On the Coromandel Coast/Chapter 6

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Take care not to fix your abode in a place where there is no temple, no headman, no school, no river, no astrologer, and no doctor.–Sloka.

Books on geography assign no river to Madras, and the map confirms the implication that it is without a water-way. No crinkled black thread is to be seen marked across the Coromandel Coast having Madras as its termination. It is, therefore, a surprise to the visitor to find what is to all appearances a handsome stream winding through the town and suburbs and presenting broad stretches of silvery water at various points. The calm surface reflects the quaint oriental buildings, the beautiful palms and trees that nourish on its banks, and the gorgeous colours of the sunset, with a picturesque charm that delights the artistic eye. Like the Adyar, the Cooum River is nothing but a sandy watercourse that merges into a broad backwater as soon as it arrives within sound of the surf. In bygone days it was connected with the sea. The immense tract of sand thrown up since the building of the harbour arms has divorced the Cooum from the ocean, and closed it against the small country ships, which were said in the old days to seek an anchorage across its bar. It still has its river craft, rafts and barges, which travel for miles without haste or hustle to distant villages by way of the silent canals with which the river is connected.

At the end of the eighteenth century, when the country was beginning to settle down and before railways were projected, the East India Company spent some thought and money upon the making of canals. As early as 1802 the waterway to the north was opened and much used. In more recent times a great deal of the material that was once carried thus has been diverted to the railway ; but bulky country products such as firewood, palm leaves, cocoanut fibre, and bamboos are still transported by the leisurely barge that is towed and punted between the high banks of the canals and over the glassy water of the Cooum. Appearances are nowhere more deceptive than in the East. The canal looks an ideal stream for the house-boat, but it is hot and stifling. The sea-breeze sweeps over its high banks, rustling through the trees with a sound that is suggestive of coolness and shade without touching the surface of the still water below; and the mosquito is the only creature that feels thoroughly happy in that muggy heat. Vegetation grows luxuriantly ; and there are spots where the pampas-grass flourishes and the wild caladium lifts its graceful triangular leaves. The long flowing foliage of the pampas lies like the combed locks of a water-nymph upon the banks of the canal,

Dropt in its Lap from some once Lovely Head,

as the Persian poet sings of the hyacinth. At other places palms and trees bend over the water with their glistening mantles of evergreen ; and the impudent mynas, the starlings of India, on insect-hunting intent, tumble in and out of the leafy shade as if they were playing at hide-and-seek. At night, when the chatter of the mynas is silenced in sleep, the fire-flies bring their fairy lamps among the palms and hold their revels.

In the old days, when the English first settled in Madras, the Cooum washed the walls of Fort St. George, and a State barge was kept upon it for the use of the Governor. In 1688, when the Dutch Commissary-General paid a visit to the Governor, he was entertained at dinner in the fort, and afterwards went by water to the Com- pany's garden to partake of a sumptuous supper. The barge was adorned with scarlet and gold, as was becoming to the dignity of the English Company of merchants ; and doubtless the banks of the Cooum were lined with the dark-skinned inhabitants of Blacktown eager to see the show. The centuries that have elapsed have made no difference in the sightseers. Their dress is the same and their curiosity is undiminished. They still come in crowds to the river, not to see a State barge, but to gaze in stolid silence at the games of football which the soldiers of the garrison play on the island. The fortunes of the game do not appear to interest them, but the struggle for the ball, the chance slip and overthrow of one of the players, elicit sudden shouts of laughter. The laughter dies as suddenly as it is roused ; and at the end of the game the crowd melts away in the sunset light with no sign of emotion at the issue of the contest.

The island is formed by the branching of the Cooum near the sea. It is a level piece of grass-land full of historical interest. It was here that the contumacious old soldier, Captain Francis Seaton, commandant of the garrison, marched his troops over the Company's calicoes to the great indignation of Governor Pitt. At that time the Company had a large dyeing establishment on the island by the edge of the river, where the washers could work in safety under cover of the fort guns. It was usual for the Governor to attend the fort church in state every Sunday. He sat in the gallery, and reached his seat by way of the outside staircase, which is still to be seen. The duty of the commandant of the garrison was to parade his troops and line the road. When the Governor lived in the fort this was done without much trouble, but when he chose to occupy the garden-house by the river, the Sunday parade was a much more arduous business.

The calicoes on one particular Sunday (1708) were spread out in the sun after having been dipped. Pitt was proceeding to church in his palanquin. Instead of finding the road on the island lined with troops as usual, he saw Seaton parading them all over the calicoes. His wrath knew no bounds. Descending from his palanquin, he went in person to the spot and ordered the men off, but they had already done considerable damage. The next day the commandant was called before the council to be reproved. The reproof was not received with proper humility, so he was suspended until the matter of 'breaking him altogether' could be discussed. There was further friction between Seaton and Pitt, and it was decided in council that the captain should be sent home by the first ship sailing. This happened to be the Heathcote, commanded by Captain Tolson. When the time came to embark Seaton refused to stir. The council ordered him to be carried on board, and told off an officer with a file of soldiers to carry the order into execution. It was easier said than done. They succeeded in getting Seaton through the surf and alongside of the ship ; but they could not put him aboard without the assistance of hoisting tackle, and this Captain Tolson refused to lend. He said that he was quite willing to receive anyone as a passenger who desired to sail with him, but he would carry no one by force. He asked Seaton if he wished to come on board ; and, on his replying in the negative, the captain ordered the boat to leave the ship's side. Against this decision there was no appeal, for the commander of an East Indiaman was a veritable monarch on board his own ship. There must have been much amusement in the fort over the incident and possibly some gratification, for Seaton had friends and relatives on the council who sympathised with him rather than with Pitt.

The shape of the island has been slightly altered since those days and the river reduced in breadth, but Nature remains the same. The birds that haunt its borders are unchanged. The timid sandpiper still runs over the mud-banks by the water's edge after the still fleeter land-crab that scuds along like a piece of thistle-down blown by the wind. The kites sail overhead with their melancholy scream, and the vulgar voice of the crow sounds in the trees. The fluttering kingfisher drops like a stone upon the unwary fish as it comes for its draught of air to the surface of the water. There is a splash and the fisher-bird is on the wing once more, a dazzling spot of black and white in the sunlight, the silver fish in its beak. As I passed by road and bridge I bade the coachman stop that I might take my fill of the tropical sights. He obeyed the order without a shadow of wonder upon his placid face. Now and then his eye would follow the flight of a bird or mark the passing of a human being. He would watch apprehensively for the ominous spotted owlet, lest it should settle in a tree hard by, and with one shrill screech tell him that grim death was overshadowing his family; or for man, woman, or animal whose approach would signify bad luck. If he pondered at all on my eccentric conduct in sitting by the roadside in the carriage where there was nothing to wait for, he probably came to the conclusion that I too was looking for omens and reading the future in the face of Nature.

Good dressing goes a long way towards giving dignity to a woman ; good bridging does the same for a river. The Cooum is spanned by no fewer than ten bridges between Chetput and the sea. Nine of them are of stone and worthy of a Presidency town. The tenth is by no means ugly, but being of iron it is less picturesque. It is on the marina, where it carries the road across the mouth of the Cooum.

The most interesting of the stone bridges though it is neither the handsomest nor the largest is the one across the northern arm of the Cooum near the fort. It bears the inscription, 'Wallajah Bridge, erected by order of Government in 1755 on piers which had been laid about 1740 ; Mr. J. Brohier, Engineer.' The fort gate, opening on to the road that passes over the bridge, has received the same name.

The date given by the inscription, 'about 1740,' for the foundation of the piers does not agree with the records. In 1742 Major Knipe was appointed chief engineer ; he was the first of a long line to command the Madras corps, which was then in its infancy. His attention was at once directed to the enlargement of the fort. Before this could be done it was necessary to deflect the river, which ran close beneath the walls. Knipe lost no time in setting about the work (1743) ; but it was not until the bed of the river was altered that the piers of the new bridge could be built. Want of funds prevented him from completing it ; there was so much else that was more important to do.

Plans for the enlargement of the fort had been prepared by Mr. Smith, the father of Colonel Joseph Smith, the bugbear of Haider Ali, but before they could be executed the French were in possession (1746). The fort was given back three years later (1749), but nothing could be done until money came. Thus it happened that the bridge was not completed until 1755.

At that time Brohier, whose name figures in the inscription, was an ensign in the Madras Engineers. Promotion came to him rapidly, and in 1756 he was made major. He succeeded Colonel Caroline Scott as chief engineer in the same year. His downfall was as rapid as his progress. He was transferred to Calcutta to rebuild Fort William, and his work there was said to be so defective that it had to be done over again. He received his dismissal in 1760 without any reason being given, and retired to Ceylon, where apparently he settled. Through the kindness of one of his descendants, Mr. Siebel, a retired Queen's Proctor of Ceylon, I have had the opportunity of reading a long letter addressed by Major Brohier to a friend in England. In it he excuses himself for shortcomings, complains that he was short-handed in the work at Calcutta, not having enough over-seers on his staff, and asserts that he was ruined by the personal spite of Boddam and Vansittart, two influential men in the Company's service whom he had offended. The name of the friend to whom the letter was written is not mentioned, but at the end of the copy I found a note of part of a letter from Sir John Call, who was Brohier's successor for a short time at Madras. The letter from Sir John was dated February 14, 1771, and said, 'I am on very good terms at the India House and often consulted Mr. James, the late secretary ; and the Commodore, now a director, inquired kindly for you, and I took the opportunity to tell him it was a misfortune to the Company that you was [sic] forced from Bengal, in which they agreed.' Following this extract there is a memorandum which suggests that perhaps after all it was not entirely on account of defective building that Fort William was rebuilt. The memorandum is :

'Of the Plans stolen (by a man of the name of Fountaigne or Fountayne) from John Brohier, late Engineer-in-Chief of Calcutta on the evening of December 2, 1760.

'The large original Plan of the Citadel. 'One Plan of Calcutta in China paper, strong.

'One ditto of ditto in thin China paper with the Citadel on it.

'One cartouche finished with the renvoys.

'One Plan of the Citadel with the scale of the Plan of the Town.'

The taking of Fort St. George by the French (1746) and the destruction of Fort St. David at Cuddalore (1758) were still rankling in the minds of the Company. The French name of the thief is a possible clue to the reason of the theft and to the destination of the stolen property ; the Fort William authorities may have found it convenient to make the excuse of bad workmanship in order to alter the original plan. The loss of valuable documents, for which Brohier was responsible, was sufficient reason virtually for his dismissal, whatever official reason may have been given. Whether his work was good and lasting upon the bridge that bears his name there is no possibility of ascertaining ; for under the master hand of De Havilland it was widened, and very little of Brohier's structure remains.

The Wallajah bridge was named after Mohammed Ali, upon whom was bestowed the title of Nawab Wallajah. He was the Company's ally in the wars with Haider and the French, and he received permission to build himself a palace in Madras at Chepak (1767). With Orientals it is considered a great honour to have a town or building named after them. The first lease granted to the English upon the Coromandel Coast had that condition attached to it. Madras was, and still is, known among the natives as Chennaputnam, the town of Chennappa, who granted the lease. The bastion and the fort gate that opens towards the bridge received the name of Wallajah at the same time as the bridge ; and the road leading from the Chepak Palace to the Mohammedan quarter of Triplicane was named in honour of the same prince.

When the arches were but three years old Stringer Lawrence with his troops probably thundered across them as they retired from the Choultry Plain before the superior forces of Lally (1758). The regiments passed over the moat by the drawbridge, and the great iron- armoured doors of the fort clanged under the archway as they were closed and barred. A clamouring crowd of natives fleeing before the invaders were left outside, for the fort was already crowded. The Wallajah bridge saw them disperse and melt away to seek an uncertain refuge in unprotected Blacktown, or to hide themselves among the palm groves of Chepak and the river swamps. Pigot, the Governor, was obliged to forsake the new garden-house in Triplicane, and he, too, crossed the bridge to take up his abode in the fort.

In later years there were other streams of fugitives, the English inhabitants of the 'garden-houses' that Mackay was erecting on the Choultry Plain, and the people from the Mount, all in fear of the Mysore horse- men, who were more intent upon loot than on conquering a country in which they had no intention of settling. It took many years to subdue those hardy cavalrymen of the plateau of Mysore. The old 19th Dragoons, who frequently crossed swords with them, used to complain that they could never get the Mysoreans and Mahrattas 1 on the raw,' they were so padded and armoured and turbaned. The irate troopers adopted the trick of riding at their opponents' turbans, tilting them off, and then slashing at their bare skulls, a plan which they found effective.

Over the Wallajah bridge rode Warren Hastings as he conducted his fellow-passenger, Mrs. Imhoff, to his garden-house at the Mount, where she stayed with him as his guest in 1770. Seven years later Lord Pigot, disgraced by an unjust arrest, and broken-hearted by the action of his unsympathetic council, was driven out to the Mount from the fort, only to return in his coffin, and be carried across the bridge to his last resting-place a nameless grave in St. Mary's Church within the walls of the fort (1777). The Duke of Wellington as the Honourable Colonel Wellesley, Lord Cornwallis, Sir Thomas Munro, Sir Eyre Coote, and many other distinguished soldiers and administrators have traversed the island and crossed the bridge in their time, as well as the more humble privates and non-commissioned officers who contributed their share in the making of the British Empire in South India.

Whether they passed in the pale yellow light of the morning, with its blue haze, its sparkling dewdrops, and fresh sea-breeze, or whether they hurried homewards in the gorgeous colouring of the sunset, the scene that they gazed upon was the same as that which meets the eye of their successors and descendants as they cross the bridge to-day. The broad expanse of the Cooum reflected the group of hospital buildings contemporary with the bridge. The fisherman, wading waist-deep, cast his net, and the laden barge floated up to Chintadripettah with its load of firewood. Drum and bugle sounded over the grassy sward of the island, and the moan of the surf came in on the breeze. The kingfishers dipped from the old piers of the bridge, and the crows foraged in the mud below.

There is one blot upon the history of the Wallajah bridge. In 1875 Lord Hobart, the Governor, died. His remains were placed in a vault in St. Mary's Church. The funeral passed along the road over the island and entered the fort by the Wallajah gate. At that period a wooden footway was attached to the north end of the bridge, and on this occasion it was crowded with natives eager to see the funeral procession. Suddenly the wooden structure gave way and the mass of sightseers were precipitated into the water. Some English gentlemen, who happened to be within reach, heard the cries of the people and ran to their assistance. Thanks to their efforts only five of the natives were drowned.[1]

At the time when I was beginning to make the acquaintance of Madras and its beautiful suburbs, through the exigencies of social duties, the fort chaplaincy was held by Dr. Sayers. His wife was dead, and her body laid to rest in the cemetery on the island. As there was no lady in the chaplain’s quarters, I had no occasion to call at the old house, which after many years afterwards my husband and I occupied; but Dr. Sayers called upon me. He was an excitable Irishman, with a reputation for preaching eccentric sermons. Speech was given us ‘to hide our thoughts.’ With Dr. Sayers his ready speech betrayed his thoughts all too quickly, and raised laughter or wrath as the case may be. In his sermons it led him into familiar terms which brought smiles to the faces of his hearers. In speaking of Boaz and Ruth he said, ‘She was just a grass-cutter, such as you may see any day of your lives in the Mount Road.’

One Sunday, when the weather was hot and the punkahwallahs slack in their duties, he noticed that his congregation showed signs of somnolence. His ready Irish wit came to his assistance at once. He broke off from his subject and began to reprove them for their lethargy after this fashion: ‘When you come to church to listen to the word of God your attention wanders and you let sleep paralyse your senses. But if it were clothes, now, instead of the word of God that ye had gathered together to consider, there would be no sign of slumber among ye; and at the first sound of “Hawker, Ma’am!”’–here he gave the long penetrating call of the Indian hawker with the prolonged nasal chant of ‘Ma’am’ to the life. It echoed round the church with electrifying effect, and before the last cadence had died away, every member of the startled congregation was wide awake. There was a pause and an audible grunt of satisfaction from the preacher as he continued: ‘Ye see the truth of what I’m saying. Ye sleep at the call of God, but every one of you is awake at the call of a hawker.’

  1. Among the gentlemen were Captain C. J. Smith, R. E., Mr. Turnbull, Mr. George Chambers, Dr. Benson and Dr. Formby of the Medical Service, Mr. Burr, and Mr. C. Pinsent.