Madras University, whose domes are seen on the right, is the mother of all southern universities.
The earliest European settlers in the region were the Portuguese, who built a port and named it São Tomé (modern day Santhome) after St. Thomas. The port subsequently passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves at Pulicat, north of the city, in 1612. The British East India Company arrived soon after and established a Calico Cloth factory in Armagon, a village 35 miles north of Pulicat, in 1626.
It was around this time that Francis Day, an agent-in-charge of the East India Company’s Calico Cloth shop in Armagon, set off on an exploratory mission down the coastline in search of a region that produced better cloth for trade. In 1637, he selected a three-mile sandy strip of land south of Armagon, to start his new factory. The area contained the fishing village of Madraspatnam, and in the words of Day, produced “excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 percent than anywhere else”. Local gossip at the time however, seemed to suggest that Day’s selection of Madraspatnam was influenced by the location of his mistress in the Portuguese settlement of São Tomé nearby, in order that “their interviews might be the more frequent and uninterrupted”! Irrespective of Day’s actual reasons, his decision was supported by Andrew Cogan, his superior officer and chief of the factory at Masulipatnam. And so, on August 22, 1639, Day secured the lease of the three mile strip of Madraspatnam from Darmarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, the local governor of the Vijayanagar Empire.
On April 23, 1640, with the assistance of his interpreter (dubash) Beri Thimmappa Chetti, Day began the construction of Fort St. George, the first British fortress in India, and the nucleus around which modern day Chennai grew. The Fort still stands today, and houses the Legislative Assembly of the state of Tamil Nadu. The Fort, together with the houses built for British officers constituted ‘White Town’, while labourers, dyers and weavers settled into ‘Black Town’ nearby. By 1750, the neighbouring villages of Narimendu, Triplicane, Kottivakkam, Nungambakkam, Egmore, Mylapore and several others were annexed by Francis Day’s successors through grants approved by the Nayaks of Chandragiri.