Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore

And then they stole his jewelry... British soldiers discover Tipu Sultan's body. British Library/Robana via Getty Images

On November 20, 1750, military officer Hyder Ali of the Kingdom of Mysore and his wife, Fatima Fakhr-un-Nisa, welcomed a new baby boy in Bangalore, their first. They named him Fath Ali, but also called him Tipu Sultan after a local Muslim saint, Tipu Mastan Aulia.

Hyder Ali was an able soldier and won such a complete victory against an invading force of Marathas in 1758 that Mysore was able to absorb the Marathan homelands. As a result, Hyder Ali became the commander-in-chief of Mysore's army, later the Sultan, and by 1761 the outright ruler of the kingdom.

Early Life

While his father rose to fame and prominence, young Tipu Sultan was receiving an education from the finest tutors available. He studied such subjects as riding, swordsmanship, shooting, Koranic studies, Islamic jurisprudence, and languages such as Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. Tipu Sultan also studied military strategy and tactics under French officers from an early age, since his father was allied with the French in southern India.

In 1766, when Tipu Sultan was just 15 years old, he got the chance to apply his military training in battle for the first time, when he accompanied his father on an invasion of Malabar. The youngster took charge of a force of two to three thousand and cleverly managed to capture the Malabar chief's family, which had taken refuge in a fort under heavy guard. Fearful for his family, the chief surrendered, and other local leaders soon followed his example.

Hyder Ali was so proud of his son that he gave him command of 500 cavalries and assigned him rule of five districts within Mysore. It was the start of an illustrious military career for the young man.

First Anglo-Mysore War

During the mid-eighteenth century, the British East India Company sought to expand its control of southern India by playing local kingdoms and principalities off one another, and off of the French. In 1767, the British formed a coalition with the Nizam and the Marathas, and together they attacked Mysore. Hyder Ali managed to make a separate peace with the Marathas, and then in June sent his 17-year-old son Tipu Sultan to negotiate with the Nizam. The young diplomat arrived in the Nizam camp with gifts including cash, jewels, ten horses, and five trained elephants. In just one week, Tipu charmed the ruler of the Nizam into switching sides, and joining the Mysorean fight against the British.

Tipu Sultan then led a cavalry raid on Madras (now Chennai) itself, but his father suffered a defeat by the British at Tiruvannamalai and had to call his son back. Hyder Ali decided to take the unusual step of continuing to fight during the monsoon rains, and together with Tipu captured two British forts. The Mysorean army was besieging a third fort when British reinforcements arrived; Tipu and his cavalry held off the British long enough to allow Hyder Ali's troops to retreat in good order.

Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan then went on a tear up the coast, capturing forts and British-held cities. The Mysoreans were threatening to dislodge the British from their key east coast port of Madras when the British sued for peace in March of 1769.

After this humiliating defeat, the British had to sign a 1769 peace agreement with Hyder Ali called the Treaty of Madras. Both sides agreed to return to their pre-war boundaries and to come to each others' aid in case of attack by any other power. Under the circumstances, the British East India Company got off easy, but still, it would not honor the treaty terms.

Interwar Period

In 1771, the Marathas attacked Mysore with an army perhaps as large as 30,000 men. Hyder Ali called upon the British to honor their duty of aid under the Treaty of Madras, but the British East India Company refused to send any troops to assist him. Tipu Sultan played a key role as Mysore fought off the Marathas, but the young commander and his father never trusted the British again.

Later that decade, Britain and France came to blows over the 1776 rebellion in Britain's North American colonies; France, of course, supported the rebels. In retaliation, and to draw off French support from America, Britain had decided to push the French entirely out of India. It began to capture key French holdings in India such as Pondicherry, on the southeastern coast, in 1778. The following year, the British grabbed the French-occupied port of Mahe on the Mysorean coast, and Hyder Ali declared war.

Second Anglo-Mysore War

The Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784), began when Hyder Ali led an army of 90,000 in an attack on the Carnatic, which was allied with Britain. The British governor at Madras decided to send the bulk of his army under Sir Hector Munro against the Mysoreans, and also called for a second British force under Colonel William Baillie to leave Guntur and meet up with the main force. Hyder got word of this and sent Tipu Sultan with 10,000 troops to intercept Baillie.

In September of 1780, Tipu and his 10,000 cavalry and infantry surrounded Baillie's combined British East India Company and Indian force, and inflicted on them the worst defeat the British had suffered in India. Most of the 4,000 Anglo-Indian troops surrendered and were taken prisoner; 336 had been killed. Colonel Munro refused to march to Baillie's aid, for fear of losing the heavy guns and other material he had stored. By the time he finally set out, it was too late.

Hyder Ali did not realize just how disorganized the British force was. Had he attacked Madras itself at that time, he likely could have taken the British base. However, he only sent Tipu Sultan and some cavalry to harass Munro's retreating columns; the Mysoreans did capture all of the British stores and baggage, and killed or wounded about 500 troops, but did not attempt to seize Madras.

The Second Anglo-Mysore War settled down into a series of sieges. The next significant event was Tipu's February 18, 1782 defeat of East India Company troops under Colonel Braithwaite at Tanjore. Braithwaite was completely surprised when Tipu and his French ally Lallee, and after twenty-six hours of fighting, the British and their Indian sepoys surrendered. Later British propaganda said that Tipu would have had them all massacred if the French hadn't interceded, but that is almost certainly false - none of the Company troops were harmed after they surrendered.

Tipu Takes the Throne

While the Second Anglo-Mysore War was still raging, the 60-year-old Hyder Ali developed a serious carbuncle. Throughout the fall and early winter of 1782, his condition deteriorated, and on December 7, he died. Tipu Sultan assumed the title of Sultan and took his father's throne on December 29, 1782.

The British hoped that this transition of power would be less than peaceful, so that they would have an advantage in the on-going war. However, Tipu's immediate acceptance by the army, and the smooth transition, thwarted them. In addition, incompetent British officers had failed to secure enough rice during the harvest, and some of their sepoys were literally starving to death. They were in no condition to launch an attack against the new sultan during the height of the monsoon season.

Settlement Terms:

The Second Anglo-Mysore War went on until early 1784, but Tipu Sultan maintained the upper hand throughout most of that time. Finally, on March 11, 1784, the British East India Company formally capitulated with the signing of the Treaty of Mangalore.

Under the terms of the treaty, the two sides once again returned to the status quo in terms of territory. Tipu Sultan agreed to release all of the British and Indian prisoners of war he had captured.

Tipu Sultan the Ruler

Despite two victories over the British, Tipu Sultan realized that the British East India Company remained a serious threat to his independent kingdom. He funded continuous military advances, including further development of the famous Mysore rockets - iron tubes that could fire missiles up to two kilometers, terrifying British troops and their allies.

Tipu also built roads, created a new form of coinage, and encouraged silk production for international trade. He was particularly fascinated and delighted with new technologies, and had always been an avid student of science and mathematics. A devout Muslim, Tipu was tolerant of his majority-Hindu subjects' faith. Famed as warrior-king, the "Tiger of Mysore," Tipu Sultan proved an able ruler in times of relative peace as well.

Third Anglo-Mysore War

Tipu Sultan had to face the British for a third time between 1789 and 1792. This time, Mysore would receive no aid from its usual ally, France, which was in the throes of the French Revolution. The British were led on this occasion by Lord Cornwallis, also famed as one of the major British commanders during the American Revolution.

Unfortunately for Tipu Sultan and his people, the British had more attention and resources to invest in southern India this go around. Although the war lasted for several years, unlike in the previous engagements, the British gained more ground than they gave. At the end of the war, after the British besieged Tipu's capital city of Seringapatam, the Mysorean leader had to capitulate.

In the 1793 Treaty of Seringapatam, the British and their allies, the Maratha Empire, took half of the territory of Mysore. The British also demanded that Tipu turn over two of his sons, ages seven and eleven, as hostages to ensure that the Mysorean ruler would pay war indemnities. Cornwallis held the boys captive to ensure that their father would comply with the treaty terms. Tipu quickly paid the ransom and recovered his children. Nonetheless, it was a shocking reversal for the Tiger of Mysore.

Fourth Anglo-Mysore War

In 1798, a French general named Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. Unbeknownst to his superiors in the Revolutionary government in Paris, Bonaparte planned to use Egypt as a stepping-stone from which to invade India by land (through the Middle East, Persia, and Afghanistan), and wrest it from the British. With that in mind, the man who would be emperor sought an alliance with Tipu Sultan, Britain's staunchest foe in southern India.

This alliance was not to be, however, for several reasons. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt was a military disaster. Sadly, his would-be ally, Tipu Sultan, also suffered a terrible defeat.

By 1798, the British had had sufficient time to recover from the Third Anglo-Mysore War. They also had a new commander of British forces at Madras, Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, who was committed to a policy of "aggression and aggrandizement." Although the British had taken half of his country and a large sum of money, Tipu Sultan meanwhile had rebuilt significantly and Mysore was once more a prosperous place. The British East India Company knew that Mysore was the only thing standing between it and total domination of India.

A British-led coalition of nearly 50,000 troops marched toward Tipu Sultan's capital city of Seringapatam in February of 1799. This was no typical colonial army of a handful of European officers and a rabble of ill-trained local recruits; this army was made up of the best and brightest from all of the British East India Company's client states. Its single goal was the destruction of Mysore.

Although the British sought to enclose Mysore state in a giant pincher movement, Tipu Sultan was able to sally out and stage a surprise attack early in March that nearly destroyed one of the British contingents before reinforcements showed up. Throughout the spring, the British pressed closer and closer to the Mysorean capital. Tipu wrote to the British commander Wellesley, trying to arrange for a peace, but Wellesley deliberately offered completely unacceptable terms. His mission was to destroy Tipu Sultan, not to negotiate with him.

At the beginning of May, 1799, the British and their allies surrounded Seringapatam, the capital of Mysore. Tipu Sultan had just 30,000 defenders matched against 50,000 attackers. On May 4, the British broke through the city walls. Tipu Sultan rushed to the breach and was killed defending his city. After the battle, his body was discovered beneath a pile of defenders. Seringapatam was overrun.

Tipu Sultan's Legacy

With Tipu Sultan's death, Mysore became another princely state under the jurisdiction of the British Raj. His sons were sent into exile, and a different family became puppet rulers of Mysore under the British. In fact, Tipu Sultan's family was reduced to poverty as a deliberate policy and were only restored to princely status in 2009.

Tipu Sultan fought long and hard, although ultimately unsuccessfully, to preserve his country's independence. Today, Tipu is remembered by many as a heroic freedom fighter in India and also in Pakistan.


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Hasan, Mohibbul. History of Tipu Sultan, Delhi: Aakar Books, 2005.