Earlier this week, I gave a talk at the Madras Book Club on the books written on Fort St George. At the end of it, V. Rajanarayanan, one of the regulars, asked why I did not mention that Muthuramalinga Sethupathi, the ruler of Ramanathapuram, was interned at the Fort and died there also. This was news to me. None of the books I had read even mentioned it. Back home, I searched for whatever ‘native sources’ I had, and found the answer.

The circumstances of the arrest do not show the British in good light and that probably accounts for their silence. Muthuramalinga Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi became the ruler of Ramanathapuram estate in 1762, his nominal superior being the Nawab of Arcot. In 1795, following an arrangement with the Nawab, the East India Company took over the entire southern region, including Ramanathapuram. It immediately had Muthuramalinga arrested, for no apparent reason other than that he had a “disposition to rebel against the Government”. He was kept in Fort St George, till his passing in 1801. In the meanwhile, a legal battle for succession broke out between his sister Mangaleswari and the representatives of his infant daughter Sivakami. The Company decided very craftily in favour of the sister “as she was an aged woman and not likely to have children”.

Muthuramalinga Sethupathi was not alone in his incarceration. Keeping him company was Velayudha Naiker, the Raja of Palani, who too was arrested on charges that would not stand up to much scrutiny. Based on a complaint filed in the Zillah court at Madurai by his nephew that he had joint rights to the estate, the East India Company sent a force in 1795. The Raja, who was just 27 years of age, was arrested and shipped to Fort St George, where he was lodged in the same prison as the Sethupathi. His estate was seized by the Company, which gave his family a pension of fifty star pagodas. He died on January 9, 1808, whereupon the pension to his family was reduced to 30 pagodas, albeit with a promise that when his adopted son attained maturity, the estate would be handed over to him.

This, of course, was never done and the pension was reduced further to 20 pagodas a month from 1826. The amount was never paid regularly and the family was soon in great distress. The Rani sent a petition through her vakil to Madras, where it became “one of the ten thousand cases of complaint which certainly ought to be investigated”. In such ways was the empire forged (pun intended). It is interesting to note that at the time the Sethupathi and the Raja were in Fort St George, two of Tipu Sultan’s sons were also here, having been taken hostage by Lord Cornwallis after the third Mysore war of 1792.

Where were all these prisoners lodged inside the Fort? That is a mystery I am unable to resolve.This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on May 23, 2015

Hidden histories The mystery of the Sethupathi – The Hindu.