"Changes of time are fickle,” Francis Day, the hard-drinking and womanising employee of the East India Company wrote in an emotional and personally delivered letter to his boss Andrew Cogan, “and if you suffer this opportunity to pass over, you shall perhaps in vain afterwards pursue the same when it is fled and gone.”
The year was 1639: the East India Company, competing with the Dutch, was eager to build a permanent settlement on the east coast, and Day was trying to hard-sell Cogan the idea of building it on a sandy strip of beach, which he had already negotiated for with the local chieftain.
The strip of beach was barely three miles away from the Portuguese settlement of San Thome, where Day had had a good time during his expeditions to scout for land — he even found himself a lover there.
The passionate grab-it-or-regret-it tone of Day's letter had its desired effect. On February 20, 1640, both Day and Cogan, dropped anchor at the appointed piece of beach after winding up business at Armagon (today known as a town called Durgarajupatnam, in Andhra Pradesh), where they had a trading post until then. On that dreary strip of sand they built a walled settlement and named it — rather grandiosely, after the patron saint of England — Fort St. George. Madraspatnam, today known as Chennai, grew out of Fort St. George.
But it is not Chennai alone that owes its existence to Fort St. George. When Day and Cogan founded Madraspatnam in February 1640, Delhi was still a medieval city that was ruled by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and was actually known as Shahjahanabad, while Bombay and Calcutta weren't even born. The construction of the Fort, therefore, can be considered the starting point of modern India. In other words, modern India was born out of Fort St. George.
It is a different matter that this historical fact is never celebrated — either out of ignorance or indifference. Kolkata still fondly remembers its founder Job Charnock – there is a popular shopping complex-cum-restaurant called Charnock City – but Chennai has never had a Cogan Café or a Day Dosa. In fact, much before he founded Calcutta, Charnock got his daughters baptised at St. Mary's Church in Fort St. George.
The soil of Fort St. George seems to possess a lucky charm. A number of clerks and soldiers and administrators who came to serve here as non-entities got catapulted to unbelievably high positions — high enough not only to decide the destiny of India but also of Britain. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, a number of illustrious Britons, including prime ministers, commanders-in-chief, governors-general, members of Parliament and bureaucrats had one thing in common — the Fort St. George connection.
It was in the Fort that Elihu Yale made his riches, a small part of which was subsequently donated to a cash-strapped university in Connecticut, which decided to name itself after Yale in gratitude. Then there was Robert Clive, who arrived here as a clerk of the East India Company and got so depressed by the nature of his job that he decided to put a gun to his head. The gun failed to fire and Clive went on to become a “heaven-born general” and lay the foundation of the British Empire.
Similarly, Arthur Wellesley, who as a young colonel spent several months in the Fort planning (and then fighting) the war against Tipu Sultan, went on to win the most iconic battle in British history — the battle of Waterloo. Warren Hastings served in the Fort as the export warehouse-keeper before he was promoted and sent to Calcutta as India's first governor-general. The list of people who went on to be kissed by greatness after a stint in Fort St. George is long.
For 371 years, the Fort remained the seat of power in Madras. But in 2010, chief minister M. Karunanidhi decided to move out of its charmed soil — only to meet his Waterloo. He conceived a new Secretariat building on Mount Road and had it constructed in a tearing hurry so that it could be inaugurated while he was in power. One of the buildings sacrificed to make space for the new Secretariat was the 250-year-old Government House, perhaps the most precious piece of colonial heritage in the city after the Fort itself.
Eventually, Karunanidhi lost, Fort St. George won. It's gone back to being the seat of power — at least for the next five years.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, May 21, 2011.