Popular memory today associates present-day George Town with Black Town, and rightfully so. It was following an appeal in 1911 from the residents of Muthialpet and Peddanaikenpet, the two halves that made up the then Black Town, that the area was renamed George Town, after the new King Emperor. But this was in a sense new Black Town, recognised as such in the 1750s. Old Black Town, which existed to the immediate north of Fort St. George, is today a mere memory and a very inchoate one at that.
This settlement must have come up at around the same time as the Fort. In fact, in those early years (1644-1648), the small square that later came to form the core of Fort St George was known as the Inner Fort and what lay to its north was Black Town. An earthen wall, constructed by Agent Ivie, enclosed it. This fortification, on the northern side, ran along what is present day China Bazaar (NSC Bose) Road and ended near Broadway (Prakasam Salai). From there the western wall began and extended towards what is now the Esplanade. There were three gates, two in the north wall and one in the western one. This latter, initially known as West Gate, later came to be called the Armenian Bridge Gate.
While in the 1640s there appears to have been no division between the European and native parts of the Fort, this was not the case a decade later. By the 1650s, fortifications isolating the Inner Fort from its outer counterpart were complete and it came to be referred to as Christian Town. Old Black Town, or Gentu Town as it came to be known, was the Outer Fort and remained as it was. An interesting aside is that foxes were regularly seen near its gates. The place also came to be known as Malabar Town from the 1680s and H.D. Love attributes this to the increase in the number of Tamil as opposed to the earlier Telugu, inhabitants.
Old Black Town had quite a few landmarks within itself. The first of these was the temple to Chenna Kesava Perumal, built by Beri Thimmappa shortly after the British arrival in Madras. Also located here was the Company Garden. Envisaged as a lung for the area, construction on it was forbidden at the express orders of Sir William Langhorne in 1675. Encroachments on public space being common then as now, a wall was built all around the garden. Governor Streynsham Master, in 1680, added to it by taking down some native houses and including the burial ground of the English (known as the Guava Garden) within it. He also freed up some parts of the garden for public housing. Around four acres were thus offered for development and on it came up a principal thoroughfare – Garden Street, running north and south. Three alleys branched off it – Garden Lane, Merchants’ Street and Merchants’ Lane. To the east of Garden Street was Back Lane.
Thomas Salmon came to Madras in 1739. He describes Old Black Town as being inhabited by “Portuguese, Indians, Armenians and a great variety of other people.” The precinct was a square, “better than a mile and a half in circumference, being surrounded with a brick wall seventeen feet thick, with bastions at proper distances; it also has a river on the west and a sea on the east; and to the northward a canal is cut from the river to the sea, which serves for a moat on that side.” The river was no doubt the Elambore, which flowed where NSC Bose Road now is. Salmon had great praise for the town – “The streets are wide, and trees planted in some of them; and having the sea on one side and the river on the other, there are few towns so pleasantly situated.” In sharp contrast however are several other accounts that speak of the crowded and insanitary conditions of the place.
In the 1740s, Old Black Town became the subject of a Telugu book, fashioned as a dialogue between two Europeans. This was translated by the Danish Mission at Tranquebar into English in 1750. From it we learn that the place had 8,700 houses and 366 streets. As these numbers seem excessive, it is likely that this enumeration included the northward hamlets of Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet.
Rather ironically, Old Black Town was half-demolished even as the book was being printed. Between 1746 and 1749 the French occupied Madras and when the English returned they found “no great change in White Town, but about half the Black Town, the whole of its fortifications, and the Company’s Garden House had been demolished.” The temple to Chenna Kesava remained undisturbed.
By 1756, however, what was left had also to go. The Company decided that it needed a safe open space between itself and the rest of Madras so that there could be a clear line of fire. Old Black Town was swept away and what came up in its place was the vast Esplanade at the boundary of which pillars were erected to mark the limits of New Black Town (present day Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet). One solitary pillar survives outside Dare House. Chenna Kesava Perumal made his journey to Devaraja Mudali Street, to be housed in a temple built in the 1770s. If only He condescended to speak, He would have quite a story to tell. His idol is probably the only survivor from Old Black Town.
The High Court of Madras and the Law College stand where Old Black Town once was.
This article is part of a series on lost/barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier ones here