Saturday 22 December 2012

When Purnaiah defeated Wellesley

Much is made of the victory of Arthur Wellesley over Tipu Sultan in the fourth and final Anglo-Mysore War.
It is this final battle of Srirangapatna on May 4, 1799 that Tipu lost his life and the British razed Srirangapatna to the ground. The aftermath of the battle came to be felt much later when the British managed to gain complete stranglehold over South India.
However, what many historians and these include Indians as well, seem to forget is that just a month before the decisive battle of Srirangapatna, the British forced had been at the receiving end of Tipu’s famed rockets.
What is more the same British force, which was led by Wellesley was forced to beat what the British historians call a strategic retreat in the face of unrelenting rocket fire. Guess who commanded this Mysore army. It was none other than Dewan Purnaiah, the revenue Minister of Tipu.
Purnaiah was a handful of Hindis who held high positions in the court of Tipu. When war came, Purnaiah was among the first to offer his services to Tipu.
Tipu kept Yaar Mohammad, his trusted commander-in-chief , at Srirangapatna and sent Purnaiah with a contingent of rocketmen and foot soldiers to face the British Army.
The British had taken the Bangalore fort after much difficulty and had marched towards Srirangapatna. The British were assisted by the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
The British army was led by Col Arthur Wellesley, later first Duke of Wellington. When the British forces reached Sultanpet Tope near Srirangapatna on April 6, 1799, Wellesley decided to press on towards Tipu’s capital.
It was then that the British were given a lesson of their life. The Battle of Sultanpet Tope turned out to be a nightmare for the British.
The British forces were constantly bombarded by rocket fire. The rockets were so effective that one of them injured Wellesley. Though it was a minor injury, it was enough to throw a scare into him.
In a cruel twist of fate for the Mysoreans, Wellesley managed to evade capture at the last moment. Imagine the history of India had Wellesley been captured.
When the British forced failed to gain a critical position, Wellesley was forced to call off the attack. He asked his Army to retreat.
Briitsh historians and unfortunately even Indian historians have glossed over this episode. They have not given Purnaiah his due and also the Army under him for effectively  blocking easy access to Srirangapatna.
In reality, Wellesley was defeated in a battle by Purnaiah, a fact politely acknowledged in diplomatic words by Forrest, a British diarist and military historian who had accompanied Wellesley during the war.
Here is what Forrest has to say about the war of Sultanpet Tope….
“At this point (near the village of Sultanpet, there was a large tope, or grove, which gave shelter to Tipu's rocketmen and had obviously to be cleaned out before the siege could be pressed closer to Srirangapattana island. The commander chosen for this operation was Col. Wellesley, but advancing towards the tope after dark on the 5 April 1799, he was set upon with rockets and musket-fires, lost his way and, as Beatson politely puts it, had to “postpone the attack” until a more favourable opportunity should offer. The following day, Wellesley launched a fresh attack with a larger force, and took the whole position without losing a single man.
On 22 April 1799, twelve days before the final battle, rocketeers worked their way around to the rear of the British encampment, then “threw a great number of rockets at the same instant” to signal the beginning of an assault by 6,000 Indian infantry and a corps of Frenchmen, all directed by Mir Gulam Hussain and Muhammad Hulleen Mir Mirans.
The rockets had a range of about 1,000 yards. Some burst in the air like shells. Others, called ground rockets, would rise again on striking the ground and bound along in a serpentine motion until their force was spent. According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles ...”.
Bayly further says, “The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”
Alas, this did not help Tipu much as he was forced into his fort in Srirangapatna when the British besieged Srirangapatna. As far as Purnaiah is concerned, he has been denied the credit that is due to hi for defeating Wellesley. Of course, he lost the battle the next day. But this seems to have been highlighted and not the previous day’s battle in which he forced Wellesley to retreat. 
Unfortunately, rockets proved to be the undoing of Tipu in his last stand with the British. On May 2, 1799 a British shot struck a magazine of rockets within Tipu Sultan's fort, causing a huge explosion and sending plumes of smoke into the sky.
On the afternoon of May4,  when the final attack on the fort was led by Baird, he was again met by “furious musket and rocket fire.”  Unfortunately, this tactic failed to deter the attackers and in about an hour's time,  the fort was taken and  perhaps within another hour Tipu had been shot.
After the mopping up operations in Srirangapatna,  the British discovered 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets. Some of them were sent to England where William
Congreve studied and copied them in 1801 to create the Congreve rockets. In 1805, the British demonstrated the Congreve rockets in public but in reality they were only more refined instruments that were once the proud armament of Hyder and Tipu. So much so for British invention or rather manipulation.


  1. Yes, this episode is conveniently forgotten today. All that is remembered is the british victory and no one speaks of wellesley deserting his own men that night.
    Well written.

    1. Yes, Mr. Nidhin, you are right. Indian history is replete with one sided and coloured views and incidents, tnaks to the British. We still have not corrected these fallacies.

  2. Interesting article. The author could also have mentioned the treachery by some of the officials whom Tippu had trusted. Brits had their plus points; however there are hardly any ( or none) examples of wars which the English won in a fair manner- treason, bribery, backstabbing, renegading on promises, etc., were the order of the day in their pursuit of building the 'Raj". Divide and rule policy was like an icing on the cake.

  3. What is the historic evidence that Tipu sent Purniah to the battle of Sultanpet Tope on the night of 5 April, 1799?

  4. I was wondering if there is any historic evidence that Tipu sent Purniah to the battle of Sultanpet Tope on 5 April, 1799?

  5. Yes, there is enough historical evidence. British accounts of the day recount how Arthur Wellesley just managed to escape and this defeat continued to haunt him till his death. Unfortunately, our history books do not mention this.