«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
Within the East India Company, and more generally amongst the British community in India, Cornwallis' aggressive viewpoint about Tipu was increasingly embraced: the Sultan was a cancer that had to be removed through martial means, with no room for negotiation or compromise.
The Third Mysore War (1790-92) was the turning point within the East India Company in terms of how Tipu Sultan was perceived. Although there had been real disagreement between the Calcutta and Madras Presidencies over whether to engage with Tipu peacefully or seek to prosecute another war, by the time of the Fourth Mysore War (1798-99), this debate had virtually disappeared. Wellesley wrote repeated letters in the autumn of 1798 attacking the Madras government for not acting swiftly enough in accumulating wartime supplies, but there was no further discussion on the actual decision to renew another conflict with Tipu.64 Wellesley made the decision to initiate the Fourth Mysore War at an early date, in June of 1798, and then spent the next eight months carrying out the planning behind the scenes and engaging in a duplicitous series of correspondences with Tipu Sultan to turn his initial vision into a reality.65 There was no wider discussion within the Company about whether to engage with Tipu in more peaceful fashion, or to preserve Tipu's rulership over Mysore as a buffer state against the Marathas, as had been often debated in earlier periods. By the time of the Fourth Mysore War, the villainous reputation of Tipu had been accepted virtually wholesale within the Company's ranks, and Wellesley was able to lead the Company's military in a successful war of conquest with virtually no opposing voices. The earlier period of debate between the Madras and Calcutta Presidencies had disappeared entirely.
Tipu in Metropolitan Party Politics At the same time that Tipu's image was being contested within the East India Company, the same discussion was taking place amongst the wider British public in the metropole. Britain's Parliament had specifically instructed the Company to refrain from engaging in wars of territorial conquest, which raised very real questions about the legality of the later conflicts initiated by Cornwallis and Wellesley against Tipu.66 The period of the Third Mysore War during the early 1790s was the height of the debate regarding how Tipu was viewed, with a divided public quarreling back and forth over the true character of the Indian prince. The contested and unstable image of Tipu served as a proxy for the greater debate over the role of the East India Company in British society.
Edward Ingram (ed.) Two Views of British India: The Private Correspondence of Mr. Dundas and Lord Wellesley, 1798-1801 (Bath: Adams & Dart, 1969) See Mornington to Dundas, 6 October 1798 (87-88) and Mornington to Dundas, 11 October 1789 (96-97) for examples.
See Chapter 5 Philip Lawson. The East India Company: A History (London: Longman, 1993): 107-08 This topic became entwined within the factional politics of the day, with hotly contested parliamentary debates raging over the morality of the war taking place in India.
A majority of the MPs supported the East India Company and William Pitt's Tory government, but a vocal Whig Opposition made it loudly known that they considered the war to be aggressive and unjust, with Tipu's reputation wrongly slandered by supporters of the Company. This debate further spilled out into the contemporary newspapers and journals, part of the vibrant print culture of the eighteenth century, where commentators and editorialists contested the image of Tipu. Generally speaking, those who supported the Company tended to vilify Tipu Sultan, and had an optimistic view of empire overseas that embraced military action and territorial conquest. Those who opposed the Company were much more likely to defend or make excuses for Tipu, and quite frequently exhibited the familiar pessimistic view of empire, full of fears of being corrupted by Eastern luxury and bringing military despotism back home to Britain. This politicized debate over Tipu Sultan was therefore intertwined with popular perceptions of the Company itself, and the dispute about whether the Company's servants were corrupt nabobs or British patriots.
The image of Tipu became intertwined with British parliamentary politics at an early date, almost as soon as he first appeared in public discourse at the beginning of the 1780s. While references to Tipu were much less common during the Second Mysore War than during the following conflict, the figure of the Sultan still made appearances in parliamentary debate. The figure of Tipu was employed by Pitt's government to justify support for the embattled reputation of the East India Company as it fought against the supposedly tyrannical character of the Sultan, or used alternately by the political Opposition to point to Tipu's victories as further proof of the incompetence of the Company's overseas administration. For example, Charles Fox linked together the military successes of Tipu with his scorn for the current state of the Company's affairs
when arguing for the passage of his India Bill in 1783:
But the great articles to which Mr. Fox objected were, the debts that the Company said were due to them from [Indian princes]…. But how were those vast sums to be raised from those princes! By rapine, war, and horrible cruelties…. The only recourse the English had was to strike a terror into the country by making reprisals. They, accordingly, slaughtered the men of the villages and towns through which they passed, and took the women and children prisoners. […] The victories of Tippoo Saib, the fallen reputation of the English, and in general, the European arms… These were circumstances which did not allow him [Fox] to indulge any sanguine hopes of a peace in India.67 Fox joined together the fears of military defeat in India with an anxiety that the Company was ruling in a profoundly arbitrary and despotic fashion. He argued at one point that India was being misruled to so great an extent that Lord Macartney of Madras might already be a prisoner of Tipu.68 Fox and his Whig supporters staked a great deal of political capital on this pessimistic view of empire, the belief that India was being poorly governed and existed in a constant state of crisis. This viewpoint employed the same political tropes that were in contemporary use regarding the nabob scandals, referring to corruption, avarice, and contamination of the body politic due to bringing back the worst excesses of the Orient from India.
Meanwhile, the pro-Company Pitt ministry was asserting the opposite, that India was in excellent shape and that peace had been signed with Tipu some time ago. The constant fear of disaster in India, as promoted by the political opposition, was satirized by
papers that supported the Tory majority, such as the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser:
Universal Evening Post (London, England) 27 November 1783, Issue 770 Public Advertiser (London, England) 17 December 1783, Issue 15462 "It is necessary to the well-doing of Opposition, that the country should be kept in alarm, and that war, or at least rumour of war, be propagated from one end of our island to the other, to excite jealousies among the people, and lessen the credit of the Administration."
This was where Tipu entered into the realm of party politics, as "that terrible hero Tippoo Saib is now said to have taken up arms, which are never to be laid down till he has driven the English, root and branch, from the East-Indies."69 The terrible nature of Tipu was employed in this case as a means to drum up support for both the Company and its Tory supporters in Parliament. It was Tippoo the Tyrant who was at fault for the various problems in Indian administration, not the East India Company.
The pro-Company Whitehall Evening Post used the threat posed by Tipu as a means of attacking Fox's India Bill, which proposed to remove much of the independence the Company's agents: "The late fatal news from the East Indies [Mathews' surrender] exhibits a striking proof of the extreme futility of parchment regulations [Fox's India Bill], formed by economical projectors, for the better government of Asiatic affairs." The Whitehall Evening Post mocked the notion of governing India from "the office of a Paymaster" and suggested that "every particle of Asiatic common sense" had been transferred to Edmund Burke, one of the bill's chief supporters.70 The paper argued that important decisions about India should be made on the spot by the governors, not legislated by ministers in London, thus preserving the Company's traditional independent role. The particular example chosen by the Whitehall Evening Post to demonstrate this claim was the personality of Tipu, initially seen as "favourably disposed to the English interest," but in light of more recent results, the paper was forced to conclude that either Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England) 17 October 1785, Issue 3965 Whitehall Evening Post (London, England) 22 November 1783, Issue 5692 Emphasis in the original.
public opinion at home had been in error or "the Asiatic Prince [was] a dissembler."71 In either case, the situation reflected poorly on Tipu Sultan and on the Foxite supporters of the reforming India Bill.
Both ministry and opposition sought to make use of the popular interest in the Mysore Wars for their own political ends, with varying degrees of success. Initial reports from India were also not always reliable; many of the rumors of disaster and defeat in India would later prove untrue when the official dispatches from the Company arrived in Britain. When news arrived by ship in 1784 that a cease-fire had indeed been concluded with Mysore, just as the government had earlier claimed, it came as a source of some political embarrassment to Fox.72 Tipu's involvement with the party politics of the day was relatively minor during the Second Mysore War, but would become paramount in the debates surrounding the next war, beginning with the controversy surrounding the attack on Travancore.
When news of this new conflict in southern India reached Britain and the rest of the empire in 1790, it generated a sizable debate about the legality and morality of the war against Tipu Sultan. In a reflection of the arguments within the East India Company, the majority of commentators supported Cornwallis and believed in the justness of the war effort, while a vocal minority contested the actions of the Company as aggressive and antithetical to British liberty. These debates ran their course for the next three years without a clear conclusion until the end of the war, although the general sentiment of public opinion continued a gradual shift towards the villainous characterization of Tipu, and a reimagining of the Company's servants as patriotic soldier-heroes.
Ibid, Whitehall Evening Post 5692 St. James’ Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England) 8 January 1784, Issue 3564 Much of the initial coverage of the war was favorable, as newspapers expounded upon the benefits to be gained from a swift and decisive victory. Many of the sentiments expressed in the print culture of the British metropole reflected those of the Anglo-Indian community, albeit with less focus on the theme of revenge against Tipu. The St. James Chronicle printed a letter from Madras reassuring its readers that "nothing prejudicial to the interests of the nation" was to be dreaded from the outbreak of war. The fighting would instead be "the most probable means of establishing the British interests in India...
beyond the probability of all injury" since Tipu's cruelty would turn his subjects against him.73 The Public Advertiser believed that this war would demonstrate the good name of the British in India, through the Company's support of the Rajah of Travancore, thereby gaining the friendship and good wishes of the native princes. The newspaper also pointed out other benefits which would accrue to the Company, in the form of "immense wealth" to be gained through "ensuring a permanent peace, in the destruction of Tippoo Saib."74 This writer appeared to have been unaware of the irony in writing about the establishment of permanent peace through warfare. This was an argument that was increasingly made by those who supported the East India Company in the 1790s, the notion that Tipu was a threat to the peace who had to be eliminated, which would be achieved through by going to war and conquering his kingdom. It conveniently transferred the burden of aggression onto the Sultan, allowing the reputation of the British to remain unblemished, and would be employed by both Cornwallis and later Richard Wellesley in their wars against Mysore.
St. James’ Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London, England) 3 July 1790, Issue 4557 Public Advertiser (London, England) 26 July 1790, Issue 17488 Due to the confusing circumstances of the Travancore incident, it was important for supporters of the Company to establish that Tipu had been the aggressor in the conflict. The Attic Miscellany described the outbreak of the war in these terms for its
In India, the torch of war is already lighted. Tippoo Saib, (the son of and successor of Hyder Ally) by an unprovoked act on the territories of our ally, the king of Travancore, has compelled us to take up arms... Fortified by alliances with the native Princes, happy in a military commander of approved excellence, and in a governor general of solid talents and unshaken integrity, we may reasonably hope to subdue this unprincipled tyrant of the East, whose happiness consists in spreading devastation around him. But whatever be the event of the war, we have the satisfaction to know that our adversary was the aggressor, and that the necessity of preserving inviolate the national faith rendered it unavoidable.75 This passage reassured the public that the Company was in no way responsible for the fighting, and was instead acting to protect the national honor from the tyrannical aggression of an Oriental despot. The authors also insisted that the war was unavoidable, again removing any burden of guilt from the Company and transferring it onto the person of Tipu.