Historically, we can trace at least four ‘squares’ in the layout of Fort St George. The Fort Square was perhaps the oldest, its boundaries being those of the first Fort House built when Madras was begun. Today this is occupied by the Assembly and Secretariat building. Parade or Barracks Square we have already seen and it continues to exist. Fronting the Arsenal was Hanover Square and in the late 1700s it was taken over for the construction of several barracks. Portuguese Square was the fourth and it spanned the area on which the multi-storey Namakkal Kavignar Maligai was constructed in the 1980s. This building houses the offices of many Government departments today.
It must be remembered that the Fort was not meant exclusively for the British in its early years. We have seen earlier that Armenians lived here and several Indian dubashes owned property in the Fort. As the name suggests, Portuguese Square was first occupied by the nationals of that country who, formerly resident in San Thomé, fled to the relative security of Fort St George early in 1640. Unlike the Company’s civil servants, the Portuguese were devout Roman Catholics and felt the need for a priest who could minister to them. Their prayers were answered when in 1642, Father Ephraim de Nevers arrived at the Fort. A French Capuchin priest, his destination was Pegu (now Bago in present day Myanmar). He had landed at Surat in 1641 in order to travel by land across India to the Coromandel Coast and from there by sea to the place where he was ordained to preach. But he was destined to never leave our city, as the Portuguese residents of the Fort petitioned Agent Andrew Cogan that he order the priest to stay back. The request and the Agent’s sanction are both dated June 8, 1642, indicating that there was a great urgency to retain Father Ephraim.
He on his part was quite willing but was apprehensive as to what his superiors, and the priests of San Thomé would have to say. Permission was therefore sought from Rome and while it was awaited, Father Ephraim was given land for building a church to the north of the then Fort, which we know was just Fort Square (present Assembly and Secretariat). The Capuchin church of St Andrew’s which was in reality a timber shed, and its surroundings became known as Portuguese Square. The choice of name of the patron saint is a mystery and it is quite likely that it was a doffing of the hat to Andrew Cogan who was the numero uno of the place. The timber shed made way for a permanent structure in 1675.
Father Ephraim became something of a legend in Madras. In a Fort that was established solely for commercial purposes, he took no money for services rendered by way of baptisms, weddings or burial. He accepted gifts by way of rice and some bare essentials. He ran a school at his residence in the Fort and, being a ‘polished linguist’, fluent in French, Portuguese, Dutch and English besides being conversant in Persian, Arabic and other Oriental languages, spent his time translating the gospels into Portuguese. He allowed his should to be used by The Presidents an worship. He also mediated in disputes between Fort St George and San Thomé, much to the chagrin of the priests in the latter town.
Matters came to a head when, in 1649, Father Ephraim, having been invited to San Thomé for a discussion, was seized near the Luz Church and imprisoned. It was in vain that Agent Greenhill protested against this highhanded action, for the priest was clapped in irons and sent off in a ship to Goa where he was to face the Inquisition. In retaliation, Greenhill did what he thought was best – he kidnapped the Chief Padre Governor, the then chief ecclesiastic of San Thomé, and confined him to Fort St George. Thus the two parties ‘stood on Equall basis’ to quote Greenhill. But the Chief Padre was not without supporters in the Fort and one night, helped by Richard Bradbury, Drummer, he shinned up the walls using the ‘laceings of a cott’ and made good his escape to San Thomé, along with his accomplice.
Father Ephraim was released in April 1652 and returned to Madras. By then, permission from Rome had come – the river Cooum would be the dividing line between the two parishes. These would eventually become the dioceses of Madras and Mylapore, eventually uniting in 1952 as the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore with San Thomé basilica as the cathedral and St. Mary’s in George Town the co-cathedral. The Capuchins’ stay in Fort St George depended on the whims of the Governor. Thus, Father Ephraim was expelled from the Fort in 1664 by Sir Edward Winter for propagating ‘Popish religion’. He and his fellow priest Father Zenon lived in San Thomé till 1668 when Winter’s rival Foxcroft had them brought back. The two were to live for long. Zenon died in 1687 at the age of 85. Father Ephraim died in 1694, after an incredible 52 years in the city. By then, the Capuchin Mission in the Fort had four priests, all French.
In 1746, when the French occupied Madras and the British retreated to Cuddalore, it was felt by the latter that the former owed their success to the treachery of the Capuchin priests in the Fort. Thus, when Madras was restored to the English in 1749, among their first acts was the expulsion of Padre Severini, the then priest, and his associates from the Fort. Though the Company’s Board of Directors in England was against the demolition of the Church itself, they being of the view that it could be put to alternative use, it was razed in 1753 and the materials from it sold. The next year, a row of buildings came up on the site. The Capuchin Mission applied for permission to carry on at the site of the Portuguese burial ground in the city in present day Armenian Street. Father Ephraim had begun an ‘open pandall chapell’ here in 1658. This would eventually grow into the today’s St Mary’s Co Cathedral.
Portuguese Square with its historic buildings remained till the 1980s when the Government, in contravention of all accepted norms for heritage precincts, decided to build a multi-storeyed structure inside the Fort to house its burgeoning departments. Portuguese Square was the site selected and the structures that stood on it were de-notified of their heritage status to facilitate demolition. The new building, named after poet Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai, soon came up and sticks out like a sore thumb, dwarfing everything else in the Fort.
In the early 2000s, it was found that the Maligai was in an enfeebled condition, just 20 years after its construction and despite every care being lavished on it. In sharp contrast stood the centuries old structures around it, most of them devoid of maintenance. A debate arose as to whether Namakkal Kavignar Maligai ought to exist at all in the Fort. But with the powers-that-be declaring that it was an early example of modernist construction in the State, it was found worthy of preservation. It underwent a Rs 28 crore restoration and was re-opened a few years ago. To ensure that the makeover was complete in every respect, it was centrally air-conditioned and that needed a plate glass front thereby adding to its incongruity. The tall pillars fronting it, we are told, are examples of modern Chola architecture. The airconditioning plants located to the rear of the building add to the moisture in the Fort, weakening other buildings in their vicinity. There is no doubt that the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai is an unfortunate addition to our Fort.
Let us now proceed to the last of the monuments inside Fort St George – the Exchange and the Museum it now houses.
This article is part of a series to commemorate 375 years of Fort St George. You can read the earlier parts in the links below:
- The Fort, Its Topography
- The Flagstaff
- The Sea Gates
- The Moat
- The Cornwallis Cupola
- The Assembly and Secretariat
- The Parade Square
- The Barracks
- The Great House on Charles Street
- Arthur Wellesley’s House
- Charles (and James) Street
- The Church of St Mary’s
- St Mary’s Church yard
- The Interior of St Mary’s
- The monuments in St Mary’s
- The romance of Church Lane
- St Thomas Street
- Wallajah Gate and Bastion
- The Grand Arsenal
- St George’s Gate
- Middle Street