Tipu Sultan commissioned a painting of the Battle of Pollilur in 1784 as part of a cycle of battle murals for the newly built Daria Daulat Bagh (Garden palace of the Wealth of the Sea) in Srirangapatna. Commemorating his father Haidar Ali who died during the 2nd Anglo Mysore War, just 2 years later, the Battle mural preserved the memory of one of his last great victories (in which both father and son participated). Since then, these original external wall paintings have been repainted more than once. Stretching over 5 continuous sheets of paper mounted on canvas, the well-preserved gouache painting above contrasts favourably with the faded and damaged Srirangapatna wall paintings and was the centrepiece of the Tiger and Thistle exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland in 1999, marking the bicentenary of Tipu’s death.
The chaos of battle is brilliantly portrayed with a multitude of simultaneous and intersecting combative interactions. The horror on the faces of the warriors is matched by the faces of their horses; blood squirts out of bodies; soldiers are trampled to death, decapitated heads roll.
The naïve style of the painting which has little regard for perspective accentuates the grotesquely comic effect. Bravery, ferocity, fear and confusion in the battle are dramatically portrayed while the solitary figure of Colonel Baillie is caricatured in the middle of the British Square, wimpishly biting his finger. In contrast, away from the action, the powerful figures of Tipu and Haidar watch impassively as events unfold before them while bands play. From his vantage point on the opposite side the French commander Mons Lally eyes the British Square with a funny-looking telescope where his cannons have just successfully exploded the Britishers’ last tumbrel of ammunition.
The Battle of Pollilur which took place on 10th September 1780, during the Second Anglo Mysore War, was one of the worst defeats the British ever faced on the Indian subcontinent. It was fought between The East India Company, led by Colonel William Baillie, and the Mysore Army under the command of Haidar Ali, the de facto Ruler of Mysore and his son Tipu Sahib, in the vicinity of modern day Kanchipuram.
Baillie, commanding a regiment of 2,800 men, had been called down from Guntur, near the Northern Sarkars Province, in response to one of the largest military invasions led by Haidar Ali, whose force of 80,000 had entered Carnatica The region located in Southern India, between the Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats and the Coromandel Coast which included the British administrative province of Madras - modern day Chennai. via Changama Pass in July 1780 and swept down upon the plains. His plan was to lay waste all the country between Pulicat Lake and Pondicherry in the South, fortified by a triple alliance with the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
The Council at Fort George, Madras, the British HQ, were unprepared for the invasion, with widely scattered forces in different parts of the Carnatic. The plan was for Baillie to effect a junction with the other British forces united under General Sir Hector Munro but Baillie’s detachment was never to make the junction.
In spite of Baillie’s requests for help and the proximity of the main army, Munro did not march to support Baillie as expected and only sent a reinforcement of 1000 troops led by Colonel Fletcher the evening before the battle.
After severe fighting against a part of the army commanded by Tipu Sultan, the British formed a defensive square. Under assault from all sides by cavalry charges and raked by concentrated artillery and musket fire, they were eventually forced to surrender.
The battle, which resulted in the loss of over 3,500 men out of Colonel Baillie’s total force of 3,853, was instrumental in changing attitudes about Tipu Sultan and the threat he posed to Britain’s ambition to control India. The British believed their superior military training and earlier successes on the sub-continent made them invincible. The Battle of Pollilur broke this illusion and caused great humiliation. When Colonel Hector Munro who was widely blamed for failing to support Baillie, returned to Madras, he was publicly booed in the streets.
Signs of the growing power of Mysore were evident in 1767-9 when Haidar’s cavalry arrived at the gates of Madras. Nick-named The Terror of Madras’ the Mysore cavalry comprised half of the total forces in contrast to the insignificant cavalry arm of the British at the time of Pollilur in 1780. The Mysore land forces totalled 88,000 easily outnumbering those at the disposal of the Company’s Madras Presidency while the British had only 10,000 European troops.
A French contingent of 500 men under the command of Mons Lally, an experienced Major in the French Swiss Corps who had been captured by the English and exchanged, had marched with Haidar’s troops from the capital of Srirangapatna. Haidar employed the French who served in his army to train his men in European methods of warfare in addition to importing European weapons. This helped the Mysorean forces compete effectively with the East India Company army and was an important factor in the Battle of Pollilur.
Colonel Baillie and his regiment set out from their resting point by the Conjeeveram-Tripassor Road, soon perceiving the enemy moving on the left in a nearly parallel direction.
At about 5.00am, having advanced two miles, Baillie marched his men out of the cover of a long avenue of trees and across the open plain towards Conjeeveram. The enemy opened 4 or 5 guns at the rear from a distance of 300 yards. Baillie’s troops halted, returning the cannonade, which given the distance of threat was unnecessary. Instead Baillie could have progressed towards the village of Pollilur three quarters of a mile ahead which could have been taken easily and provided a better position.
After a long interval Baillie ordered 10 companies of Grenadiers (consisting mainly of Indian sepoys) under Captains Rumtry and Gowdie to storm Tipu’s guns which they did successfully taking 4 of the guns. At about this time it is reported that Baillie was lamed by the graze of a cannon ball on his leg.
Haidar ordered a cavalry charge in counter-attack to prevent the Grenadiers from rejoining the British force and many soldiers of the companies were cut to pieces. The expeditionary detachment beat a hurried retreat, the sepoys resuming their former stations.
Haidar’s cavalry charge masked the movement of his infantry and guns which were seen to be rapidly approaching from the right. About mid-morning when Haidar got within the right distance, he opened his guns, which, together with those which Tipu had retaken, numbered about 50 in all and directed a cross fire (the guns being placed in different quarters) on the British who were now in a helpless exposed position on the plain.
Baillie, having supposed that Munro would bring support, had continued fighting and when it seemed to the English detachment that new troops were coming ‘in the opposing cloud of dust’ a great shout of joy rose up, only to turn to dismay when it was discovered that these were Haidar’s troops.
The 10 field pieces returned the unequal fire with powerful effect. Inspite of some of Haidar’s ablest officers leading the forces which bore down upon the English, they did not make much of an impression. It is said that Haidar was inclined to retreat but was advised against this course of action by Mons Lally. Perceiving that the English had placed their ammunition behind a small ravine Lally ordered his artillery to aim at it. Two of the English tumbrels were blown up and their ammunition falling short Baillie could only reply with grape Grapeshot is a mass of small metal balls or slugs packed tightly into a canvas bag, devastatingly effective against massed infantry at short range. When assembled, the balls resembled a cluster of grapes. On firing, the balls spread out from the muzzle.
Sindia commanded a dusta -a 1000 strong cavalry. Having been given charge to watch over Munro near Conjeeveram he had failed to impede Fletcher’s junction with Baillie on the night of the 8th and had been shamed publicly by Haidar for this.
On observing the crowding of the sepoys Sindia made a desperate charge at the head of the dusta without waiting for orders, mindful of his humiliation and fortified with the opiate fumes of bhang Indian beverage prepared from the leaves and flowers (buds) of the female cannabis plant the use of which was customary in the Indian camp. He, fifteen of his family and a large portion of his corps fell, but his example, supposed to be the result of an order, was instantly followed by the rest of the cavalry.
While the Indian sepoys were put into disarray a fresh charge of cavalry was made.
The European companies still preserved their order but the sepoys who had to bear the chief brunt of the attack became completely demoralised and started fleeing.
Baillie however rallied the surviving troops on a small eminence and formed a Square. The officers fought with their swords and the men with their bayonets – there being no more ammunition.
Baillie repulsed a total of thirteen attacks keeping the square formation to the end but the line was eventually broken and he was compelled to ask for quarter. Having ordered a ceasefire Baillie went forward placing his handkerchief on his sword.
The Mysorean sat first stopped fighting, but perceiving some straggling fire from the English refused quarter. The deep columns of Mysorean horse continued to press on until they broke the British line and further slaughter ensued.
Munro ordered his men to lie on his arms and to stay awake for the marching orders to come through. However inspite of a report of the Mysoreans lighting camp fires and the distinctive sound of the naggars (big drums) at quarter past two, the whole Army fell into what was described as a profound sleep.
The General finally woke up at about a quarter past six in the morning, at about the same time as the cannonade began between William Baillie and Tipu Sahib. It was not until 8 o’clock that the army finally started to march but Munro was indecisive. After seeing the effects of the explosion of the tumbrels he failed to head directly for the battle field, in spite of the fact that the battle probably continued for at least a further hour.
At noon defeat was announced – the news reached Munro while he was marching.
In April 1780, Sir Thomas Rumbold who retired after a short stint as Governor General due to ill health declared that he did not think either Haidar Ali or the Nizam would rush into realizing their threats and that the best course of action was to do nothing.
When the threat of invasion became a reality in summer 1780, the Madras Council were slow to respond, delayed by internal politics and a depleted treasury containing £448 of free funds. To have a chance of resisting Haidar the widely scattered British forces in South India needed to be united. The Council could not decide where to assemble the troops and who should take command.
Eventually Sir Hector Munro took command and the decision was made, inspite of a limited number of days’ supplies, to effect a junction at Conjeveram (an open town about 50 miles to the west of Madras) with Colonel William Baillie’s Brigade column coming down from the Guntoor Circar, rather than assembling at Madras as recommended by Lord McCleod.
Munro may have chosen this location because of pressure from the Nawab of the Carnatic, Muhammad Ali, who was afraid of losing his capital Arcot, which lay west of Conjeveram and which was being besieged by Haidar Ali.
On 24th August Baillie was only 27 miles away from Madras, where he had expected to join forces, when he received the new orders from General Munro to change direction and proceed to Conjeveram via Periaollen (Periypalayam) and Tripassore (probably Tiruvallur) which he did with the greatest reluctance
Baillie had been on the march non-stop for 10 months since the previous November (latterly in the heat of the South Indian summer) with frequent changes of orders from the indecisive Council resulting in endless backtracking and diversions. He had run out of money and provisions, paying the wages, not only of his troops, but also the bills from the local suppliers and farmers out of his own pocket and suffered serious sepoy desertions (most of the men of the two Northern Circar Sepoy Battalians), significantly reducing the strength of his Brigade column.
After he received Munro’s instruction, Baillie slowed his march and encamped on the north bank of the River Kortelayar which he could easily have crossed. Even the following day after it had rained heavily the river was still passable. However the day after that the river was in full spate (early monsoon rains) and he had to wait 10 days.
From here he wrote a letter to the Council of Madras, proposing a different plan for uniting the forces. Having received no response, when the river had sufficiently subsided, William Baillie and his Brigade columns finally crossed over on 4th September.
Surrender of Baillie to Haidar Ali, 1780, illustration from 'Cassell's Illustrated History of England'
In response to further requests for help Munro sent a reinforcement of 1000 troops, led by Colonel Fletcher, who, skillfully managing to avoid detection by Haidar’s light troops, joined Baillie on the 9th of September. Munro had wanted Baillie to continue marching but Baillie gave his troops orders to rest for the night. According to some accounts Colonel Fletcher (who was to be superseded by Baillie in command of the elite Sepoy Grenadiers and had more to prove in the battlefield) is recorded as urging Baillie to halt.
There was the additional factor of having to rely on local messengers and spies, often in the pay of Haidar and Tipu, who might have given Baillie unreliable information about the position of other forces on the ground and added to his caution.
All of the Indian sepoy forces were either killed, captured or dispersed. Although the majority of them fled, it is interestingly that no Sepoys are shown fighting in the painting. The British had started to employ regular battalions of native forces from 1759.
Only about 200 Europeans survived - mainly Highlanders and most of them wounded, the remnants of Baillie's total force of 3853 men.
Fletcher was killed. Colonel Baillie and Captain Baird were wounded and taken prisoner. According to one of Baillie’s officers, John Lindsay, a Dooley Covered litter, simpler than a palanquin, sometimes used as an ambulance was sent to the battle field in search of Colonel Fletcher but could not find him. The colonel’s head was afterwards carried to Haidar’s camp.
The survivors were taken alive as prisoners while Haidar was still campaigning. Many of them died in transit and there were reports of brutality on the way. After Haidar’s recapture of Arcot they were imprisoned there but were fortunate enough to receive some clemency and medical attention from a French officer, a Captain Pimoran before being sent off to different locations like Bangalore and Arnee.
One story tells of the arrival of a generous gift of wine sent for Baillie and the other captives. ‘......to their great joy eight baskets of liquor were brought to them, together with a letter from a French correspondent of Colonel Baillie in Pondicherry, desiring that he required a receipt for the wine so as to ensure that he had received it. When pen and ink and paper were produced Colonel Baillie signed the receipt. Shortly afterwards Kistnarow [Chief Minister of Haidar Ali] came along and asked them whether they liked wine, to which the answer was yes, whereupon he immediately ordered the guards to take the wine away, telling them he would take care of it, but they never saw it again.'
Captain John Lindsay and Lieutenant Melville who were taken off in chains with the other prisoners to Srirangapatna kept a diary of their captivity experience. Captain Rumley, who had led the charge at Pollilur and who spoke Arabic and Persian fluently and Lieutenant Fraser were both taken in February 1783 to Mysore where they were offered poison.
The group of prisoners to which Baillie belonged left Arcot in March 1781. It appears at this stage they were in balls and chains. They reached Arnee, then Vellore (undetected by the English although they had possession) and traversed the passes before they reached Srirangapatna on the 18th March .
Colonel Baillie died in a dungeon in Srirangapatna and a witness is recorded as saying '''on this day the 13th November 1782, our universally esteemed and beloved Colonel Baillie fell victim to a long illness and to fatigues of both body and mind'.
Captain Baird who spent 3 years 8 months as Tipu’s prisoner eventually revenged himself by leading the final successful assault on Srirangapatna 19 years later in 1799.
Apart from Pollilur many other defeats and skirmishes led to captivities. In 1782 the French handed over to Haidar Ali 400 British sailors and over sixty Royal Navy Officers that their naval vessels had captured at sea.
Portrait of British soldier James Scurry. Held captive by Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan for 10 years (1780–1790) at Srirangapatna (Seringapatam)
The greatest number of captives were Company sepoys but there were many British captives who did not survive to be freed. When peace was signed in 1784 over 1300 British troops (at least one in five of all Britons in arms in the sub-continent) and at least 2000 Company sepoys remained alive to be handed over. An additional 400 British born captives stayed on in Mysore until the 1790s, some of them as Muslim converts of whom a few were forcibly circumcised while others embraced Islam as a way out of their captivity. It was reported that Tipu made some of the youngest captives, drummers and cabin boys, “wear ghagracholis (women’s clothes) and entertain the Mysore court as nautch (dance) girls”.
Another account told the story of one of these prisoners, James Scurry, who at the end of ten years in captivity, found that he had forgotten how to sit in a chair or use a knife and fork; his English was “broken and confused, having lost all it vernacular idiom”, his skin darkened to the “swarthy complexion of Negroes” and he found he actively disliked wearing European clothes. The biggest loss, he personally felt was his new family in Srirangaptna.
The defeat at Pollilur, the first major defeat for the East India Company in India since the turn of the century, created a major shock when the news reached London in 1781.
The French has recaptured several of their settlements in Bengal and on the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, like Pondicherry, Karaikal and Chandranagore. Mysore’s strategic ties with the French, Britain’s traditional foes, added to apprehensions about British prospects in India. There was also the looming possibility of a French alliance with the rebellious colonies in America. In the same year the British were defeated at Yorktown, resulting in the loss of the Thirteen Provinces in the New World. Now, it seemed that Britain’s newer Eastern Empire might also be lost.
The British Governor General in Bengal, Warren Hastings, suspended the then Governor of Madras, John Whitehill and deputed the experienced General Sir Eyre Coote from Bengal with reinforcements. Hastings also attempted to detach the Nizam of Hyderabad from the confederacy against the British and to initiate negotiations for peace with the Marathas.
In spite of winning most of his battles in the remainder of 2nd Anglo Mysore War [1780-1784], General Coote was unable to gain the advantage in the field. The Mysore army had a knack of retreating with great speed in all kinds of terrain, using an effective rearguard of several thousand of their cavalry. It was virtually impossible to dislodge them from the Carnatic even if they were defeated in battle. In pursuit, the British army lacked mobility and had the additional impediments of their baggage trains and camp followers. Although this phase of conflict resulted in a draw, the damage to the Company’s reputation had been done.
Nawab of the Carnatic, Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah (1717 - 13 October 1795) and an ally of the British East India Company
A detailed parliamentary report into the Company’s failures revealed a significant level of corruption and incompetence in the Company.
The majority of men joining the East India Company were on the make. With small or negligible salaries they were forced to rely on plunder during conquests.
However a small number of the English such as Paul Blenfield were making much larger fortunes by lending money to Mohammed Ali Khan Wallajah– the Nawab of the Carnatic (also referred to as Nawab of Arcot)– at exorbitant rates of interest of between 36 and 48 per cent. The loans known as ‘Tuncaws’ were secured on the land revenues of the Nawab’s territories.
Muhammad Ali became the ruler of the Carnatic in 1765 and allied with the English, depending on their military support to fight off the French and later on the Nizam and Hyder Ali. The final loan was only eventually repaid in 1830 nearly 80 years later.
These loans rather than trading became the dominant political and financial interest of the Madras Settlement and a source of great corruption that prevented effective steps being taken to stop it.
In fact the term Nabob applied to wealthy Britons returning from India was actually a corruption of Nawab, meaning a Musim ruler.
Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan’s victory at Pollilur was followed by an increase in Government interference with the running of the East India Company and the granting of greater powers to the Governor General of India who in The East India Company Act of 1784 (also known as Pitt's India Act) was appointed by the Crown.
East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804). Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
The East India Company, founded in 1600 by royal decree giving it a monopoly to trade in Asia, was never intended to be a military institution.
Since the phase of territorial expansion that started with Robert Clive and his popular victory at the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company had an increasingly ambiguous role.
During Warren Hastings’ period Britain had been drawn into expensive and indecisive wars on several fronts, which had ruined the Company’s finances. By 1784 the Company had lost its favoured status in the nation’s eyes. The state had to intervene to salvage its own taxation sources and the Company’s overall finances. The Company found itself without allies to defend its old powers and privileges.
The Act laid out a joint government of the Company (represented by the Directors), and the Crown (represented by the Board of Control). The Board was to "superintend, direct and control" the government of the Company's possessions, in effect controlling the acts and operations relating to the civil and military revenues of the Company.
Initially, the purpose of this intervention was to curb the Company’s buccaneering ways. Parliament explicitly renounced any prospect of future British expansion in India at the time although ironically, the new legislation made it easier for the East India Company to function as the nation’s war machine when there was a resurgence of imperialist tendencies.
The union of the offices of Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief meant that later Governor-Generals such as Cornwallis and Wellesley could pursue Tipu with considerably less obstacles than their predecessors, bringing about his downfall in 1799.
In less than two decades from the passing of the Act, the British had secured the entire region of Southern India, Western India and Eastern India with the exception of small enclaves of French and local rulers.
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Buddle, A (with Rohatgi,P and Gordon Brown,I) The Tiger and The Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India 1760 -1800, National Galleries of Scotland,1999
Colley, L, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600 – 1850, Jonathan Cape, London, 2002
Hasan, Mohibbul History of Tipu Sultan, Bibliophile, Calcutta, 1951
Tritton, A, When The Tiger Fought The Thistle: The Tragedy of Colonel William Baillie of the Madras Army, The Radcliffe Press, London: New York, 2013