The ‘Tiger of Mysore’ was a renowned Indian war leader. A skilled tactician and innovator, Tipu embraced western methods to ensure that his forces could overwhelm his Indian rivals and match the British forces sent against him.
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Tipu Sultan was the eldest son of Hyder Ali, ruler of the Indian state of Mysore. Born and raised at Devanhalli, Tipu was trained in the art of warfare and from the age of 15 he accompanied his father on campaign. During his reign Hyder Ali aggressively expanded his domains, using his French-trained army to defeat the Marathas, the rulers of the Carnatic and other Indian powers. Mysore also faced growing opposition from the British, who were allied to several of the rulers in conflict with Hyder Ali. A clash for control of southern India was inevitable and two wars were fought, the First and Second Mysore Wars (1767-69 and 1780-84).
Tipu commanded a cavalry corps in the first, but during the second war, in which Mysore allied with Britain’s old rival on the sub-continent, France, his 10,000-strong army surrounded and defeated a British-Indian force of 4,000 men at Parambakum on 10 September 1780. Tipu’s French-trained regulars fought in column and broke through Colonel William Bailllie’s lines, forcing him to surrender.
It was the worst British defeat in India up to that time. Many of the prisoners were carried off into an appalling captivity. One of them, Captain David Baird, was held prisoner for four years before returning to his regiment and eventually leading the force that defeated Tipu in 1799.
In the meantime, the Second Mysore War dragged on with neither side able to claim a decisive victory, but before peace was signed in 1784 Tipu defeated Colonel Braithwaite at Annagudi near Tanjore on 18 February 1782, seizing ten guns and over 1,500 prisoners. Tanjore state itself was a British ally so Tipu’s men ravaged the country, destroying crops and cattle. In December of that year Tipu become ruler of Mysore after the death of his father.
Tipu realised that Mysore had to be strong if it was going to resist both the British and native powers like the Marathas. As well as building a modern army he encouraged road construction, the growth of trade, a new coinage, the introduction of the French system of weights and measures and other reforms.
Tipu was also a keen student of mathematics and science and always ready to apply new technologies to warfare. For example, the rockets Tipu used were more advanced than those previously seen by the British, largely because of the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabled higher thrust and longer range for the missile (up to two km). The British captured Mysore iron rockets and they later influenced their own rocket development during the Napoleonic Wars.
Tipu renewed hostilities with the British by ravaging the territory of their ally, the Rajah of Travanore in 1789. The British responded by allying with the Marathas and Nizam of Hyderabad and all three advanced on Mysore the following year. This Third Mysore War (1790-92) started with inconclusive minor actions, but the British were soon on the front foot, reducing several of Tipu’s fortresses, including Bangalore in 1791.
Mysore was relatively weak on this occasion, as Tipu could not rely on French support at a time when that country was in the throes of revolution. His men harassed enemy supply and communication lines and he embarked on a ‘scorched earth’ policy of denying local resources to the invaders. Insufficient supplies forced the British to retire to Bangalore, but the following year they returned. Tipu was driven back to his stronghold at Seringapatam and the Governor-General of India, Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, enforced a peace treaty that made Tipu cede part of his dominions to the British and their allies and pay a substantial financial settlement.
Tipu was a skilled political operator and sought alliances against the British and the Marathas by sending embassies to rulers like Zaman Shah Durrani of Afghanistan and the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I. His most powerful allies were the French and he hoped they would send troops to his aid, but Napoleon’s failure to conquer Egypt in 1798 rendered any chance of establishing a base for a military attack on British India impossible. Nevertheless, the British, under the expansionist governor-generalship of Richard Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington, believed he was in league with France and invaded, sparking the Fourth Mysore War (1799).
Supported once again by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the British greatly outnumbered Tipu’s army, but he made a stand at Mallavelly on 27 March 1799. Defeated by Colonel Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, Tipu was forced back to his capital Seringapatam, which was soon besieged by Lieutenant-General George Harris. As he was running short of supplies, Harris stormed the city as soon as a practicable breach had been opened, Major-General David Baird leading the assault by 4,800 men on 4 May 1799.
Tipu led a stout defence that saw nearly 10,000 Mysoreans killed, including Tipu himself who may have been betrayed by one of his own confidants. His body was dragged from beneath a pile of dead by the city’s northern gate, suggesting that he had continued fighting to the very end. Following his death, Mysore was partitioned and the rump of the state given to a British client ruler. Tipu, nicknamed the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, was one of the most formidable Indian opponents the British ever faced and his death removed one of the blocks to their conquest of the sub-continent.
"In the management of the horse, the bow, the lance or the musket, [Tipu] shone pre-eminent. He was also an excellent scholar, and even though inured to war from infancy, reputed a good poet and was respected in the army as an excellent and indefatigable soldier."
The Hon. John Lindsay, Journal of An Imprisonment in Seringapatam, in 'Lives of the Lindsays' (1840).
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