This article, which focuses on the Sea Gate of Fort St George, is the third in a series of 26 articles to commemorate 375 years of the Fort. To read the earlier part, click here
To most casual visitors to the Fort today, the principal entrances are the two ornate gates, one for entry and the other for exiting, that flank the Great Bastion on which the flagstaff stands. These gates, though their granite posts give an impression of a respectable antiquity, are relatively new, dating at the most to the 1930s. The pair is often erroneously referred to as the Sea Gates of the Fort and nothing could be more inaccurate than that.
The original Sea Gates still survive, though they are blocked up and have sunk far below the level of the road. But the observant visitor can still locate them. You need to begin your search standing in front of the Great Bastion that supports the flagstaff. Walk either to your left or right, keeping a sharp eye on the base of the bastion, as it rises from the moat. You will notice a rectangular archway, blocked up completely but whose original lintel of black granite is still visible. A pair to this is on the other side of the bastion and the two were in their time known as the North and South Sea Gates. Standing in front of them, two things strike you – firstly the road level has risen tremendously since the time these gates were used and secondly, the sea has receded a great distance from the Fort.
The Sea Gate is one feature of the Fort about which there are continuous references from the 1640s. Originally, when the Fort was nothing more than a small enclosure, there was an entrance gate from the eastern side. As the Fort expanded and the original enclosure became Fort House, the core of which is hidden inside the Assembly complex, the new outer eastern wall ran parallel to the sea. There was no Great Bastion then and the rampart was a straight line. An arched gateway was cut into this wall giving easy access to the sea via a sandy strip that was no more than 500 metres in length. This entrance came to be referred to as the Sea Gate. Thus, in its first iteration, it was nothing more than a simple narrow archway.
The outer wall of the Fort was first planned and executed by Agent Henry Greenhill in 1657 or thereabouts and so the first Sea Gate is also attributed to him. In his time it also appears to have been known as the Water Gate for two reasons – the first, its proximity to the sea and the second, because fresh water was delivered from the Fort, for a fee, to ships waiting in Madras Roads.As the Fort grew in numbers and activity, the Sea Gate became increasingly congested. In 1678 we have Governor Streynsham Master petitioning the East India Company for permission and funds to carry out repair and expansion works at the Fort and one of these items was the widening of the Sea Gate for it was “all too little and streight for the passage of people, goods and cattle.” This was presumably acceded to, for the next we hear of the Sea Gate is in 1695 when, fearing a French invasion, Governor Elihu Yale had a laterite gun platform erected in front of it. This was, however, a short-lived structure for, in November 1696, there was a great rising of the sea and the platform was washed away.
The Sea Gate also played a vital role in the commerce of the Fort. This was where the office of the Sea Customer was located and that high official collected duties on all goods coming by ship. Assisting him was a whole host of lesser officials and two among them, interestingly, were the Upper and Under Searchers. These officials were presumably responsible for thoroughly inspecting boxes and packages to ensure that everything was declared and nothing contraband was smuggled in. Given that this was where the goods arrived, the Sea Gate was also the meeting point for merchants in the Fort. In 1718, Alexander Hamilton, a merchant and commander of several ships, wrote an account of Madras. He notes that the Sea Gate was very spacious and “was formerly the common Exchange, where Merchants of all Nations resorted about eleven a Clock to treat of Business in Merchandize; but that Custom is out of Fashion and the Consultation Chamber, or the Governor’s Apartment serves for that Use now.” The Sea Gate being a meeting point of sorts, this was where auctions were conducted on a regular basis. The goods could vary – from the Company’s ‘broadcloth’ to the latest consignment of Madeira wine or the effects of a recently deceased official. The Sea Gate was also where the important announcements were made and notices put up.
By 1736, during the gubernatorial tenure of George Morton Pitt, terraced godowns spanning 130 feet had come up on either side of the Sea Gate. Those on the southern side were the Saltpetre Godown and the Sea Customer’s Warehouse while the northern side housed the offices of the Storekeeper and Warehousekeeper. A weighing room stood next to the Sea Gate.Pitt also authorised, without permission from London, the expenditure of 1600 pagodas for the construction of a colonnaded walkway from the Sea Gate to Fort Square. Thirty-two columns of black Pallavaram gneiss were put up in two rows and the space between them served as the Exchange referred to by Hamilton. These columns had quite a chequered history before they were permanently embedded in the verandah of the Assembly buildings constructed in 1910. That is a story for a later article in this series.
Thos painting of William Daniell dating to 1793 clearly shows the colonnaded walkway on one side of the Sea Gate. On coming to know of this construction the Board of Directors in England were furious but there was little they could do about it.
By 1779, as we saw earlier, major construction work was embarked upon at the Fort with a view to enhancing its security. The new eastern front, which was slightly closer to the sea than the old wall, was built with an indented line so that the enemy could not see the entire massing of troops, which would be the case if the wall had been a straight line. The centre now jutted out as the Great Bastion, or trenaillon to give its correct name. The resulting triangular base meant that the Sea Gate below it had to be divided into two. These became the northern and southern Sea Gates. What is interesting, however, is that a French map of 1749 shows the Sea Gate already divided into two. This was when Madras was under French occupation. The French also built a battery fronting the Sea Gate but this was demolished by the British once they returned to the Fort in 1749. Perhaps the British once again restored the Sea Gate to one entranceway and, later in the 1770s, divided it a second time. As part of the reconstruction activity, the warehouses abutting the Sea Gate became boutique stores for the officers of the Fort. These were done away with in the 1800s.
By the 1790s the Fort and the Sea Gates were bursting at their seams. The office of the Sea Customer was shifted to the open beach where it operated from tents. It was in vain that James Call, the Sea Customer, complained to Governor Edward Clive, the Second Lord Clive, about the servants suffering from the extreme heat and the sand that blew over the greater part of the merchandise. This exposure was to eventually cause his death in 1799. By the next year the office of Sea Customer had shifted to a disused granary on what would eventually become First Line Beach. With the harbour coming up opposite this new location, the sea began to recede from the Fort and with that much of the importance of the Sea Gate also diminished.
In the 1930s, with cars coming in greater frequency to the Fort, the old Sea Gates caused congestion. The handsome granite posted gates that are now in use were put up on the ramparts. That necessitated the building of a ramp, which in turn hid the old Sea Gates from view. However, they remained in operation till World War II when, being deemed security risks, their wooden doors were walled up forever. These have since been removed and the entrance archways cemented over.
You may be interested in the following articles on Fort St George:
Know Fort St George Series