The Carnatic Wars

The French were England’s main rivals in India, competing with them for trade and political dominance.

Anglo-French conflicts in India during the 18th century were centred in the region called Carnatic, on the east coast of South India. This area lies between the Western Ghats, the mountain range separating modern Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the Coromandel Coast, the south-eastern coast from Kanyakumari to False Divi Point. For all practical purposes, this was the old Madras Presidency, which includes Tamil Nadu and most of Andhra Pradesh and some parts of Karnataka.

Map to illustrate the Carnatic wars (1747-1763)between the English and the French from 'Historical Atlas of India' by Charles Joppen (London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1907)

The so-called Carnatic Wars reflected the rivalry between the British and French trading companies (the British East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes) and were part of the wider Anglo-French wars of the 18th century.

The First Carnatic War happened at the same time as Europe's War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The French, led by Joseph François Dupleix, captured the British territory of Madras, but this was returned to the British by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which ended the wider conflict.

The Second Carnatic War (1751-1754) was an unofficial war fought between the East India Company and the Compagnie des Indes at a time when there was peace between the two powers in Europe. Its roots lay in Dupleix's skilful exploitation of the confused politics of the region to enhance French power through a series of native alliances. The daring of the East India Company's Robert Clive, who defeated the French-backed Chanda Sahib, claimant to the throne of Arcot, ended the second phase of Anglo-French struggle in India as Dupleix was recalled to France in 1754.

Print of Dupleix, Governor of French India (1742 to 1754)

The Third Carnatic War followed just two years later, in 1756, when the Seven Years' War broke out in Europe. The Seven Years War (1756 to 1763), described by Winston Churchill as the first world war, involved several European nations and their colonies. This time the war passed beyond the limits of south India into the rich province of Bengal, where the English captured the French possession of Chandernagar in 1757. The most decisive battles of the war, however, were fought in the south. Here, the military balance tilted decisively in favour of Britain when the French capital of Pondicherry fell in 1761. The war ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, by the kingdoms of Great Britain, France and Spain, with Portugal in agreement. Together with the Treaty of Hubertusburg, it marked the beginning of an extensive period of British dominance outside of Europe.

While the bulk of conquered territories were restored to their pre-war owners, the British made some substantial overseas gains at the expense of France. In India, the French received back its "factories" (trading posts), but agreed to support the British ‘client’ governments, as well as returning Sumatra and agreeing not to base troops in Bengal.

The policy of both the British and the French was to curry favour with the ruling elite by attaching themselves to the courts of rival Indian princes. This enabled them not only to extract gains for their own Companies but also to weaken the position of their opponents. Haidar Ali, who had initially considered an alliance with the British, nonetheless clearly began to favour the French when he realised where British ambitions were heading. After the outbreak of the first Anglo Mysore War, the French necessarily became the ally of choice.

There were more Frenchmen in the service of Mysore than was found in any other Indian state of the time. Haidar Ali had acquired useful familiarity with the tactics of the French when at the height of their reputation under Dupleix during the expedition to Trichinopoly (Now Tiruchirappalli or Trichy in Tamil Nadu) in the Carnatic to assist the French sponsor to the throne of Arcot.

Haidar was sufficiently impressed to want to modernise his army and sought French help with training his men. He also procured modern arms from Europe via Mysore’s trading routes on the West coast. A good proportion of Mysore’s weaponry was French or Dutch in manufacture.

Tipu’s French Connection

Tipu Sultan inherited his father’s respect for the French and wanted to benefit from their skills and scientific knowledge. Under the supervision of the French he learnt how to produce European guns. The Mysore sepoy’s flintlocks were based on the latest French designs and were superior to the East India Company’s matchlocks. The foundry established by him to cast cannons used the latest techniques with the help of French craftsmen. He also procured the services of Frenchmen with specialised skills such as doctors, engineers, botanical specialists, craftsmen and munitions experts.

However, Tipu’s relationship with France was characterised by erratic help and a background of declining influence. Generally, the French were more of a threat internally than externally.

The French policy in India lacked cohesion. Initially their sentiments about Mysore were ambivalent, as on the whole they preferred an alliance with the Nizam. Before the 2nd Anglo Mysore War, the French had promised to help Haidar against the English but when Marquis de Bussy, whose exploits in the Deccan some twenty years earlier had won him fame, arrived in Porto Novo, Haidar had just died..

The goodwill that existed between Haidar and de Bussy was replaced by mutual suspicion between de Bussy and Haidar’s successor, Tipu Sultan. De Bussy felt affronted by Tipu, who had gone to defend his Malabar possessions on the other coast instead of meeting him. Although this was a genuine excuse and although Tipu left a sizeable force behind, de Bussy refused to fight until he had received expected reinforcements.

To add to the frustration, the Seige of Mangalore which had been going well was aborted due to news of the European peace settlement at Versailles of 1783.

The Treaty signed on September 30, 1783 formally ended the American Revolutionary War (or American War of Independence) between Great Britain and the United States of America. France had supported the American colonists in their fight against British rule and declared war on Britain in 1778.

Tipu Sultan was furious when he heard the news. De Bussy on the other hand was anxious to bring about peace between Tipu and the English. According to the 16th article of Treaty of Versailles, the allies needed to participate in general pacification.

Tipu nonetheless doggedly pursued his idea of a mutual alliance with France. Four years later in July 1787, Tipu sent an Embassy to France, proposing a 10 year military package for the mutual benefit of the two nations. This involved sending 10,000 French soldiers to Mysore whose expenses would be borne by Tipu. In return, if they emerged victorious, the adjacent territories of Pondicherry and Madras would be passed to the French.

Although Tipu Sultan’s vakils(emissaries) were granted a royal audience at Versailles they extracted nothing from Louis XV1 beyond vague promises of military help. It is likely that the main reason for this non-committal approach was the background of political turmoil that preceded the French revolution. Indeed the fall of the Bastille was only eleven months away. However, the Ambassadors found that the glamour of Paris more than made up for their diplomatic failure. They used up all their money and had to raise a loan before they could re-embark. The mission returned home empty handed.

Louis XVI Receives the Ambassadors of Tipu Sultan at Versailles (1788)

Tipu continued to place great hopes on an alliance with the French during the 3rd Anglo Mysore War from 1789 to 1792.After the French Revolution (1789), Tipu turned his attention to courting Napoleon. Britain was also continuously at war with France from 1793 – 1802 during the French Revolutionary Wars.

Francois Ripaud

A shipwreck at Mangalore in February 1797 threw a larger than life character by the name of Francois Ripaud from the Ile de France (Mauritius) into the Mysore arena with fateful consequences. Ripaud claimed that he was 2nd in command at Mauritius and had been authorised to discuss French Mysorean co-operation. Ghulam Ali, the former ambassador to France, listened to Ripaud’s report of forces waiting in Mauritius to support Tipu against the English and this story was subsequently sanctioned by Tipu himself.

Tipu Sultan has been criticised for his unguarded acceptance of Ripaud, a sign perhaps of his desperation and a lapse of good judgement. In spite of warnings from his courtiers, Tipu dispatched two envoys to Mauritius, only to discover that Ripaud’s story was untrue. However, this did not deter Tipu who had more ambitious plans. At the vakils’ behest, Monsieur Malartic, the Governor of Mauritius, agreed to forward a letter that Tipu had addressed to Napoleon and at the same time issued a proclamation which when news got around gave the British the pretext for Tipu’s final overthrow.

Tipu’s letter to Napoleon

“Happy moment! The time is come when I can deposit in the bosom of my Friends, the hatred which I bear against these oppressors of the human race. If you will assist me, in a short time: not an Englishman shall remain in India; you have the power and the means of effecting it by your free negroes; with these new Citizens (much dreaded by the English) joined to your Troops of the Line, we will purge India of these Villains. The springs which I have touched have put all India in motion, my friends are ready to fall upon the English; for everything here rely on my discretion. Your enemies, as I have apprised you, shall be mine.”

This putative plan was to involve 10,000 French troops and as many as 30,000 coloured black slaves i.e. the ‘new Citizens’ referred to above, who were invited ‘to serve under his flag’ for ‘an advantageous rate of pay’.

In February 1799 when the English army had already begun the invasion of Mysore, the British intercepted Napoleon’s letter to Tipu at Jeddah. The letter was addressed from Napolean’s headquarters in Cairo before the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile.

Napoleon’s letter to Tipu (extracts)

“BONAPARTE, Member of the National Convention, General in Chief, to the most Magnificent Sultan, our greatest friend, Tippoo Saib”.

Napolean states in the letter that his Invincible Army had arrived on the borders of the Red Sea “full of the desire of delivering you from the iron yoke of England”.

“I eagerly embrace this opportunity of testifying to you the desire I have of being informed by you, by way of Muscat and Mocha, as to your Political Situation. I would even wish you could send some Intelligent Person to Suez and Cairo, possessing your confidence, with whom I may confer.

May the Almighty increase your power and destroy your Enemies.”

Tipu’s sympathies with the democratic ideals of Revolutionary France were evidently genuine. By way of an alternative expression of this interest, he was sufficiently impressed by the American Declaration of Independence that he requested, through his links with Beaumarchais, the famous French author of Barber of Seville and Figaro and a fiery advocate of American liberty, a translation into Persian by Raza Mahdi, a scholar resident in Paris.

After his arrival, Francois Ripaud proceeded to Srirangapatna where he rallied Tipu’s Frenchmen in the name of the revolutionary government and founded a Jacobin club ‘for instruction on Constitutional Principles and for framing laws conformable to the Laws of the Republic.’

Ripaud was elected as President on 5thMay 1797 and presented a lecture on Republican principles. After mass on 8th May, ‘Citizens’ took an oath to support the constitution ‘or to die in arms at [my] post…to live free or perish’.

On 15th of May, ‘to the sound of all the Artillery and Musquetry of the Camp,’ Tipu Sultan, hailed as the ‘Citizen Prince’ and Ripaud, claiming to represent the French nation, promised eternal friendship. A Tree of Liberty was planted, adorned with a Cap of Equality: ‘Citizens, swear hatred to all Kings, except Tippoo Sultan, the Victorious and the Ally of the French Republic.’ The following gives a flavour of the kind of anti-British rhetoric used during the proceedings.

Extract from the proceedings of a Jacobin Club meeting, 15th of May 1797, Srirangapatna

“What horrors seize me! A religious sensibility overawes me! My Knees fail! My Blood freezes! I behold the shades of thousands of gallant Warriors, the proud Defenders of their Country, crying to us for vengeance!

“I behold the measure of barbarity and atrocity filled O God! I tremble with horror. What? I behold those victims of the ferocious English, sawn in pieces between planks. Women, the victims of their brutality, murdered in the same moment. O extreme of horror! My hair bristles up! I see Babes at the breast slain with the blood of their unfortunate mothers. I see the wretched Infants expiring with the same wounds as their unhappy mothers. O extremes of horror and villainy, what indignation do ye excite! But be persuaded, unhappy Souls, that we will revenge you. Perfidious and cruel English, remember there is a God, the avenger of guilt who inspires us to wash out with your blood the atrocity you have committed upon our brethren, and their unfortunate companions. Let thy innocence be thy consolation, O plaintive soul, we swear to revenge you. (Yes, I swear it.)”

The Grand Asian Alliance

In India

Tipu Sultan placed high importance on his position within the greater Islamic Caliphate pursuing his policy of international relations with the same dogged spirit that he attached to the French alliance.

In the subcontinent he tried very hard to keep up diplomatic ties with his Islamic neighbour, the Nizam. It was common sense that he should have wanted to avoid full scale war if possible with such a powerful neighbour, although this eventually became a reality in the last war with the British.

In a letter to the Nizam in 1784, Tipu reiterated his wish to help the Islamic sultanates and his desire to sacrifice his life and property in the name of Islam. He referred to his desire to iron out their differences by means of inter-state marriages.

The picture above which shows the Nizam of Hyderabad in a military procession is intended to be a cynical statement about the Nizam’s vacillating support for Tipu. This is a according to art historians because of the symbolic meaning of the black pig, in Islamic culture (below the Nizam’s horse). Tipu’s apparent intention was to ridicule him)

Nizam of Hyderabad (Picture from West Wall panel mural at Seringapatam)

In his correspondence with other Islamic rulers, Tipu used the title Padshah (Emperor) and declared that he intended to establish an Islamic Empire in the entire country, along the lines of the once mighty Mughal Empire. He did not hesitate to refer to the British as infidels. His name for his army ‘Sarkar-I-Khudadad’ (God given government) gave his entreaties an air of militancy. Although Tipu was genuine in his desire of a brotherhood among Muslims, he also wanted to use Islam as a political rallying tool to help preserve his own interests.

Looking to Turkey

Tipu Sultan’s failure to secure the Nizam’s support spurred him to seek allies abroad. The three largest sultanates were Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey of which the most prominent was Turkey. These nations also had varying degrees of colonial presence. Tipu intelligently realised that he could use the threat of Western imperialism as the common calling card.

The ruler of the Osmanic Caliphate or Ottoman Empire also had the status of the Caliph of the entire Islamic world. Although from a geographical point of view, the Turkey and the Caliphate was far away from India, a large number of Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Najd, Hijaz and Northern Africa were under its rule. Muslims had immense respect for the Osmanic Sultan partly because of being the protector of the ‘Haram’ (holy site or sanctuary – the shrines of Mecca and Medina) and other holy places and partly because it was seen as the principal preserver of interests in the Islamic world adding to its reputation in the eyes of the West.

Abdülhamid I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1774-1789) by John Young
Drawing of the Vakil Mir Ghulam Ali by Thomas Hickey

In 1784, Tipu Sultan sent an envoy to Constantinople and instructed him to find out whether military or diplomatic relations might be established between the state of Mysore and the Turkish Caliph in the interest of Islam.

Tipu’s envoy Usman Ali Khan returned back with encouraging news. So in 1786 Tipu sent an official embassy to Constantinople, led by Mir Ghulam Ali, which boarded four ships at Mangalore and included a large group of nine hundred people. The plan had involved making a diplomatic visit to France afterwards, proceeding directly from Constantinople to Paris. But this latter part of the plan was aborted and a separate embassy was sent off to France in the same year.

The Ambassadors’ brief had included a request for a body of Turkish mercenaries to help him in his war against the British. Tipu was keen to share his knowledge of the British imperialistic mentality. Turkey itself was in danger of becoming a puppet regime having out of necessity signed a diplomatic and military agreement with the British in order to ward off the Russian and Austrian threat.

Turkish soldiers (Scene from the East Wall mural of the Daria Daulat Bagh, Tipu’s summer palace in Srirangapatna)

Tipu Sultan badly needed some naval ports to challenge the British because of their naval strength and control over the prime ports. For this purpose he requested the Turkish Caliph to lease out the port of Basra to him. In return, he promised to give him the port of Mangalore which would make the coasts more secure from the British.

The opening of sea route would also encourage trade and commerce to flourish and enable a mutual transfer of expertise and technical knowhow.

Another desire expressed in Tipu’s letter to the Caliph was that pilgrims visiting the holy site of Najaf Ashraf (in Iraq) from far off places should be able to have clean drinkable water. Tipu was prepared to rectify the current situation by branching out a canal from the river Euphrates up to Najaf Ashraf out of his own expenses. No doubt Tipu also thought this would be perceived as a respectful gesture of complete obedience to Allah and a sign of his integrity and Islamic credentials. However it seems the Osmani Caliph was suspicious of Tipu’s motives and this as well as other proposals for an alliance were turned down.

One other critical reason for sending the embassy to Constantinople was to extract from the Sultan a firman(decree) acknowledging Tipu as the legal ruler of Mysore. With this enterprise at least he was successful and his firman was granted. Tipu’s reason for doing this was to formally establish his kingship credentials in his own country and to prove to his neighbours including the Nizam and the Nawab of Arcot in the Carnatic that he had not occupied the Sultanate illegally. Unlike his father Haidar Ali, who at least received the title of Subedar of Sira from the Mughal Emperor, Tipu had no such sanction. Therefore since the Osmani Sultan held the status of the Grand Caliph of Islam, his mere decree shut the mouths of his opponents.

Before going down this route, following the precedent of other Islamic rulers in India, Tipu had already approached the then Mughal emperor Shah Alam via his representatives at the Court but this plan was foiled partly because of a plot involving the influential British. The Mughal Emperor’s official reply declared that the Nizam was his only required representative in the South. This must have stung Tipu’s pride, even though he recognised that the Emperor had become politically impotent and the influential British were partly the reason for his plan being foiled.

Emperor Shah Alam II (1759 -1806)

The embassy or what remained of it returned to India/Srirangapatna nearly 4 years later. The journey there was beset with all sorts of problems with plague and bad weather accounting for the fact that of the 1000 whom set out, only 68 got back. During the trip Ghulam Ali Khan developed the problems with his feet which led to his new cognomen Ghulam Ali Khan, the Lame (Langra)

During the return journey, via Alexandria, the Nile, Suez and Jeddah, Tipu’s Ambassadors performed the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. They took ship to Calicut, arriving back on the day of the Mysore army’s repulse from the Travancore Lines at the start of the 3rd Mysore War with the British. After his humiliating defeat in this war, Tipu went to work trying to rekindle old alliances in India including the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas. He also sought new allies including Zaman Shah - the Amir of Afghanistan - and the Shah of Iran.

Afghanistan and Iran

Early on in 1796Tipu Sultan sent an elaborate embassy to Zaman Shah, ruler of Afghanistan. Next to the French, there was no power about which the government of British India felt more uneasy than the Afghans.

Zaman Shah had been launching regular autumnal invasions of North West Hindustan since 1793 and though he always returned home without having done much damage, he was too close to the pattern of the historic conquerors from Central Asia to be casually dismissed. Zaman Shah continued his programme of annual incursions and managed to cause considerable panic by capturing Lahore just when the 4th Mysore War was brewing (December 1798). However,the Shah of Persia persuaded by the British, attacked from the other border and Zaman Shah had to return home within a few weeks. Another problem was domestic rebellion by an old rival, his half-brother Mahmud Shah, Governor of Herat.

Zaman Shah, ruler of Afghanistan (1793 – 1800).

Excerpt of Letter from Zaman Shah to Tipu

“As the object of well-directed mind is the destruction of the infidels and the extension of the faith of the Prophet. Please God, we shall soon march with our conquering army to wage war with the infidels and polytheists, and to free those regions from the contamination of these shameless tribes with the edge of the sword; so that the inhabitants of those regions may be restored to comfort and repose: Be therefore perfectly satisfied in this respect.”

Tipu also despatched envoys to the Shah of Persia. The latter responded with a return embassy to the Mysorean court, but by the time it arrived, Srirangapatna had fallen.

Tipu therefore had engineered opportunities for receiving military aid against the British from both Napoleon and Zaman Shah of Afghanistan. However, these plans were never to mature. While Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of the Nile, Zaman Shah was made to beat a hasty retreat to Kabul.

Furthermore, James Kirkpatrick, Resident at Hyderabad, whose brother was William Kirkpatrick, Secretary to Richard Wellesley, skilfully persuaded the Nizam to disband the French troops and accept a British detachment under a subsidiary system, aborting the threat of a Tipu-French-Nizam alliance.

Tipu Sultan, who was always looking to forge alliances against the British, never quite managed one due to either British skill at diplomacy or due to events far from the country. In the end, Tipu had to fight alone for his ideals and died defending them.