Madras, America and the Links That Go Back a Century

Historian S Muthaiah brought out in his talk about the city’s American connection at Women’s Christian College, during the Madras Week celebrations.

Published: 28th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th August 2014 10:51 AM   |  A+A-


CHENNAI: Madras may have been founded by the British but it also has a long association with America, which historian S Muthaiah brought out in his talk about the city’s American connection at Women’s Christian College, during the Madras Week celebrations.

“You are here because of the Rockerfellers,” he told the students — the college was founded with a grant by the Rockerfeller Foundation.

The college functioned in a rented building before moving to the current 19-acre campus with the Doveton House building in 1916, using the donation money of `63,000. “The chapel too, was the gift of an unknown American. WCC still maintains connections with America through exchange programmes,” says Ridling Margaret Waller, Principal of the school.

Apart from more modern associations like Dreamflower Talc that used to be manufactured in India and was taken over by Pond’s, Muthaiah spoke about the connections of people like Elihu Yale, Colonel Olcott and John Scudder.

Elihu Yale’s connection to America is indirect — he came to India as a clerk with the East India Company and rose to the position of a governor in a mere 15 years. He returned to England an extremely wealthy man. He was approached by a representative of a small institution of learning in Connecticut for a grant. “Yale donated to the school, textiles, books and portraits worth 1,200 pounds. This may not seem like much money even for those days, but Harvard too was started with a similar sum,” Muthaiah says. And the college became what is today Yale University.

Some more interesting connections with America involve textiles - the handkerchiefs of ‘Madras Checks’ can be seen in the bandannas of the cowboys of the Wild West. “It was even used as a turban in some places in the South,” says Muthaiah.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who was from New Jersey, founded the Theosophical Society along with Madam Blavatsy, with its headquarters in Madras, and John Scudder, who was also from New Jersey, was the first American medical missionary in India. Scudder has a whole family tree of missionaries, including the third generation Ida Scudder who founded the Christian Medical College, Vellore.

The film industry too is not to be missed, with famous films like Meera and Sakuntalai being directed by the Ohio-born Ellis Dungan. “He never spoke a word of Tamil but contributed so many great films to the industry,” says Muthaiah.

Representatives from the Indo-American Association and American expats also attended the talk that ended with the anthems of both countries.


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