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The Chennai area has always attracted seafarers, spice traders and cloth merchants. More than 2000 years ago, its residents engaged with Chinese, Greek, Phoenician, Roman and Babylonian traders. The Portuguese would later arrive in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch. The British, initially content to purchase spices and other goods from the Dutch, decided to end their monopoly in 1599, when the Dutch increased the price of pepper. In 1639, the British East India Company established a settlement in the fishing village of Madraspatnam and completed Fort St George in 1653. George Town was granted municipal charter in 1688 by James II, making it India’s oldest municipality.

In the 18th century, the supremacy of the British East India Company was challenged by the French. Robert Clive (Clive of India), a key player in the British campaign, recruited an army of 2000 sepoys (Indian soldiers in British service) and launched a series of military expeditions which developed into the Carnatic Wars. In 1756 the French withdrew to Pondicherry (now Puducherry), leaving the relieved British to develop Fort St George.

In the 19th century, the city became the seat of the Madras presidency, one of the four divisions of British Imperial India. After Independence, it continued to grow into what is now a significant southern gateway.