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Chennai and its American connection – a walk down memory lane

The historic ties between the United States and Chennai was the topic of a panel discussion held in the city recently. Congruent, a member of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, was invited to the event, organized as part of the ‘Madras Week 2018′ celebrations.

Chennai turned 379 on August 22nd, considered to be the founding day of Madras, as the city was formerly known.

Historian V Sriram, one of the panelists, recalled that Elihu Yale, after whom the famous Yale College was named, was a Governor of Madras in the late 17th century. He “made his fortune” in this city, and later contributed to the college named after him.

Two other Americans, Nathaniel Higginson and William Abbott, served as Mayors of Madras. The first English-Tamil dictionary, he said, was written by Dr Myron Winslow, an American citizen, who was a pastor at the Zion Church in the city.

During the American Civil War, Madras Presidency contributed in a significant way to cotton exports from India.

American military officer Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, came to this city and started the movement here.

Apparently, renowned author Mark Twain spent one night in Madras!

Over the years, the city has earned the reputation of being an automotive hub. Sriram recalled that the first conversion of a petrol engine to a diesel engine in India happened here in 1948, in a truck, for better fuel efficiency. In the 90s, when car manufacturers like Ford wanted to set up base here, he said, they found a ready set of ancillary units already available and willing to upgrade.

He shared some interesting facts related to the seaport, an important part of the history of Madras – during World War I, it was the only Indian city to be bombarded and in World War II, it was the only Indian port city on the eastern side not to be bombed!

With a thriving harbour, he said, the Americans came here in large numbers during the Second World War and a lot of the entertainment industry in Madras city “really owes its origins to the arrival of the Americans”.

The best photographs of Madras taken during that year, is by two American soldiers, the Hensley and Bond collection – these are now in the University of Chicago.

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