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All about Fort St George, Chennai: The first English fortress in India

[ecis2016.org] Fort St George, in Chennai, was the very first English fortress settlement in the country

Fort St George or White Town as it was historically called, is the very first English fortress settlement in the country and was established in 1639 in Madras (now Chennai). Construction of this imposing fort led to the establishment of numerous subsequent settlements and increased trading in the originally uninhabited region.

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The city may have originally grown around this majestic fortress. St George Fort currently accommodates the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu, along with several other official government buildings. It is tough to put a price to this priceless landmark. If the value were to be estimated, it would run into hundreds of crores, if not more!

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History of Fort St George

The East India Company (EIC) came to India sometime in 1600 for trading purposes and started licensed trading activity at Surat, which was its first base. However, for trade security and commercial purposes linked to the spice trade, the EIC wanted a port nearer the Malacca Straits and ultimately bought this coastal land parcel originally called Chennirayarpattinam or Channapatnam. The EIC started building a fort and harbor on this plot. The fort was completed on April 23, 1644 and the initial cost was estimated at 3,000 pounds. This coincided with St George’s Day which celebrated England’s patron saint. The fort was thus named Fort St George, facing the sea and a few fishing villages.

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Fort St George

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

It soon turned into a major hub for commercial activities and trading, creating a new settlement named George Town or the historical Black Town. This eventually expanded, to include the fishing villages and led to the birth of Madras City. After receiving notifications about the French East India Company being formed, the EIC expanded and boosted the fort in 1665 while garrisons were also increased.

As Thomas Bowrey, an English mariner and merchant noted, Fort Saint George was a ‘beneficial place to the Honorable English East India Company and with all the residence of their honorable agent and governor all of their affaires’. He spoke of how the Fort was instrumental in governing several territories, while creating the foundation for a flourishing trade in spices, silks and more. Francis Day and Andrew Cogan represented the British East India Company while buying this plot of land in 1639, along the current Marina Beach from the Nayak rulers in the region.

All about Fort St George, Chennai

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Fort St George architectural style helped it to resist several attacks in the 18th century. It has high walls, going up to six metres.

Fort St George Madras was briefly under French possession between 1746 and 1749 but was given back to Britain as part of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.

What is Fort St George famous for?

  • Fort St George Chennai is not just the administrative headquarters for Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly today but also has a garrison of military troops in transit to several areas in the Andamans and southern India.

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  • The Fort Museum contains several artefacts from the previous eras, including portraits of the governors of Madras, as well.
  • Fort St George is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) while the Indian Army offers administrative support.
  • St Mary’s Church in the premises is the country’s oldest Anglican Church, constructed between 1678 and 1680. The orders were given by the Agent of Madras Streynsham Master. The tombstones in the cemetery are some of India’s oldest British tombstones, as well. The ancient prayer house is where Robert Clive and governor Elihu Yale’s marriages were solemnised.

Fort St George museum

  • The Fort Museum is the sole ticketed institution under the ASI within the complex. The building was finished in 1794 and initially had the Madras Bank office. The upstairs hall was known as the Public Exchange Hall.
  • The objects displayed in the museum include medals, weapons, coins, artefacts from Scotland, England, India and France and uniforms. Original letters written by Lords Cornwallis and Clive are also showcased, along with a big statue of Lord Cornwallis.

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  • The national flag of India was initially designed by Pingali Venkayya and adopted officially in its current design at the constituent assembly meeting on July 22, 1947, just a few days prior to the country’s independence. The first ever flag that was flown after independence, is showcased at the third floor of this museum.
  • The Fort Museum finds mention in the iconic novel by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, called The Museum of Innocence.

  • Wellesley House is another iconic structure in Fort St George and the building’s first floor has the Banqueting Hall. This has several paintings of the Fort’s governor and other regime officials. The canons of Tipu Sultan are placed on the museum ramparts.
  • A 14.5-ft statue is located at the entrance near the staircase and was made by Charles Bank in England. The pedestal has a scene showing the emissary of Tipu Sultan giving his two sons as hostage in exchange for a ransom that he could not pay to the British.
  • The name of the building comes from Richard Wellesley, the Indian governor general and brother to the Duke of Wellington.
  • The Fort’s flag staff is one of the tallest in India at 150 ft or 46 metres high and is crafted from teakwood.

FAQs

When was Fort St George completed?

Fort St George was completed on April 23, 1644.

Where is Fort St George?

Fort St George is located along the present Marina Beach in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Who built St George Fort in Chennai?

The East India Company built Fort St George Chennai.

What does Fort St George complex currently contain?

The complex at Fort St George has several historic buildings and official structures, along with the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu.

(Header image source Wikimedia Commons)

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Debora Berti

Università degli Studi di Firenze, IT

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