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The Intriguing History of Fort St George by David Ebsworth

Today I welcome David Ebsworth to my blog to tell us about one of the fascinating buildings he came across during his research for his ‘Wicked Mistress Yale’ Series. Over to Dave:

‘I thought it was just coincidence,’ he said. A friend for the past sixty years reading the first part of my Yale Trilogy, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale. ‘You set the story in Fort St. George – and guess what? That’s the name of my local.’

We checked it out. Mike’s favourite pub sits on the south bank of the River Cam, Midsummer Common. It’s supposed to be one of the oldest in Cambridge itself and it’s usually just known as the Fort. A footbridge crosses the river there, the Fort St. George Bridge. The place is supposedly named for its resemblance to Fort St. George in old Madras, modern Chennai. But a quick glance at the pub sign hanging outside lends the lie to this.

Dave Ebsworth Fort St GeorgeI know because, for the best part of a year, it felt like I lived at the original Fort St. George, while I was writing The Doubtful Diaries.

Fort St. George in old Madras – the start of the Raj

It had been built in 1639, the very first British fortification in India, constructed by what was then the Honourable English East India Company. Fort St. George therefore stands almost as the prologue in the story of the British Raj, warts and all. And it was built on virtually uninhabited land, bordered by two tiny villages – Madraspatnam on one side, Chennapatnam on the other. The population of the two villages no more than a few hundred souls, on the south-eastern Coromandel Coast of India.

The great thing? Much of it’s still there, the walls intact and many other reminders of those early days remain standing. Of course, it’s now dwarfed by the metropolis that’s grown around it, a present population of over 7 million, and the name changed from Madras to Chennai back in 1996, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Fort St. George and Catherine Hynmers Yale
But let’s go back to 1670, and the arrival there of nineteen year-old Catherine Hynmers with her older husband, Joseph, a senior official for the East India Company. There, they moved into a substantial house on Middle Gate Street. The gate is still there – and so is the street, though it’s seen better days. 

Fort St George Chennai
Middle Gate Street

Catherine gave birth to four boys, possibly five, but in 1680, Joseph was taken by a fever. No wonder, for one in every five of the European population of Fort St. George died every year.

Joseph was buried inside an impressive mausoleum, beneath a tall pyramid – and his tomb still stands, complete with an inscription that confirms his status. But Catherine now had a difficult decision to make. Four surviving children, on the far side of the world, and in 1680 the far side of the world was very distant indeed. At least a six-month stinking, cramped and hugely perilous voyage, with only one stop on the way. She chose to look for a second husband, settled on an unlikely choice, a junior clerk called Elihu Yale. They were married at the newly consecrated St. Mary’s Church. 

St Mary's Church Chennai

St. Mary’s stands too, in almost pristine condition, and the record of Yale’s marriage to Catherine still viewable in the parish register.

Yale Marriage Record
Yale Marriage Record

Yale, of course, gained much of Joseph’s wealth from the marriage, used it to furnish himself with not one mistress, but two – and to set them both up in a specially constructed villa, a “garden house.”

Meanwhile, Catherine had given birth to four more children, three girls and another boy, David Yale, who died while still a baby and was buried in the same mausoleum as Joseph Hynmers. David’s inscription can be seen on the tomb, too.

The tomb of Joseph Hynmers and David Yale at Fort St. George

Fort St. George and the Indian Ocean Slave Trade

Yale himself had now risen to the position of Governor at Fort St. George and, in that position, he supervised the Company’s new and highly profitable trade in slaves – Indian slaves. 

How do we know all this? Because, for all their sins, the East India Company kept meticulous records, minutes of every single, daily meeting that took place – the Consultation Books for Fort St. George. And, from those minutes, we see that each vessel bound for the English colony on St. Helena was required to carry ten Indian slaves, for there was then a great demand for slaves in that colony. In one month alone, over 600 Indian slaves are recorded as having been dispatched, either to St. Helena in the west, or to Sumatra in the east.

By 1689, Catherine – a woman of strong Dissenter beliefs – could stand the situation no longer and returned to England with her brood of children, and that’s where the Yale Trilogy leaves Fort St. George and Madraspatnam behind, more or less. Yale would eventually bequeath his name to one of the world’s great universities, though to Catherine he left nothing in his will but the slur of branding her a “wicked wife.”

But that, as they say, is another story and, clearly, it certainly wasn’t the end of the fort’s own saga.

Fort St. George and Later Celebrities

In 1744, another junior clerk arrived there. Robert Clive. Over the following nine years he distinguished himself in the East India Company’s army and, in 1753, married Margaret Maskelyne and they lived together in the fine mansion still known as Clive House. He would distinguish himself still further, of course, at the Battle of Plassey and elsewhere, and he would literally finish the work begun at Fort St. George a hundred years earlier – the establishment of British India and the British Empire. 

Clive's House
Clive’s House

Later still, the young Arthur Wellesley had a house in Fort St. George and it was within its walls that Major Stringer Lawrence laid the foundations for the Indian Army. 

Apart from the buildings and the fortress walls, the Fort St. George Museum is still a great repository for almost four hundred years of British involvement and history in Madras, with all its contradictions.

Wellesley House
The remaining portion of Wellesley House

Fort St. George – the Cambridge Connection

But what is the connection between that original Fort St. George and the pub in Cambridge? I have a favourite theory that it’s all connected to the story of Colonel Sir William Draper, who successfully defended Madras and its fortress, in 1758, against a siege by the French during the Seven Years War. Draper had close connections to Cambridge and, at the end of the conflict, he presented the colours he’d taken – both in India and the Philippines – to his old college, King’s College, Cambridge. The presentations apparently occasioned great celebration and hence, perhaps, Fort St. George itself became celebrated and fêted in the town.

If readers have other theories, or if you’ve visited the Fort – either in Chennai or in Cambridge – it would be great to hear from you. 

Thank you to David Ebsworth for this exploration of one of the great historical buildings in India. If you’d like to contact him for more information you can find him on his website 

Or you could buy the books

 

Categories
Blog Reviews

Recent reads and reviews of Historical Fiction

Mrs YaleThe Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale by David Ebsworth

‘For is that not the secret of life? To keep open as many of our options as possible for as long as we may dare. And if my only remaining option to keep them alive…’

This is the first of a trilogy set in 17th Century Madras, India, a period and place which I am keen to know more about. David Ebsworth provides a wealth of information in this novel, a feat of painstaking research and historical detail. Taking the form of a private journal, this is the story of a woman who actually existed and is apparently well-known in and around the Wrexham locality, although most people will never have heard of her or her husband Elihu Yale. This is a shame because she was clearly a woman of great pragmatism. When her husband Joseph dies, leaving her with no means of support, she decides – in rather too much of a hurry for the gossips of Madras –  to re-marry Elihu Yale, a man with little obvious charm.  It is an arranged marriage in which they have agreed certain conditions ( I shan’t spoil the plot). Needless to say, things do not progress as smoothly as anticipated. The diary format and first person narration can tend to distance the reader from the action which is always reported but David Ebsworth handles this smoothly, and there are some great scenes reported in this novel – the age-old Tamil practice of a widow throwing herself onto a funeral pyre, the death of a child by snakebite, famine, rioting servants and the bloody betrayal by those Mistress Yale trusts the most. Ebsworth creates a convincing language for the time, peppered with Tamil phrases, which are helpfully given a glossary at the back. You will especially enjoy this book if you are interested in the East India Company and life in early Madras.

The book is beautifully produced with a lovely cover and interior design.

Where did I buy this book? I was sent a complimentary copy by the author for an honest review.

Silversmith's WifeThe Silversmith’s Wife – Sophia Tobin

“How do I explain it to her? he said.

‘Tell her the truth,’ she said. ‘That her husband wished her to marry a dead man; and that, since he is gone, her fate is to be decided by you.’

A slow burner of a book with rich historical detail of 18th Century London. The story begins with a murder, and at the outset you wonder who cut Pierre Renard’s throat and why. His journal entries are at the start of the chapters so you gradually begin to get an insight into the man, and why he might have been killed. Multiple points of view and multiple threads make this book hard to fathom at the beginning, but the quality of the writing guides you through until the plot begins to knit together. Mary, The Silversmith’s Wife of the title, has been so downtrodden by her abusive life with Renard that she is prone to sleepwalking and night terrors. When he dies, though, she is vulnerable, and the conditions of his will mean that pressure is put on her to re-marry. In this tense brooding atmosphere, the murderer is still at large, and this gives a dark edge to all the relationships in the book. I would have liked more detail on the actual silversmithing, because it was fascinating. I suppose what weakened the book for me was the fact that Mary was a victim from the start and her initial lethargy didn’t endear me to her. Other characters such as her sister, Mallory, were more interesting, but I did find the themes of deceit, greed, and control of others kept me turning the pages and I would definitely search out more books by this author.

Overall, this was a really well-written book and one I would recommend to historical fiction fans for its sense of brooding menace.

Where did I buy this book? I picked up the quality hardback, which has lovely endpapers, at my local second-hand bookshop (Carnforth Books)

Categories
Blog Reviews

The East India Company – The Palace of Lost Dreams

I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Charlotte Betts today, to tell us the history of the East India Company.

My review of Charlotte’s most recent novel, The Palace of Lost Dreams is at the bottom of this article.

THE EAST INDIA COMPANY

India 2007 075

The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies (The Company) was founded in 1600. It established a ‘factory’, or free-trade area, in Masulipatnam in India where local inhabitants could interact with foreign merchants with the consent of local rulers. In 1640 a further factory was established in Madras and this was followed by rapid expansion into other areas. Meanwhile, other companies founded by the Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and the French were also spreading their tentacles throughout India.

Dance-Holland, Nathaniel; Robert Clive (1725-1774), 1st Baron Clive of Plassey, 'Clive of India'; National Trust, Powis Castle; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-clive-17251774-1st-baron-clive-of-plassey-clive-of-india-102275
Dance-Holland, Nathaniel; Robert Clive (1725-1774), 1st Baron Clive of Plassey, ‘Clive of India’

The company’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 under Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India, established political and military supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal. Clive followed this by securing large areas of land, and its riches, in south Asia – Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – becoming a multi-millionaire at the same time. Together with Warren Hastings, the first Governor of Bengal, the foundations were laid for the British Raj.

The British government began an intensive effort to work with the East India Company, who already had armies in place, to snatch power and control over India as a whole. In 1797 the two strongest powers in India, Mysore and the Marathas, had declined in strength and it was a good time for Britain to grasp the upper hand. The Marquis of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s elder brother, arrived in India in 1798 to take up his new post as Governor General at a time when Britain was locked in a life or death struggle with France all over the world.

Since Napoleon had set his sights on India, too, Wellesley had to move quickly. To achieve his aims, he set up a system of Subsidiary Alliances, which signed away an Indian state’s independence and right of self-defence. The Alliance system was advantageous to the British since they could now maintain a large army at the cost of the Indian states. The first Subsidiary Treaty was signed between Wellesley and the Nizam of Hyderabad on 1st September 1798.

A month later, the largest French force in India was disarmed by the British, who had only a third of their number, without any casualties or a single shot being fired. This turning point, combined with Admiral Nelson’s sinking of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, effectively ruined Napoleon’s dreams of India becoming a French colony and allowed the Company, backed by the British government, to annex more and more of India.

Queen_Victoria_Golden_Jubilee (1)In 1813, Parliament renewed the Company’s charter but terminated its monopoly, except with regard to tea and trade with China, opening India both to private investment and missionaries. Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the rule of British India was transferred from the British East India Company to the Crown. In 1876 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India.

Kistna_viaduct,_Great_Indian_Peninsula_Railway

During the hey-day of the Raj, the British civil service collected taxes, raised armies, which included local forces, imposed a system of justice and a postal service, instigated the building of railways, canals, schools and universities. At all times the British demonstrated a breath-taking level of self-confidence that their customs, religions and moral values were infinitely superior to those of the Indians whose country they had appropriated. The British system of governance remained until Partition in 1947.

The Palace of Lost Dreams is set in Hyderabad in 1798.

ThePalaceOfLostDreams (1)Newly widowed Beatrice Sinclair returns to the India of her childhood to visit her brother, an employee of the British East India Company. She’s astonished to discover he has married a beautiful Indian girl and lives with his wife’s extended family in a dilapidated palace.

As an outsider in an unfamiliar world, she faces many challenges.

 Meanwhile the French and British forces become locked in a battle over India’s riches, and matters are complicated further by the presence of the dashing Harry Wyndam: a maverick ex-soldier and suspected spy.

 With rebellion in the air, Bee must decide where her loyalties lie . . .

The Palace of Lost Dreams is out now. Buy it here

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @CharlotteBetts1

Facebook: Charlotte Betts Author

Website: www.charlottebetts.com

Many thanks to Deborah for hosting me!

My Review of The Palace of Lost Dreams – perfect escapism

Set in the eighteenth century, in an India riven by political conflict, the era provides a rich, evocative setting for a romance and one full of tension. When recently-bereaved Bee returns to India she remembers her childhood friend, Harry, but he has a son by now, and this is not the only obstacle to their closeness. Whilst in the palace she must unravel the mystery of her mother’s sudden departure from India, and the simmering background to the loss of a rare jewel which is now the cause of intense feelings in her newly adopted family.

Bee is a lovely character, who picks herself up from tragedy and is determined to save the diapidated palace with her own new idea for a business.

Charlotte Betts fleshes out the history of India with detail and atmosphere. There is a glossary of Indian words in the back too, and historical notes for anyone who is unfamiliar with Indian history.

This is both an adventure and a romance and perfect escapism for a summer holiday read. Highly recommended.