During the Pongal Season Chennai was in the grip of The Hindu’s Lit for Life fest 2018. It is ironic that when matters literary were being debated elsewhere in the city, the oldest library here, or, to be precise, the building that claims to have housed it, is in ruins with nothing being done about it. I allude to what is known as the Clive’s Library Building, Fort St George.
There are several unresolved mysteries about this structure. Was this really a library used by Clive? That may not be a correct interpretation. But we do know that as a young man and a lowly Writer, Clive was encouraged to read books by the then Governor of the Fort, Sir Nicholas Morse, who was of a bookish temperament. He had a well-stocked library and encouraged the Company’s servants to read. The bulk of the books were religious in nature and Clive plodded through several. It is believed that they helped in calming down what was a temperament naturally prone to depression. As to where Morse’s library was in the Fort we do not know. It was very likely in Fort House, which was central to the entire precinct and not the present building referred to as Clive’s Library, which is on the northern side of the Fort, separated by an arched passageway from the Exchange Building.
Did Clive maintain a library in Madras after he became the hero of the siege of Arcot? There are no references to this and so we come to the conclusion that the name is just the figment of someone’s imagination. The building itself abuts Clive Street, which runs east to west at the extreme northern periphery of the Fort and so it is quite likely that the thoroughfare gave its name to the structure. It must also be remembered here that hardly any building of Clive’s time survives along the outer periphery of the Fort. Most of the present structures were built when the precinct was redesigned in the 1780s.
What cannot be forgotten, however, is that a library existed in the Fort from 1661. In his detailed account of such facilities in the city, written for the Madras Tercentenary Volume in 1939, R Janardhanam Naidu, Director, Connemara Public Library, gives us the story behind the Fort library. Chaplain William Whitefield prevailed upon the Company’s factors in 1661 to invest in a bale of calico cloth that was to be sold in England. The money realised, £28-10, was used to buy books and these were shipped out to Whitefield. A year later, the Directors in England purchased a further £20 worth of books and sent them here. These two sets of books formed the nucleus of the city’s oldest library. But the collection was considered the personal property of Whitefield. In 1663/64, Governor Sir Edward Winter thought it would be better if they were owned by the Company and the books were bought off the Chaplain. In 1671, the personal collection of another Chaplain, Walter Hooke, was added to the library. By 1675, when the Directors asked for and obtained a complete catalogue of all the books in the Fort Library, there was in place a lending system as well – the register was kept by the Chaplain and delay in returns meant a fine of one pagoda. In the meanwhile, books kept increasing, chiefly owing to donations from company servants such as John Dolben and Richard Elliot, and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge sending in publications regularly.
In the early 1700s, Charles Lockyer came to Madras and saw the library. It had by then £438 worth of books and was in a large room on the first floor of a building. Could this have been the structure now known as Clive’s Library? The room below was used for a free school run by Chaplain Lewis. It was through Lockyer’s writing that the Directors in England once again took an interest in the library. They directed the Council in Madras to ensure that valuable books be kept in “close Presses to keep them from Dust and Vermine, and that none of them be lent or carried out of the library without the Consent of both the Ministers, if two shall be on the place.” They asked for a catalogue to be prepared, one copy of which was to be given to the President (Governor) and the other sent to England. This was completed in 1716, but was rejected for its poor quality by the Directors who were convinced that the Madras library stocked its books in “confused irregular heaps” and not sorted by subject. A revised catalogue was prepared in 1720 and this was deemed satisfactory. The Chaplain who completed it was rewarded with a palanquin allowance. In the meanwhile, the Company instituted an annual audit of books, to be done by “two of our servants together with our Ministers” and this was to be submitted to the Vestry.
Janardhanam Naidu feels that it was this public library that Nicholas Morse encouraged his juniors in service to avail of. Clive certainly was a frequent borrower as testified in his letters Home. But the library itself was nearing the end of its life. The French occupation from 1746 to 1749 saw the scattering of the collection. When the British came back, they were busy with reconstructing the Fort and it was only in 1754 that a request was sent to the Directors to resume the practice of sending out books. This was, however, not complied with and there was never a library in the Fort thereafter.
It is very unlikely that the earlier library in the Fort could have been named after Clive, for he was just a junior Writer when it was in existence. But it is still interesting that there should be a building bearing the name Clive’s Library. The structure is, however, in an area to which access is restricted and last heard of was completely overgrown with trees, all of which are steadily working towards its collapse. The Navy, which technically is in occupation of the structure, had asked INTACH to submit a proposal for restoration more than a decade ago. Nothing has happened since then.
Just imagine the building being restored and converted into a museum of books and authors of the city, with a vibrant discussion space and a cafeteria. What an attraction it would be!
This article is part of a series tracing lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the others here