Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tipu, if not Sultan then what?

My brother's doing a report on Tipu Sultan, and since he is a most fascinating character I thought I might share a little on the man with you.

But here I'd like to display a little of my oft-maligned superpower, random history knowledge off the top of my head, so there will be no references here, there will be perhaps a few errors, ah, but this should be interesting. (I'll try to give a more researched overview of Tipu Sultan in the future)

First of all, for those who do not know, Tipu Sultan was the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century. Mysore now is a city in the Indian state of Karnataka (I did look up the proper spelling there, but just so I could avoid any offense), but it once was a center of a Kingdom that covered perhaps a good 1/3 to 1/2 of South India. Tipu Sultan was not born of the line of Mysore Maharaja's that are there today. Rather his father overthrew that line, which was restored after Tipu Sultan's death.

It is interesting then to note that Tipu Sultan was essentially a usurper, and the fight between him and the British was between two usurpers, ah, but India in those days was a land of usurpers.

In those days of the late 18th century, the British East India Company was near hegemony (although not quite dominance) in North India and was making deep in roads into South India. The great forces which could oppose it, such as the Mughal Empire or the Maratha Confederacy were in steep decline. The French remained even their influence was starting to drop. One striking exception (there were a few others such as the Sikh's to the northwest and the Afghans, but those are other stories), was the Kingdom of Mysore. Whereas other powers were declining, Mysore was ascendant, and Tipu Sultan was an important cause of that ascent.

There were other causes, such as the wise management of his father, the key location of Mysore in trade routes, and Mysore's position within the Franco-British contest, but Tipu Sultan was a strong ruler. He centralized the state, abolished the tax farmers, modernized the military, essentially accomplished all those steps which would save the monarchies of Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Thailand in later years. In short he was a formidable foe to the British expansion on the subcontinent.

The details of the Anglo-Mysore wars are beyond off-my-head knowledge, but they did involve the future Duke of Wellington, who was prouder of his victories here than those in Europe. But to summarize, while the first was a draw, the second saw Mysore gain, and the third saw Mysore weakened, and the fourth left Mysore a British dependency and Tipu Sultan dead.

The difficulty of defeating Tipu Sultan and that tantalizing counter-factual of his victory continues to taunt historians. Unlike some of the more recent historians, I do not wish to romanticize Tipu Sultan. He was ruthless, the surrounding states of South India were justified to be afraid of him and probably got better deals from the British to oppose him than Tipu would have given them. Moreover, he did devastate the countryside of Malabar in his campaigns there. Yet he was a strong and talented ruler, who did shape and develop his kingdom well. And he represents an alternate possibility. In essence, he did many of the steps that made the British East India company a formidable force within his own country. Could he have been the ruler of India? Could he have forced a split? Ah, but the could's of history are many, and while worth pondering, require more than off-the-top of my head knowledge. Maybe another day.

I hope therefore you have an idea of why Tipu Sultan is worthy of my brother's report. An impressive man, a cruel man, a blood-soaked man, a great ruler, essentially an important historical figure, with all the ambivalence of history carried in his name.

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