Celebrating Madras Day: The Story Of Fort St.George

August 22, 2016, Chennai

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Chennai, for a city of its size and importance, is singularly lacking in buildings of any antiquity, mainly because the original settlement was a creation of East India Company purely as a trading centre. In the early part of the 17th century, it was essential for any overseas trading centre to be fortified against the possibility of an attack.

A group of buildings were built within the Fort at different times for different purposes with the increasing needs of the East India Company.

The building now housing the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu is the focus of Fort St. George and the Fort is the fulcrum around which our metropolitan city grew in the past three and a half centuries. The foundation for this vibrant city was laid way back in July/August 1639, by Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, two traders of East India Company. A major portion of it was probably completed by the 23rd of April, 1640 i.e. St. George's Day, and hence named as Fort St. George. In the beginning, the Fort had a simple plan. At the centre was the Governor's house or the "Castle" around which there was an outer fortification. The English families settled in the space between the castle and the outer fortification. Soon a flourishing settlement of native weavers, painters and other workers of cloth grew up to the north of the outer fortification.

A large grey structure with numerous block columns located in the centre of the enclosure towards the east, was in fact, the first Fort House of the British. The Fort House began to function as a trading warehouse in the early part of the 17th century. Much against the wishes of the East India Company, Fort St. George grew as the trade grew. The Fort House was eventually pulled down in 1693 when it showed signs of collapse and rebuilt further east which took two years. Part of the structure still exists today as the core of the present Secretariat building. The Fort Museum contains many relics of the Raj era, including portraits of many of the Governors of Madras.

Primarily, the St. George Fort is divided into two sections: St. Mary's Church and the Fort Museum. St. Mary's Church enjoys the status of being one of the oldest surviving churches built by the British in India, as well as the oldest Anglican Church on the land of India. However, one of the most striking buildings here is the Fort St. George Museum. It houses the relics of the British personnel who inhabited this fort. It is carved with a scene depicting Tipu Sultan, his two sons and the East India Company officials.

The importance of the fort has not been undermined till date, as it still serves as an important base for the Indian Army. After Independence, A Survey of India declared the fort as a protected monument. Today, the building is more of a mansion where the Tamil Nadu Government's administrative branches and legislative assembly are housed.