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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SERINGAPATAM MEDAL OF 1799

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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SERINGAPATAM MEDAL OF 1799

By: Anzel Veldman – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

 

War has been a constant presence in human history and as such rewards have been bestowed upon deeds of valour and martial daring. War medals have a long and storied history, dating back to ancient times continuing to the present day. They serve as a tangible symbol of honour, recognition, and remembrance for those who have served in the armed forces and made sacrifices for their country. Medals therefore also reflect historical battles and the historical context in which they were fought.

  

In 1600 CE, English merchants secured a royal charter for purposes of trading in the East Indies. The Dutch, however, had well sealed off trade in what is now Indonesia, and the merchants’ company, which was to become known as the East India Company turned its attention to India, due to their variety of commodities, such as cotton and spices. The dominant power at the time in India was the Mughal Empire. British adventurers had preceded the East India Company into India, including the Mughal court. A combination of factors and events were to draw the East India Company into Indian politics, especially with the decline of the Mughal Empire and resulting rise of regional powers, including that of the British, who had become ensconced at what is now Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay), and Kolkata (Calcutta) (Marshall 1975; Blackwell 2008).

 

Tipu Sultan (1782–1799) was the ruler of the independent state of Mysore an ambitious ruler who wished to expand the extent of his territories. Yet, the British also wanted to enlarge their sphere of influence over the region. Tipu Sultan was aware that only through neutralisation and eventual expulsion of all overseas colonial powers from the entire Indian subcontinent could their aims of expansion be fulfilled. Therefore, the state of Mysore clashed with the British resulting in 30 years of warfare between the Sultanate of Mysore, and the British East India Company and their allies such as the Maratha Empire. Tipo was a formidable foe for the British and they lost several battles. However, the Treaty of Seringapatam, signed 18 March 1792, ended the Third Anglo-Mysore War resulting in Tipu surrendering half his territory and sent his two sons as hostages to Lord Charles Cornwallis, as security to repay his debts to the British. However, Napoleon Bonaparte’s capture of Egypt in 1799 was seen by the British as a clear threat to India. They also knew that Tipu Sultan would support any actions taken by the French to invade and overthrow British rule on the sub-continent (Nair 2006; MacDougall 2011).

 

Indeed, an alliance had been formed between the French and Tipu Sultan. At first Governor-General Lord Mornington thought that the proclamation of an alliance in a newspaper was unauthentic. Upon receiving authentic copies of the proclamation from Lord Macartney and Sir Hugh Christian at the then Cape of Good Hope, Mornington declared immediate war on Tipu in February 1799. Shortly after, during the week of March, the strategy of invading Mysore on two separate fronts was initiated.

Despite efforts on the part of Tipu Sultan to slow the advance, his capital of Seringapatam was under siege and the fort was taken in April. This was the last battle that Tipu Sultan would fight. Upon hearing that one of his generals had been killed he left the palace to investigate. British soldiers had already entered the fort through the breach. Tipu received a gunshot wound to his temple, with the bullet lodged in the left cheekbone, and died at the northern gateway of the fort (Alexander 1799; Nair 2006; MacDougall 2011; Brittlebank 2016).

 

Tipu Sultan’s obsession with tigers and his reputation as a warrior earned him the nickname “the Tiger of Mysore”. The tiger and tiger stripes dominated all royal insignia, soldiers’ uniforms, coins, war banners, book bindings and watermarks on letters. The tiger representing the Mysore state as being strong, ferocious, and independent did not go unnoticed by the British, whose own royal emblem is that of a lion. As such, British colonial power and those who are revolting against such authority are symbolised by these two apex predators battling for supremacy. For that reason, the Seringapatam medal awarded in 1808, depicts a lion mauling a tiger symbolising British dominance over India. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan his tigers were killed, serving as a symbolic reinforcement of Britain’s victory at Seringapatam, as well as a warning to other Indian rulers who intended to challenge Britain’s imperial ambitions in India (Carter & Long 1893; Brittlebank 2016; Teodorescu 2022).

 

After the war, the region around Mysore and Seringapatam was restored to the Wadiyar dynasty, who then entered a subsidiary alliance with the British. After his death, Tipu Sultan’s sons were returned to their relatives. However, due to mutiny of Fort Vellore in 1806 instigated by Tipu’s sons, the entire family was sent to Calcutta to live in exile; they were never to rule again. The Wadiyar family reigned over the remnant Kingdom of Mysore until 1947, when it joined the Dominion of India (Gupta & Chaliha 1991; Nair 2006).

 

References:

Alexander, A. 1799. An Account of the Campaign in Mysore 1799. The University Printing Publishing: Calcutta.

Blackwell, F. 2008. The British Impact on India, 1700–1900. World History 13: 34-37.

Brittlebank, K. 2016. Tiger: The life of Tipu sultan. Juggernaut Books: India.

Carter, T. & Long, W.H. 1893. War Medals of the British Army 1650-1891. London: Arms Armour Press.

Gupta, B. & Chaliha, J. 1991. Exiles in Calcutta: The Descendants of Tipu Sultan. India International Centre Quarterly 18: 181-188.

MacDougall, P. 2011. British Sea power and the Mysore Wars of the Eighteenth Century. The Mariner’s Mirror 97: 299-314

Marshall, P.J. 1975. British Expansion in India in the 18th century: A Historical Revision. History 60: 28-43.

Nair, J. 2006. Tipu Sultan, History painting and the Battle for perspective. Studies in History 22: 97-143.

Teodorescu, A. 2022. Tiger Symbolism in the British Raj: Colonialism and Animal History of the Indian Subcontinent. The Columbia Journal of Asia 1: 66-77.

 

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