«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
Philip Lawson and Jim Phillips. “‘Our Execrable Banditti’: Perceptions of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain” in Albion XVI (1984): 225-41 Nicholas Dirks. The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006): 55-56 If Tipu were an untrustworthy despot, then Mathews had done no wrong in trying to sneak away with the loot from the city of Bednur, since Tipu would only have cheated him and broken the deal anyway. Pre-emptive action was the only successful way to deal with such a ruler. The way in which the Mathews campaign played out in the popular press demonstrates how this process of reversal worked.
The initial news of the fall of Bednur contained few details of the events that transpired. Newspaper accounts based upon British correspondences from India reported that Mathews and his army had been captured, and there was little interest in the subject at first during the summer of 1783.27 By November of the same year many of the particulars of the campaign began to emerge into the print culture of the day, and the fate of Mathews became a recurring subject of discussion in the newspaper press, spurred on by the simultaneous debate taking place on Charles Fox’s India Bill in Parliament. Much of the early reaction was sympathetic to Mathews, as the full story of Annanpur and Bednur was not well known, and Mathews himself had already perished in captivity.
Although this was an unfortunate result from the perspective of Mathews himself, it was a boon to his reputation in Britain, allowing Mathews to be portrayed as a martyr who had been terrorized by a cruel Oriental sultan. Widespread rumors sprang up in the press that Tipu had poisoned Mathews while he was imprisoned; he had been separated from his captive army and thrown into a filthy dungeon where he was forced to drink a lethal concoction.28 The factual basis for these rumors was shaky at best; the original account had the news coming second hand by means of a “washerman” and some writing London Chronicle (London, England) 29 July 1783, Issue 4173
Officer of Colonel Baillie’s Detachment [William Thomson]. Memoirs of the Late War in Asia. (1789):
140-43 supposedly found in Mathews’ prison cell.29 Whether Tipu actually ordered the execution of Mathews, or if he died of natural sickness from poor prison conditions, the fact remains that his death was widely believed both by Company servants and the public back home in Britain to have been an atrocity.
The initial rumors of Mathews’ death by poison quickly mushroomed into more and more fantastic accounts of his demise, all of them casting Tipu in a sinister fashion.
One story claimed that Mathews had been murdered as the result of a failed coup attempt to restore the former Hindu rajah to the throne of Mysore. In this account, Mathews fell as “a sacrifice to the suspicions of a tyrant” as Tipu enacted vengeance on any suspected targets.30 Another report had a dramatic confrontation occur between Tipu and Mathews, wherein the latter “upbraided the Indian with his breach of faith, which so provoked Tippoo, that he is said to have instantly drawn his sabre, and cut the General to pieces.”31 As spectacular as this rumor might appear, theatrical productions on the London stage a decade later would use very similar events as a morality play to showcase how Britons never surrendered to their foes.32 Even more outlandish was a rumor spread by the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser, which attributed Mathews’ death to Tipu pouring boiling lead down his throat; the same piece speculated that there was strong reason to believe the other British prisoners “were all equally the victims of Asiatic barbarity.”33 These sort of cruelties, real or imagined, went a long way towards reshaping the image of Tipu Sultan in the popular consciousness, away from the spirited young prince of the Ibid, 143 John Baillie to his Father 14 June 1784 (p. 153-79) Account of his capture and captivity. IOR/H/223 p.
Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England) 1 October 1784, Issue 3631 Mark Lonsdale (lyrics) and William Reeve (music). “Buac’aill lion Deoc’” in The Overture Favorite Songs and Finale in the Musical Entertainment of Tippoo Saib (London: Longman and Broderip, 1792) Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England) 24 November 1784, Issue 17458 initial war reports and towards the monstrous tyrant envisioned by the Company.
However, at this early period during the Second Mysore War, the image of both Tipu Sultan and the East India Company remained disputed subjects, with advocates supporting and demonizing each of the two competing powers. Unlike later periods, there were always commentators willing to defend the character of Tipu, and argue against the interpretation of events put forth by the Company and its servants. The ongoing debate surrounding Mathews served as an example of this process in action. Shortly after the London newspapers reported on the boiling lead rumors of Mathews' death, the St. James
Chronicle backed away from hyperbole and placed the story in larger perspective:
General Mathews was undoubtedly destroyed, and it was universally supposed by Poison; the Field Officers, most of the Captains, and some of the Subalterns were also put to Death; but the Tortures of melted Lead and boiled Oil poured upon them seem to have been a mere Invention. What principally incited Tippoo-Saib to go beyond the native Ferocity of his Disposition, was the Circumstance of General Mathews having removed the greatest Part of the Treasures from Benamour [Bednur], before it was invested by the Nabob’s Army.34 Although this account was hardly a positive endorsement of Tipu’s conduct, it provided a rational explanation for why Mathews had been put to death, and made Tipu appear less like a capricious Oriental despot. The same paper added further context to the situation a few days later, including the first details of the Annual Register account covering the
actions of Mathews’ army prior to its surrender:
The Cause of their deliberately murdering our People, while Prisoners, is reported to have arisen from the General [Mathews] having allowed his Troops, in the Sunshine of his Prosperity, to massacre all the Men they found in the Fortress of Oonore, on the Malabar Coast, which he took by Storm a short Time previous to his Defeat. The Women, in this Scene of Slaughter, were treated with the most horrid Indecency; and the eldest of the Brahmins, with two of his Priests, destroyed by the Fury of the Soldiers.35 St. James Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England) 4 December 1784, Issue 3705 St. James’ Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England) 9 December 1784, Issue 3707 With this additional context added, Mathews appeared more as a greedy status-seeker out for his own interests, and Tipu Sultan an opposing commander with at least probable cause for his actions.
London newspapers were not the only ones covering this story. The Bath Chronicle related the same information on Mathews’ conduct at Onore, and went further in editorializing on the controversy. After criticizing Mathews for bringing back immense wealth and several children (of various hues and complexions) to Britain, the Chronicle detailed the slaughter of 500 Indians and concluded, “Who can say that Tippoo Saib was not justified even in the cruelty of his retaliation?”36 The criticisms of Mathews listed by the Bath Chronicle were the same ongoing ones that had been directed at the nabobs for the past two decades: greed, cruelty, decadence, and corrupted morals.37 These newspaper accounts therefore provided an alternate and competing narrative of the war.
They argued that it was the East India Company who was to blame for the sufferings of the British prisoners, with its soldiers intent only on enriching themselves through Indian plunder, and its administrators too incompetent to carry out even something so simple as a proper prisoner exchange. In these accounts, the conduct of Tipu Sultan, barbarous or not, was no excuse for the poor example set by the Company overseas.
Throughout the Second Mysore War, attacks against the character of Tipu were therefore met with equal fervor by attacks against the conduct of the East India Company.
A damning Annual Register report containing details of the alleged atrocities committed by Mathews' army broke in the London newspaper in January 1785, and much of the coverage which had been sympathetic to Mathews earlier now swung in the other Bath Chronicle (Bath, England) 16 December 1784, Issue 1260 Philip Lawson and Jim Phillips. “‘Our Execrable Banditti’: Perceptions of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain” in Albion XVI (1984): 239-40 direction. The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser detailed the purported massacre at Annanpur, and editorialized: “The barbarities committed by Tippoo Saib on General Matthews and his captive army, now seem to have been merely a retaliation for similar enormities committed by the troops of the Company.”38 The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser related the same incident, and used it to attack the morality of the Company as a whole, claiming that the cruelties practiced upon Mathews and his captured men were a retaliation for injuries which had been committed on the natives of India: "It is the unprincipled oppression practiced by rapacious Governors and their dependants, which has made the very name of European detested in most parts of the Asiatic continent… The India powers will never be otherwise inclined till rapine ceases, which can never be expected while any degree of peculation remains."39 These editorials were couched in the same language of moral tropes that had been employed for decades against the nabobs, charging the Company and its servants with endemic corruption and avarice. The actions of Mathews called to mind the actions of unsympathetic figures like Clive and Hastings, resulting in the same political language once again criticizing the Company in print culture.
Further information later seeped out concerning the violation of the treaty signed at Bednur, and which side was responsible. An account printed in the General Evening Post contended that the articles of surrender stipulated all public property should remain in the fort; however, Mathews held onto public treasure worth fifty thousand pagodas, and attempted to sneak it out by distributing it amongst his officers. The ruse was discovered when a bed belonging to one of the officers was dropped, and four hundred Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England) 18 January 1785, Issue 3723 Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England) 22 January 1785, Issue 17509 pagodas fell out, at which time Tipu had the remainder of the Company army searched and taken into captivity.40 These sorts of stories cast doubt upon which force was truly acting despotically in India, the armies of Tipu Sultan or the armies of the Company, and did little to dispel the negative public perception that continued to dog the Company and its servants.
The defenders of the Company had to respond to these allegations, and their own account of the Mathews campaign appeared in a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Conduct of the English Forces, Employed in the Late War, Under the Command of Brigadier General Mathews, Against the Nabob Tippoo Sultan. This short publication went through the claims of the Annual Register report paragraph by paragraph, disputing each of them in full in order to defend the conduct of the soldiers and officers involved.
There is no question that this pamphlet was produced as a direct response to the public criticism of General Mathews, and it demonstrated how the military officers and civilian administrators of the Company were active participants in the realm of late eighteenth century British print culture. Excerpts from A Vindication of the Conduct of the English Forces were printed in many of the popular metropolitan newspapers, ensuring its dissemination amongst a wide audience of readers.41 The authors denied that Mathews had taken any plunder at Onore, and the amount captured at Hydernagur was used only on pay for the soldiers that was in arrears.42 Their description of Annanpur charged the defending Indian garrison with violating two flags of truce, and imprisoning the officers sent to parlay. A storming of the fort then took General Evening Post (London, England) 19 December 1786, Issue 8278 See for example The Whitehall Evening Post (London, England) 3 January 1788, Issue 6341 East India Company. A Vindication of the Conduct of the English Forces, Employed in the Late War,
Under the Command of Brigadier General Mathews, Against the Nabob Tippoo Sultan (London:
Logographic Press, 1787): 20-23 place, but quarter was given and the enemy wounded were cared for in hospitals afterwards, while the story of the four hundred slaughtered women was “as false as it was infamous.”43 The pamphlet ended with a seemingly random attack on Tipu’s character, which helped to reveal the connections between perceptions of the Company and
perceptions of Tipu:
We were ordered into the Canara country to draw Tippoo Saib from the Carnatic, where he had been ravaging, with unrelenting barbarity, from the commencement of the war; reducing large and populous villages and cities to ashes, plundering the inhabitants, destroying the appearance of agriculture, and, to fill up the measure of his cruelty, driving the unfortunate wretches to distant and uncultivated parts of his own empire, there to toil under the heavy hand of power and oppression. Let his advocates among our countrymen contemplate this picture, and compare it with that we have impartially drawn of our conduct against his dominions – then let them blush at declaring the sufferings which we endured were “just and merited.”44 This conclusion was an unabashed attempt to draw blame away from the Company soldiers in Mathews’ army, and project it onto the shoulders of Tipu. Despite the fact that the rest of the pamphlet had nothing to do with Tipu at all, the reader would be left with the image of heroic British soldiers resisting the advances of a cruel Asiatic despot.
Playing up the image of “Tippoo the Tyrant” was one of the most effective ways of shifting attention away from the humiliating situation of the British prisoners, and recasting the East India Company in a more positive light.