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The Intriguing History of Fort St George by David Ebsworth

Today I welcome David Ebsworth to my blog to tell us about one of the fascinating buildings he came across during his research for his ‘Wicked Mistress Yale’ Series. Over to Dave:

‘I thought it was just coincidence,’ he said. A friend for the past sixty years reading the first part of my Yale Trilogy, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale. ‘You set the story in Fort St. George – and guess what? That’s the name of my local.’

We checked it out. Mike’s favourite pub sits on the south bank of the River Cam, Midsummer Common. It’s supposed to be one of the oldest in Cambridge itself and it’s usually just known as the Fort. A footbridge crosses the river there, the Fort St. George Bridge. The place is supposedly named for its resemblance to Fort St. George in old Madras, modern Chennai. But a quick glance at the pub sign hanging outside lends the lie to this.

Dave Ebsworth Fort St GeorgeI know because, for the best part of a year, it felt like I lived at the original Fort St. George, while I was writing The Doubtful Diaries.

Fort St. George in old Madras – the start of the Raj

It had been built in 1639, the very first British fortification in India, constructed by what was then the Honourable English East India Company. Fort St. George therefore stands almost as the prologue in the story of the British Raj, warts and all. And it was built on virtually uninhabited land, bordered by two tiny villages – Madraspatnam on one side, Chennapatnam on the other. The population of the two villages no more than a few hundred souls, on the south-eastern Coromandel Coast of India.

The great thing? Much of it’s still there, the walls intact and many other reminders of those early days remain standing. Of course, it’s now dwarfed by the metropolis that’s grown around it, a present population of over 7 million, and the name changed from Madras to Chennai back in 1996, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Fort St. George and Catherine Hynmers Yale
But let’s go back to 1670, and the arrival there of nineteen year-old Catherine Hynmers with her older husband, Joseph, a senior official for the East India Company. There, they moved into a substantial house on Middle Gate Street. The gate is still there – and so is the street, though it’s seen better days. 

Fort St George Chennai
Middle Gate Street

Catherine gave birth to four boys, possibly five, but in 1680, Joseph was taken by a fever. No wonder, for one in every five of the European population of Fort St. George died every year.

Joseph was buried inside an impressive mausoleum, beneath a tall pyramid – and his tomb still stands, complete with an inscription that confirms his status. But Catherine now had a difficult decision to make. Four surviving children, on the far side of the world, and in 1680 the far side of the world was very distant indeed. At least a six-month stinking, cramped and hugely perilous voyage, with only one stop on the way. She chose to look for a second husband, settled on an unlikely choice, a junior clerk called Elihu Yale. They were married at the newly consecrated St. Mary’s Church. 

St Mary's Church Chennai

St. Mary’s stands too, in almost pristine condition, and the record of Yale’s marriage to Catherine still viewable in the parish register.

Yale Marriage Record
Yale Marriage Record

Yale, of course, gained much of Joseph’s wealth from the marriage, used it to furnish himself with not one mistress, but two – and to set them both up in a specially constructed villa, a “garden house.”

Meanwhile, Catherine had given birth to four more children, three girls and another boy, David Yale, who died while still a baby and was buried in the same mausoleum as Joseph Hynmers. David’s inscription can be seen on the tomb, too.

The tomb of Joseph Hynmers and David Yale at Fort St. George

Fort St. George and the Indian Ocean Slave Trade

Yale himself had now risen to the position of Governor at Fort St. George and, in that position, he supervised the Company’s new and highly profitable trade in slaves – Indian slaves. 

How do we know all this? Because, for all their sins, the East India Company kept meticulous records, minutes of every single, daily meeting that took place – the Consultation Books for Fort St. George. And, from those minutes, we see that each vessel bound for the English colony on St. Helena was required to carry ten Indian slaves, for there was then a great demand for slaves in that colony. In one month alone, over 600 Indian slaves are recorded as having been dispatched, either to St. Helena in the west, or to Sumatra in the east.

By 1689, Catherine – a woman of strong Dissenter beliefs – could stand the situation no longer and returned to England with her brood of children, and that’s where the Yale Trilogy leaves Fort St. George and Madraspatnam behind, more or less. Yale would eventually bequeath his name to one of the world’s great universities, though to Catherine he left nothing in his will but the slur of branding her a “wicked wife.”

But that, as they say, is another story and, clearly, it certainly wasn’t the end of the fort’s own saga.

Fort St. George and Later Celebrities

In 1744, another junior clerk arrived there. Robert Clive. Over the following nine years he distinguished himself in the East India Company’s army and, in 1753, married Margaret Maskelyne and they lived together in the fine mansion still known as Clive House. He would distinguish himself still further, of course, at the Battle of Plassey and elsewhere, and he would literally finish the work begun at Fort St. George a hundred years earlier – the establishment of British India and the British Empire. 

Clive's House
Clive’s House

Later still, the young Arthur Wellesley had a house in Fort St. George and it was within its walls that Major Stringer Lawrence laid the foundations for the Indian Army. 

Apart from the buildings and the fortress walls, the Fort St. George Museum is still a great repository for almost four hundred years of British involvement and history in Madras, with all its contradictions.

Wellesley House
The remaining portion of Wellesley House

Fort St. George – the Cambridge Connection

But what is the connection between that original Fort St. George and the pub in Cambridge? I have a favourite theory that it’s all connected to the story of Colonel Sir William Draper, who successfully defended Madras and its fortress, in 1758, against a siege by the French during the Seven Years War. Draper had close connections to Cambridge and, at the end of the conflict, he presented the colours he’d taken – both in India and the Philippines – to his old college, King’s College, Cambridge. The presentations apparently occasioned great celebration and hence, perhaps, Fort St. George itself became celebrated and fêted in the town.

If readers have other theories, or if you’ve visited the Fort – either in Chennai or in Cambridge – it would be great to hear from you. 

Thank you to David Ebsworth for this exploration of one of the great historical buildings in India. If you’d like to contact him for more information you can find him on his website 

Or you could buy the books