There's a word in Tamil that derives from the name of a German warship. An 'Emden' is someone who is bold and works with precision. Just as Karl von Muller, the captain of the SMS Emden, was when he launched the only enemy attack on Indian soil of the First World War.
The stone above stands on the sea-facing wall of Madras (not Chennai, note) High Court. The Emden was based at Tsingtao, a German concession in China. It slipped unnoticed into the Bay of Bengal. And on the late evening of 22nd September 1914, the German cruiser anchored a couple of miles off Chennai/Madras and let loose 130 shells in half-an-hour.
Muller's aim was to hit at commercial targets and to cause alarm. In the latter goal in particular he was successful. Shrabani Basu's excellent For King and Another Country - the relevant section is serialised here - states: 'Panic spread in [Madras] and nearly 20,000 left every day. Crowds went out of control and the railways had to summon special police. Those who could not get the train took the road, leaving on carts and on foot. Prices of commodities shot up. The Times newspaper estimated that the Emden’s raid at the mouth of the Hooghly and down the Coromandel coast had left the province of Burma isolated for a fortnight, paralysed the trade of Calcutta, pushed up the cost of insurance on the seas and cost the country over a million pounds. There were fears that the Emden would return.'
The port's field guns eventually managed to fire some shells in the general direction of the Emden - nine in all, none found their target.
A few weeks later, the Emden was involved in an even more daring attack - on Penang in Malaya. It sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. But in November, it came off the worse in a clash with an Australian naval ship near the Cocos Islands.
The Emden's captain deliberately ran the ship aground to prevent it sinking - more than a hundred of those on board lost their lives, but two-hundred others survived.
Some of the guns of the Emden were salvaged - three of them are in display in Australia. The one featured here is a 10.5 cm gun which is now in Hyde Park in Sydney.
Military experts says this was indeed one of the guns that opened fire on Madras.
As for the High Court building, the damage was superficial. So one of the gems of Indo-Saracenic architecture - built in the 1890s - survived, and still stands.
I wasn't allowed in with my camera, and from the road you get only a peep of some of the astonishing towers and domes. So to give proper measure of the marvellous court complex that escaped the Emden's artillery rounds, here's a picture from the internet that does the Madras High Court (if you will forgive the pun, or even if you won't) 'full justice'.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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