1877 witnessed the great Madras famine when many thousands perished. That was when the famed Buckingham Canal, named after the then Governor, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos was begun as a food for work project. Prior to this great idea however, the Madras Government dithered and set up relief camps in which the aid rarely reached those who were starving. The Viceroy, Lord Lytton made a tour of famine stricken Madras and wrote his impressions of the place, the Government House, Government Estate where he stayed (the present Admiralty House), the relief measures and much else in a series of letter to his wife who was then in Simla. The letters form part of a book Personal and Literary Letters of Robert, First Earl of Lytton, compiled and edited by his daughter Lady Betty Balfour and which was published in 1906. We offer excerpts from the Madras sections which show that not much has changed by way of governance in our part of the world. The account ends with a brief description of Ooty and Conoor. I have added explanatory notes in parenthesis wherever needed.
To Lady Lytton, Madras, August 27, 1877
I am thankful to say that in all the objects of my visit to Madras I have succeeded far beyond my expectation. The Duke has behaved uncommonly well and very much like a gentleman. The arrangements I have now concluded with him are fully described in the long telegram I despatched to-day en clair to the President in Council. I am certainly in very good spirits myself. The more I think over what must have happened if I had failed to settle matters amicably with the Duke on their present footing, or if, in accordance with the advice given me either by Arbuthnot (Mr Arbuthnot, an old Madras hand and whose kinsmen ran the business house of Arbuthnots was famine secretary to the Viceroy) or Temple (Sir Richard Temple, Member, Viceroy’s Executive Council) I had adopted a different course, the more I am convinced that we have very narrowly escaped a very dangerous, discreditable situation.
This house (Government House in Government Estate, demolished to make way for the new Assembly turned Super Speciality Hospital) is rather an ugly one, in the centre of a park not very well kept up. But from the veranda of my room here there is a fine view of the sea, and an occasional whiff of the sea breeze.
Detached from the house is a fine large building called the banqueting-hall(now Rajaji Hall), which is very convenient for receptions. I held a levee in it last night, and hope to be let off many centuries of Purgatory for having undergone a public breakfast at 9.30 a.m attended by 400 persons, in the same building last Friday.
At some little distance from Government House there is a villa called ” The Marine Villa” (this, aka the Nawab’s Octagon, stood where the University of Madras is today). It was given to the Governors of Madras by the Nabobs of the Carnatic. This villa immediately faces the sea, and here it is, I believe, the custom for the Duke and his young ladies to have afternoon tea twice a week. The regimental band (a very fine one) of the 67th, plays on the public promenade in front of the villa (the war memorial stands at this spot once known as Cupid’s bow). Here we had tea yesterday afternoon, and the band played very well a selection from the ” Fliegende Hollander ” of Wagner.
The next part of the series can be read here