View: When British rule was almost nipped in the bud


At dawn on September 7, 1780, a Scottish soldier by the name of Colonel William Baillie could be seen leading a column of 4,000 sepoys and a few hundred Highland Scots through flooded rice fields about 35 miles south of Madras. Baillie knew he was surrounded on all sides by Tipu Sultan’s troops, but he hoped to cross the nine miles that separated him from the walls of Kanchipuram.

Around 5:30 am, Baillie finds himself blocked by a fortified village called Pollilur. It was full of Tipu’s troops and artillery. They had been waiting in ambush since they had been informed of Baillie’s route by spies the previous night. The two now began a fierce artillery barrage on Baillie’s exposed column.

Unable to advance and with no real possibility of retreat, Baillie ordered his troops to form a hollow square, “huddled on top of each other, three corps deep”, with their baggage and ammunition in the middle. There they stopped “to refresh the men with a drink and a biscuit.”

Under Baillie’s direction, the square repelled 13 Mysore cavalry charges. Around 8 o’clock in the morning, a cannonade broke out at close range, grapeshot mowing down the red tunics. “Our destiny was for over an hour to be exposed to the hottest cannonade India had ever seen,” Baillie’s brother John wrote. “We were mowed down by dozens.” Then two ammunition wagons were hit and exploded, making large openings in both lines, upon which their cavalry made the first impression. They were followed by the Elephants, who completed our overthrow.

At Pollilur, Tipu Sultan inflicted on the East India Company the most crushing defeat the Company had ever suffered, and a defeat that nearly ended British rule in India. Most of the 3,800 force was wiped out. Tipu eventually captured every fifth British soldier in India.

Tipu was proud of his victory and was quick to commemorate it with a mural, which still remains, though faded and much repainted, on the side wall of his palace at Darya Daulat Bagh on his fortified island of Srirangapatna. This is a slightly later copy of the central right section of this mural, painted between around 1799 and 1820, which Sotheby’s sold at auction on Wednesday for £630,000 (₹6.24 crore).

“The Battle of Pollilur” is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of the time: a panorama of one of the crucial turning points in Indian history, executed with vividness and energy. extraordinary works which had few rivals in the art of the time. The painting spans 10 large sheets of paper, 962 cm wide and 224 cm long (31.56 ft x 7.34 ft), and focuses on the moment the Company’s ammunition tumbril explodes, shattering the British square, while Tipu’s cavalry advanced left and right, “like the waves of an angry sea”, according to Mughal historian Ghulam Husain Khan. The troops of the Rosy-Cheeked Company await in fear the impact of Mysore’s charge, as Mysore’s thick-moustached spearmen close in to kill him. Meanwhile, Tipu, with magnificent composure, sniffs a single red rose as if he was going to a garden for pleasure to inspect its flowers.

Tipu stood out from almost all of his contemporaries by his foreknowledge of the power of the East India Company and his determination to attempt to root it out of India. He tried to warn the others: “Don’t you know the custom of the English? he wrote in vain to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1796. “Wherever they fix their claws, they manage little by little to meddle in the whole direction of affairs.

It was these British enemies of Tipu who contributed most to creating the image of Tipu so prevalent today. In 1799, before sending into the field the largest army the East India Company had ever assembled, the Governor-General, Lord Wellesley, launched a smear campaign portraying Tipu as an aggressive Muslim monster.

But what really worried the British was less that Tipu was a fanatic, something strange and alien, but was actually frighteningly familiar: a modernizing technocrat who wielded the weapons of the West against his own inventors. . Indeed, in many ways he beat them at their own game: the steely discipline of Mysore’s infantry astonished many British observers, and Mysore’s light cavalry was “the best in the world”, according to Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. In many ways Mysore’s troops were tactically well ahead of the Company’s armies: firing rockets from their camel cavalry to disperse hostile cavalry long before William Congreve’s rocket system devised in 1804 was adopted by the British Army.

Tipu was just as innovative in times of peace as he was in times of war. He tried to import industrial technology through French engineers and experimented with harnessing water power to run his machinery. He sent emissaries to China to bring back silkworm eggs and established sericulture in Mysore, which still enriches the region today. He introduced irrigation so that even his British enemies had to admit that his kingdom was “well cultivated, peopled with industrious inhabitants, [including Bengaluru] newly founded and expanded trade”.

Tipu tried to fight European mercantilist power with his own weapons: state monopoly and an aggressive ideology of expansion. It only failed because the Company’s resources were growing faster than those of Mysore. British propaganda might portray Tipu as a savage, but he was in fact an intellectual, with a library containing some 2,000 volumes in several languages ​​and a large collection of modern scientific instruments including thermometers and barometers.

Tipu knew what he was risking by facing the British. But as he said himself, “I’d rather live a day like a tiger than a whole life like a sheep.” He duly fought. When Wellesley’s army finally closed in for the kill in 1799, Tipu resisted with ingenuity and tenacity. His skillful defense ended with Tipu falling, sword in hand, to breach his defenses.

Tipu was a complex figure with a strong streak of cruelty in his character. It was an Islamic state, albeit run by a Hindu administration and a part-Hindu army, and led by a man who strongly believed in the power of Hindu deities. It is perfectly reasonable that the descendants of his victims – and I can count myself among them – remember his horrible savagery in victory. In Coorg, Malabar and Mangalore he was responsible for what we would today call war crimes.

But he was clearly loved by his people. As the British discovered to their surprise, “a number of his confidential Hindu servants recognized him as a lenient and indulgent master”. At his funeral, people lined the streets, “many of whom bowed down to the body and expressed their grief in loud lamentations.” It is therefore no exaggeration to see him as a courageous proto-nationalist.

For, while it is true that modern ideas of nationalism were only in their infancy, he identified the British as dangerous foreigners, and with his defeat of the Company at Pollilur did more than any other leader in the time to prevent them from taking over the country. .

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