Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 6, July 1-15, 2020
A Lost Bridge and a Forgotten Governor
Have you ever heard of Fraser’s Bridge Road? No? It is a small thoroughfare that connects Esplanade and North Fort Roads to Rattan Bazaar. Over the years the name changed to Frazer’s Bridge and then, a couple of years back the Government of Tamil Nadu decided to change the name to Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission Road, no doubt as part of its efforts to simplify place names. The TNPSC is located on this street though the more important institution in my view is the Madras United Club. It is a shadow of what it once was but in its time this creation of BuchiBabu, the father of Indian cricket, played a vital role in showcasing local talent in cricket and got the colonial masters to recognize Indian sporting prowess. In this time of fights for social equality, the MUC is an institution that deserves commemoration and so Madras United Club Road would have been more appropriate. BuchiBabu Road would have been even better. Of course, he does have a street named after him in Thiruvallikeni but then when we have 20 Anna Nagars and more after other political holies, one more street remembering BuchiBabu would not have hurt.
But the more intriguing pieces of history are Fraser and his bridge of both of whom there is not a trace. The man who lent his name to the place was one of the most unpopular administrators Madras ever had – a dislike shared equally by the British and the Indians. William Fraser remains one of those shadowy figures in colonial history and comes to light only from the biography of a man he detested – Elihu Yale. Hiram Bingham’s book, Elihu Yale, the American Nabob of Queen’s Square, Thomas Pitt’s biography by Sir Cornelius Neale Dalton and East India Company consultation records are the chief sources for a profile of Fraser.
He was handpicked to be sent to Madras by Sir Josiah Child, the domineering Governor of the EIC in London, his principal mandate being to spy on others in this distant colonial outpost. Arriving in Madras on May 31, 1685, he immediately complained about his seniority in council. That was amicably resolved but he made life increasingly difficult for Governor Gyfford and was eventually instrumental in his dismissal. There was no love lost between him and Elihu Yale, who succeeded Gyfford as Governor. Contrary to precedent, Yale extended all courtesy and honours to the deposed incumbent. This was not to Fraser’s liking and he made sure that all of it was recorded and passed on to Sir Josiah Child.
Yale had a tough time with Fraser. Each of the latter’s missives, and he wrote quite a bit, were always “humble petitions” which they were in reality anything but. It did not help that Yale gave plenty of scope for Fraser’s complaints for the Governor was not only corrupt financially but also womanized quite a bit. But Fraser was also not without fault. His bad temper was quite famous and on one occasion he was actually brought to trial before the Council for “rashly and illegally cutting off” the ear of a native boy in the Fort. (Was there a legal way of doing such an act?). It was Yale’s dearest wish that Fraser be served a reprimand for this but with much of the Council being absent on the occasion, he was overruled, and Fraser escaped.
Yale and Fraser fell out over just about everything, from the way the Mayor’s Court functioned (Fraser was Mayor of Madras for a while), the handling of the Corporation of Madras, the manner in which Yale’s chum John Nicks was bungling over the purchase of cloth at Conimere, the building of the Town Wall, and many more. And Fraser kept filing complaint after complaint against the Governor all of which were carefully sent to England. Eventually, Yale was dismissed in 1692, with his second in Council, the upright Nathaniel Higginson becoming President.
Fraser was most disappointed of course, but made up by getting close to the Commission of Enquiry led by Sir John Goldsborough that arrived to enquire into Yale’s misdeeds. The former Governor was free to go back to England he was told but his properties in Madras would be sequestered and he would have to pay from his pocket the money that had been spent out of Company coffers for the construction of the town wall. The last was one of Fraser’s pet topics – he never could see why the city needed protection funded by the Company. In his view, the natives had to pay for it and Sir Josiah, far away in England agreed completely. Yale paid up for the wall but he was made of sterner stuff and far wilier than Fraser. He dug his heels in for an extended stay in the Fort refusing all tempting offers of comfortable ships that were going back, much to the irritation of Higginson and Fraser. Instead, he sent his brother Thomas and also his business associate and confidante, Mrs Catherine Nicks. With them was a representation to the Privy Council headed by the King, the contents of which were not known to Fraser.
When Thomas Yale reached England in 1695 and presented his brother’s prayers to the Privy Council, all hell broke loose. For in it he had stated that he had been imprisoned in Madras and that there was a threat to his life. There was no way this could be verified in a hurry and other complaints in the same document led to an enquiry into the Company’s charter. This the EIC was not willing to face and so it exonerated Yale instead.
By the time this news reached Madras, Higginson had fallen out with Fraser who was suspended from Council. But through his representations to England he was reinstated. In 1697, Higginson was replaced by Thomas Pitt, Yale’s old crony and his arrival, and descriptions of life in England were what made the former Governor decide on returning. His properties and money had long been restored to him. Fraser must have gnashed his teeth. Pitt and Fraser were cordial enough to start with but soon the latter’s usual tactics began to grate on the former. The rounds of suspensions and reinstatements were played before Fraser was eventually sent to Fort St David, Cuddalore. In 1709, Pitt was asked to step down and Fraser replaced him. He was finally acting Governor.
But that he was no Yale or Pitt became manifest almost immediately. He was harried by every local ruler beginning with Sadatullah Khan and Zulfiqar Khan down to Sarup Singh at Gingee. By 1711 it was clear he had to be replaced. He was never confirmed as Governor and he was summarily dismissed, being replaced by Edward Harrison. In two years he had undone much of the good that Pitt had achieved in his tenure, something that the latter had accurately predicted would happen.
That then was Fraser – a seriously incompetent nitpicker. What of the bridge? It was most likely a small structure that spanned the Elambore or North River which flowed down where NSC Bose Road is now. The original idea of such a bridge had been Yale’s and he had been opposed by Fraser. It was indeed ironic that it came to be named after him. It appears to have disappeared by the 19th century and even HD Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras does not offer much on its exact location.
Perhaps the Government was correct in renaming the road after all.