. It belonged to Raja Sir Goday Narayana Gajapati Row, the philanthropist and British-supporting Zamindar of Anakapalle. It was he who sponsored the statue of Queen Victoria that stands outside the Senate House.
On March 7, 1886, Queen Supayalat gave birth to her third daughter at The Mansion. Christened Ashin Hteik Su Mat Phaya, she was referred to as the Madarasu Phaya (Madras Princess) till her death in 1962. The Thebaws were shifted to Ratnagiri in Bombay Presidency in April 1886.
To readers of Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, the exact location of The Mansion has been a mystery. HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras places it in Nungambakkam next to Moores Garden, now Moores Road. Old maps put it at the intersection of Greams and Moores Roads. It was first the residence of HS Graeme in the 1820s and the road that led to it is still known as Graeme’s or Greams Road. The house was to be in the limelight once again in 1911 when it was the scene of the trial following the shooting of Sub Collector Ashe at the Maniyacchi Junction. Security constraints led to the hearings being held at The Mansion, which was then the residence of Justice Wallis of the High Court of Madras. It is a pity there is no marker for such a historic home of which no trace no survives.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on July 5, 2014