On this day, April 23, 2015, which also sees our Fort completing 375, I am beginning this 25 part series on Fort St George. This is chiefly an effort to document it as a monument so that everyone can appreciate its heritage better. I look forward to your feedback, support and encouragement in this task.
Happy Fort St George Day!
It is difficult to describe Fort St George in its entirety. Though it does not look as impressive a structure as other historic ones elsewhere in the country, it is nevertheless a large enclosure, making up in expanse what it perhaps lacks in height.
The Fort encompasses an area of 100 acres if you include the outworks and fortifications. The area within the walls is 42 acres. The entire precinct is on a north-south axis in which direction it runs for 620 yards. Its length along the east-west axis is 330 yards. In terms of location, the Fort looks out on Rajaji Salai (formerly North Beach Road) on its eastern face. To the rear it is encompassed by what was Band Practice and now Flagstaff Road, which joins Sir T. Muthuswamy Aiyar Road, the two together forming a crescent that connects with Rajaji Salai at both ends.
A bird’s eye view of the Fort would reveal it to be what H.D. Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras describes as ‘half an octagon’. In its time it has changed shape at least four times – from the very tiny square of the 1640s to what Love writes of as the ‘quadrangular bastioned enclosure’ from the 1670s to the early 1700s, the half decagon of 1746 and, finally, the present shape that dates to the 1780s. That last construction was mainly executed by Paul Benfield, the notorious engineering contractor who is also credited with building the Chepauk Palace. His deeds ideally merit a book by themselves but suffice it to say that it was partly due to his lending money to the Nawab of Arcot at usurious rates that the whole of the Coromandel eventually became the nucleus of the British Empire.
Whatever Benfield’s negative traits, it cannot be denied that he built a Fort that would last. This has been proven time and again – when several of the outworks were demolished in the 1870s and now, when despite minimum maintenance and much neglect, most of the Fort has endured.
The British were forever chopping and changing the contours of the Fort but what is amazing is that the original core, constructed in 1640, is still standing, though now completely hidden and out of bounds, well within the Assembly building. We will have occasion to refer to this building in a later part of this series. The core is a continuing thread from the beginning of our city. Keeping track of all the modifications that went on over the years is tough but our task of explaining is made easy thanks to Lt. Col. D.M. Reid. One of the Directors of Beardsell & Co in Madras, he in 1945 penned The Story of Fort St George, a slim volume that ends with a series of maps that trace the development of the Fort from 1639 to 1939. A selection of the maps from the book is provided with this introductory article to help us in understanding the changes that happened.
As it stands today, the Fort’s periphery is younger than much of what is inside it, with the maximum number of changes happening in the 18th Century. This was to coincide with a fairly high turnover of the men in charge and so the changes in that phase reflect the influence of many hands and minds. Madras Rediscovered by S. Muthiah traces these changes and states the greatest construction phase began in 1749 once the French had left the place. The original plan, made in 1750, was by Benjamin Robins, FRS, mathematician and the Company’s Chief Engineer. He, however, died a year later and work was divided between Frederick Scot and John Brohier for the planning and the engineering respectively. But with Calcutta becoming a greater attraction and, therefore, needing a bigger fort, the latter left for that city in 1757, leaving his assistant John Call to continue with Fort St. George.
This was when the Comte de Lally besieged Madras and destroyed many of the buildings in the Fort and much of Black Town, which lay just outside the north walls of the Fort. Following the lifting of the siege, Call and his assistant Benfield began working on the reconstruction. When Call retired in 1770, he was succeeded by Patrick Ross who gave the Fort its present shape. Benfield, by then an independent contractor, did most of the building, at a cost of Rs 7.5 million. When completed, the Fort had four major bastions, six gates, four ravelins and 12 lunettes. The last named were all demolished in the 1880s. We will have occasion to write about the gates and bastions as we proceed on this journey into the Fort, but it is interesting to note that each has a name. The entrances taken clockwise from the front are the Sea, St Thomas, Wallajah, St George, Middle and North Gates. The four bastions are named St Thomas, Wallajah, St George and Royal.
Fronting the Fort on its western side is the glacis – essentially an earthwork that slopes away from the structure proper. On this has come up much of the army housing which hides that part of the Fort from view. This is indeed a pity, for it is on this face that we can see the formidable works that Benfield constructed to protect the Fort from enemies who never came! The last great attack was by Hyder Ali in 1781 when the defences were still unfinished. And when they were completed, there were no wars on the horizon.
The eastern front is the most easily visible as you walk or drive along Rajaji Salai. It is worth your while stopping there for some time to reflect that the sea was much closer than what it is now – it practically lapped the walls of the Fort during high tide. Somewhere on this eastern face is a stone that was once known as de Havilland’s Benchmark. In 1821, Major Thomas Fiott de Havilland published the first authoritative study on Madras tides by installing a tide gauge on the northeastern corner of the Fort. He then marked the highest levels reached by the water which became the benchmark for all subsequent tides. The construction of the harbour saw the sea receding in the 1890s. But its enormous distance today from the Fort is thanks to active reclamation in the early 1900s when Sir Francis Spring put into action a complete revamp and expansion of Madras Port. The ornamental park and the area for parking all visitors’ cars that lies across the road have all come up on reclaimed land.
The proximity of the sea to this face of the Fort for many decades did not mean it could be left unprotected. A wet ditch was dug and this over time became a moat that runs all around the Fort. Once filled with water, it is now overrun with weeds and is a convenient garbage tip.
Standing in front of the Fort, certain buildings can be viewed very easily. Taking in the view from the left you can see St. Mary’s Church, the tall flagstaff, the ornamental gates through which Government cars go in and out of the Fort, the Assembly building and, finally, the distracting concrete and glass multi-storeyed Namakkal Kavignar Maligai. Each of these has a story to tell as we shall see as this column progresses over the next year.
to be continued
You may want to read these other stories on the Fort: