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A southern Indian sword

Chapter 7 – First English Settlements on the Madras Coast


The problem which lay before the English on the east coast of India was a more complex one. The Moghul Empire had not yet reached those distant shores. Instead of the firm order which it imposed on its provinces, the conflict of dynasties and races still raged. The inland Moslem kings of Golkonda advanced their boundaries to the Madras coast after the destruction of the Hindu suzerainty of Vijayanagar at the battle of Talikot in 1565. But the remnants of that ancient Hindu dynasty had sought refuge, and again gathered strength, in its eastern maritime provinces. There, backed by the shore rajas, its feudatories in more prosperous times, the descendants of the Hindu overlords still disputed with the Golkonda Moslems the hill tracts, the river deltas, and tidal lagoons.

The Madras coast looked out toward the Eastern Archipelago as the Bombay coast looked out toward Africa and the Cape. The Portuguese, advancing eastwards from their African base, formed their first and

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most lasting settlements on the Bombay side; the Dutch, reverting westwards from their Spice Island dominions, established themselves chiefly on the Bay of Bengal. In 1609 they obtained a settlement at Pulicat, a long, low isle with the surf breaking on its outer shores, and a sheltered lagoon stretching inwards to the mainland, about twenty-three miles north of Madras city. Its great backwater, or “Pulicat Lake,” formed by the sea bursting through the sand-dunes of the coast in some ancient cyclonic storm, afforded a haven for the shipping of those days.

In 1611 Captain Hippon and Peter Floris in The Globe of our seventh Separate Voyage essayed a landing

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Tomb of First King of Oudh, Lucknow.

at Pulicat. Floris was a Hollander who had learned the secrets of the Indian trade while in the Dutch service. Captain Hippon, with the knowledge thus obtained, resolved to strike into the port to port trade, which bartered the calicoes of the Madras coast for the spices of the Eastern Archipelago. Not unnaturally, the Dutch, who had meanwhile built a fort at Pulicat, “did beare a hard hand against them.” The queen of the place refused even to see our captain, saying that a grant had already been given to the Hollanders. But Hippon, although cast down, was not dismayed. He sailed further up the coast, and landed at Pettapoli (the modern Nizampatam), at the mouth of a southern channel of the Kistna delta – more exposed to the monsoon than Pulicat, yet sufficiently sheltered for a ship to ride out a storm. There he arrived on August 18, 1611, was well received by the local governor, and left two supercargoes to found our first shore settlement on the Bay of Bengal. Of its fortunes presently.

In 1614 another captain of the English Company cast longing eyes on Pulicat. The Dutch “Rector of all the factories upon that coast” and his lieutenant, who was “English-born,” feasted the visitors in their “castle,” but firmly refused to let them trade. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1619 at length gave us this right, and at the same time compelled us to pay half the charges of the garrison. A band of English factors accordingly landed at Pulicat in 1620, and for a year their trade went “roundly forward.” But the Dutch opposition, which was to culminate in the tragedy of

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Amboyna, soon rendered our position untenable at Pulicat, and in 1623, shortly after that tragedy, we had to quit the lagoon-haven for a refuge further north. Later English projects to reoccupy Pulicat came to nothing, and our first attempt at a settlement on the Madras coast ended in failure and a heavy loss.

The mud-creeks of Pettapoli, where Captain Hippon had found shelter in 1611, promised, under the protection of the powerful Golkonda kings, a better fortune. In 1614 Peter Floris built a half-fortified factory at Pettapoli with a lofty flagstaff. But its mangrove-swamps were deadly, the trade was small, and the factory was dissolved in 1621; a solitary merchant being left to collect country cloths from the fever-stricken delta of the Kistna. In 1633 the English again settled at Pettapoli, and the factory lingered on to 1687, when it was finally broken up by orders from home. What the Dutch were to us at Pulicat the pestilence proved to us at Pettapoli. A local writer in the records of Fort St. George, Madras, in 1687 describes the whole region as depopulated and the trade “wholly ruined,” “there being scarce people left to sow and reap their little harvest.”

Thus perished our first two settlements on the Madras coast. But Captain Hippon, although he sought shelter at Pettapoli in 1611, seems to have suspected its unhealthiness, and after a halt sailed a few days northward, to Masulipatam. This ancient port (whose name, Masuli-patanam, or Machli-patanam, meant “Fish-town,” and whose harbour is still known as Machlibandar,

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A landing at Masulipatam

“Fishport”) lay north of the great projection of fen-lands and mud-banks formed by the mouths of the Kistna (as Pettapoli lay to the south) and was to that extent better protected from the monsoon. Around it stretched a dreary expanse of sand, flooded into swamps during the months of the rains. To seawards, silt-bars and sand deposits make it unsafe for large modern ships to anchor within five miles of the shore, and from October to December the monsoon often renders it unapproachable.

Yet it formed a coveted roadstead on the open coast-line of Madras, and became the scene of bitter rivalries – English, Dutch, and French. Its earliest surviving tombstone commemorates the “Chief by Water and by Land of the Dutch India Company on the Coromandel Coast. Died August 29, 1624.” A later but more romantic memorial of the English settlers long shaded their dusty evening drive, and was known as “Eliza’s Tree;” after Sterne’s

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“Eliza” (more strictly “Elizabeth” Sclater, or Mrs. Draper), who here solaced an uncongenial Indian marriage by a sentimental correspondence with the author of “Tristram Shandy.” The tree itself was washed away by the cyclone wave of 1864.

On August 31, 1611, Captain Hippon and his Dutch lieutenant, Peter Floris, cast anchor at Masulipatam, loaded up The Globe with the local calicoes, and sailed eastwards to exchange them for spices at Bantam and the rich products of Siam. They left behind a few Englishmen to collect more “white cloths” pending their return. From that date an English trade went on; at first between Masulipatam and Sumatra or Java, but gradually throwing out offshoots along the Bay of Bengal, and eventually doing business with Surat and direct with England. Masulipatam was the chief seaport of the Moslem kings of Golkonda, who were not subdued by the Moghul Empire until 1687. It formed the outlet for the Golkonda diamonds and rubies, for the marvels of textile industry which had developed under the fostering care of that luxurious inland court, and for the commoner “white cloths” woven on the coast. The profits from their barter for the gold, camphor, benzoin (“Benjamin”), and spices of the Eastern Archipelago and Siam were immense. In 1627 our council at Batavia recommended their Honourable Masters in London to send out each year £67,500 in specie to Masulipatam to be invested in country cloths, which would be exchanged in Batavia for spices at a profit of £135,000.

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In Masulipatam the English found a half-way mart between the West and the Far East, scarcely less lucrative than the Portuguese seats of the Indo-European trade on the Malabar coast. We thus turned the eastern flank of the Portuguese in Southern India, as our Surat factory had turned the western flank of the Portuguese in Northern India and the Persian Gulf. But from the first, or almost from the first, our captains had to struggle with the Dutch for Masulipatam. The inland court of Golkonda, however, knew the advantages of keeping the port open to all comers, and here as at Surat the English seem to have understood the greater game of Indian politics better than their Dutch rivals accustomed to trample upon island chiefs. In 1613 the English obtained a grant for a fortified factory, “written on a leaf of gold,” from the Hindu authorities in the interior – although not yet from the Golkonda kings; while the Dutch made the local governor their friend. Next year the English felt strong enough to give a severe lesson to this petty magnate, who seems to have been unpopular in his own city. As he refused to pay a sum of money due to them, they seized his son and, in their own words, “carried him aboard our ship prisoner in spite of one thousand of his people, to the Company’s benefit, the honour of our king and country, and to the great content of all the Moors.” Soon afterwards the local governor was dismissed and heavily fined, while the English obtained leave to trade at Masulipatam as freely as the Dutch or any other nation. “No factory in India,” says

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a report in 1619, “hath been so fortunate and thrifty.”

But the control of Golkonda over its distant provinces was very different from the firm grasp of the Moghul Empire. We must bear in mind that the old Hindu rulers, whom the Golkonda kingdom displaced, still exercised an authority on the coast; and it was from them and not from the Golkonda court that we received our first grants at Masulipatam. The confusion was scarcely less wild than the scramble of rival native claimants on the same coast, into which the English and the French plunged a century later. The retreat of a rebel son of the Moghul emperor through the district in 1624 added to the disorder. The Dutch again won over the local governor, who made our position “insufferable.” Unable to resist or revenge his “foul injuries,” our factors resolved in despair to abandon Masulipatam. They declared they would never return except under a grant from the King of Golkonda direct. On September 27, 1628, they stole out of their factory, leaving all behind, and secretly set off in a small boat for Armagon.

Their hard experiences in that wild roadstead further down the coast, I shall presently relate. In 1630, finding it impossible to collect a sufficient supply of the “white cloths” at Armagon, they crept back to Masulipatam. They returned to a city silenced by death, with no one either to help or hinder them. The great famine which desolated Surat had stretched across the whole Indian continent. At Masulipatam,

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our returned factors reported that “the major part of weavers and washers are dead and the country almost ruinated.” “The living were eating up the dead, and men durst scarcely travel in the country for fear they should be killed and eaten.”

As the final annexation of Gujarat to the Moghul Empire had put an end to anarchy on the north-western coast of India and enabled the English to settle securely at Surat, so the gradual establishment of the Golkonda Mussulman dynasty on the east coast gave us an assured position at Masulipatam. In both cases we commenced with permits from subordinate coast authorities, and were eventually forced to seek a guarantee from the inland sovereign power.

What the prince imperial’s grant to Sir Thomas Roe had been to our Surat factory, the “Golden Phirmaund” of the King of Golkonda in 1632 proved to the English settlement at Masulipatam. “Under the shadow of Me, the King, they shall sit down at rest and in safety.” In return, our factors engaged to import Persian horses for his Majesty of Golkonda. Next year they were strong enough to send out a trading party northwards to attempt a settlement in Bengal. The importance of the Masulipatam factory declined on the growth of the more southern settlement which it founded at Madras in 1639. But in spite of the confusions arising from the struggle of the coast rajas with the inland kingdom of Golkonda, and of the subsequent collapse of Golkonda itself beneath the advancing power of the Moghul Empire, Masulipatam remained,

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Tombs of the kings ofGolkonda

and still remains, an important seat of Indo-European trade.

Armagon, the roadstead in which the fugitive factors from Masulipatam sought shelter in 1628, lay a few days’ sail down the coast, and about forty miles north of our first attempted settlement at Pulicat. Armagon now figures as “a shoal and lighthouse” on modern charts, and its port, locally known as Durgarayapatnam, or Durgarazpatanam, is but a poor village with some solar salt-pans and no commerce.

In 1626 the English council at Batavia had obtained leave from the petty coast chief at Armagon to erect a factory. The flight of our factors from Masulipatam, two years later, made Armagon, miserable as it was, our sole shelter on the east coast. Resolved to hold it to the last, they landed twelve cannons from passing ships, and formed themselves into a small militia of twenty-three soldiers and merchants, against “the depredations of the natives and of the Dutch” – our first fortified garrison in India. But the place was too poor

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for aught save a temporary refuge. Country cloths could not be bought in sufficient quantity. Most of our factors flitted back to Masulipatam in 1630, and Armagon was practically abandoned for a new settlement further south in 1639. Again the Company lost, in the end, the outlay on buildings and fortifications.

The new settlement was Madras. In 1639 Francis Day, a member of the Masulipatam’ council and Chief at Armagon, proposed to get free of the struggle with the Dutch by founding a factory to the south of their Pulicat settlement. He discovered the place he wanted, thirty miles down the coast from Pulicat, with a practicable roadstead, and a friendly Portuguese colony on shore. The local Hindu chief welcomed the English and obtained for them from his inland raja (the descendant of the once great Hindu suzerains of Vijayanagar) a grant for a piece of land on the shore and the right to build a fort. The local chief piously directed that the new settlement should be called after his father, Chennappa, and to this day the natives know it by the name Chennapatanam; but the English called it Madras, probably from a Hindu shrine or legend of the place.

Without waiting for permission from home, Day built an embrasured factory and christened it Fort St. George in honour of England. The Company, uneasy about the money already sunk in fortified factories on the Madras coast, viewed the new settlement as another hazardous experiment, but left the council at Surat to decide whether it should go forward. The Surat

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council realized the advantages of a stronghold on the Bay of Bengal as a half-way house for the trade with Java, and gave their sanction. But six years later the Company at home had not forgiven its servants at Madras for the new expenses into which they had plunged. In 1645 it summoned one of them before its court “to answer the charge of the building of Fort St. George.” It let him off only on the ground that “it was the joint act of all the factors;” and “if it should not prove so advantageous for the Company hereafter, it can be charged upon no man more justly than upon Mr. Day.”

The little isolated group of Englishmen meanwhile pushed on the Works, and, in spite of their Honourable Masters, founded the future capital of Southern India. The first General Letter from Fort St. George, dated November 5, 1642, announced that the chief settlement on the Coromandel coast had been transferred from Masulipatam to Madras. It humbly tried to argue away the displeasure of the Company at home, but with little success, for by 1644 the cost of the fortifications had mounted up to £2294; and it was found that another £2000 with a garrison of a hundred men would be required.

The Madras grant gave us our first piece of Indian soil, apart from the mere plots on which our factories were built. It was but a narrow strip running about a mile inland for six miles up the shore, north of the Portuguese monastic village that clustered around the shrine of Saint Thome, or Saint Thomas, referred to

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in the preceding volume. It contained, however, a little island formed by two channels of the Cooum backwater – a swampy tidal patch, about four hundred yards long by one hundred broad, which could be defended against the attacks of predatory horsemen. Mr. Day built a wall round this river-girt ait, with a fort in its northern corner, and laid out the enclosure in lanes or alleys. As only Europeans were allowed to live within the walled isle, it became known as White Town, while the weaving hamlets which grew up outside, under the shelter of its guns, were called Black Town. The whole was included under the name of Madras.

The English had from the first secured their position by grants from the superior inland kings, while the Dutch preferred the facile support of the petty coast rulers, who more resembled their island chiefs in the Spice Archipelago. An English merchant penetrated to Golkonda as early as 1617, and in 1634 the importance was recognized of keeping “a continual residence” there, in order “to have an able man at all times so near the king’s elbow.” In 1645 the sovereign of Golkonda renewed the grant for Madras, and thus gained the good-will of our young settlement in his struggle with the feudal fragments of the Vijayanagar Empire. But two years later a terrible famine added to the calamities of the perpetual war between the Moslem Court of Golkonda and the Hindu coast chiefs. Trade. came to an end, and our Surat factory had to send round a ship with provisions to save the Madras settlement from starvation. The Golkonda king, perhaps

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Car of the God Vitoba at Vijayanagar

struck by such a display of distant resources, became eager for a closer alliance. In 1650–1651 he even proposed to form a Joint Stock with the English Company for trading between the ports of his kingdom and those of other Indian powers.

This dangerous honour, like the proffered partnership of James I, was prudently evaded. But the Company in London perceived that a new future had opened for it on the Bay of Bengal. Hitherto Madras ranked as a subordinate agency to Bantam in Java. In 1653 it was raised to an independent presidency. Presently the Honourable Masters at home, in terrible straits to maintain their position from day to day, took fright at the cost of its new fortified factory, and in 1654 reduced the staff at Madras to two factors, with ten

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soldiers for their guard. The native powers at once detected this change of front; the Dutch, with superior forces on sea and land, seized upon the trade; and English interlopers flocked to the Madras roadstead. Then the Company, its courage revived by Cromwell’s charter of 1657, resolved to make Madras its effective headquarters in Eastern India, and in 1658 declared all its settlements in Bengal and the Coromandel coast subordinate to Fort St. George. Thenceforward Madras stood as the type of the system of fortified factories, which the conflicts of the native powers in South-eastern India rendered indispensable for the safety of European trade.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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