On the Coromandel Coast/Chapter 7

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There are six things which entail unhappy consequences–the service of kings, robbery, horse-breaking, the accumulation of wealth, sorcery, and anger.–Sloka.

Just above the Wallajah bridge there is a bend in the river. It was from this bend to the sea that the alteration was made. Above the bend it keeps its original course, touching the grounds of the General Hospital and forming a boundary on the south and west. There is a bridge at this point called St. Mary’s bridge. The ground between the two bridges on the Georgetown side, upon which stand the central station, the General Hospital, and the Medical College, is one of the most interesting spots outside the fort-walls. It was here that the first garden- houses of the English were built. They stood on the fort side of the river, and their owners were near enough to the guns to feel that they were safe from the Mahratta and Mysorean horsemen. These were the residences described by Fryer when he visited Madras in 1674. He speaks of their vegetable and fruit gardens, and of the pleasant retirement of the cool houses. The gentlemen riding on horseback and the ladies carried in palanquins resorted to them after the heat of the day and took their pleasure by the banks of the river. It was a purer stream then than it is now, resembling the Adyar as it sweeps past the house that was once De Monte’s. Chintadripettah did not exist, and Blacktown had not overflowed into Egmore and the Choultry Plain to spread a network of drains over the banks of the river and turn it into a city sewer. Here the Company had its first garden-house built upon the west end of the present grounds of the General Hospital. It was destroyed by the French (1746), and with it was destroyed the carefully laid out garden which occupied so much of the attention of Pitt. On the return of the English (1749) the half-ruined houses by the Cooum were abandoned by the servants of the Company for others that were erected further afield. In 1753 twelve of the old buildings were taken by the Company for the use of the General Hospital, at first by hire and afterwards by purchase. One of these, which stood at the western end of the property, had been formerly used as a store go-down by the Company. This gave rise to the tradition that the General Hospital was once the Company’s warehouse, a tale not altogether without foundation. There was an old bridge over the Cooum leading to the garden-houses that went by the name of the Garden Bridge. It was demolished after the Wallajah bridge was built and the course of the river altered.

The river has witnessed some strange scenes, and could tell queer tales of the revelry that went on by its banks. Mr. Warner, the Company’s chaplain, had something to say on the subject ; but we have no proof that society was any worse by the side of the Cooum than it was by the side of the Thames. The puritanical spirit was abroad frowning disapproval on all kinds of amusement, and classing the innocent with the guilty. It was here that Yale had a garden-house, and scandal was busy with his name and that of Mrs. Nicks, a remarkable woman, who was his friend and neighbour. She was bridesmaid to his wife at his marriage in the fort–the first to take place in the new church of St. Mary’s (1680). Miss Catherine Barker’s was the second. Her spouse was John Nicks, one of the servants of the Company. He possessed a good house in the fort, and, according to the custom permitted by the Company, traded in country goods, inland, as well as by sea–firewood, straw, oil, grain, salt, curry-stuffs, country fruit, and vegetables. For bona-fide country products there was no need to have a free-trade licence, which was only granted to those who were not employed in the service.

A great friendship existed between the Yale and the Nicks families. Children were born of both unions, and the parents stood sponsors for each other’s babies at the font. There were other circumstances which possibly served to rivet the bands. In each case only one son was born to live and rejoice the hearts of their parents, and very dear did those little boys become.

Mistress Kitty Nicks was the first to meet sorrow. Her son was taken from her at the age of three years. It is not difficult to imagine how that passionate nature grieved. She was a woman of unusual spirit, subsequently known to every servant in the Company’s service on the Coromandel Coast. The loss of her son and heir must have wrung her heart with anguish, and though she had many daughters, the vacant place was not filled till many years afterwards, when a Benjamin was born to her whom she named Elihu.

Barely a year after the death of little John Nicks, Elihu and Catherine Yale were called upon to part with their son. He died at about the same age, and was buried in the old cemetery where the present Law Courts stand. It was sometimes called the Guava Garden. The Dutch used to plant guava trees in their cemeteries, and their example was followed by the English. The old vestry records speak occasionally of the cemetery as the Guava Garden. Here, under the pink blossoms of the guava bushes, were laid the hopes of the two families, and a common sorrow bound them in a still closer bond of friendship.

But though Mrs. Nicks might grieve, hers was not a spirit to be broken by sorrow. She still had her girls to think of. There were nine of them by the year 1696, and six lived to grow to womanhood. They had to be provided for, or portioned if they married ; and the brave-hearted, ambitious mother set herself to work for them.

With ships of her own and a gang of warehouse slaves she launched upon a course of free trade which astonished her neighbours by its boldness and its irregularity. Her efforts were not confined to Madras ; they extended south along the Coromandel Coast. She acted as the middle-man, and bought calicoes from the country weavers which she sold to the Company, a course that would have been perfectly legitimate had her husband been a free trader and held the necessary licence. As he was in the service of the Company the proceeding was illegal, as the directors refused to recognise the wife apart from her husband.

At that time the President in Council was endeavouring to establish a factory on the coast of Arcot. The calicoes made in and around Cuddalore were found to be of a superior quality. They were painted, as it was called, dyed we should say now, and the patterns had caught the public taste in Europe, where the stuffs were in great demand for curtains. The unsettled state of the country, from the presence of the Mahratta horsemen bent on marauding, made the transit of merchandise by road impossible. The only way of procuring the calicoes was by persuading the weavers to bring their wares to some centre on the coast and to ship them to Madras. Cuddalore was a convenient centre, and here, after some vicissitudes, the Company managed to establish a small factory (1682). A few years later John Nicks was sent there as chief. The appointment suited Mrs. Nicks exactly. She found herself freer from observation and with more opportunities of trading than she had at the Presidency town. Moreover, her husband, being chief, could wink at her irregularities, such as trading and warehousing her goods in the Company's go-downs.

As long as Yale continued in power (1687-1692) very little was openly said, except that she ought to take out a licence. Doubtless there were jealousies, and the remark was not without its sting. Everybody knew that if she had asked for a licence it would have been refused. The directors were already regarding the free traders with suspicion ; and it was becoming more difficult each year that passed for a man to obtain permission to go to India or to purchase a licence to trade. A woman who begged for such a boon could not hope for anything but a curt refusal. Women's rights had not been heard of at that period.

The Dutch, who had settled at Cuddalore before the arrival of the English, showed themselves unfriendly from the very beginning. Their enmity increased to such an extent that the President decided to close the factory. The goods and servants were sent to Connimeer, near Pondicherry. It was in the transference of the Company's stock from one factory to the other that Mrs. Nicks got into trouble.

Her goods were apparently moved with those of the Company, and she thought to claim them on arrival, but herein she was mistaken. There had been for some time past a growing feeling of jealousy on the part of the other merchants in Madras, among whom there was some competition for the inland trade. The freemen considered that she was infringing their rights ; and the Company's servants, whose wives were not imbued with the same mercantile spirit, did not see why Mrs. Nicks should have an advantage not possessed by themselves. Now was the opportunity to 'break' her and her husband, and they did not intend to lose it. They accused her of having broken open the Company's go-downs at Connimeer and of having taken forcibly a quantity of calico. In all probability it was hers, and was paid for with her own money ; but, holding no licence, she had no right to be in possession of such goods. She fell back on her old friend and declared that the property was Yale's,

Yale's reign was over, and he was no longer able to help her, being overshadowed by a cloud of trouble himself. She was asked for proof of her assertion, but of course could give none. Other accusations of fraud were brought against her, the chief witnesses being, as in Streynsham Master's case, the native merchants or brokers who brought in the calico, evidence that was utterly unreliable,

Mrs. Nicks was sued personally for the value of the calico she had taken, 'she being a woman notoriously known to be a separate merchant from her husband,' said the indictment ; and she was asked to give bail for her appearance to answer for her illegal proceedings. She refused ; so a warrant was issued for her arrest. There seemed to be a difficulty in putting the warrant into execution, as the lady also refused to be arrested. Accordingly, a guard of musketeers was placed over her house in the fort, to which she had returned, and there was no small excitement in the little community within the fort and in the garden-houses by the river. In the end she paid what was demanded, and the guard was removed.

We have only the council's version of the story ; what Kitty Nicks had to say in defence of her conduct is not recorded. She did not possess the ready pen of a Hamilton to fling back mud at her enemies. Whether she was to blame or not, it is easy to read the moral of her story, which was that there was no sympathy among the sterner sex for women who entered into competition with men in money-making and trade. In modern days public opinion, as regards her position of being 'a separate merchant from her husband,' would not have applied the epithet 'notorious' to her actions. It brought about the dismissal of her husband from the service of the Company, an event which at that time carried no disgrace with it. He obtained the licence, with which he should have provided himself when he married the intrepid Miss Barker, and spent the rest of his years in free trade.

Mrs. Nicks paid a short visit to England and returned to Madras, where she married three of her daughters to men who held good positions in the Company's service. She lived down the scandal that grew out of the sharing with Yale of his garden-house by the Cooum, and died at Madras, probably in her house in Choultry Street, on the north side of the fort, in 1709. Her husband followed her in 1711 ; and both he buried in the old cemetery where they had already laid three daughters as well as the little son.

A tragic story is told of one of the free traders of Madras who lived in the fort and probably had one of the garden-houses by the Cooum, to which he and his wife retreated in the hot weather. The story has been told more than once in print of how Peter Curgenven was taken prisoner by the pirate Angria and made a galley slave; how he served at the oar for five long, terrible years, and how he was ransomed and returned home to die. Thanks to the kindness of a member of the Curgenven family, I have been put in possession of the details of the story.

Peter was born in Lelant in Cornwall (1682), and was educated at Sherborne School under his uncle, the Kev. Thomas Curgenven, who was afterwards Rector of Folke, a pretty little country parish in Dorsetshire. Thomas Curgenven married Dorothy Pitt, the sister of Thomas Pitt, Governor of Fort St. George (1698-1709), and great-aunt of Lord Chatham. This connexion with India was sufficient to find employment for members of the Curgenven family, and Peter entered the service of the Company when he was seventeen years old. Five years later he became a free merchant, and by and by settled in Fort St. George. After the manner of free merchants, he was often away for months or even years 'seafaring,' as it was then familiarly termed, trading at Eastern ports and bringing indigo, saltpetre, silk, sugar, rice, and other commodities, which were purchased and sent to England by the Company. He named his ship the Sherborne, after his old school, and she was commanded by Captain Henry Cornwall.

It was on this ship, when he was passing down from Surat to Bombay, that he was attacked and taken prisoner. The story is told on his monument, a marble tablet on the south wall of the church at Walthamstow in Essex. The inscription is as follows :

'Near this place lyeth the body of Peter Curgenven. Erected by his widow. He was sent in his youth to the East Indies, where, attaining a thorough knowledge of the India trade in all its branches, he acquired a plentiful fortune, and, withal, what is more valuable, the universal character of a man of great honour and honesty, of inviolable faith and integrity, which virtues he adorned with an uncommon affability and politeness. Preparing after a twenty-five years' absence to return to his native country, he unfortunately fell into the hands of Connajee Angria, Admiral to the Sou Raja, then at war with the English at Bombay, and remained in a miserable captivity about five years, during which time with an unparalleled patience, generosity, and greatness of mind he continued not only comforting, assisting, and supporting his fellow-sufferers, but even refusing his own deliverance without that of his companions in misery. At last, having freed himself and the rest by his own industry and management, he embarked for England in hopes of sitting down in quiet and enjoying the fruits of his labours. But see the uncertainty of all things here below ! Just before his landing, a violent fit of cramp seizing his thigh, though the effects were hardly discernible, yet was he forced soon after his arrival in London to have his thigh first laid open and then cut off almost close to the body. Scarce ever was the like operation performed ! Never any undergone with more resolution and firmness, without so much as a groan, or the least motion to express his anguish. He outlived this operation twelve days, when the wound, bleeding afresh, he resigned his last breath with a surprising sedateness and unconcern at leaving this world, being fully persuaded he was going to exchange his perishable for everlasting riches. He died on the 26th of June, 1729, in the 47th year of his age. He was the son of William Curgenven, a gentlemen of good family in Cornwall, and married Frances, daughter of John Rotherham, of this parish, Esquire, whom he left his sole executrix, having no issue, and who erected this monument over his grave as a token of her affection and gratitude.'

Mrs. Curgenven had gone home to England some years before, and he, after realising his fortune, was hoping to join her and settle down to a happy English life. Then came the terrible news of his capture and of the large ransom demanded. She was a lady of means, having twenty thousand pounds of her own. The ransom was sent and she sat down to wait with what patience she could muster for the coming of her lord. With mingled joy and pain the suffering man and his faithful wife were united once more ; but he was broken in health and spirit, though his noble patience still remained. On his body he bore the marks of the cruel treatment that he had received at the hands of his captors. The iron bolt by which he had been fastened to the galley had so galled and injured his leg as to cause the attack that his wife described on the monument. He must have been a man of indomitable courage to have survived such treatment, and to have submitted to the operation mentioned before the use of chloroform was discovered.

Thus passed away one of the good old merchants of Madras, who traded honestly and whose name was never entered in the Company's 'Black Books.' Peter Curgenven's name has long been forgotten in Madras ; but his figure was once familiar in the fort and upon the beach among the shipping ; he was to be seen with his wife in the church of St. Mary's, and he 'took the air' in the evening after service on the sands outside the sea-gate, or loitered by the banks of the Cooum among the oleanders and Persian roses of his garden-house. His widow married for her second husband Lord Somerville, a Scotch baron, whose history is as romantic, though not so tragic and unfortunate, as that of Peter Curgenven, free merchant of Fort St. George.