History of British Settlement of Madras and its Judicial Institutions Development


British settlement of Madras established out of a grant made by the local Raja in 1639 who empowered the Company to erect a fortified factory on a strip of land, to mint money and to govern the village of Madraspatnam, on condition that half the customs and revenues of the port should be paid to the Raja. The new trading station was named Fort St. George and an Agent and Council took over its charge in 1641 under the control of Surat Presidency. It acquired the status of Presidency in 1666. The Fort area, inhabited by the English and Europeans, was later designated as ‘White town’ and the village area of Madraspatnam, inhabited by the natives, as ‘Black town’. The whole establishment ultimately developed into the modern city of Madras.

Administration of Justice

The administration of justice in Madras before 1726 developed into following three stages, i.e., –

1. First Stage From 1639 to 1665–During this period the separate provisions were made for the administration of justice in Black Town and White Town as under-

(i) Choultry Court Administered Justice in Black Town – Originally Madraspatnam had its own system of village administration which was not interfered with by the English for some time to come. There was a village headman known as Adigar, i.e., Adhikari, who was responsible for the maintenance of law and order. He administered justice to the natives at the Choultry Court according to long-established usages. It was a Court of petty jurisdiction deciding small matters of civil nature and breaches of peace. In 1654, for the first time two English servants of the Company replaced the Adigar and became judges at the Choultry to administer justice during alternate weeks with the help of the Adigar. But in 1663, the English judges gave way to the natives, though again and finally in 1665, an English servant of the Company.was appointed in their place to administer equal justice to all persons in Madraspatnam without partiality, oppression or arbitrary will. In 1668 two English servants of the Company took over the administration of justice at the Choultry sitting twice a week. Appeals could be taken to the agent-in-Council.

(ii) Agent-in-Council Administered Justice in White Town – The Agent-in-Council administered civil and criminal justice to Englishmen. They could not, however, decide the cases of capital offences. At times they took counsel from England to dispose of the cases. The mode in which justice was administered at this stage is nowhere described.

The Charter of 1661 authorized the Company to appoint governors and other officers for its Government in India. It might govern its employees in a legal and reasonable manner and punish them for misdemeanour and fine them for breach of orders. The Governors in Council of each place were empowered to judge all persons belonging to them and the Company or who would live under them in all causes, civil or criminal, according to the laws of England and execute judgment accordingly. This general provision, emanating directly from the Crown, is said to have put judicial power in the sole hands of the executive and restricted the law to be administered to that of England.

The grant of the Charter of 1661 was followed by raising the status of the Agency of Madras to that of Presidency in 1666.

2. Second Stage From 1666 to 1686 – In 1678 the whole judicial system was reorganized and put on a sound footing as under-

(i) Choultry Court – In this period the number of English Judges was increased from two to three. At least two of them were to administer justice twice a week. They might be assisted by two or more officers of the Company. The Court had to decide petty criminal cases and civil cases upto the valuation of 50 pagodas, and cases of higher value by consent of the parties, Aggrieved parties were allowed to prefer appeals to the Court of Judicature, consisting of the Governor and members of his Council, where a jury was employed to give verdicts. All sentences were to be duly registered. Alienations or sales of slaves, houses and other property were to be recorded.

(ii) Court of Judicature-Since administration of justice was not efficient and regular in civil and criminal cases. Therefore, the Governor-in-Council declared themselves to be a Court of Judicature for the trial of civil and criminal cases, except petty.ones, with the help of a jury of twelve men according to English law twice a week. The judges of the Choultry and the Constable or officers under them were to execute all orders, writs and summons issued by the Court of Judicature for returning of juries, executions after judgments, apprehension of criminals and the like. A Marshall to take charge of the prisoners, a Clerk of the Court, to act as the Clerk of the Peace also, and one other officer of the Court, were appointed. Public notices were given as to the time and place of murder trials. Jurors and witnesses were sworn in the prescribed form. Punishment of forfeiture of “goods and chattels” to the Crown could be awarded.

3. Third Stage 1686 to 1726 – During this period the following courts were established for the administration of justice –

(i) Court of Admiralty – Under the Charters of 1683 and 1686, a Court of Admiralty was established in Madras in 1686 superseding the Court of Judicature which had temporarily ceased to exist in 1684. Three senior civil servants of the Company were the personnel of the Admiralty Court – one to act as its Judge and the other two as his assistants. In 1687 the Court was provided with the services of an Attorney-General and a Registrar. The Court was not confined to deciding admiralty cases proper but it also acted as a General Court of Judicature and the Supreme Court of the settlement. This was certainly the position from  July 1687 when Sir John Biggs, a person learned in the civil law, was sworn in as Judge-Advocate of the Court on an yearly salary. He presided at the Quarter Sessions and sat at an occasional Court-Martial as its President trying pirates, though the Governor usually presided at Court-Martial. Sir John became Recorder of the Mayor’s Court constituted in 1688 to assist it in its judicial work. The Admiralty Court heard appeals from the Mayor’s Court. Sir John Biggs expired in 1689.

Thereafter the Admiralty Court ceased to operate.

(ii) Court of Governor-in-Council – In 1690 the Governor-in-Council temporarily established a Court of Judicature consisting of the Governor as Judge-Advocate and two members of the Council as Judges. Two merchants were associated with them. An Armenian merchant was to enquire into cases of Armenians and other foreigners, being well-versed in their languages, laws and customs. Likewise a Hindu merchant was to enquire into the cases of natives, being expert in native languages, laws and customs. An Attorney-General was also attached to the Court. It subsisted till 1692 when a new Judge-Advocate, John Dolben from England, took his seat at  the Admiralty, being assisted by two merchants.

(iii) Mayor’s Court – The Mayor and Aldermen were to be a Court of Record with power to decide all civil and criminal cases. It was to deal with offences by fine, imprisonment.or corporal punishment. A right of appeal to the Court of Admiralty was guaranteed in civil cases where the value of the award ‘exceeded 3 Pagodas and in criminal cases if the offender was sentenced to lose life or limb. Some uncertainty, however, subsisted as as to the power of the Mayor’s Court to inflict capital punishment. In 1712 the Governor-in-Council conceded that the Mayor’s Court could, under the Charter, sentence a criminal to death, and the Court did so in certain cases of murder, but in 1718, the Governor-in- Council expressed the view that the Mayor’s Court could not award capital punishment in cases of Englishmen, though it could do so in those of the native-criminals.

The Mayor and two Aldermen formed the quorum of the Mayor’s Court, sitting once-a fortnight. An English covenanted servant of the Company, skilful in the laws, was to be nominated by the Mayor and Aldermen as the Recorder of the Court, but the first Recorder was Sir John Biggs, nominated by the Charter, to assist it in its judicial work. An Englishman, well skilled in the native languages, was to work as the Clerk of the Peace. The Mayor and three senior Aldermen were to be the Justices of the Peace.

Jury System – The jury system appears to have been followed in the Admiralty and Mayor’s Courts in their criminal proceedings.

(iv) Choultry Court – The Choultry Court was continued with a diminished jurisdiction. Two of the Aldermen who were’ Justices of the Peace were to sit twice a week at Choultry to deal with cases of petty offences and small matters of civil nature upto a valuation of 2 Pagodas.Thus, the Choultry became a Court of petty jurisdiction. The civil jurisdiction of the Choultry Court was taken away by the Court of Request in 1753, but it continued with its criminal jurisdiction till 1800.


Thus, it can be said in brief that at the end of the year 1704 there existed three Courts – Choultry Court, Mayor’s Court and the Court of the Governor-in-Council. This system of administering justice went up to the year 1727, when in that year a new revolution in the field of judicial institutions came by the establishment of the Mayor’s Court at Madras. This Mayor’s court differed from the existing Mayor’s courts of 1687 which was merely the Company’s Court, while the Court of 1727 was a King’s Court established under Royal Charter.



Describe the history of British settlement of Madras and explain how its judicial institutions developed in three stages.


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