«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
The effusions provoked by the Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan suggest that the British were coming to see themselves not only as a great military power, but as a people of justice and moderation. Thus the British invaded Mysore not as conquerors but as liberators of the mass of the population from the tyranny of Tipu Sultan.47 This was a decisive shift in public opinion, one that rejected earlier criticisms of the nabobs. Pride in British rule in India as well as pride in British military successes there had become widely accepted elements of British nationalism. These changes were never to be reversed, and British activities in India were never again to be subjected to prolonged hostile scrutiny from mainstream public opinion until the twentieth century.48 P. J. Marshall. A Free though Conquering People: Eighteenth Century Britain and its Empire (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003) Peter Marshall. “Cornwallis Triumphant: War in India and the British Public in the Late Eighteenth Century” in War, Strategy, and International Politics.
This study is organized thematically into five chapters. The first chapter examines the chronology of the Mysore Wars, providing an overview of the important individuals and events that took place in southern India during the period 1780-1800. This chapter is designed to provide the non-specialist in this area with a suitable background and familiarity to engage with the discussion in the remaining sections.
The second chapter, "British Prisoners and European Musselmen", examines the situation of the British captives taken and held by Tipu, which was the primary reason why the Sultan initially gained so much notoriety in the metropole. This chapter investigates the numerous and popular captive accounts written about Tipu's prisoners, and the stories of forced religious conversion in which Tipu was accused of turning his prisoners into Muslims against their will. As these ceremonies were said to include the practice of circumcision, they were also attacks on the masculinity and sexuality of the prisoners. Tipu's power to transform the religious and cultural identity of his captives demonstrated the deep anxieties that lurked beneath the imperial project, and the fear that Europeans would be devoured by the wild and exotic Orient. The presence of the British prisoners and the captive narratives that they generated were viewed both within India and in the metropole as deeply shaming, creating a ready-made narrative of redemption whereby the Company could remove the stain on the national honor by returning to war and defeating Tipu Sultan. The eventual defeat of Tipu and conquest of his kingdom in 1799 served as a repudiation of earlier British weakness, lending confidence to nineteenth century claims of racial superiority over Indians.
The third chapter, "Tippoo the Tyrant", addresses the political language of tyranny and despotism which came to be associated with Tipu Sultan in the minds of the British public. The pejorative label of "tyrant" became inextricably linked with Tipu over time, most likely due to the easy alliterative association between the words, and belief in Tippoo the Tyrant became the defining image of the Sultan for the British populace. This chapter traces the development of Tipu's association with tyranny and despotism, beginning with its origin upon the capture of the first British prisoners, and tracks the alterations throughout the rest of the Mysore Wars. The chapter argues that the claims of Tipu's tyrannical rule emerged in response to criticism that the Company's own policymakers had been acting as tyrannical nabobs; much of the public discussion on this subject in the 1780s and 1790s focused upon who were the true tyrants, Indian rulers or Company nabobs? Expanding upon the belief that Tipu was an Oriental despot, he was also accused of being faithless and untrustworthy, failing to adhere to past treaties, which served to justify the Company's own aggressive dealings. Tipu's supposed brutalization of his own populace in Mysore led to claims that the Company's invasions of the region were undertaken as acts of liberation, designed to safeguard the local population from the depredations of a mad tyrant in true paternalistic fashion. By fighting against an imagined despotism in southern India, the Company rehabilitated its own reputation in the realm of British popular opinion.
The fourth chapter, "Tippoo in Company and Party Politics", investigates the role that Tipu Sultan and the Mysore Wars played in the contemporary politics of the British metropole. Representations of Tipu reflected wider disagreements about the role of overseas imperialism, and public opinion on the subject was far from unified until the very end of the period under study. This chapter discusses the public disdain in the mid eighteenth century for the nabobs, who were perceived as a stain upon the national honor, having been corrupted by the vices of the Orient. These popular perceptions were then reversed in the final two decades of the eighteenth century, as the struggle against Tipu Sultan during the Mysore Wars allowed for the rehabilitation of the East India Company, its nabobs reconceived as patriotic soldier heroes. These decades were a transitional period for popular attitudes about empire, and change did not take place overnight.
Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, there were lengthy debates about Tipu and the Mysore Wars within Parliament and the print culture of the day, with a minority political Opposition heavily criticizing the conduct of the government and the Company overseas.
These voices argued that the wars of conquest in India were immoral and antithetical to British liberty, calling upon the same political language which had been used to villainize the nabobs in earlier decades. However, the eventual crushing victories won by the Company's military served to stifle debate, making it politically untenable to criticize its actions overseas. Tipu Sultan was effectively depoliticized as an issue over time. The earlier representations of the Company and its servants as nabobs eventually faded away from view, as they became reimagined by the British public as virtuous defenders of the national honor.
The fifth chapter, "The French Alliance and the Storming of Seringapatam" looks more closely at Tipu's connections to the French. Tipu's tumultuous relationship with France helped to cement his status as an inveterate foe of the British nation, a figure who could never be trusted due to his ties with Britain's longtime enemy. These ties attracted even more public attention in the 1790s due to the revolutionary situation taking place within France, with Tipu's willingness to adopt a liberty cap and style himself as "Citizen Tippoo" in the hopes of attracting further French support only serving to fan the flames.
This chapter details Tipu's uneven relationship with France over the course of two decades, with particular attention given to his final attempts to secure an alliance in 1798 and 1799. Tipu's misguided efforts to secure French assistance served as a carte blanche for the new Governor General of India, Richard Wellesley, to invade Mysore once again and eliminate Tipu. The chapter argues that Wellesley consciously played up the threat posed by France to serve as a justification for his preemptive war of conquest, despite knowing that British India was in no actual danger. Wellesley's shrewd use of Tipu's "alliance" with France (and his quick and overwhelming victory) served to insulate him from any criticism in the British metropole. The final defeat and death of Tipu in 1799 provided the breaking point at which alternate, competing viewpoints of Tipu Sultan, and more broadly the East India Company's role in empire building, were pushed aside from the mainstream of public opinion. There no longer existed a political space in which Tipu could be defended, or the actions of the Company criticized as immoral.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the historical memory of Tipu Sultan and the Mysore Wars had effectively been fixed and ceased to change further. Tipu became remembered by the British as a tyrannical Oriental despot in league with the French, and the Mysore Wars as a moral stand against Tipu's tyrannical rule. The conclusion of the study, "Remembering Tipu", provides a short overview of how Tipu was portrayed within the British historical memory of the period, typically as a caricatured stock villain for imperially-themed subject matter. It was not until the twentieth century that historians began to rehabilitate the image of Tipu, led by the work of South Asian historians in particular, and rediscover the earlier contested period of the Mysore Wars at the end of the eighteenth century.
Tyrant! provides an understanding of how the British public eventually resolved the tension between their belief that they were a people of liberty and the problem of ruling over tens of millions of Indians on the other side of the world in what was unquestionably an unfree system of government. By imagining themselves to be fighting against vicious Oriental despots like Tippoo the Tyrant, the British could convince themselves that they were serving as a moral force for progress and civilization. The rulers of India were mere savages, and the people of the subcontinent were locked into a hopelessly backwards state of stagnation and superstition. To remedy the problems, India
and its wild tigers needed to be hunted down and brought under control:
India, symbolized by the tigers of Mysore that the British had vanquished at Seringapatam in 1799, was a murky, violent, dangerous place filled with ferocious animals... The carefully cultivated reputation for savagery and sexual prowess of Tipu's Mysore translated ready-made into the propaganda of imperialists seeking to demonize and possess India as a whole. India would have to be ridden of its violent energies in the years to come: its tigers had to be corralled and killed, its inhabitants and their rampant sexuality had to be tamed, and its terrifyingly beautiful landscapes... had to be domesticated to the nice forms of an English suburban garden.49 When the British captured Tipu's capital of Seringapatam at the end of the last Mysore War, they symbolically shot all of Tipu's pet tigers and carted Tipu's mechanical tiger organ back to London as a trophy prize. The Tiger of Mysore was no more; imperialism had been made safe for the British public to embrace.
Introduction Three separate wars took place between the East India Company and the kingdom of Mysore ruled by Tipu Sultan during the 1780s and 1790s, known collectively as the Anglo-Mysore Wars or more briefly as simply the Mysore Wars. There had been an earlier conflict between the two in the 1760s known as the First Mysore War, resulting in the wars against Tipu becoming known to history as the Second, Third, and Fourth Mysore Wars. This introductory chapter is designed to familiarize the reader with these events taking place in southern India at the close of the eighteenth century. The Mysore Wars are not generally well known today outside of specialist fields, and their events provide the necessary context for the subject matter of this study.
These conflicts had sharply different styles, and took place under very different circumstances for the British Company. The Second Mysore War (1780-84) was a desperate struggle for the Company, initiated by Tipu and his father Haider Ali, one which caught the British completely off guard and unprepared. A series of military disasters resulted in thousands of Company soldiers being taken prisoner by Tipu, held for the remainder of the war and not released until the signing of peace in 1784. The conflict was unpopular in the British metropole, and viewed by many as a sign that the Company was out of control, plagued by poor leadership and avaricious nabobery. The Company was very fortunate to escape the war with a return to the status quo antebellum.