San José State University
Department of Economics

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The Economic History of Madras (Chennai)

The City of Madras, Now Called Chennai

The British East India Company began establishing a presence in the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal in South India in the 17th century. The Company obtained permission from local rulers to build a fort there. The Company chose a site north of the mouth of the Cooum River where a fishing village called Madraspatnam was located. The fort was called Fort St. George.

There were other villages such as Mylapore in the area which were temple towns. The area was a low lying plain no more than 23 feet above sea level. Rice was the major product but there was cotton growing and weavers to convert the cotton into cloth. The East India Company encouraged the weavers and merchants to settle north of the fort. Fort St. George was occupied by British merchants and became known as White Town. The area were the Tamil merchants and weavers settled became known as Black Town. Later the area was named George Town.

The city that grew up around Fort St. George became known as Madras after the fishing village of Madraspatnam that was originally on the site. The Tamil speakers however called the city Chennaipatnam and later Chennai.

The city grew and the British took control of the region and all of India. The region was for a long period of time known as Madras State. After independence it became known as Tamil Nadu.

After the East India Company establish complete control of the region some British merchants built garden houses in districts southwest and west of the fort (Nungambakkam, Adyar and Kilpauk).

Over time there developed ethno-religious-linguistic enclaves in the city. Mylapore and Triplicane became Brahmin. Chepauk to the south of the island formed by the branching of the Cooum River became Muslim. Royapuram to the north of the fort beyond Black Town (George Town) became an area of Christian settlement. West of Royapuram in an area known as Washermanpet became an area where weavers lived. Weavers also lived in the Chintadripet area to the southwest of the fort and beyond the island in the Cooum River.

In modern times an industrial park was created at Guindy, about four miles southwest of the fort beyond the Adyar River.

Some of the districts of early Madras

(To be continued.)

Demographics of Madras (Chennai)

The Linguistic Composition
of the Population of Madras,
1961
LanguageProportion
Tamil72%
Telugu14%
Malayam3%
Urdu5%
Other 6%

Tamil, Telugu and Malayam are languages in the Dravidian family. Urdu is a language closely related to Hindi but with elements of Persian and Arabic incorporated. For more on the nature of Urdu see Urdu. About 17% of the population speak English as a second language. The population is predominantly Hindu in religion, but there are small Muslim and Christian minorities.


(To be continued.)


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