«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
52-55 Mr. Robert Church to Edward Hughes 18 November 1784 (p. 197-99) IOR/H/190 p. 197 the [European slave] boys felt at the thought of being for ever shut out from the society of their countrymen, and the hope of returning to their country, that wrung their souls with tender anguish."77 Thomson indicated that the boys were experiencing great social anxiety, as a new identity was thrust upon them, but were not physically abused in any way. These individuals were in fact well-treated by all surviving accounts, educated in Persian and mathematics, intended to become part of the household of the Sultan. The symbolic message behind these actions was readily apparent: Tipu was demonstrating his absolute control over the British by remaking the identity of his captives, forcing Europeans to serve Indians instead of the opposite way around. Despite the attention and care lavished on Tipu’s youthful converts, they were nonetheless a powerful ideological statement of the Sultan’s opposition to British rule in India.
The new status of these boys was anathema to the reputation of the Company, and to British society more generally. The stories of the prisoners generated fear and anxiety not only from the actual conversion ceremonies themselves, but from the loss of identity that they entailed. By adopting (or being forced into) an Indian identity, the British individuals in question were cut off from their former lives. These accounts suggested that Tipu had power and mastery over Europeans, with the ability to call their very identity into question and remake it as he saw fit. This genuinely frightening prospect ensured that prisoner conversions would be represented in the worst possible light in British print culture, and depicted as acts of forced torture perpetrated by an Oriental tyrant.
Officer of Colonel Baillie’s Detachment [William Thomson]. Memoirs of the Late War in Asia. (1789):
145-46 Examples of these stories from the period are easy to find. Perhaps the most famous and widely read captive account to emerge from the Mysore Wars was written by James Bristow, published as A Narrative of the Sufferings of James Bristow, at the conclusion of the Third Mysore War in 1793. It provides one of the best examples of a captive narrative, describing in great detail the prisoner experience of captivity under Tipu. Bristow’s account details an imprisonment of over ten years, in which he found himself “in the clutches of barbarians” that treated him with cruelty and scorn.78 He was captured in 1781, forcibly converted to Islam the following year, and spent the remainder of his imprisonment serving in a cheylah battalion, commanding soldiers in Tipu’s service. Bristow’s account invariably referred to Tipu as a “barbarian”, “tyrant”, “usurper”, or some similar pejorative turn of phrase; he also attributed the death of not just General Mathews to Tipu’s order, but also other captured officers named Rumley, Frazer, and Sampson.79 Although Bristow claimed that he lived in constant terror for his life, and was imprisoned for most of the ten years, there are various inconsistencies in his sensationalistic account. Bristow boasted to have escaped certain death on multiple occasions through the performance of heroic personal actions, especially during his escape sequence in which he traveled extensively for five days with no food or water.
The superhuman feats of endurance that Bristow claimed for himself cast doubt on the validity of his statements, and suggested that much of his narrative was designed to bolster sales through an exciting tale of adventure in exotic locales. Furthermore, during his captivity Bristow offhandedly mentioned that he was drawing a monthly salary as pay James Bristow. Narrative of the Sufferings of James Bristow (Calcutta: unknown publisher, 1792;
London: Reprinted by J. Murray, 1793; 1794; 1801; 1828): 7 Ibid, 32 from Tipu, and went so far as to grumble at times about reductions in what he earned, all of which constituted rather strange behavior for a supposed prisoner!80 Fellow captive Henry Becher wrote in similar fashion about his own not-so-rigorous imprisonment, noting that “I came out of Nagur (after being eighteen months prisoner there) richer than I went in,” due to the accumulation of many material possessions during his period of captivity.81 These accounts suggested that conditions were not nearly as bad as portrayed for at least some of the British captives.
A closer reading of the prisoner narratives also undermined many of the more sensationalistic claims. For example, William Thomson’s captive account grudgingly admits that the officers left wounded at Bednur received better treatment than some of Tipu’s other prisoners. They were allowed to keep many of their personal articles, have free use of pen and paper, allowed the attentions of a French surgeon, and given permission to keep their servants and have them shop daily in the bazaar for meals.82 Thomson would later complain that there was insufficient sympathy in Britain for those who had languished in Tipu’s dungeons, and many at home in Britain during the time of the Second Mysore War felt that their sufferings were well deserved.83 Another correspondent argued that the character of Admiral Suffrein had unfairly come under attack for surrendering his captured sailors to Tipu. As for the prisoners themselves, this author stated that the accounts of Tipu's cruelty towards the captives were so exaggerated "as to make the Whole appear a Fable", and the fact of the matter was that "The Asiaticks Ibid, 41-42 Henry Becher. Remarks and Occurrences of Mr. Henry Becher, During his Imprisonment of Two Years and a Half in the Dominions of Tippoo Sultan, From Whence he Made his Escape. (Bombay: unknown publisher, 1793): 100
Officer of Colonel Baillie’s Detachment [William Thomson]. Memoirs of the Late War in Asia. (1789):
209-10 Ibid, 424-25 are not yet sufficiently civilized to make War on European Principles, consequently they use their Prisoners roughly, but are not guilty of a fourth Part of the Barbarity ascribed to them."84 These sources indicated once more that many of the captive accounts were exaggerated, designed to emphasize Tipu in the most unflattering light possible, as a means to disguise the much more complicated situation of newly created alternate and potentially subversive Indian identities for British prisoners.
Unraveling the mystery of the religious conversions is far from an easy task. The degree to which these conversions were genuine or compelled at the point of Tipu’s sword remains the subject of dispute. As a way of cutting through the confusion surrounding this topic, Henry Becher provided what is likely the most accurate
description of how European prisoners were treated by Tipu, worth quoting at length:
There were about thirty [prisoners] left: these men had been several times sent for to the Kudjaree, and asked, if they would take service, at their different occupations; which on their refusing, they were sent back to prison to live on their seir of rice, and single piece a day…. Some time being elapsed, they were again called to the Kudjaree by Adam Caun La Wannee killidaur, who instead of using the method Bahauder Jub Caun had done, reasoned with them: telling them they did not consider their own interest, and were very wrong to remain close prisoners, when they might by taking service, live comfortably [on] their pay: besides, having liberty of walking about, and taking fresh air, whenever they pleased within the pettah [fort]: That the Sultaun would never release them, and therefore advised them to take his pay: it would not prevent their going away, when God Almighty would please to release them; and by way of further encouragement, promised, if they wished to write to their families in Bombay, he would sent [send] their letters, and they should receive the ansivers [answers]: good words had better effect than the chaubuck [chains], and they took service; amongst the rest several boys who had been servants to officers in camp, turned out to be made carpenters, and by the instruction of those who knew their trade managed very well…. they now enjoy fresh air and exercise, and did not die so fast as before.85 This appears to be the most reasonable explanation of the actual treatment of the European prisoners. They were kept in confinement, in poor living conditions, and St. James’ Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England) 7 December 1784, Issue 3706 Henry Becher. Remarks and Occurrences of Mr. Henry Becher. (1793): 39-42 pressured to enter Tipu’s service, in these cheylah battalions. Tipu’s men held out all sorts of incentives to get them to do so: better food, freedom within the fort, a regular salary, and so on. Those that did convert were forced to adopt Islamic dress, were likely circumcised, and then worked for Tipu as officers and technical experts in his military.
These men likely still thought of themselves as prisoners, though they were not in the traditional sense. Due to the degree of pressure placed on these men, they could well argue that they were “forced” to convert to Islam, although that also falls short of the full story. The subtleties of their situation were generally lost on most British observers, and it was far easier to suggest that all of the prisoners were forced into conversion to Islam by a tyrannical and bigoted Oriental despot. It required only a little imagination to turn the narrative Becher provided into the cartoonish adventure story of James Bristow.
Becher’s narrative of imprisonment ran through a limited printing in Bombay, attracting few readers and little attention. Meanwhile, Bristow’s sensationalistic captive tale was a huge success and would go through five different printed editions, including an American edition published in Philadelphia in 1801. The public sphere in London was therefore permeated with stories about the villainous Tipu Sultan of Bristow’s account, one who gave four European women over to black slaves for their entertainment, and who demolished Hindu temples and was detested by the majority of his subjects.86 The long-running public interest in these captive narratives and the fierceness of the response that they generated towards Tipu indicated the depth of the fear and anxiety that the Sultan inspired. The incentives that he offered to switch sides and "go native" called into question the very foundations of the overseas imperial enterprise. It was far easier and more pleasant to imagine indomitable British soldiers who never bowed down to foreign James Bristow. Narrative of the Sufferings of James Bristow (1793): 30, 49 tyrants, rather than acknowledge the complex reality of eighteenth century South Asia, where both Europeans and Indians were able to construct alternate self-fashioned identities for themselves and move between two different cultures as need dictated.87 The great majority of the Company forces held by Tipu were released from captivity upon the signing of the Treaty of Mangalore in early 1784, at the end of the Second Mysore War. John Baillie provided a list of the soldiers that returned into Company service, consisting of 1100 Europeans (198 officers and gentlemen) and upwards of 3000 sepoys.88 The same numbers were reported in a short pamphlet entitled Prisoners in Mysore: "In conformity to the stipulations of the Treaty, 1200 Europeans and about 3000 Sepoys were sent home. This circumstance is incidentally mentioned in a letter from the Government of Madras to the Governor General dated 20th April , at which time they supposed that all of the prisoners were released."89 Taken together, these sources appear to provide a clear accounting of the number of prisoners released in the treaty.
However, Baillie's source also identified some 150 individuals referred to as "European Musselmen" or "circumcised Europeans" who did not return back to the Company's territory, and remained part of Tipu's service. The London newspapers soon picked up on this story, increasing the number of soldiers retained from 150 to 300 in the process. The General Evening Post made clear that these were the prisoners whom Tipu had "made Musselmen by force."90 A certain Captain Dallas made a circuit of the Maya Jasanoff. Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 (2005) John Baillie to his Father 14 June 1784 (p. 153-79) Account of his capture and captivity. IOR/H/223 p.
178-79. These numbers demonstrate again that the large majority of prisoners were Indian sepoys serving in the Company's military, which were ignored by nearly all British commentators.
Prisoners in Mysore (p. 265-89), author and date unlisted. IOR/H/570 p. 266 Emphasis in the original.
General Evening Post (London, England) 30 November 1784, Issue 7919 Mysorean prisons after the conclusion of the peace treaty, rounding up some 200 officers, 1100 European privates, and roughly 2000 sepoys, all in much better health than he expected due to the miserable conditions of their captivity. However, he also heard it alleged "that three Madras officers and five midshipmen, with about two hundred European privates, whom he had converted to Mahomedanism, were secreted by Tippo Sahib for his own service, as no account could ever afterwards be got of them."91 These accounts suggest that roughly 200-300 individuals of European descent were not released by Tipu following the treaty, and those individuals were ones who had made the conversion to Islam in some form.
It was the status of these "European Musselmen" which continued to arouse anger and controversy. These appeared to be the prisoners who had converted to Islam during their period of captivity, and were therefore not released with the rest of the Company soldiers. Tipu Sultan, for his part, claimed that he no longer held any prisoners, only his own subjects who had taken up pay within his own armed forces. One of the London
newspapers summarized this position: