Tipu Sultan

Last year, the New York Times and BBC News spoke volumes about Tipu Sultan’s victory over East India Company in the Battle of Pollilur (10 September 1780) during the 2nd Anglo-Mysorian War, eulogising the daring of Tipu in the Battle of Pollilur when Tipu Sultan: Painting of British defeat in India was sold at auction in London on March 30, 2022. These journalists suppressed the factual information and went further to bestow accolades on Tipu’s rocket expertise and war tactics, which supposedly led to Tipu’s victory.

The real scene at the battlefield would have been much clearer had these journalists taken some pains and effort to go through the archives and found a copy of “Historical Sketches of South India, Vol. 1, by Colonel Mark Wilks.” They would have known that Tipu was nothing but a coward and was hated by his father, Hyder Ali, for his ordinary sepoy-like attitude, as Tipu was very shortsighted and lacked leadership qualities.

A paragraph in the book reads,

“Hyder had a very low opinion about Tippu’s intellect and character. He considered that his son’s intellect was of an inferior order, and his disposition was wantonly cruel, deceitful, vicious, and intractable. Once, Tippu seized a British prisoner of war and forcefully circumscribed him. Hyder abused his son in the worst ways and put him in solidarity confinement. On many occasions, Hyder predicted that his worthless successor would lose the empire that he had created” (Page 841).

Tipu really only had control over Mysore from 1782 to 1792. During the third Anglo-Mysorian war, he suffered defeat and had to cede control of half of his territory to the British, Nizam, and Marathas. In fact, the British had decided to kill Tipu in 1792 only but postponed it till 1799 because the Marathas would have benefited the most from the utter annihilation of Mysore in 1792.

Colonel Mark Wilks, in his above book, has clearly stated that the Battle of Pollilur was not at all an important battle. He writes,

“This victory cost the Mysore army very dear, as the slaughter of their best troops was immense, and nothing but the accident of thumbrils could have saved Hyder from a total defeat.”

Battle of Pollilur: Background:

There was a complicated relationship between the Marathas, Mysore, Arcot Nawab, and British. To establish supremacy in Deccan and southern India, Hyder and the Marathas engaged in a continual conflict. Hyder resented Arcot Nawab and yearned for an alliance with the British. Unfortunately, Arcot Nawab was a natural ally of the British, and the British army controlled every one of their forts. Therefore, the British made no official alliance with Hyder. Arcot Nawab established a covert arrangement with the Marathas to accomplish his goal of having the British form an alliance with the Marathas at the same time. The British were ambivalent about this idea because they thought that destroying Hyder would give the Marathas more power.

Oddly, the Marathas were open to forming an alliance with Hyder to conquer the British and Arcot dominions, and they even floated the idea to Hyder. Hyder, however, informed the British in the hopes that the British would invade the Marathas, but the British had no faith in Hyder and continued to delay their alliance with Hyder.

In 1775, Hyder finally decided against creating a union with the English and began focusing on their opponent in Europe, the French. Wilks wrote,

“In May 1775, that sagacious chief, disgusted with procrastination and distinctly perceiving the secret workings of the same crooked policy, which had uniformly impeded his alliance with the English, dismissed the envoys with a civil letter, intimating, in polite terms, that as the climate appeared to be unfavourable to their health, he could not subject them to further inconvenience.”

As a strategic move, Hyder Ali made contacts with the Governor of Pondicherry, Monsieur Bellecombe. The contact bore fruit as Hyder was provided with all the military supplies he would need through the French fortifications of Mahe on the coast of Malabar. The two also planned future cooperation to meet a more advantageous need.

On August 31, Sir Munroe initiated the attack on Pondicherry following the declaration of war between Britain and France in March 1778. Governor Bellecombe surrendered to the British on October 17. Mahe was under British siege, and finally, it was captured in March 1779, despite Hyder’s forces helping with the protection of the fort. Hyder became very dissatisfied with the British for breaking the terms of the 1769 agreement, their hostile attitude at Mahe, their attempt to march troops through his territory, the order of officials of Arcot Nawab to patrol the rough country, and the company’s employees at Tellicherry for providing security and assistance to Hyder’s rebellious Malabar subjects. Feeling insulted at the hands of the British, Haider abruptly entered the Carnatic, sliding through Changma Pass with his troops, and declared war on the British and the Nawab of Arcot on July 21, 1780, when they were least prepared. On July 22, he gathered a select corps of 5,000 horses under the command of his second son, Xurreem Saheb, to raid and plunder Porto Novo, an ocean port located about forty miles south of Pondicherry, and on July 24, he landed at St. Thomas Mount, where the neighbouring villages were raided and looted. Hyder carried out the willful and indiscriminate destruction of the entire countryside. These attacks made in haste were against his long-term goals of total conquest. Hyder started ruthless destruction around the hub of British power and its maritime communications, which was characterised by the never-ending blaze of flaming towns and villages since he calculated that a full military operation and the assistance of the French army would take time to capture Fort St. George. The villages blazed in the radius of 35 miles of Fort St.George. He drew a similar circle thirty miles around Vellore, also burning the surrounding territory. Hyder was charged on Arcot; the day was August 21, 1780.

At once,the British garrison at Madras decided to gather soldiers in Kanchipuram under the command of Lord McLeod, in charge of the H.M.73rd Regiment at Poonamallee. McLeod was not ready to assemble the troops in Kanchipuram as Hyder had occupied the entire area. McLeod suggested concentrating the army in Madras itself. McLeod’s inability to go to Kanchipuram made General Sir Hector Munro assume command of the army at Kanchipuram. Sir Hector Munro, along with 5209 army men, of whom 838 were Europeans, landed at Kanchipuram on August 29. British troops under Col.Brathwaite and his troops at St.Thomas Mount had already started for Kanchipuram on August 26th.

Before that, on August 1, Colonel William Bailey was asked to move towards Madras via Tirupati. Colonel Bailey was in charge in Pondicherry during the demolition of the French defences there in 1779, and in the Northern Circars in 1780, he was in charge of a separate force made up of two European infantry companies, two artillery batteries, and five native infantry battalions. He arrived in Nellore on August 16 and reached Gommidipondy on August 24. His force consisted of 2813 army men, of whom 207 were Europeans. He was commanding a battalion for the first time. He was instructed to march through Periapollem and Tripassoor to Kanchipuram. On August 25, he arrived at the Kortallayar River’s banks at Vengal. Bailey set up camp on the northern banks. The river was dry, and he would have been able to cross it to reach the southern bank of the river very easily, as it was just in the opposite direction. Instead, he decided to take a rest. It proved a very costly error because that night of August 25, torrential rain poured down and flooded the river, making it impossible for him to cross until September 4th. He was only 14 miles from the location where Sir Hector Munro was based. Bailey could have arrived in Kanchipuram in less than a day had he not taken the rest.

( to be continued)

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