War stories are never boring. The courage, hardships, strategies, daring escapes, treachery and hope make them as engrossing as an action movie or a thriller series that keeps you on the edge. The reality of these accounts, where the experiences and hardships are real, makes them even more fascinating andendearing to the reader.
The narrations of captives of Tipu, English prisoners of war, not only show their sufferings as prisoners and their daring escapes but also the life and times in Srirangapatna in late 1700s.Of course, these narrations should be taken with a pinch of salt since these are survivors’ tales and not a historian’s documentary which is usually vetted for incidents & facts. Nevertheless, they are a vivid description of historic happenings in the seats of power during the rule of Haidar Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan.
The Anglo-Mysore wars constituted the next big landmark event in history after the fall of Vijayanagaraas far asthe development of South India’s political charterwas concerned. The political situation in the mid-18th century saw a decline of able leadership in Srirangapatna and Mysore became a soft target for convenient raids by the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Aware of the growing European armies and their disciplined military techniques, he very shrewdly befriended one (French) to keep the other (English) at bay.
His son, Tipu, took his fight with the English to greater heights and embroiledthemin four massive wars,which finally ended with Tipu’s death.
Narrations by James Bristow
James Bristow, a Bengal artilleryman, begins his tale with the gory scene of the Polilur battlefield when hundreds of British soldiers were either mercilessly killed or taken prisoners. He describes Haidar’s sadistic pleasure as his soldiers bring in the heads of slain Englishmenand lay them at his feet. The rest who survive are initially left in the dungeons, unmindful of their rank and file.
Tipu, initially, is kind to the Polilur survivors; he invites them to his tent and gives them biscuits and five pagodaseach. This attitude changed drastically once he became the Sultan and he ‘surpasses his father in cruelty towards the prisoners,’ says Bristow.
One of the first acts on the prisoners was the forced circumcision and conversion to Mohammedan faith. Those who resisted were starved into submission. The act, though barbaric it may sound, was decreed since the rulers thought that change in faith would make the soldiers change loyalties.
The converted prisoners were then put to train the slave battalions [cheylahs]in the European way. Bristow, who was held captive for ten years, says, ‘the task imposed upon us was to instruct these chaylahs in the manual exercise. Our situation consequently became worse than before;we were obliged to perform an office…’ This, Bristow says,caused them the deepest affliction - ‘especially when reflected that they were the detested enemies of our country whom we were compelled to instruct in that very art which would prove destruction to our countrymen.’
A portrait of Tipu Sultan by an unknown artist, now kept at the British Library. CREDIT: Wikimedia
Life as a prisoner of war was not easy. Bristow describes the tortures in the dungeons of Srirangapatna by Haidar’s armies. He speaks of the incessant whipping, low wages, stale food and near starvation that drivesmany soldiers to the brink of death.
They often had to travel on foot in clapped hand irons from one fort to another; the group was sometimes divided and put up in different forts – their condition depending on the disposition of Khiledars.
Some of the distinguished officers who didn’t survive the captivity were Colonel Bailie, General Matthews, Captain Rumney, Lt Fraser and Samson. The first two were poisoned and the last three were killed.
These facts are confirmed in another captive, James Scurry’s, tale. The officers either plotted to take over the fort or gave protection toTipu’s rivals.
Some cruel punishments the rulers meted out to the enemies(not just English, but anyone suspected of treachery) were slitting of nose and ears in order to shame a person and being dragged by an elephant while their hands were tied until they died of exhaustion.
Though such systems sound barbaric, Lewin Bowring in his book on Haidar and Tipu explains that the manners of the time itself were savage, ‘every man’s hand being against the neighbour, while the English soldier was regarded by the natives as a ferocious beast who could only be subdued by the main force.’
Some captives were lucky enough to be released during a peace treaty in 1784 while others made daring escapes from captivity in forts outside Srirangapatna. Bristow and his friends made such a provincial escape by carving a holethrough the fort in Ootradurg (Hutridurga). They crossed the hills and escaped into the forest.
Bristow, ahead of others, soon travels alone by night, resting by day through the Mysore countryside and the jungles. He has some lucky escapes in his journey.
He says he is especially lucky to meet the hindoo womenin the villages who take pity on his condition and help with medicine and food(ragi) for his journey. Such acts of kindness, he says, is not uncommon with rural folk or the civilians of Srirangapatna but not present in the palegars (local chieftains) or soldiers.
He gets caught more than once by the local palegar’s men; in order to ward them off, he pretends to be a Rajput going back home and once even acts as a deserter wanting to join Tipu’s army.
Throughout his journey, he survives on some meagre fruits, jowar, ragi given by the locals or collected from their fields. He finally crosses over to the Nizam’s regions from where he gets help to reach Madras.
Not many were as lucky as Bristow and failed to survive the forest’s hard life or its ferocious beasts. However the hope and lure of freedom were such that they made many attempts to breakout inspite of the dangers.
James Scurry. CREDIT: books.google.co.in
Apart from the prisoners of war, a few young sailors, captured by the French werehanded over to Haidar in 1781. These boys were converted and educated in the oriental system, married to Indian women with whom they had children.
Scurry, mentioned earlier, is one such survivor who, after making an escape, tries to find his wife and child but in vain. He journeys back to England with a handsome pension from the East India Company, reunites with his family and sets up a livelihood there.His narration is less stark and gives a better picture of city life in 1780s.
Scurry describes the city as – ‘This capital of Mysore (though Mysore itself, distant nine miles, was, prior to Hyder's usurpation, the seat of government) is an island in the midst of a continent charmingly situated and surrounded by the Cavery; distant from Madras 296 miles.
It is about four miles in length and about one mile and a half in breadth across the middle where the ground is highest, whence it gradually narrows and falls toward the extremities. At the west end there is a fort of very considerable strength - about three miles in circumference mounting at least 190 pieces of cannon including what were on the cavalices.
Its appearance at about three miles’ distance was calculated to strike every beholder, being distinguished by magnificent buildings and ancient pagodas contrasted withthe morelofty and splendid monuments lately erected in honour of the Mohammedan faith.
At the east end of the island is the pettah or suburb called Sanagangam which was finished while we were there; it was beautifully laid out about half a mile square divided into regular streets all very wide and shaded on each side with trees surrounded by a strong mud wall.
It was designed for merchants and troops and possessed all the beauty and elegance of a country retirement and was dignified by the mausoleum of Hyder.They were about erecting a new and magnificent palace in the year 1787, the last time I ever saw it ...’
Scurry describes the Palace as an extensive flat roofed building with two wings, one of which is Haidar Ali’s seraglio and the other his treasury. The front of the palace was an extensive open place supported by strong pillars where the killadare(fort commander) and his retinue sat to administer justice,the palace door being about four yards behind them.
Navarathri or Dasara, the famous Vijayanagara festival celebrated by the Mysore Wodeyarsand laterTipu Sultan is explained in the notes of an anonymous officer of Colonel Baillie’s regiment.He describes it as an annual Hindu celebration where the Raja of Mysore comes out to meet his people.
The people have great respect for their king and hence Haidar is careful not to antagonise the locals by taking good care of the royal hostage.
Of his appearance, he is described as ‘comely’ and of dark complexion. During festival time, the European prisoners can view his harem better. The soldier describes the royal ladies as beautiful, of fair complexion and around 40 or 50 in number.
The Raja makes his appearance to his subjects only during the festival.He sits on this throne, in the royal courtyard, with several servants around him, as the entire place is decorated and bedecked with jewels. In a ground facing the palace, musicians, balladieres, gladiators (wrestlers) show off their skills.
Of the wrestlers’ fights, Scurry presents a detailed account:
‘I was an eye witness twice to his games, once before the peace of 1784 and once after... These games were something after the manner of the Pythian or Olympic and continued ten days without intermission.’
‘...thegetiees... had on their right hands the woodguamootie or four steel talons which were fixed to each back joint of their fingers and had a terrific appearance when their fists were closed. Their heads were close-shaved, their bodies oiled and they wore only a pair of short drawers.
On being matched and the signal given from Tippoo, they begin the combat always by throwing the flowers which they wear round their necks in each other's faces watching an opportunity of striking with the right hand on which they wore this mischievous weapon which never failed lacerating the flesh and drawing blood most copiously.
They were obliged to fight as long as Tippoo pleased unless completely crippled and if they behaved well they were generally rewarded with a turban and shawl, the quality being according to their merit.
Outside the semicircle there would every day appear a man on lofty stilts with one of the Company's uniforms on; at one time he would seem to take snuff at another tobacco, then he would affect to be intoxicated… in short it was intended as a burlesque on the English and to make them appear ridiculous as possible in the view of the numerous spectators.’
The day’s events would be concluded every night with fireworks that were so grand that even the English prisoners were astonished and admired them.
In the End
Scurry too finally escaped to the safety of the English Dominions and returned to Srirangapatna only after it fell.
He describes the final siege by Lord Cornwallis’ army and the fall of Srirangapatna in detail. Though Tipu’s power would at least equal the combined European settlements in India, he writes, the Sultan made errors in his strategy that makes it easier for the English to reach the fort almost unhindered. The events of the final war are well known. Scurry speaks of the magnificent riches of Tipu’s palace that astonished the English army. Much of this is taken away for the Company’s coffers.
In conclusion, Scurry has this to sayabout Tipu Sultan:‘For vigorously defending his country against any power on earth,I give him credit and for using every exertion in expelling all its invaders but this should have been done without those unheard of cruelties which were interwoven in his very nature, but he is gone and I proceed’.
Suffering aside, Scurry’s tale gives a better picture of the city, its people and life in late 18th century while Bristow’s tale is more of a thriller, describing the prison break & his daring escape.
Through their eyes, one can imagine the grandeur, the lifestyle and the politics in the cities and forts of those times.