Friday, 15 April 2016

Madras and it's American connections

Mr S Muthiah gave a lecture on Madras and its American connection, at CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Alwarpet, Madras on April 9, 2016. Muthiah's birthday was on April 13 - two days back; by coincidence, I reviewed Mr Narasiah's book, Madrasapattinam, for which Mr Muthiah has written the foreword, that evening.

The connection started long before the founding of the USA, he said. He covered the period from colonial America to the recent establishment of the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani.

He started with Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras for the East India Company and the obelisk in Madras Law College. Yale married the widow Catherine of his friend Joseph Hymner, then sent her off to England; he then had two rich widows living with him.

There was an enquiry into his wealth. He managed to avoid the enquiry, which  was conducted in his absence. But he was acquitted. He acquired a large collection of arts with his wealth. He donated two trunks of textiles and a trunk of paintings and artifacts which were auctioned for 1200 pounds to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which named itself Yale college; later this became Yale University. If 1200 pounds seems a small founding amount, remember that John Harvard donated 1100 pounds to the college named after him, quipped Mr Muthiah.

A sailing ship called United States was the first American ship to visit India. The most popular export from Madras was bandanas - which became the signature fashion statement of American cowboys. Second in popular was the Madras handkerchief, still a major Madras export in the 21st century, but now the major market is West Africa.

As a gift for losing America to rebels at Yorktown, Cornwallis was made Governor General of India. He launched the third Mysore war with Tipu, holding his sons as hostages.

The US consulate building in Madras, at Gemini, was inspired by Chettinad architecture, which had a murram in center. Earlier the Consulate functioned from what is now Dare House in Parry's corner, he said. Benjamin Joy was the first American consul in Calcutta, but he tried to establish a trading post.

The Americans mostly left political affairs to Britain until India became a republic. In 1950 the Indo-American association was formed. A sister city link was established with Denver, but nothing materialized besides politicians from each city touring the other.

Christian Missionaries and Medicine

John Scudder and Myron Winslow, American allopathic doctors, came to serve as missionaries in Sri Lanka. Ida Scudder his granddaughter established Christian medical college, Vellore. Winslow collaborated with Arumuga Navalar to produce first  Tamil to English dictionary with 68,000s word in 1862.
Scudder Winslow and Green

The remarkable Samuel Fisk Green, from Worcester Massachusetts, translated medical books into Tamil and taught Jaffna Tamil boys who became better doctors than English-taught Colombo boys. There is a hospital in Jaffna named after him. None of the political parties in Tamilnadu which wear Tamil linguistic pride on their sleeves has continued Green's efforts. Allopathic medicine continues to be taught entirely in English in TN.

In 1883. Col Henry Olcott, Civil  War veteran and Helena Blavatsky , a Russian countess, formed the Theosophical society. Blavatsky dreamed of a river bank, could not find such a river in Bombay, then spotted the Adyar river in Madras and decided it was perfect for the society.

Olcott built finest Indology library with twenty thousand palm leaves and two lakh books. Olcott, an ardent student of Buddhism in South east Asia, revived Buddhism in Sri Lanka which was almost dead. Coupled with Green's work in Jaffna, they created the civil strife in Sri Lanka, opined Muthiah.

Cotton and Ice

Tirunelveli was the major cotton growing district in Madras Presidency. In 1830 Madras government brought Bernard Metcalfe from USA and introduced cotton gins. Gins were a failure because no laborer was willing to work with machines , they preferred their hands. Thomas James Finnie came with planters to plant American cotton but realised that only Indian cotton plants grew well here. Robert White developed an Indian cotton in Coimbatore. The American civil war, cut off cotton supplies from the South - the Confederacy - and India filled the supply in this period.

Ice ships from Walden pond, packed in felt and sawdust, 80% were exported to Madras Bombay and Calcutta. Thoreau has written about it. Icebergs from Newfoundland were chopped up for export, when Massachusetts was too warm for ice. The Ice trade went on for a hundred years, 150 tons each year for three metros. Ice House, now the Vivekananda Illam in Triplicane, was the only building with an American flag in the city.

Ice ponds in Massachussets

US postmaster general Wannamaker donated of forty thousands dollars to construct the YMCA building in Madras. Harry Crowe Buck of Springfield, MA introduced physical education, volleyball and basketball to Madras. India's Olympic program owes everything to Harry Crowe Buck.


YMCA, Harry Buck - speaker Muthiah

The Jaffna American missionaries built American College in Madurai. In beating the heat of Madurai in the summer, the found Ooty was too snooty. So they established Kodaikanal.

In 1907 Henry Phipps started Pasteur institute in Connoor by donating one lakh dollars to Lord Curzon. At this time there was only one Pasteur institute in North India and supplies of vaccines and serums to south were sparse. Their role in the eradication of  rabies was invaluable.

In 1911 Chandler added to and compiled a Tamil dictionary, based on Winslow dictionary. He produced Tamil Lexicon now 82,000 words. Later Vaiyapuri Pillai took it up.

In 1915 WCC, the Women's christian college was founded, with funds from Rockefeller. The Founding records are in Mt Holyoke College in the USA on which it was based.

Scudder (a descendant of Ira Scudder who set up CMC Vellore) and Rottschaeffer, set up the tuberculosis sanatorium in Madanapalle. Dr Janeway set up pediatric ward in Madras.

Films and Factories

Most famous is Ellis Dungan, an American film director, who lived in Madras for fifteen years and directed several Tamil movies. He introduced camera and lighting techniques. Two of his movies starred with M.S.Subbulakshmi - Meera and Sakuntalai. He also directed Mandirikumari starring MGR, for which the script was written by M Karunanidhi, both of whom went on to become Chief Minsiters of Tamilnadu.



Ellis Dungan and MS Subbulakshmi

The Ford company built a plant in Bombay in 1916 but shut it down in the 1950s. Ford trucks were manufactured in Madras, in a collaboration with  Amalgamations, but this was a failure. But Ford came back in 1996 set up a plant to make cars on GST Road. They scouted several locations, but the clinching  factor was dinner in the Madras club!

Earliest freedom fighters - against British rule - including Sikhs granted asylum in USA. Franklin Roosevelt urged Churchill to grant India independence.

The American Consul was in attendance at the lecture.

Related blogs
Madras - India's first modern city - S Muthiah lecture
The Thames and the Cooum
An evening with John and Pamela Davis 
Paul Erdos' poem on Madras 
Ford, Lenin, Hitler and Chaplin 
America the Beautiful

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