Tipu and the point of fake histories

For one, it may help swing the Karnataka elections next month, but there is also a larger design

This rare mural shows a cart with British ammunition being blown by a rocket launched by Tipu Sultan’s army at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. Tipu’s army defeated
the British East India Company in the second Anglo–Mysore war
This rare mural shows a cart with British ammunition being blown by a rocket launched by Tipu Sultan’s army at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. Tipu’s army defeated the British East India Company in the second Anglo–Mysore war

Prabir Purkayastha

The Mysore Kingdom of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan was a thorn in the side of the British empire in India. Despite having the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maratha Peshwas as allies, the British lost the first three Anglo–Mysore wars, before defeating Tipu in the fourth.

Cut to the present, and the BJP’s battle against Tipu is for relatively smaller stakes: the elections in Karnataka alone, not half the Subcontinent. Their attack on Tipu as a figurehead is a not-so-thinly veiled attack on Muslim identity. Since there is the risk of making heroes out of the British in vilifying Tipu, the story of two Gowda agents who allegedly fought against Tipu and killed him had to be invented. Tipu had to be defeated by the Gowdas and not by the British. That this incident figures in no history book or in any account of the fourth Anglo–Mysore war matters little to the social media warriors of the BJP—especially not when winning elections in Karnataka is at stake.

What the BJP misses completely is that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan not only kept the British at bay for more than 30 years, they also significantly advanced rocketry beyond what existed anywhere at that time. There are reasons we should care about this, and about the relegation of these key characters to lesser roles.

The military significance of rockets had dwindled with the improvement of cannons. Rockets had a lower range and lacked accuracy in comparison. This is where Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s advances in rocketry came in. Instead of using cardboard or wood casings for the rockets, as the Europeans did, the Mysore rocket used iron casing. This allowed a larger amount of powder to be packed into the rocket, increasing its range and explosive power. The Mysore rocket also used a long bamboo pole or a sword tied to the end of the rocket, serving the dual purpose of stabilising its flight and injuring enemy soldiers along its trajectory. It became a key weapon in the arsenal of the Mysore forces under the leadership of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.

The British army found it difficult to combat the massed rocket charges of Mysore. They had not faced this kind of weapon anywhere. The rocket barrages broke up the British formations and resulted in their defeat in the first three Anglo–Mysore wars. It was only in the fourth and final battle in Seringapatam that the British, in alliance with the Nizam and the Peshwas, prevailed. On the other side of the world, the Americans fighting for their own independence were well aware of the British colonial wars. The Anglo–Mysore wars were part of the larger contest between France and England, in the midst of which the US gained its independence while India lost its freedom, becoming a British colony. The French aided the American War of Independence and allied with Mysore in India. The American leaders regarded Mysore as an ally, and in the naval battle of Delaware in 1812, one of its battleships was named Hyder Ally.

A part of the reason that Britain let the 13 colonies—the nucleus of the United States— win their freedom was that they could no longer maintain the fight in both Indian and North American theatres of war. They took a conscious decision based on which of the colonies was more valuable to their empire and which could be let go.

Let’s leave the history of the Anglo– Mysore wars and their significance to historians much better equipped to handle them. Instead, let’s return to rocketry and its significance. It is rockets that today carry astronauts to explore Mars and the moon; carry instruments to monitor the monsoon, droughts and weather phenomena like cyclones; and provide us with the signal for our TV at home. And, of course, they are the primary vehicle for weapons of all kinds, including those weapons of mass destruction—nuclear bombs. Science and technology are, unfortunately, inextricably linked to war and commerce. Rocketry is no exception.

So what did Tipu’s rockets do for the world beyond wars? Roddam Narasimha, in his 1985 paper ‘Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 AD’, traces the history of the Mysore rocket, the advances it entailed, and its further course in the hands of the British.

After the fall of Seringapatam, the British brought a number of these rockets to Woolworth, where Britain’s Royal Arsenal was located, to do what we now call reverse engineering. According to William Congreve, who was in charge of the rocketry project, “...the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from them [the rockets] than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy”. Congreve’s task was to see why the Mysore rockets were so much more effective than their European counterparts, and create more advanced rockets for the British military.

Congreve has left us a series of papers and books identifying how the Mysore rocket was superior to its European counterparts. He then set out to improve the Mysore rocket and standardise its production. For this contribution, it then became widely known as the Congreve rocket.

He also pointed out the benefits of using rockets over cannons in naval bombardment, as rockets have no recoil when fired. This allowed ships to fire a larger number of volleys than when using cannons. Also, on land, while cannon balls were more accurate, rockets had the advantage of lighter equipment, easier to move in battle and also transport over distances.

Roddam mentions that Mysore could produce better quality iron than England could at that time. Though this is a separate history, South India had developed high-carbon steel—called wootz steel outside India (‘wootz’ is possibly derived from the Telugu word for steel, ukku). This was made using crucibles, and the resulting wootz balls were exported to Central and West Asia, from where they made their way to Europe. (This is what gave rise to the famous Damascus blades of the Middle Ages, though similar blades were common in South India.)

The story of high-carbon steel and its use in Sheffield is a separate story and not directly linked to the development of the Congreve rockets.

However, the Congreve rocket was widely used by the British against France, both on the continent and in North America. It was used by Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington and the victor of Waterloo, as can be seen in paintings of the war. Congreve’s rockets were also used by the British against US forces in the Battle of Baltimore, 1812. The very first stanza of the US national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, contains the lines: And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Not many people know that the rockets mentioned here refer specifically to the Congreve rocket.

Francis Scott Key, who penned these lines, was an American prisoner on a British ship and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and therefore these lines. Of course, the Star Spangled Banner also glories about ‘freemen’, prescribing death to the slaves in the third stanza:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

It is because of the association of white supremacy and slavery with the Star Spangled Banner that Black (and other) American athletes kneel in protest when it is sung, refusing to honour it by standing up.

So it was that India’s rocket man, APJ Abdul Kalam, on his visit to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, discovered Tipu’s pioneering contributions. A painting of Tipu’s use of rockets against the British is displayed in the main reception there.

Real history is always more interesting than manufactured ones.

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