Why did the East India Company become hostile towards Tipu Sultan?

By Sunil Kumar

Tipu Sultan was the ruler of Mysore in the last two decades of the eighteenth century(1700s). After the death of his father Haider Ali; Tipu fought three wars against the British East India Company; and it was only after his defeat that any formidable challenge to the English came to an end in Southern India.

Haider Ali who ruled till 1782 was originally a general to Krishnaraja Wodeyar II; and became the de-facto ruler of Mysore from 1761. In the opportunistic historical soap opera unfolding in India; the Mughal empire had weakened considerably after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in the 1730s.

In the power vacuum; European powers had now sensed an opportunity with the British and the French rapidly expanding their territories. In an era of shifting alliances; the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad were also threatened by the aggressiveness of Tipu’s father; Haider.

Due to his weak financial position; the Nizam ceded four of five Northern Circars(largely ports in S.India) to the East India Company; the Marathas invaded and Haider Ali was at war with the British, the Marathas and sometimes with the Nawab of Arcot(who was sometimes his ally too; really an era of turncoats).

When Haider Ali almost managed to conquer Madras(Fort St.George); the British East India Company relented and signed a pact with assurances of mutual support. However; when Haider again went to war with the Marathas in 1771; the East India Company did not honour the terms of their treaty resulting in another war with Mysore under Haider Ali.

When his son Tipu Sultan took over; he was already aware of British double-dealing and proved to be a formidable opponent.

Although he was a religious fanatic, destroyed temples; converted Hindus and Christians; he was nevertheless a shrewd operator aware of global trends; latest advances in rocketry and newer military techniques.

He attempted to ally with the French; Britain’s continental rivals and was a formidable opponent to the East India Company until his death. Napoleon wanted to ally with him to fulfil the Frenchman’s aim of wresting control of India from the Brits and get some of the wealth of the Indies.

Tipu hated Christians due to their perceived “affinity” with the British due to their religion; and his known for his atrocities on Mangalorean Catholics and the Syrian Malabaris; details of which can be found in some books written by Konkani Christian writers. He beheaded many Brahmins in Kasargod etc; and forcibly converted them. He is also known for some attacks on the Moplah Muslims of Kerala; proving that his agenda was more determined by political aims and hatred of the British.

At the same time; he resented the Marathas and refused to honour treaties made by his father Haider Ali. After defeat by the then Peshwa; Tipu worked out a compromise.

At the same time; even with his faith in his own religion; when a few opportunistic Marathas desecrated a temple; Tipu helped a few temples with grants.

It is due to his own dual nature when dealing with a land with an overwhelming majority of people following other religions; that contemporary historiography and contemporary historians(Leftist, Muslim etc) have reworked his image as a “secular” ruler. This is a thoroughly modern construct which is in no way related to the world as it was a few hundred years back.

Remember this is a time of rapidly changing political landscapes; kingdoms with fluid boundaries; and unending shiftiness and opportunistic alliances. Kind of familiar to the present day.

Coming to the British and the East India Company; enticed by the wealth of India primarily and other colonies in the East; this was the first century when England and Scotland were not fighting amongst themselves and a united front comprised of England, Scotland and Wales started growing rich due to the British East India Company’s widespread loot and plunder in India. Bengal, Bihar and Orissa had been the stepping stone to a rapidly expanding Indian empire.

In England itself; East India Company officials and people involved with its trade were disparagingly called “nabobs”(corruption of Indian nawabs) due to fabulous riches and ostentatious moving up in society facilitated by the looted wealth of the subcontinent. We also have Eliyahu Yale who founded the Ivy League university of Yale from Indian slave trade wealth and high taxes; but that’s another story.

The British obviously had a vested interest in portraying him as vile and more evil than he was to their local public(where they were fighting the “heathens” for Christendom) and to Indians(Hindus, Christians etc) where they hoped to establish their rule all over.

So; the question you asked is why did the East India Company become hostile to Tipu Sultan? If we forget all the TV glorification of kings and companies(Tipu as a patriot; East India Company as evil(India); a great trading organisation that established the Raj(Britain)); the basic point is that most people are in it for themselves.

So; the East India Company clearly saw Tipu as a big stumbling stone in bringing most of South India under their control and a roadblock in the further exploitation and complete subjugation of India. Kind of natural reason for their hostility.

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