20th November 1750: Tipu Sultan, the king of Mysore, was born

The ‘Tiger of Mysore’ Tipu Sultan, who bravely fought the British and was known for introducing innovative administrative schemes and military technology, was born on November 20, 1750, in Devanahalli (around 33 km north of present-day Bengaluru).

Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali, who served as a military officer at the Mysore kingdom, became the most powerful person in Mysore by 1761. Tipu’s mother, Fatima Fakhr-un-Nisa, was the daughter of the governor of Kadapa Fort. As a child Tipu learnt several languages, including Hindustani, Arabic and Kannada, and was trained in military aspects such as shooting and fencing. French officers employed by Hyder Ali taught military tactics to a young Tipu, who as a teenager participated in the First Mysore War of 1766 against the British and the campaign of 1767.

In 1780, a force led by Tipu vanquished Colonel Baillie in the Battle of Pollilur. On February 18, 1782, Tipu defeated Colonel Braithwaite at Annagudi, seizing all British guns and taking several prisoners. Hyder Ali fell seriously ill in the middle of the Second Anglo-Mysore War and died in December 1782. Dashing British hopes of a chaotic transition of power, Tipu Sultan became the ruler of Mysore on December 22, 1782.

The Second Anglo-Mysore War dragged on through 1783 and into the early part of 1784. The British eventually accepted defeat, and signed the Treaty of Mangalore in March 1784. This treaty is significant as it would mark the last time that an Indian ruler would dominate the British so much that he could dictate terms to them.

Despite these impressive victories against the British, Tipu realised that the East India Company was no ordinary power. In fact, amongst all the rulers in India, Tipu arguably was the only one who understood the true nature of the British threat. Accordingly, he not only took steps to modernise his military but sent diplomatic missions to foreign nations — from the Ottoman Turks to France — to explore the possibilities of an alliance against the British. Though none of these grand alliances eventually materialised (the French at best provided some local support in India), the tantalising possibility of thwarting British expansionistic  designs in India in the late 18th century got its clearest strategic expression in Tipu’s military and diplomatic manoeuvres.  

In 1787, Tipu sent emissaries to Istanbul to the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I, asking for soldiers and military experts to fight the British. However, the Ottomans had just finished one major war and were embroiled in another, and didn’t want to antagonise another major power, Britain. So the sultan could not come to Tipu’s aid. However, despite this setback, Tipu did not give up hope and continued pursuing the diplomatic track with the Ottoman empire.

An equally interesting attempt was made to find a common cause with France. But France was in turmoil because of the French Revolution and could not help Tipu. Continuing his father’s foreign policy, Tipu also maintained contacts with other important powers such as the Persians and the Sultanate of Oman. In India, though the Mughal empire was a pale shadow of its former self, Tipu was respectful towards the Mughals.

Tipu also fought with the Marathas but suffered setbacks. He tried to capture some Maratha forts in south India, resulting in a war against the Marathas in which Tipu was defeated. He was forced to give back Maratha territories captured by Mysore and make a payment to buy peace.

The third Anglo-Mysore War between 1789 and 1792 proved successful for the British, who allied with the Marathas. Tipu was forced to sign a treaty, giving away half his territory, and his two minor sons were held captive till he paid a hefty ransom.

In 1798, French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. Napoleon’s plan was to use Egypt as a base to link with Indian kings like Tipu and drive out the British from India. This strategy, in Napoleon’s mind, would pave the way for a French invasion of India. It, however, did not materialise.

Meanwhile, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War would prove to be Tipu’s last. Led by Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, who was determined to end Tipu’s reign and make way for total British domination of India, the East India Company gathered a mighty force of 50,000 against Tipu’s 30,000 defenders. On May 4, 1799, the British entered Mysore’s capital, Seringapatam, breaking through the city’s walls. Tipu Sultan was slain while defending the city.  

Tipu was a great believer in modern military technology. He further developed the Mysore rockets and strengthened his navy. He also built roads, introduced new coinage and promoted silk production and trade. There has been some controversy over Tipu’s treatment of Hindus and Christians. While some historians and scholars have praised the inclusive nature of his rule, others point to alleged atrocities committed against certain religious groups. It is perhaps unhelpful to look at Tipu Sultan through the lens of modern sensibilities. In any case there is little doubt that he was a courageous ruler who against tremendous odds relentlessly fought the greatest power of his times.

Also on this day:

1976 —Tusshar Kapoor, Hindi film actor, was born  

1969 — Shilpa Shirodkar, Indian actress, was born

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