The Curious story of the Hamilton Bridge

Somewhere around the 70’s or 80’s the spirit caught on and the various city councilors in many states & cities of India started changing street names, just like the colonial British administration had themselves started to do in the 18th century. Many a landmark we knew by their charming names ceased to exist and got replaced with names which sometimes failed to catch on. Nothing exemplifies it more than the case of Mount road. Even though it has been Anna Salai for ages, many like me still remember it as and refer to it as Mount road. I will do so anyway just like I call Chennai as Madras at times. For me Edwards Elliot’s road will be that and not Radhakrishna Salai and even though TTK was a great industrialist and more synonymous with the common man for his Tantex underwear and Prestige cookers, I will not associate Mowbray’s road with underwear. Look at Nungambakkam high road, would anybody change it in their mind to Uthamar Gandhi Salai? Maybe MG road would have worked. Anyway the zealous city officer is still hard at work and they gamely continue with attempts to name Chamier’s road to Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar Salai and Lattice Bridge - LB road to Kalki Krishnamoorthy Road…

But there is one story that still remains foremost in the Chennai minds and people continue to talk about it. It is the story of the Hamilton Bridge, a classic case of loss in translation or as one may call it gain in translation. In classic Tamil it is called Aambiltun Varavathy or Ambittan varavathy, somewhat like Pallavan Ttransport Corp or PTC is expanded as Pallavan Pokku Varathu Kazhakam..

The person who did some serious analysis on this subject is S Muthiah who writes for Hindu on such nostalgic matters. Muthiah has covered this subject in his own charming words in the Oct 16th 2006 issue. He agrees that the original name was Hamilton bridge, which got corrupted in local parlance to Ambiltun and from there went to Ambuttan which of course is barber in Tamil and a popular surname in English. So it finally reappeared on the scene as Barbers Bridge. But let us take a deeper look into this…

Col. Henry Davison Love, that authority on Madras from 1639-1800, expresses his views in Vestiges of Old Madras (1913) in this brief note: "Tradition describes the construction of this bridge to an engineer named Hamilton, a word corrupted by the natives into Ambaton. In process of time this designation was identified with the Tamil ambattan, a barber. The story should be accepted with reserve. The original bridge was probably built by the Portuguese, as mention is made of it during the French occupation of San Thomé, in 1672-1674 — that is, anterior to the period of British control over the site. During the 18th Century, Ensign James Hamilton, who was killed in Madura in 1764, was the only Engineer bearing that patronymic".

Anyway Muthaiah left it at that, wondering who the Hamilton could have been after whom the bridge was built, for naming a bridge after its engineer was not quite the in thing in those days or even today. Engineers like me usually work in obscurity, creating masterpieces and launching our well thought out ideas only for the well being of people like you all. We fade away in silence, working behind the scenes, like the back ground musicians in an orchestra, briefly bursting into a minutes fame now and then, like for example the saxophone player playing the sax in Anjalee anjalee for the famous ARR SPB song who gets the clap for a minute and then is quickly forgotten and cast into relative obscurity while the singer gets the roars of applause.Ah! I am meandering through a Sunday morning haze (in my mind that is), still to wake up and shine, I suppose, though the day outside is warm, bright and glorious.

So, who could this Hamilton be? A lowly engineer in whose name a bridge could be named? That required some hunting. And interestingly the answer related to the familiar nemesis to any person from Malabar, namely the inglorious Tipu Sultan. As it happens this engineer was also famous for the construction of a fort in Hosur Salem.

Now the original story will be quoted, for rewording it would be inappropriate (My thanks to Barry Lewis UIUC Department of Anthropology) and the Salem District manual

It runs as follows: Captain Hamilton (or according to others Stevenson), a British officer, then in captivity, is said to have been employed by Tippu Sultan to construct the fortifications, with the assistance of a midshipman, also a captive. Unfortunately, the position chosen happened to be overlooked by a neighboring hill, and Tippu, on learning of this mistake, at once issued orders for the execution of the two prisoners. The Englishmen had, however, during their stay at Hosur, been on very friendly terms with the inhabitants of the place; and so great was the sympathy evinced for them that no one could be found willing to put them to death, or even to lend a weapon for the purpose. After much difficulty, the only implement that could be procured was a small shoemaker’s knife, and with this instrument the prisoners were beheaded, Hamilton, stipulating that the younger man should die first. Tradition adds that, at the time of execution, a native maistry, who had long worked under Hamilton, begged him to leave him some memento. Hamilton had nothing to give the man but an old pair of compasses. Some thirty years ago an English officer (1876), while visiting Hosur, was struck by observing a native carpenter at work with a pair of compasses (an unusual circumstance) and asked him where he had obtained them. The workman answered that the compasses were an heirloom in his family, and had been given to one of his ancestors by some European officer, pointing in proof of his assertion to the letters J. H. scratched on one side. The story goes on to say that in a field named by this workman, two skeletons were found, which bore marks of decapitation. It is a historical fact, as narrated in Thornton’s “History of India,” volume II, pages 439, 440, that Hamilton and two other prisoners were massacred at Hosur on the approach of Lord Cornwallis’ army in 1791.

That was certainly a macabre version, but another and more traditional version exists as uncovered by the research of Gauri Viswanathan in the Amy Kaplan book. She explains thus.

In a mood of self commemoration an early administrator of madras, named Lord Hamilon named a bridge in Madras after himself. Because the short vowel ‘a’ does not exist in the Tamil language, the Madras inhabitants had trouble pronouncing the name Hamilton properly and it came out as Hummulton. When spoken fast, Hummulton is very close to the Tamil word for barber - Ambuttan. Nearly a century later, a British colonial surveyor unaware of the Lord Hamilton renaming, attempted to do an inventory of all bridges and other public structures in Madras and give English equivalents to Indian names wherever possible in an attempt to standardize names of streets bridges, monuments etc. When he asked a nearby Madras laborer the name of the bridge in question, he was told it was called Hummulton Bridge. Turning to his interpreter for the translation of the strange sounding word, the surveyor was told that it meant barber in Tamil. The surveyor dutifully recorded the name in its English translation as Barber’s bridge, the name by which it is still known today. The metamorphosis of the distinguished Lord Hamilton, seeking posterity in bridge naming, into a commonplace barber by whom his name is now known, is one of the delightful postcolonial rewritings of history that plays on double entenderes of multiple linguistic registers…

Interestingly Gauri explains this naming of towns, places and objects as a compulsive urge and persistent tendency by European colonizers to bestow their paternity on their colonial landscape as a gesture of ultimate conquest. So how will it explain the tendency of the present day occupants to rename it back into quaint words and phrases or truncate it to senseless terms that make no sense? For example the new tendency of stripping off the caste names from roads in Madras. Imagine Dr Nair road becoming the vague and nonsensical Dr Road or Dr Rangachari road to Dr Ranga Road……….How many know that JJ road is Judge Jambolingam road?

So is Gauri right? Was there a lord Hamilton in Madras? According to Muthiah, none. He opines however, that Madras had no Governor named Hamilton to justify the story that the bridge was named after a Governor of Madras. He adds … The only other Hamilton of any significance I've come across during this period is William Hamilton, a Civilian. When Major-General Archibald Campbell became Governor of Madras in 1785, he divided the administration into four Boards: Military, Hospital, Revenue and Trade. One of the four civil servants who constituted the Board of Trade was William Hamilton. That would have made him an eminent enough person to have something named after him. And why not a bridge, if he lived close-by?

And so we get back to the engineer Hamilton of the engineers corps. After he himself was hacked to death with the small cheese knife by the village chuckler, Hamilton’s villager friend buried the two in his own field some 1.5 miles from Hosur on the side of the Udenahalli road. In 1876 the skeletons of the two were checked by a medical examiner and returned to the graves though some suspicion about their identities came to being due to the younger skeleton lacking a thigh bone. The fort ditch and bomb cellars of the ill fated Hosur fort still remained in the late 19th century and it was here that the sub collector’s home was built later.

So as you can see, the case of the barber’s bridge was not the Madras or Chennai native clerk at work, but a classic case of an interesting bungle by an English surveyor. Or was it?

I cannot resist twisting the tale once again. This final twist comes from a person no lesser than the great Thurston, the anthropologist (Chapter - Ambattans of Travancore) who wrote ‘The Castes & Tribes of Southern India’. He explains first saying that the Hamilton Bridge connects the divisions of Triplicane and Mylapore. He then explains how it became Ambattans Bridge and thence Barbers Bridge and continues….

And the barber as he shaves you will tell how, in days before the bridge was built, the channel became unfordable during a northeast monsoon flood. An barber who lived on the Triplicane side had to shave an engineer who lived on the Mylapore side. With difficulty he swam across, and shaved the sahib while he was asleep, without waking him and in return asked that, in the public interests a bridge should be built across the channel.

And thus, fittingly Barbers Bridge was built, for the barbers, by the engineer…

So take the choice - For each unto his own..

Hindu Article
Cultures of United States imperialism - Amy Kaplan, Donald E. Pease
A manual of the Salem district in the presidency of Madras - Henry Le Fanu
Castes and Tribes of Southern India - Thurston Edgar

Hamilton bridge pic – Courtesy Hindu