9th September is the 271st anniversary of the only time in history Madras was taken by an enemy.
Madras- the jewel of the Coramandel coast was constantly in the roving eyes of the enemy.
Surprisingly its six metre high walls restricted the adversary quite competently for long. Unable to breach them HyderAli even tried to poison the seven wells of Madras with rotten carcasses to force the fort to capitulate, but failed.
Which makes one Ponder. Has Madras ever fallen to the enemy in war?
Yes it has. But just once.
Europeans usually came to Madras via the sea. In 1746, the French General Bourdonnais also took this route, but with a variance. He came with his ship’s guns blazing.
In 1700s, the commercial rivalry between the East India companies of Britain and France had been mounting. Skirmishes in India intensified corresponding to confrontation between the two nations back home. And that decade, it was a war torn Europe.
Initial conflicts had warships harassing each other to disrupt trade. Some were sunk, correspondingly sinking businesses back home forcing these light skirmishes to assume sizable proportions.
The British despatched a Royal Navy fleet and the French responded with a similarly-sized convoy under Bourdonnais. After inconclusive scuffles the ships returned to the dry docks to repair and rest, the British to Ceylon and the French to Pondicherry.
It was then that an extra flotilla of ships under Edward Peyton that had given the British the edge for long returned to the relative peace of Calcutta.
Unprotected Madras was now in great peril and wide-open to French assault. Based on spy reports, French Governor Dupleix summoned Bourdonnais who had earlier showed aptitude in the capture of Mahé,( the Malabar Coast). The town was named after him though some uncharitably say Bourdonnais added the name of the town to his own, to constantly remind people of his bravery.
To Bertrand-François Mahé, Comte de La Bourdonnais goes the credit of being the only conqueror of Madras.
Though most of his cannonballs fell amiss, a propitious shot fell on the liquor warehouse of fort St. George. The besieged population took on this opportunity to drown their sorrows.
The fort had to be surrendered by Governor Nicholas Morse (a grandson of Oliver Cromwell and also a notorious slave trader) because no defender was sober.
Bourdonnais offered big-hearted terms. The French took control of the fort and godowns, but the British would run the rest of the town. But Dupleix- his boss was furious. It was rumoured that Dupleix and his ambitious Eurasian wife from Santhome wanted to establish a pan Indian kingdom for themselves and it was vital for Madras to be theirs.
Bourdonnais was evicted from Madras and to add to his misery, a cyclone destroyed half his fleet. Most of the Britishers were taken off in chains by Dupleix to Pondicherry to be ransomed.
However, inconsequential clerks like Robert Clive were left behind. Clive blackened his face, scaled the walls of the fort and walked all the way to British held Fort David in Cuddalore. The clerk enlisted as a soldier and rewrote history. It’s not a co incidence the British fortunes turned then and there and the precursor of the Indian army -the Madras regiment was formed in Cuddalore in a matter of months.
A few years down the line, Britain got back Madras in a swap for Canadian town Louisburg during the treaty of Austrian succession. This would anger British settlers in America who had taken Louisburg in a hard fought war. This was one of the seeds of dissension which led to American war of independence.
And notably, inspite of subsequent attacks, Madras would not change hands till 1947.
But how did the Geography of Madras change.
The British realised the natives had crowded around the fort depriving them of a view of the enemy. So the black town and temples were moved from its location (present high court campus) to create an Esplanade. Obelisks were planted to warn blacks from building within.
And what happened to La Bourdonnais? Unpleasant relations with Dupleix obliged him to return to France. Arrested in 1748 on corruption charges, he was imprisoned in the infamous Bastille for three years before being acquitted. But broken in mind and body, the captor of Madras died soon thereafter.
This article was published in the Chennai Times , Times of India on the 9th of september 2017.
Link – http://epaperbeta.timesofindia.com//Article.aspx?eid=31807&articlexml=WHEN-MADRAS-SURRENDERED-10092017103007&Mode=1