The siege of Serringapatam

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If Lord Clive laid the foundation stone of East India’s Company’s strong bastion in Bengal, the Wellesley brothers were the architect of the Company’s expansion in India. They constructed the Manhattan of British Empire in India on the theory that Clive had exposed, the latter had shown the weak state of India rulers. In pen and paper the Company was a puny army, but on the field it was something extraordinary capable of routing any attack and competent to face any enemy on the face of India. The Company soon had become a real power in India that no ruler could neglect, and this was the basis for bringing in the most important arrangement that speeded the British expansion in India. The Subsidiary Alliance brought in by Richard Wellesley was an arrangement between the weak and strong. It was something beyond just “protection money” it was a speedy way to accelerate the expansion. If a native state became a part of the alliance they would not be required to maintain an independent force, they would be automatically under Company protection, but not for free, only after payment of an annual “maintenance fee”, and if the native states failed to pay the cash, their lands would be confiscated. Such This way the Company annexed, Hyderabad, Mysore, Tanjore, Awadh, Peshwa, Scindhia, Gaewkad, and so on.  Richard Wellesley (known as The Earl of Mornington from 1781 until 1799) devised the plan and it was his Brother Arthur Wellesley’s  (later Duke of Wellington)task to execute it, and he did it with amazing skill.

Arthur Wellesley the man who defeated both Tipu and Napoleon

Three months after Richard’s posting as Governor General of India; he received a secret information from Europe that, “the preparations making by the French in the Mediterranean for fitting out a considerable naval force with the transport for embarkation of troops. This force it was supposed would be ready for the sea by end of the month of April last. Various accounts are given of its destination; the strange report of its being destined for the conquest of Egypt, and after the success of that wild adventure for the most extravagant project of conveying aid by Suez to Tipu Sultan….I am much inclined to give credit that at least a part of this force is probably destined for an expedition to India by the ordinary passage round the Cape of Good Hope.”[1] The information was very true for in August 1797 Napoleon had proposed a military expedition to Egypt to protect French interests and undermine the British establishments in India. Napoleon had assured that as soon as he had won over Egypt he will contact with Tipu and free India from yoke of English Company. According to a report on 13th February by Talleyrand, “having occupied and fortified Egypt we shall send a force of 15000 men from Suez to India to join Tipu Sahib and drive away the English.” [2]

Lord Richard Wellesley

The news of the French developments in India weren’t very much pleasing to the East India Company, the French were all over in India, and they were as military officers, soldiers in the army of the three powerhouses in India, the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Mysore. The Earl of Mornington writing about the crucial French connection exclaims, “we must add a firm resistance against the intrusion of any foreign power which shall endeavour to acquire a preponderant influence in the scale of Indian politics, either by force or by intrigue, but the primary object of all our vigilance and care must be the destruction of every seed of the French party, already grown to so dangerous a height, and still increasing in the armies of the Nizam, Scindhia, and Tippoo.” The useful ally of the Company the  Nizam of Hyderabad had in his employment a force run by 124 French officers, 14000 in number who bore the colours of the French Republic and had the cap of Liberty engraved upon their buttons[3], the fear of the Earl of Mornington was, “it appears, however nearly certain that in the present weak state of the Nizam’s Government the French Corps in his  service would openly join Tippoo Sultaun and by a sudden blow endeavour to sieze the Nizam’s territories and to secure them under the dominion of France.”[1]

In fact Tipu was making every effort to collaborate with the French and launch immediate hostilities on the Company. To achieve this purpose he had sent emissaries to Isle of France (Mauritius) which was then a French colony, to obtain necessary assistance from the French Government. The French had supplied him a small force not exceeding 200 persons who landed from a Frigate La Preneuse at Mangalore on 26th April 1798 and Tipu personally received them with honour and marks of distinction. In fact Tipu’s Grande Strategie was revealed after his death in the fortress of Seringapatnam, a letter to the People and Government of the Isle of France which explicitly told his design. “You cannot be ignorant of the friendship which my father and myself have entertained for the French. The English the ambitious English not having sufficient confidence in their own strength and courage to attack me singly, formed an alliance with the Nizam and Mahrathas and attacked every quarter. At the very moment when I was on the point of conquering them the French Army under the command of M. De Cossigny received an order from M. De Bussi to abandon me, although i had paid them well, and they were in want of nothing; but what filled me with indignation was that those orders extended to M. De Lally who commanded a body of French in my pay to withdraw himself with his party, this I opposed and on just grounds. From that moment my army became disgusted. Reduced singly to my own resources and abandoned by my allies I was compelled to make peace with the loss of half of my dominions and three Crores and half Rupees in specie.”[4] What Tipu did not mention in these passages was the utter humiliation that he had to suffer after the first fall of Seringapatam, his sons were taken hostages by Lord Cornwallis. Later Cornwallis explained what was like defeating Tipu, the Sultan he exclaimed stood on the great rampart as his sons were taken on two huge elephants with silver howdah, accompanied by horsemen and infantry to the English camp. “The Princes were flowing robes of white muslin and red turbans, in which each wore a spring of rich pearls. They had necklaces composed of several rows of large pearls. From the necklace each wore an ornament of the same pattern the centre of which consisted of a large rich ruby, and one exquisitely chaste emerald. The centre piece was surrounded by brilliants. Their manners were characterized by propriety and dignity becoming their high rank.”. Gullam Ali the principal Waqil of Tipu surrendered the sons to Cornwallis saying, “these children were this morning the sons of the Sultan, my master; their situation is now changed, and they must look up to your Lordship as their father.”[5] Cornwallis greeted the kids with warmth and affection and presented them gold watches, while he reduced Tipu’s dominion into two, yielding a revenue of 1,135,000 Pound Sterling, cash to the amount of 3,600,000 Pounds, the important ports of Calicut and Cannor, some 2000 square miles in all. Cornwallis returned to England in 1793 to join the War Cabinet, taking with him a ‘hawking ring’ seized from Tipu and the title of Marques of Cornwallis thrust upon him![6]

The economic loss of Tipu was huge, his military loss was severe, the Sultan had lost 432 field guns, his killed, wounded and missing amounted 31,720 men, the Nizam’s army took 4 forts, Bombay Army took 16 and Cornwallis 40! Tipu was full of vengeance and desperate to expel the British from India. Anxious for French support Tipu made clear that he would provide the money, equipment, resources, food everything (excepting European liquor) to all French soldiers employed under him, in return the French officers should directly take orders from him. The territories, forts, and plunder won by the Franco-Indian army would be shared equally however those territories which were lost by Tipu after the treaty of Seringapatam would be naturally claimed by him. If the Nizam or the Mahrathas would cross ways with the Allied forces they would automatically become their common enemy and naturally destroyed. These were the key issues which Tipu placed before the Government of Isle of France to convey to the French high command. Tipu also pointed that he was ready with a force of 30,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry and he required at least 5 to 10 thousand French forces to land in his dominion to begin the offensive immediately. One striking point here is that Tipu not once asked the French about weapons or ammunitions all he stressed was a regular French troop, this means that he had enough confidence in his own arsenal which no doubt was very sophisticated. Another proposal that Tipu had placed before the French was an assault on Goa to drive out the Portuguese and take possession of the important port of Goa. Tipu argued with Goa under their control the French Navy would gain an important stronghold in the Western Theatre. Shortly after the offensive-defensive alliance with the French, a troop of twenty soldiers under General Chappuis arrived in Mangalore sent by Governor General Malartic. General Chappuis remained with Tipu till the fall of Seringapatam.

The English could not sit idle, although they were quite confident about their warships, yet they were watchful, “Tippoo will not venture to move without having obtained a more effectual succor from the French than they have yet afforded to him, and I am equally confident that the vigilance of our Government at home, and our fleets will oppose every possible obstacle to the approach of the French towards this quarter of the globe. But I still feel the early preparations for war….”

In the eyes of the Company, “the succour actually received by Tippoo Sultan under his offensive alliance with the French is inconsiderable, yet the tenor of the proclamation, the proposition made by the French Government for unlimited Military aid and etc, and the declarations of the Ambassadors prove that it was the intention of Tippoo Sultaun to receive into his service the largest force which he could obtain for the purpose of commencing a war against the Company in India.[7] Lord Mornington was aware that, “the motive therefore of Tippoo Sultaun was no other than that avowed in his correspondence with the enemy and published under the eyes of his own ambassadors an immediate desire to expel the British Nation out of India.”

Lord Mornington had made up his mind that it would not be wise to provide Tipu a second chance, “my determination was fixed to attack Tippoo with every degree of practical aspect. The objects which appeared to be most desirable as well was easily attainable were-

  1. To seize the whole maritime territory remaining in his possession below the ghats on the coast of Malalbar in order to preclude him from all future communication by sea with his French allies.
  2. By marching the army from the coast of Coromandel directly upon his capital to compel him to purchase peace by a formal cessation of territory seized on the coast.
  3. To compel him to defray our whole expense in the war and thus secure the double advantage of indemnifying us for the expense occasioned by his aggression and of reducing his resources with a view to our future security.
  4. To compel him to admit permanent residents at his court from us and from our Allies, a measure which would enable us at all times to check his operations and to counteract the intricacies of his treachery.
  5. That the expulsion of all the natives of France now in his service and the perpetual exclusion of all Frenchmen both from his army and dominions should be made conditions of any treaty of peace with him.”

Tipu however tried his best to buy time and kept his real intentions camouflaged under the vicious game of diplomacy, in a letter to Lord Mornington following the battle of Nile the Sultan exults, “the particulars which your Lordship has communicated to me relative to the victory obtained by the English fleet over that of the French near the shores of Egypt, nine of their ships have been captured and two burnt, on one of which of the latter was their Admiral have given me more pleasure than can possibly be conveyed through writing. Indeed I possess the finest hope that the leaders of the English and the Company Bahadur who ever adhere to the paths of sincerity friendship and good faith and are the well wishers of the mankind will at all times be successful and victorious, and that the French who are of crooked disposition faithless and enemies of mankind, may ever be depressed and ruined.”[8]

Battle of the Nile

The English weren’t behind in the game of diplomacy; Lord Mornington tried to emotionally pacify Tipu by pointing that Napoleon’s aggression in Egypt had had insulted the Ottoman Government which was headquarters of Islamic Empires across the World. In fact Napoleons campaign in Egypt was not taken casually by the Ottoman Government, the Sublime Porte ended all French connections and France which was long their good friend had suddenly tuned a fatal enemy, an enemy to Islam. The Earl of Mornington tactfully tried to rouse the religious sentiments of Tipu in a letter, “the Porte justly outraged by an aggression so atrocious and unprecedented as the invasion of Egypt has now united in a common cause with the British Nation for the purpose of curbing the intemperance of the French; and the Grand Signior having learnt the unfortunate alliance which your Majesty has contracted with his enemies the French against his friends and allies the British Nation, his Highness resolved from the motives of friendship towards you as well as towards the British Nation to warn you in an amicable letter of the dangers of this fatal connection and to exhort you to manifest your zeal for the Mussulman faith by renouncing all the intercourse with the common enemy of every religion and the aggressor of the head of the Mahomeddan Church.”[9] The Earl of Mornington also forwarded a copy of the letter of Sultan Selim (Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1789 to 1807) to Tipu wherein the Sultan earnestly requested Tipu to severe all connections with the French as they in his eyes had insulted the sacred places so dear to every Mohammedans and made themselves fit as enemies of the Faith. [10]Suddenly strategic interests, grand alliance and personal areas dashed around in mutual conflict for Tipu. The Napoleon-Tipu strategy to establish key areas of strength by attacking Egypt, had angered the most important friend of Tipu or any Muslim chief, vassal or king. Tipu had to choose one and choose well; trapped in the same circumstances as Pervez Musharraf in recent times he never replied to that letter, this dreadful silence meant danger for English establishment in India. Mornington was quick to understand this in his letter to General Harris he says, “received no answer from Tipu…the object of Sultan’s silence is to delay the commencement of decisive military operations until the season shall be so far advanced as to render the siege of his capital impracticable during the present year.”[11]

Mornington had made advance preparations, any war with Tipu would first begin with gathering allies at side, and this was no surprise therefore, that he demanded from the Nizam that the French forces would be disbanded and as usual replaced by English forces. The Nizam readily agreed and signed yet another treaty on October 22nd 1798 by which he was to maintain 6000  English forces with a proportion of European artillery, and to pay an annual subsidy of 14,17,000 Rupees. The disbandment was easy, the French were forced out by Colonel Roberts, the 124 French prisoners were sent to Calcutta who were later packed and sent to Europe. The most important objective had been won the Nizam was now untied with the English to crush Tipu.[12] The Earl of Mornington had already ordered General Harris to march towards Seringapatam, and on 22nd February 1799 he removed the diplomatic curtain in style and intimated Tipu that his, “long silence on this important and pressing occasion compelled me to adopt the resolution of ordering the British forces to advance in concert with the armies of the allied powers.” The Governor General had handed over to General Harris two packets containing a draft of articles to be executed with the Sultan with specific guidelines. Draft A with the demands of the Allies to be sent to Tipu just after reaching Seringapatam, before blazing the guns, with clear instruction to Tipu that if this was denied than the demands of Draft B will be the last option, the latter obviously contained more demands than former, for example Draft A had demand of Rupees One Crore and half (half to be paid instantly other half in six months) and Draft B claimed Two Crores, in either case Tipu had to deliver two of his eldest son as hostage or security for the outstanding. Through this arrangement Tipu would lose the whole cost of Malabar, and besides he will pay huge indemnity for the war expenses. As for the war preparations General Harris as said before was marching in from Vellore, General Stuart was coming from Cannore and Colonel Brown from South was marching in to hunt the Tiger of Mysore right into its den.


[1] The Earl of Mornington to his Excellency Rear Admiral Rainier, 29th August 1798.

[2] At Aboukir and Acre: A Story of Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt, By George A. Henty

[3] Wellington’s Campaigns in India,  By Reginald George Burton

[4] Tipu Sultan to the people and representatives of the Isle of France, 2nd April 1797.

[5] The illustrated history of the British Empire in India and the East, from the earliest times to the suppression of the Sepoy mutiny in 1859  By Edward Henry Nolan.

[6] The East India Company: And the British Empire in the Far East, By Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, The East India Company

[7] Minute of the Governor General in the Secret Department, Fort William August 12, 1798.

[8] Tipu Sultan to the Earl of Mornington, 18th Dec 1798.

[9] Earl of Mornington to Tippoo Sultan, 16th January 1799.

[10] Ibid

[11] Earl of Mornington to Gen Harris 3rd Feb 1799.

[12] History of Tipu Sultan,  By Mohibbul Hasan

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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