The Moat, as seen from St George's Gate
The Moat, as seen from St George’s Gate

Before we enter the Fort proper, let us pause for a moment and run our eye over the moat that surrounds the entire precinct, or at least was supposed to. Today it is entirely overgrown with weeds, barring a few places to the rear of the Fort where it still has stagnant water, but in its time this was a vital element of the defences.

There have been several versions of the moat in the Fort’s long history. Arriving here as early as in 1673, Dr John Fryer noted that ‘on the south side they have cut a ditch of a sufficient depth to prevent scaling the wall’. This did not evidently last long for, in 1676, when the Council at Fort St George wrote to the East India Company HQ seeking permission for strengthening the place, it raised the subject of a wet ditch. As this was in response to a stern missive demanding that the Madras establishment reduce its expenses, the tone of the request was somewhat submissive. The Council ‘humbly presented for your consideration’ the need to build, among several other things, a ‘good Ditch’. This was evidently sanctioned, for, a year later, when the sea made great incursions on the land, a detailed note was submitted on the subject to the Company where there is clear mention of a ditch. Mrs Frank Penny, in her Fort St George, a Short History of our First Possession in India writes that this ditch was later extended to the eastern side as well. She, however, maintains that this was no moat but a dry ditch.

The original Fort, as we saw earlier, spanned what would presently include just the Assembly building and the Parade Square. As it expanded, the ditch vanished and the Description of Fort St George or Madras (published in 1747 in the Gentleman of London’s Magazine) states that the “Fort is surrounded with a Rampart faced with a thick Wall of what they call Iron Stone, being of the Colour of unwrought Iron, and very rough outside like a Honey-comb but without any Ditch or Fosse on the Outside.” But serious consideration was evidently given for the construction of a new moat that would surround the expanded Fort. As evidence of this we have A Memorandum of the Early History of Fort St George (published in 1847), according to which, in 1743 an engineer named Smith submitted plans for strengthening the Fort, and increasing its area by 15 to 30 acres; he defined this additional area by a wet ditch, which he dug and faced with bricks. Mrs Penny writes that this was supplied with water from the Cooum but ‘as no walls or bastions were raised above this moat, it was not of much use as a protection.’ That this was not in any way a deterrent is attested by the historian Orme who observed that when the French came in 1746, ‘the naked ditch remained neither an obstruction nor defence.’

The hectic construction activities of the 1750s, in the aftermath of the return of Madras to the British, saw attention being paid to the moat. When the French returned in 1758 under Comte de Lally, action was seen around the water body, which by then was complete along the western and northern faces of the Fort. Mrs Penny quotes from a letter of Henry Vansittart to Robert Clive, written in the final days of the siege, which the British successfully withstood, ‘They had opened a narrow passage through the counterscarp of the ditch by a mine, and had beat down so much clay from the face of the demi-bastion, that there was a slope that a nimble man might run up, and that is what M Lally calls a breach; but his people were wiser than he, if he proposed to assault it, and they refused. This was probably near the St George’s Gate of the Fort, located at the northwestern angle, for David Leighton in his Vicissitudes of Fort St George (1902) has all the action with the French in that area.

The present moat or ditch owes its existence to the extensive renovations to the Fort, commenced in the 1760s rather ironically after the last siege to be ever faced by it had ended. John Call, who was then the Chief Engineer, envisaged a wet ditch, 50 feet broad and seven feet deep, to be commenced from St George’s bastion, which marks the northwestern angle of the Fort.

All accounts of the moat/ditch, except Leighton’s, agree that the first versions did not have water. Dismissing the Leighton version as an error, we are left with the question of where the water for the moat came from, when it first became a wet, as opposed to a dry, ditch. The water initially came from the Elambore River that ran along the western side of the Fort. In the 1700s, when the Fort had become rectangular, the river had been diverted to form the moat. A few years later, the Fort had extended beyond the river, which divided into two, one arm ending inside the Fort and the other flowing along the west face and then into the sea. During the 1760s, when the final reconstruction of the Fort began, the river was partly filled to facilitate the present shape and the water was made to flow around to form the moat. The river was to suffer several changes to its natural course, becoming a part of Cochrane’s Canal, which eventually became Buckingham Canal.

That the water for the moat came from the river and later the Buckingham Canal is clear if you wander off in the direction of St George’s Gate. There you will see a rusting lock, with most of its shutters having vanished. This was lowered and raised to regulate the tide in the moat. Now, with the Buckingham Canal and the Cooum both having lost their water, the moat has gone dry. But the part closest to the lock still retains some water and, therefore, plenty of vegetation and some bird life. When Mrs Penny wrote her book, the wagtail was apparently the most common bird in the moat, building its nests in the crevices of the wall, where the water plants afforded it sufficient privacy. Fishing in the moat too was a common recreation for the soldiers in the Fort, as evinced by photographs taken in the early 1900s. Another feature, long gone, is the wooden drawbridges that connected mainland to the Fort, across the moat. These were present at the Wallajah, St George’s and North Gates and, according to Mrs Penny, these were ‘a terror to the inexperienced horse when his ears are assailed by the thunder of his iron-shod hoofs on the wooden platform as he crosses to enter the low, deep gateway.’

In the 1990s, during routine conservation work in the Fort, a tunnel was discovered running parallel to the moat between Wallajah Gate and the northwestern point. This has regular openings at intervals at ground level connecting to it by flights of steps. The tunnel, with a height of 2m and a width of a metre, has since been interpreted as having been constructed for the facilitation of arms movement. The water in the moat kept the gunpowder cool and prevented it from heating up and exploding in the Madras summer. That this was no secret even in the 1940s is evident from Lt Col Read’s The Story of Fort St George (1946). He calls the attention of the casual visitor to the regular openings that he terms as loopholes. The tunnel, according to him, was used to position sharpshooters who through the loopholes could shoot any enemy who came close to the walls.

The southern side of the moat was filled up in the 1860s to make way for the military hospital that stands in the shadow of the Fort amidst a clump of trees. The rest of the moat is still intact but it is in a state of decay. In October 2014, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Army announced a joint plan to clear the moat of vegetation, free it of the drainage from the Fort and restore it. This is yet to make headway.

Earlier articles in this series

The Topography of the Fort
The Flagstaff
The Sea Gate