22nd August 1639: Madras (now Chennai) is Founded by the East India Company


On 22nd August 1639 Madras (now Chennai) was founded by the East India Company who bought it as a piece of land from the local Nayak rulers.


In ancient times, the city of Chennai was known as Madraspatnam and was located in Tondaimandalam, an area flanked by the Pennar River of Nellore and the Pennar river of Cuddalore on each side. This area had a history of rule by the Cholas, the Pallavas, the Pandiyas and the Vijaynagar Empire. This was followed by the arrival of European traders and the first to arrive in the area were the Portuguese in 1522 who built a port here called Sao Tome after St. Thomas, who is believe to have preached here between 52 to 70 AD. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch in 1612 who established their base in Pulicat, north of Chennai. Following the Dutch, came the British East India Company who bought a small piece of land stretching along the Coromandel Coast from the local Nayak rulers and also got their permission to build a fort, a factory and a warehouse in the area which they required for their trading purposes.


The city of Chennai as we see it today, was essentially a British settlement known as Fort St. George. The rulers of the Vijaynagar Empire who ruled the area, appointed chieftains called Nayaks to rule various regions of the province independently. In 1639, when the Brtish East India Company arrived in the area to establish a factory, Darmala Venkatadri Nayaka, a Telugu king and a powerful chieftain who was in charge of the area (what is present day Chennai). Darmala gave the British a piece of land sandwiched between the Cooum River and the Egmore River. What was given to the British by the Nayak chieftains was essentially a piece of waste land upon which the British proceeded to find Fort St. George which was essentially a settlement of British factory workers, merchants and other British residents.


This small settlement of the British gradually drew the attention of other East India traders such as the Portuguese and the Dutch who gradually joined the settlement. By 1649, Fort St. George had 19,000 residents due to which the East India Company expanded Fort St. George by constructing an additional wall. This expanded area came to be known as the Fort St. George settlement. According to a treaty signed with the Nayaks, the British and other European Christians were only allowed to colour the outside of their buildings white. Because of this, gradually over time, this area began to be known as “White Town”.


According to their agreement with the Nayaks, only Europeans were allowed to live in Fort St. George, since non-Indians were not allowed to buy property outside the area. On the other hand, other Europeans such as the Portuguese and other Catholic merchants had a different agreement with the Nayaks, through which they could set up trading posts and warehouses. Since the trade in the area was controlled by the East India Company, these non-British merchants signed an agreement with the British for settling on the East India Company land near White Town. Gradually, Indians arrived in this area as well and soon the Europeans were outnumbered. Violent clashes broke out between Hindus, Muslims and other Indian communities against the Europeans. Gradually, these non Europeans, mostly Hindu and Muslims, were given place near white town to set up a settlement and a wall was constructed to separate this new non-European settlement from White Town. This new area was known as “Black Town”. Originally, White Town and Black town were together known as Madras, a name given to the area by the British. 


In the 17th century afflicted by plague and warfare, the population of Fort St. George fell drastically. Each time clashes between Europeans and non-Europeans broke out, the Europeans took refuge in Fort St. George. Eventually, the Fort became the core of the city, which eventually rebuilt itself. Fort St. George still stands and is home to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the office of the Chief Minister.


On 17th July 1996, the name of the city was changed from Madras to Chennai by the then Chief Minister of the state, M. Karunanidhi. The new name Chennai was derived from Chennaipattanam, a small town near Fort St. George. The reason for the name change was the linguistic pride associated with renaming a city in the vernacular, rather than being stuck with the name given to the city by the British. 


Chennai today is the capital of Tamil Nadu and is a modern and cosmopolitan city. The city is an important commercial, cultural, economic and educational hub in south India. Chennai’s economy boasts of automobile, computer, hardware manufacturing and healthcare sectors. Nicknamed the “Detroit of India”, a large part of India’s automobile industry is based out of Chennai. Rich in arts and culture, Chennai is also an important centre for Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam dance.


Also on This Day:


1320: Nasiruddin Khusru was defeated by Ghazi Malik.


1921: Mahatma Gandhi made a bonfire of foreign clothes.


1979: President Sanjeeva Reddy dissolved the Lok Sabha and general elections were ordered at the end of the year to ensure political stability in the Central Government administration.

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