Within a space of two generations, Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan became the rulers of the South Indian kingdom of Mysore, taking over from the incumbent ruling Hindu dynasty, the Wodeyars and participated in a series of wars with the British that had bigger ramifications than in India alone, becoming simultaneously a reflection of the European nations’ conflicts and their global colonies.

Historical map of Mysore 1617 to 1799

The Anglo Mysore wars, of which there were 4, started in 1767 when Haidar was ruler and ended in Tipu’s death in 1799. These were a series of wars fought in the last three decades of the 18th century between Mysore and the British East India Company, represented chiefly by the Madras Presidency.

Halfway through the 2nd Anglo Mysore War, Haidar Ali died and Tipu took over his father’s mantle and struggle against the British, subsequently gaining a firman (royal decree) from the Ottoman Caliph which recognised him as a legitimate ruler of Mysore. Tipu built many beautiful Islamic monuments in the ancient Wodeyar capital, Srirangapatna, a well defended island citadel, including a summer palace, the Dariah Dawlat Bagh, its murals celebrating Haidar’s victory at the Battle of Pollilur.

Tipu Sultan maintained Haidar’s policy of friendly relations with the French who had helped him create a modern Indian army, technologically equal to that of the Europeans, but also with many distinct advantages such as a nimble cavalry.

Tipu was like a modern cosmocrat, determined to extend political alliances abroad. He even sent an embassy to Paris, a long journey in those days. He invoked Jihad to other Muslim nations– but in the main, he had more promises than action. While Tipu remained defiant, the British and their East India Company, which during this period had the made the transition from a trading concern to conquerors, put more and more resources into wiping him out. When they eventually succeeded Mysore was restored to the Wodeyars, although chunks were annexed by the British allies at the time such as Hyderabad.

India and the European traders

Aurangzeb, Mughal Emperor (1658-1707)

After the demise of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb in 1707, Mughal rule slowly began to crumble, providing an opportunity to European trading companies to expand their influence. The British, French, Portuguese and Dutch were all competing for commercial interests in the Indian subcontinent.

English commerce with India was transacted by the East India Company and was about a hundred years old at the time of Aurangzeb’s death. The East India Company had been given monopoly rights for all English trade to Asia by a royal grant at its foundation in 1600. Cotton was the main import from India, satisfying demand for cheap, washable, lightweight fabrics used for dresses and furnishings. Cotton textiles were exported from the Company’s main settlements, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta which had evolved from trading posts known as factories.

As a commercial concern, the English East India Company was only matched in size by its Dutch rival. However, although the Dutch were strong in the East Indies and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), they were not interested in building an Empire in India. This left the French East India Company as the only serious rival to the English.

The Honourable East India Company ensign with the British Union flag. From 1707 to approximately 1800. Image by Phil Nelson
Flag of French's regiment of East India Company in 1756

The French East India Company (Compagnie Française pour le commerce des Indes orientales), was founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1664. It took possession of Pondicherry (now Puducherry, a state in India) in 1674 from the Sultan of Bijapur and made it its capital in India. The other main possessions were Karaikal, Mahe, Chandernagar and Yanam, all in South India. The company had made rapid strides after 1720 under able governors like Dumas and Dupleix.

The disintegration of the Mughal Empire also unfolded opportunities for ambitious local powers. In Southern and Central India there emerged the kingdoms of the Nizam, the Marathas, Mysore, the Nawab of Arcot and minor kingdoms like Tanjore and Travancore.

Central and South India

The Nizams

In 1721 were laid the foundations of the great state of Hyderabad, in Central India. Strictly, but Nizam-ul-Mulkthe Viceroy here was called the Subadar of the Deccan, who held that office, established the hereditary nature of his rule so forcibly that within a generation his name became a title borne by his descendants until modern times – ‘the Nizams’. The Nizams saw themselves as the last great bastion of the Mughal Empire.

Asaf Jah I (ruled 1724-1748), founder and first Nizam of Hyderabad state

The Marathas

From Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders (636 AD to 1206 AD) – By Sita Ram Goel. Voice of India, New Delhi

The scattered chieftaincies of the Maratha people in west-central India had been welded together towards the end of the 17thcentury by the celebrated Hindu champion, Sivaji. There had been a phase of anarchy, but power finally passed into the hands of the Peshwa, or second Minister, of the Raja of Satara, to whom all the Maratha chiefs were supposedly subservient. This Peshwa, Balaji Viswanath, converted the office into something like a hereditary kingship. When he died in 1720, his title and power descended to his son, the great soldier statesman, Baji Rao.


Mysore had started to emerge as a powerful independent state in the south under the Wodeyar dynasty. However, internal weakness and the constant invasions in the north by the Marathas, gave an opportunity for a talented soldier called Haidar Ali to rise to power with the patronage of the influential minister Nanjaraja. Under Haidar’s rule Mysore’s territory doubled in size. Haidar integrated large areas of Karnataka following an anti-poligar policy, uprooting small and petty rulers of the region.

"Hyder Ali," a steel engraving from the 1790's (with modern hand coloring)

Each one of these states, including the Mughals was anxious to reduce the others but no one was capable of doing it all alone. The situation was complicated by the machinations of the European powers.

In Southern India the British and the French allied with opposed political factions within the successor states in order to extract gains for their own Companies and to weaken the position of their opponents. Private ambitions were also involved. Great personal rewards were promised to the European commanders who succeeded in placing their Indian clients on the thrones for which they were contending.

Anglo French conflicts

Commercial and political rivalry between the French and the English Companies was a major factor in the Anglo-French wars in the Carnatic (1756–1763). However, the Carnatic Wars were also a reflection of the distant European theatre of war, which now encompassed the New World of North America.

Described by Winston Churchill as the first world war, this war involving European nations and their colonies all around the world, is referred to by Historians as ‘The Seven Years' War’ (1754 and 1756–1763) of which the Carnatic Wars are considered to be a part. The outcome of this protracted conflict was favourable to Britain who gained enormous areas of land and influence at the expense of the French. India was no exception. The French suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760 at the hands of General Eyre Coote and the Carnatic Wars ended in 1763 with British ascendancy in the South East.

The English were able to defeat the French with their superior sea-power, greater resources and steadier support from their mother country. This dealt a severe blow to the French Company. By the Treaty of Paris (1763), the French were forced to maintain their trade posts in small enclaves in Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, Chandernagar and Yanam without any military presence. By 1769, when the French Compagnie was abolished, trade with France was in permanent decline, eliminating a major source of economic competition to its British counterpart.

However, the most significant British gains during the Anglo French conflicts were actually outside the Carnatic, in Bengal in the North East. Robert Clive led Company

Robert Clive of India (1757) by Nathaniel Dance Siraj Ud Daulah (1756 – 1757)

Forces against a French-backed Siraj Ud Daulah to victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This victory enabled a new British satellite ruler to be installed. British influence quickly gave way to outright rule over Bengal, formerly conceded to Clive in 1765 by the still symbolically important, though militarily impotent, Mughal emperor.

Therefore, as well as supremacy in the South East, Britain now had a secure foothold in Eastern India and Calcutta, an alternative base of operations to Madras and from where the highly lucrative opium trade with China was carried on.

The British conquests in the South East put them in direct competition with the powerful Indian successor states in Southern and Central India

The 1st Anglo Mysore [1767-69] was a reflection of this background of self-interest that originated from the collapse of the Mughal Empire. It was characterised by twists and turns as the various powers sought both defensive allies at the same time as offensive ones, inevitably leading to many short lived tactical alliances.