British East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George

British East India Company employee Francis Day established a factory, or trading station, for the company at what would become Fort Saint George, Madras. The fort became a major center for trade, with thousands of inhabitants and wide-reaching commercial interests.

Summary of Event

In the early seventeenth century, British East India Company British East India Company merchants were drawn to the Bay of Bengal, where traditions of maritime trade with Southeast Asia reached back for centuries. For European shipping, however, this coast presented problems. From Cape Comorin to Orissa, the coastline stretched north in an almost unbroken line of sandy beaches upon which giant waves beat incessantly. There were virtually no safe anchorages, and with the wind blowing incessantly landward, no ship could safely anchor close to shore during the fury of the monsoon. The only significant port on the entire east coast was Masulipatam, at the mouth of the Godavari River in the domain of the sultan of Golconda Golconda sultanate . [kw]British East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George (1639-1640)
[kw]Saint George, British East India Company Establishes Fort (1639-1640)
[kw]Fort Saint George, British East India Company Establishes (1639-1640)
[kw]East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George, British (1639-1640)
Trade and commerce;1639-1640: British East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George[1300]
Expansion and land acquisition;1639-1640: British East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George[1300]
India;1639-1640: British East India Company Establishes Fort Saint George[1300]
Fort Saint George
India;English colonization of
Colonization;England of India

As early as 1611, the British East India Company had established a factory, or trading station, in Masulipatam. The mouth of the Godavari River was gradually filling up with silt, however, preventing large ships from reaching the port. In 1625, a company employee, Francis Day, Day, Francis established an alternative settlement at Armagaon down the coast, but it proved a wretched place, all too easily overmatched by the Dutch at nearby Pulicat. So Day sought an alternative site, which he found at Madras. It had a narrow strip of land, about 6 miles long and 1 mile deep, backed on the inland side by the small Cooum River, which flowed circuitously to the coast, creating an island approximately 400 yards long and 100 yards wide, on which was to be constructed Fort Saint George.

The hinterland was fertile, and the local population consisted of highly skillful weavers. The land on which Madras stood belonged to the local naik (a petty raja, or ruler) of Chingleput, with whom Day struck a deal in 1639 or 1640. The annual rent was to be 1,200 pagodas (a south Indian coin of silver or gold), or 600 pounds. This arrangement was confirmed by the naik’s superior, Damarla Venkatadri Damarla Venkatadri , the raja of Chandragiri, but above him was the more formidable figure of the sultan of Golconda. The Golconda sultans (1512-1687) ruled the entire southeastern Deccan region and were steadily encroaching on the Carnatic, the territory between the Eastern Ghats and the coast. The English in Madras would have to learn to deal with these greedy rulers.

The fort was begun in 1644, for security was an immediate concern. Fort Saint George’s warehouses were soon bulging with valuable merchandise, mainly muslin and calico piece-goods, of which the finest came from the Carnatic. The fort was essential to defend the settlement from raiders from the interior and from pirates. The eastern seas swarmed with buccaneers of every nation, including English swashbucklers such as John Avery and William Kidd. Textiles;India

Once completed, Fort Saint George enclosed a number of official buildings, private residences, and warehouses, and in the center was the governor’s mansion. Beyond the fort’s northern ramparts lay what was called the Black Town, with a resident population of weavers, craftspeople, and local merchants. During the 1660’, a Catholic church was built in the fort. Such toleration offended the Anglican clergy but reflected the company’s desire to lure Portuguese from the nearby town of San Thomé. Furthering this policy was a colorful French Capuchin missionary, Father Ephraim, Ephraim, Father a linguist and mathematician who, on visiting the court of Golconda, found in the sultan a kindred spirit. Settling for missionary work in Madras, he proved a magnet for drawing Portuguese merchants from San Thomé to such an extent that the Portuguese authorities contrived his kidnapping and incarceration by the Inquisition at Goa: It proved impossible to secure his release until the sultan of Golconda threatened to destroy San Thomé. Ephraim was subsequently returned to Madras in 1652, and he left his mark upon the community for the next several decades. The Anglican garrison church of St. Mary’s was constructed by Governor Streynsham Master Master, Streynsham between 1678 and 1681, and, in 1687, Governor Elihu Yale provided the church plate.

Finally, in 1688, King James II granted a charter, making Madras Madras the first municipal corporation in India. The administration of the settlement consisted of the governor’s executive council, which met twice weekly. The council’s secretary maintained the minutes of the meetings, which were regularly submitted to the authorities in London, many months’ sailing-time away. The members of council ranked as “merchants”; under them were the “factors,” then the “writers,” then the “apprentices.” Salaries were pitifully low, although the company provided board and lodgings. All employees illicitly supplemented their salaries by private trading, often at the company’s expense, and the London authorities were consequently profoundly suspicious of their servants in India.

Increasingly, over the century, officials were married. Few English women were available for marriage (one, Catherine Nicks, in Governor Yale’s time, was an enterprising businesswoman in her own right), but wives and mistresses were recruited from among Portuguese, Eurasian, and Indian women. (Yale’s mistress and the mother of his illegitimate son, Hieronima de Paivia, was a Portuguese Jew.) The inhabitants of Fort Saint George constituted a thoroughly cosmopolitan community.

In 1674, when Madras had four decades of growth behind it, the physician and traveler John Fryer Fryer, John visited Fort Saint George. His ship, as was customary, anchored a mile or so out in the roadsteads, and he was brought to land through the tremendous surf in a mussoola made of planks sewn with coir twine. As he reached the breakers, he was swung onto the shoulders of one of the boatmen, who then plunged into the sea, so that both reached the shore soaked through. (This was how Europeans would continue to arrive in Madras well into the nineteenth century.) Fryer’s first sight of the fort impressed him. There were strong walls thick enough to withstand cannon. Beside the gate facing the sea, a half-moon bastion bristled with ordnance, and two more bastions on the south wall protected St. Thomas’s Gate. Two gateways on the northern wall led into Black Town. Inside the fort, Fryer was impressed by the tree-lined streets, all very clean, with rows of fine mansions built of brick or stone and with fine classical porticos.

He estimated that the fort contained three hundred English and perhaps three thousand Portuguese inhabitants, including a mixed garrison of seven hundred soldiers, and he reckoned the population of Black Town at around thirty thousand individuals, almost all of them Hindus. The governor, Sir William Langhorn, Langhorn, Sir William “a gentleman of indefatigable industry and worth,” maintained a considerable state and a ceremonial persona suitable for a representative of the company.


In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, Madras evolved from a factory on the shore to a thriving settlement with far-flung commercial interests. A succession of shrewd and hardheaded governors had done much to advance the process: Langhorn (1670-1677); Streynsham Master (1677-1681); William Gyfford Gyfford, William (1681-1687), whom the London authorities described as “our too easy agent”; the Boston-born Elihu Yale Yale, Elihu (1687-1692), who was to give his name to Yale University; the Connecticut-born Nathaniel Higginson Higginson, Nathaniel (1692-1697); and the poacher-turned-gamekeeper, the notorious “interloper” Thomas Pitt Pitt, Thomas (1697-1709), nicknamed Diamond Pitt for his acquisition of the famous stone, and who also was the grandfather and great-grandfather of two British prime ministers.

These men guided the settlement through perilous times. It was not enough for them to be good businessmen; they also had to be astute politicians and dexterous diplomats. The rivalries of the European companies in the eastern seas often led to open conflict, while in the last quarter of the century, the hinterland became acutely unstable. In 1687, after years of encroachment, the Mughals finally overthrew the sultanate of Golconda, and southeastern India was integrated into the Mughal Empire Mughal Empire . It was in Yale’s time that Madras had to come to terms with the new masters of the Carnatic. Worse still, Śivājī, Śivājī the Marāthā king and the implacable enemy of the Mughals, invaded the Carnatic in the 1670’, seizing major forts such as Tanjore and Gingee. Between 1689 and 1698, Gingee was closely invested by Mughal forces. That Madras was able to keep its distance from these quarrels was a measure of a newfound maturity

Beginning around 1709, when Thomas Pitt returned to England, Madras entered into a period of solid growth and prosperity, far exceeding in size Calcutta in Bengal or Bombay on the west coast. English visitors waxed enthusiastic in their impressions of Madras, its straight brick- and tree-lined streets, with public buildings such as the town hall, St. Mary’s Church, the college, the hospital, and the governor’s lodgings—and all within Fort of Saint George. Visitors admired the rustic outskirts of the town as well as the company’s garden, designed for recreation, and they enjoyed the opulent country houses commissioned by the wealthier Europeans in the surrounding countryside

Further Reading

  • Bingham, Hiram. Elihu Yale. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968. A splendid account of this tough, colorful governor of Madras.
  • Foster, William. “The East India Company, 1600-1740.” In The Cambridge History of India, edited by H. H. Dodwell. Vol. 5. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1929. A detailed narrative of the company’s early history.
  • Love, Henry D. Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800. 4 vols. London: Indian Records Series, 1913. Early records of Fort Saint George. This and other titles on the early history of Madras were written by Anglo-Indian antiquarians before World War I. A few titles have been reprinted in India.
  • Spear, Percival. The Nabobs. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1968. An excellent account of the early social history of the English in India.
  • Temple, Richard Carnac. Diaries of Streynsham Master. 2 vols. London: Indian Records Series, 1911. Discusses the administration of the important Madras governor.
  • Wheeler, James Talboys. Madras in the Olden Times. 3 vols. Madras, India, 1861-1862. A collection of records from early Madras history.

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