«ABSTRACT Title of Dissertation: TYRANT! TIPU SULTAN AND THE RECONCEPTION OF BRITISH IMPERIAL IDENTITY, 1780-1800 Michael Soracoe, Doctor of ...»
These reassuring assumptions about how the war had begun were soon challenged by a series of revealing debates in the House of Commons. The topic of the Third Mysore War was also taken up in Parliament, spawning a series of contentious exchanges which were widely reported upon in the print media of the day. Prime Minister William Pitt's Tory ministry supported the cause of the East India Company, which was vigorously contested by a vocal Whig opposition. These MPs charged that the war against Tipu was an unjust act of aggression, and one that did not deserve to receive the official support of Parliament and the rest of the British nation. The Whigs were never able to succeed in passing their motions regarding the war, but the sustained debate in both the Commons Attic Miscellany (London, England) Vol. 2, Issue 18, p. 231 (1790) Emphasis in the original.
and the Lords on this subject reflected the divided attitude of the public with regards to both Tipu Sultan and the East India Company itself.
Foremost among these critics was John Hippesley (also spelled Hippisley), a former East India Company servant who had resigned from the Company in 1787 and was returned to Parliament as an MP from Sudbury in 1790. Hippesley raised the subject of the legality of the Company's war against Tipu in a House of Commons debate on 21 December 1790. As Lloyd's Evening Post reported, "He could not forbear to state, that in the present instance Tippoo Saib did not seem to act so as to provoke hostility from us, and that the present was a war of injustice." When the initial purchase of the forts took place and Tipu advanced against Travancore, Sir Archibald Campbell had been averse to offering Travancore any assistance, but since then, "opinions were changed, and the British Government were about to be involved in war."76 Hippesley's personal experience as a former paymaster for the Madras government gave his objections to the war additional weight and meaning. He was joined in his criticisms by Philip Francis, the longtime antagonist of Warren Hastings both in Calcutta and in London, now newly returned to Parliament as an MP from Bletchingley.
Speaking in the same debate, Francis outlined a vision of British India sharply different from that being advocated by the Company's supporters. Francis contended that the goal of policy should be "the general preservation of peace throughout India… a particular attention to the peace and security of Bengal in particular; and avoiding, above all things, the endeavor to make any further acquisition of territory. Next to these, our policy...
should be to have no alliance what ever with any of the Native Princes, but to cultivate Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England) 20 December 1790, Issue 5223 I am uncertain how the paper could be printed the day before the debate, however that was what the dating of the source claimed.
the friendship of all, and preserve by all possible means the balance of power among them."77 Judged on these grounds, the war against Tipu was a misuse of the Company's resources, and more likely to cause harm than good. Francis doubted that the Company would be successful at all militarily, given the advantage in cavalry posed by Tipu.78 The objections raised by Hippesley and Francis were typical of the overall Whig opposition during the Third Mysore War: they argued that the Company was carrying out an unjust war of aggression, that it would be too costly, that the motives behind the war involved more nabob plundering of Indian wealth, and that they were pessimistic as to whether victory over Tipu could be achieved at all.
Hippesley continued to defend the position of Tipu and argue against the decision to go to war. In a Commons debate the following week on 27 December 1790, Hippesley pointed out that Tipu wrote an apology for his conduct to the Madras government, declaring his wish to continue in friendship with the English, and to avoid any cause of
offense towards them. That led to the following conclusion:
From this statement, Mr. H. conceived that it was probable Tippoo Sultan might be less blameable than were aware of, if not strictly justifiable; and consequently that our hostile interference might not be so well adapted to conciliate and illustrate the system laid down by Parliament for the better governance of India.
Mr. H. hoped he should not be considered as undertaking the general defense of Tippoo Sultan. He considered himself rather as an advocate for the honour and justice of the British nation. He admitted the claim of Tippoo to the epithet of a merciless tyrant; the tyrant nevertheless had his rights, and consequently his wrongs, in common with other men!79 Hippesley adopted an unusual position in this speech, accepting the claims of Tipu's brutality and yet nonetheless criticizing the Company for its actions against the Sultan.
Ibid For more information on this concern, see G. J. Bryant, “Asymmetric Warfare: The British Experience in Eighteenth-Century India” in The Journal of Military History 2004 68(2): 431-469 Diary or Woodfall’s Register (London, England) 27 December 1790, Issue 547 Emphasis in the original.
Regardless of the character of Tipu, Hippesley argued, that did not justify the Company in violating the instructions of Parliament to refrain from campaigns of conquest in India.
This appears to have been a transitional period in terms of attitudes towards Tipu and the East India Company. Hippesley had internalized the tyrannical discourse about Tipu but was not willing to accept a positive reimagining of the Company itself. The wider public also appeared to share in this transitional moment, with shifting and contested narratives regarding the outbreak of the war. The Morning Chronicle concurred with Hippesley in its assessment of the situation: "The origin of the war in India, as opened by Mr. Hippesley... deserves the most serious attention of the public. The peace of India is of too much importance for us to be duped into a war... or for the unguarded ferocity of Tippoo Sultan, to be made a pretext for departing from the system of moderation prescribed by Parliament for the Government of India."80 The Morning Chronicle went on to state a few days later, "The public is under great obligation to Mr.
Hippesley for explaining the origin of that war, in which it appears that Tippoo Saib was not the aggressor till he had reason to believe that he himself was in danger of being attacked," providing further support for this interpretation of events.81 The notion that the public was being "duped" into supporting an unnecessary war of conquest, in violation of the dictates laid down by Parliament, recalled the old charges of nabobery that the Company was trying to shed.
In opposing this viewpoint, and defending the justness of the war, Henry Dundas pointed to the aggressive and untrustworthy nature of Tipu Sultan: "Respecting the forts of Tranganore, and Jachotto... the Rajah of Travancore had as good a right to get a Morning Chronicle (London, England) 30 December 1790, Issue 6728 Morning Chronicle (London, England) 1 January 1791, Issue 6730 transfer of them as any other person. But the principal reason why he got them into his hand, was owing to the constant alarm he was under of an invasion by Tippoo Sultan into
his kingdom..."82 Dundas was essentially outlining a doctrine of pre-emption:
Travancore’s actions were justified because they were necessary to protect the kingdom against attack by Tipu, and that explained why the Company also had to take part in the war. This was the same logic that Cornwallis would later use in defending the war in his letters back to the Directors of the Company: Tipu's character was faithless and violent, which necessitated taking decisive military action against him.83 Pre-emptive warfare was the only just course of action when faced with a tyrant such as Tipu.
As these exchanges suggested, the debate over Tipu had become a stand-in for a wider political argument between the leading figures of the Whig and Tory parties. Men like Hippesley and Francis stood for an older version of overseas empire, one that conceptualized British power as fundamentally maritime, commercial, Protestant, and free.84 They believed that any territorial empire in India could only be despotic in nature, and feared the moral consequences of the Company's military conquests on the British metropole. In contrast, the Pitt ministry represented the new ethos of the growing Second British Empire, one that was far more militaristic and autocratic in nature.85 They justified overseas imperialism by placing Indian subjects at a lower place on a hierarchy of civilizations, and by vilifying Indian rulers for their supposed moral corruption and General Evening Post (London, England) 26 February 1791, Issue 8958 Cornwallis to Directors, Conclusion of Treaty with Tipu Sultan 5 April 1792 (p. 91-107) IOR/H/251 p.
David Armitage. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) C.A. Bayly. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830 (London: Longman, 1989) savagery.86 The Third Mysore War served as a collision point for these alternate and competing views of overseas empire, with the newer perspective of the pro-Company Pitt ministry gradually establishing their dominance.
Ultimately the views of the Opposition were those of a minority, and they were unable to secure passage of motions condemning the war. In a Commons debate on 2
March 1791, Dundas secured the passage of three resolutions by the House:
That it is the opinion of this House, that the several attacks made by Tippoo Sultan on the lines of Travancore, the 29th of December, 1789, and the 6th of March, 1790, were infractions in the treaty of Mangalore, made in 1784.
That the conduct of the Governor General of Bengal [Cornwallis], in determining to prosecute with vigour the war against Tippoo Sultan, in consequence of his attack on the territories of the Rajah of Travancore, was highly meritorious.
That the treaties entered into with the Nizam on the 1st of June, and with the Mahrattas on the 7th of July, 1790, are wisely calculated to add vigour to the operations of war, and to promote the future tranquility of India; and that the faith of the British nation is pledged for the due performance of the engagements contained in the said treaties.87 All of these passed without a division (after some angry comments from the Opposition), indicating that the general mood was in favor of the war. Fox remonstrated loudly against these measures, decrying how the signing of treaties of alliance against Tipu "put it out of our power to make any moderate terms with Tippoo, and must pursue him to destruction under the specious and delusive pretence of keeping faith with our Allies."88 The majority opinion, however, did not agree and supported both the ministry and the East India Company.
C. A. Bayly. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988): 77-78 General Evening Post (London, England) 1 March 1791, Issue 8959 Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England) 2 March 1791, Issue 5254 Emphasis in the original.
The situation was much the same in the House of Lords, where Lord Portchester
gave a speech on 11 April 1791 attacking the situation in India:
It was a war founded in injustice, in violation of the most sacred treaties, and in direct contempt of the recorded policy of the Court of Directors, and of both Houses of Parliament. These, he said, were strong assertions, but they were true… He contended that the war was planned in this country long before the attack of Tippoo Sultan, in the year 1789. It was a war of conquest, a principle which had ever been reprobated by every enlightened nation… he therefore considered the bargain about the forts [at Travancore] as a mere pretence for entering into a war, which he had no hesitation in saying, was dictated by the Board of Control in this country. It was, surely, a shameful misapplication of the revenue of the East India-Company, to embark them in a war of conquest for the acquisition of territories, which, after the expiration of their charter, they could never enjoy.89 After making this attack against the Company, Portchester attempted to pass three antiwar resolutions, stating that "schemes of conquests and extension of dominion in India" were repugnant to the national honor, there was no just cause for a war with Tipu Sultan, and that the Directors of the East India Company should issue orders for a speedy resolution of peace with Tipu, on moderate and equitable terms. These resolutions failed by a wide margin, the Lords voting against 96 to 19. Lord Grenville then advanced two pro-war resolutions that were nearly identical to those passed in the Commons, which passed easily on a vote of 62 to 12.90 This exchange demonstrated that the Lords reflected the sentiment of the Commons, with a large majority supporting the war against Tipu, but a stubborn Opposition making noise by insisting that the Company was pursuing an unjust war of conquest.
These criticisms of the Company and the ongoing follies of the war effort inspired popular cartoonists of the day as well, who made use of the themes of the Mysore Wars to provide their own critique of empire. Cornwallis' retreat from Seringapatam in 1791, General Evening Post (London, England) 9 April 1791, Issue 8976 Ibid when the onset of the monsoon season forced a retreat of the Company's armies before a successful siege of the city could be prosecuted, proved to be an especially popular subject for their work. This was a topic ripe for satire, and the cartoonists of the day wasted no opportunity. W. Dent was the first printer to take up the subject, publishing "Rare News from India, or, Things going on swimmingly in the East" on 5 December