Tracing the role of Tipu Sultan’s sons in the Vellore Mutiny of 1806.
Five decades before the British in India faced their first major revolt – what they called the “sepoy mutiny” of 1857 – there occurred an equally ferocious, albeit brief, mutiny in the southern Indian city of Vellore soon after midnight on July 10, 1806. The Vellore Mutiny has received plenty of scholarly and historical attention, although not as much as the events of 1857. But nearly forgotten is a unique left-over from an earlier British victory, that over Tipu Sultan of Mysore, a mere seven years prior – the role some of his sons played (or, as the British would have us believe, did not play) in that abortive mutiny in Vellore.
When Tipu was killed at Seringapatam (present day Srirangapatna) during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and his kingdom handed back to the Hindu Wodeyar kings of Mysore, the British exiled Tipu’s surviving 13 sons, several daughters, their respective families and their entire entourage to Vellore, a place and a climate (politically and otherwise) very different from the Mysore country. Starting with the first batch on June 19, 1799, this ‘retreat’ from Mysore was led by Tipu’s eldest son, Shahzada Hyder Ali Sultan Sahib, known as Fateh Hyder Bahadur, and was accomplished in various stages by 1800/1801.
Banishment, typically to a place with a very different milieu, has long been seen as a fine way to uproot, for good, the cause of one’s political troubles, if outright execution would have been impossible or unpalatable in the circumstances. As the leading English historian on Tipu, Denys Forrest notes in Tiger of Mysore: The Life and Death of Tipu Sultan:
“[E]ventually the ancient palace of the Nawabs of Arcot in Vellore Fort housed all Tipu’s children – and not them only. The survivors of Haider Ai’s and Tipu’s zenanas; the older princes’ own wives, concubines and children (Fath Haider alone finished up with eight sons and sixteen daughters); their innumerable servants; hangers-on of every degree; all these formed part of a community of ‘Mysoreans in exile’ which numbered up to 3,000 souls and split over a considerable area around Vellore.”
However, this glib British outlook on Tipu’s progeny ignored their potential to rake up discontent and foment trouble for the British. Of the sons exiled to Vellore, two in particular stand out – the second in line, Shahzada Abdul Khaliq Sultan Sahib and the fourth in line, Tipu’s intended heir, Shahzada Muiz ud-din Mohammed Sultan Sahib.
Both sons, born a year apart, and coming of age at about the time of their banishment, had famously been surrendered in 1792 to Lord Cornwallis as hostages at the age of 10 and nine years respectively as a personal – almost inconceivably cruel – bond extracted from their father to keep his word and the peace negotiated with the British at the end of the Third Anglo-Mysore War. While history is tantalisingly silent on their experiences in their nearly two years of captivity (Tipu had to buy them back at considerable expense in 1794), one can only guess that their captivity (however well they may have been treated) left indelible and strong hostile feelings towards the British on their impressionable minds. There is certainly no evidence of them having displayed any ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ feelings of empathy and support for their captors.
Tipu had educated all his sons well and they were groomed in the high art of practical statesmanship, a trait so well demonstrated by their father. Clearly the British were dealing with at least two very worthy, albeit young, opponents who must have been eager to redeem their own captivity in some measure and avenge their father (Abdul Khaliq had led his father’s hastily organised funeral procession amidst the ruins of battle) – but, as with most accounts, especially those of Tipu and his progeny, the British records tend to be dismissive (especially of the character of these sons), while Indian accounts are silent at best (or entirely hagiographic at worst).
The opportunity presented itself in early July 1806, when the marriage of one of Tipu’s daughters was scheduled. Again, it is a telling reflection on our recounting of history that neither contemporary accounts nor modern day analysis mention the names of Tipu’s daughters sent into banishment or during happy times like marriages during their exile!
On the evening of July 9 during the wedding celebrations, the revolt began – the most significant manifestation of which (and indeed, the direct connection with Tipu), was the pulling down of the Union Jack over the fort and the hoisting of the Royal Tiger Flag of Tipu, a sun in splendour in the centre with green tiger stripes on a red field. This flag came from Muiz ud-din’s house and is now in Windsor Castle.
Tipu’s favourite son, Muiz ud-din, was the leader of the mutiny at Vellore. Again, the details are sketchy; the British accounts recognise that the “panic” over Vellore was symptomatic of a “far-spreading plot” of which they were victims and where they saw Mysore as “riddled with Tipuist conspiracy’ (all as noted by Forrest from contemporary English accounts). Forrest notes (unsurprisingly dismissively) that “according to one imaginative witness….Muiz-ud-din had promised to summon ten thousand men [from Kumruddin Khan, Tipu’s cousin, their uncle] if only the Vellore mutineers would hold out for eight days! But not a mouse stirred, even in Gurramkonda [where Kumruddin was based]”. The existence of a panic, however, tells one much about the state of the British mindset at the time, faced with this rebellion that could spread its tentacles and which was led by the obviously charismatic young son (although the British thought of him otherwise) of a recently deposed ruler who had stood so determinedly against the East India Company’s power.
In any event, the “acts of disloyalty” (as the British termed the events at Vellore) were vicious. Forrest notes:
“In the early hours of July 10th, parties of armed sepoys seized the magazine and attacked both the small European garrison (four companies of H.M.’s 69th) and their own English officers. The colonels of the 69th and of the 23rd Native Infantry were murdered, along with eleven other officers and eighty-two N.C.O.s and privates.”
The quelling of the rebellion by the British was even more brutal (slaughter all around) and quick – by the end of July 10, the Vellore fort was back under British control. This victory over the sepoys was in part achieved by the British bringing in reinforcements from Arcot, nine miles away – as Forrest notes, quoting Sir Henry Newbolt:
“They’ve kept the tale a hundred years,
They’ll keep it for a hundred more;
Riding at dawn, riding alone,
Gillespie came to false Vellore”
The reference to ‘false Vellore’ is an intriguing one – the only explanation appears to have been the British contempt for the ‘machinations’ (in Forrest’s words) of Tipu’s sons – the official establishment sought to pin the blame for the revolt on Tipu’s sons. However, subsequent British commissions of enquiry presented before the court of firectors of the East India Company concluded that Tipu’s sons took no active part in the uprising and there was no evidence to suggest that they had originated it – the ‘false’ enemy perhaps? Still some British accounts refer to the former view, that of blaming the revolt on the sons or accusing them of it – for instance, writing in 1893, the former chief commissioner of Mysore, Sir Lewin Bentham Bowring (who one would have expected to toe the official line even out of office) had this to say in Rulers of India: Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan and the struggle with the Musalman Powers of the South (emphasis added):
“The sons of the late Sultan were made prisoners, and such of them as had arrived at maturity were sent with their families to Vellore, whence some years afterwards, owing to their having been accused of instigating the troops to mutiny in 1806, they were transported to Calcutta.”
Whatever be the truth hiding somewhere amidst the full range of British views on the role of Tipu’s sons (and, Abdul Khaliq and Muiz ud-din, in particular) – whether they were at the forefront or involved in the revolt or gave it their tacit support or did nothing at all in the mutiny – barely a month later the British decided to remove all of ‘little Mysore’ from Vellore (guilty or not) and shift the entire cabal (in their view) Calcutta, where they would be right under their noses. Clearly the Company was concerned about the continuing ability of Tipu’s sons to foment (or at the least, be the fulcrum around which to brew) trouble of the type, ferocity and ability to spread that the British had seen at Vellore and which they wanted perhaps never to deal with again. As the eminent historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones notes in The Last King of India: Wajid Ali Shah:
“It was a ploy to move rebellious rulers and their heirs far away from their power-bases and into Company territory. This was a clever ploy, because it meant firstly that the lines of support for men who opposed the Company were severed; secondly that the heirs and relatives, who could have become a focus for renewed unrest, could be closely monitored; and lastly it produced an intangible but demoralizing feeling of loss on being removed from familiar surroundings.”
On August 20, 1806, some 52 people left Madras by sea for Calcutta for (as Forrest notes, quoting an official minute) ‘close confinement’ (a euphemistic way to describe imprisonment) at premises in Russapuglah, formerly used to lodge the Persian ambassador. Sadly, Abdul Khaliq died, at age 24, on board the ship as it docked at Sands Head off Calcutta on September 12, 1806.
It only remains to account for Tipu’s favourite son, Muiz ud-din. He survived British deportation to Calcutta unlike his unfortunate elder brother, but could not escape ‘close confinement’. Incarcerated along with Tipu’s third son, Muhi ud-din, at the Great Calcutta Jail between 1806 and 1813 (he was released on June 25 of that year), his jailing raises this important historical question: if he had no role to play in the Vellore revolt, neither as originator nor as active or tactical supporter, why was he imprisoned (and denied, as some reports mention, even writing implements) for seven years while the rest of his extended family were free to settle across Calcutta and who (as Forrest mentions) “continued to live in something like princely dignity and comfort”?
In his book The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power, Partha Chatterjee, quoting an English source who was allowed to visit Muiz ud-din in prison, states that picking on him “as the object of peculiar severity was most cruel and unjust”. The English visitor did arrange for writing materials, but Muiz ud-din had to take special care “that he neither received any written address from any person whomsoever nor should send any letter or writing to any person whatsoever”.
So, the central point remains: most accounts are divided as to the prince’s role in the mutiny; the leading Indian historical recording of Tipu Sultan, History of Tipu Sultan: Being a Continuation of the Neshani Hyduri by Mir Hussain Ali Khan Kirmani, ends in the year 1800 with his sons residing in Vellore. One English source (the same of Forrest’s, Colonel Marriott, whose behaviour was nonetheless regarded as suspicious) submits that during the period of eight crucial hours when the fort was in the hands of the rebels, the princes remained locked away in their mahals – that, according to this source, did not look very much like a Mysorean conspiracy. Chatterjee notes that it was alleged that Muiz ud-din and Muhi ud-din provided direct encouragement, while mentioning immediately they were removed to Calcutta, indicating a possible link (and, clearly a reason for the incarceration of these two sons, in particular). What also throws some doubt on the Company’s commissions of enquiry conducted in the aftermath of the revolt in Vellore is the politicking that emerged in England leading to the Company’s court of directors determining that the governor of Madras at the time, Lord William Bentinck, must go for overall failure to establish control over the Indian possessions and not just a localised revolt caused by local factors; the role of Tipu’s sons therefore was unimportant in the larger British design.
Muiz ud-din died aged 35 years in 1818 from cholera and lies buried, like most of his extended family and his brothers, in the (now decrepit) Mysore Family Cemetery at Kalighat Park.
The negative inference is delightfully close to hand yet so tantalisingly short of recorded and balanced historical evidence – that imprisonment was meted out only to those who did or could cause, or were able to engender, trouble and revolt against the British. If so, the conclusion is inescapable that Tipu’s sons had more than a peripheral role to play in the first sepoy mutiny of 1806 in Vellore.
In a manner of speaking, the Tiger of Mysore was still capable of roaring from his grave.