Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Nineteenth Century Madras Port

The following excerpt is from "Dubhashi and the Colonial Port in Madras Presidency"
Thanks to:
K. Marimuthu, M.A., M.Phil.
Department of History
Bharathidasan University
Tiruchirappalli - 620 024
Tamilnadu, India

 The entire report (with numerical references) is available at the following link:

The late nineteenth century was an important period in the history of India‟s colonial port cities: it was during this time that Madras, Bombay and Calcutta began to take on a visibly urban form. After 1858 when the British Government assumed full administrative control over its colony from the East India Trading Company, municipal institutions in the three Presidency capitals were granted effective powers of taxation, and for the first time were able systematically to provide urban facilities such as hospitals, burial and burning grounds, markets, housing and transport.

Madras particularly benefited from its new urban status for in the course of the nineteenth century the administrative offices of the Madras Government, and the major banking and commercial establishments of South India were located in the city, as were the principal educational institutions. Voluntary associations of a political, social and religious nature were also founded in Madras. This was a time when the city assumed a larger role as a distribution center for goods and services throughout the South; when innumerable buildings were erected to give the city a new urban image; and when plans were made for constructing a harbor, and for laying railway lines to link Madras with its hinterland and the other major cities of India.9

However, Madras was established as a base for the export of ready-made cloth to a European market, and its initial settlement patterns were controlled by the British. Merchants and dubashes (interpreters) were given permission to settle on land adjacent to the Fort (St. George) and White Town, the European enclave. Their residential neighborhoods were bordered on the north by weavers and dyers of cloth, who were at a lower economic level and thus lived further away from the Europeans; towards the limits of the settlement were the food processors (the fishermen, butchers, bakers, milk suppliers, oil-mongers); and the boatmen, potters, barbers and others who serviced the European and indigenous communities.10

By 1688, Madras town had grown to such an extent that it was incorporated by Royal Charter of the East India Company. At this time three distinct areas of the town were recognizable: The Inner Fort, containing the Factory House; the Outer Fort, and the European Quarter or White Town; and Black Town to the north of the Fort, marked by temples, a mosque and bazaars.16 Although there are discrepancies in population figures for early Madras, the most reliable estimate places the population in 1687 at about 50,000, “and even this is an immense number to be collected in forty-seven years in connection with a trade that never at that period amounted to more than six ships per annum”.11

Ever wondered what made the British to turn a fishing village called Chennapatnam into the metropolis of Madras? What is the reason for Chennai to be one of the four largest cities in the country? Any idea about why Chennai became the capital of Tamilnadu? The only answer for all the above questions is the sea port, which helped history to dock in.

Built on Trade

It is quite imperative that the city of Madras was built on her trade. It was a trading settlement that Francis Day founded in 1639. On the site of the little fishing village; the East India Company had no interest whatever in anything else. When in the nineteenth century her trade declined, her importance sank to nothing. As efforts were made to improve her shipping accommodation, her trade began to return and the withered beldame to revive.12 The more the harbour grew, the more trade and prosperity returned, and for this reason the history of the Port is a vital part of the history of Madras and also the Presidency for more than three hundred and sixty years.
The success of Madraspatnam as a trading settlement soon made it the chief port of the English in India. On September 24, 1641, it became the chief factory of the English on the East Coast. Commercial success came despite the settlement not being a port.13

Whenever a ship arrived at Madraspatnam, it caused great excitement, everybody thronging the beach to watch the ship lying at anchor in Madras Roads, a mile or more from the Fort; and in front of it was nothing but an angry surf and a narrow strip of beach that could be reached only by local rowboats called masula-s. The journey to shore and back was fraught with danger.14

The first offices of this „harbour‟ and its godowns were in Fort St. George, but by the end of the 18th Century, trade had outgrown die Fort. The Governor, the second Lord Clive, in 1798 moved the Sea Customer out of the Fort, first of all to temporary huts on the beach, and then to the Paddy Godown on the northeast beach that had once been a French prison. The Custom House is even today on this site.15
It was the Madras Chamber of Commerce (now the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry), born 170 years ago (1836) on September 29, that first pressed for a harbour for Madras, though Warren Hastings did moot the thought in 1770. The earliest proposal the Chamber backed was by a French engineer in 1845, but nothing came of its endorsement.


  1. thank u sir review my article

    1. The article is very interesting and contains historical information I found useful in writing my novel because the main characters originate in Madras during 1861. I had to visualize Madras life in that time period.

      Thank you!