Friday 18 January 2013

The Swiss regiment that had a hand in the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan

Generations of Indians and lovers of history have been fed on the news that the English were primarily responsible for the death of Tipu Sultan on May 4, 1799.
Many records and paintings exists of the supposed bravery of the British forces and their “heroic” act of breaching the ramparts of the river fort of Srirangapatna where Tipu had gathered with his troops to give battle.
While there is no doubt that the British troops did actively participate in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War and that they defeated Tipu, it would not be an exaggeration to say that such a victory would not have been possible with many independent factors.
The first and foremost point is the treachery of Tipu’s most trusted aide, Mir Sadiq. The second is the deliberate act of some persons other than Mir Sadiq of closing the fort gates to see that Tipu remained enclosed in a small area and that he had no means of escape.
The third point and perhaps the most important is the role of independent soldiers or mercenaries in the war, including the highly trained and brave men of a Swiss Regiment called the de Meuron Regiment.
There is an interesting Swiss connection in this battle. The assault troop (Forlorn Hope) selected to storm first was de Meuron Regiment, originally a Swiss regiment known after its commander, Comte Charles-Daniel de Meuron.
This regiment was renowned for its fierce soldiers and fighting spirit. Before coming to India, this regiment was stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) under the Dutch East India Company, which  for a time ruled the island country.
The de Meurons even took part in battles against the forces of  British East India Company in Sri Lanka. The regiment, which by the had become a mercenary force, went bankrupt.
During the 1780s and 1790s, the British were facing stiff resistance from two major South Indian Kingdoms- the Maratas and the Mysore kingdom. The British realised that both Hyder-Tipu and Marathas were powerful and that they could not be defeated singlehandedly. They therefore, strung alliances with the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawabs of Carnatic –Arcot against Tipu.
When this did not suffice,  they turned to the de Meurons. The  de Meuron Regiment wanted money to pay salary to the 800 odd active soldiers it had on its rolls.
The British wanted men and fire power and the regiment money. Thus, both entered into a pact in 1795. The de Meurons were to play a frontline role in the wars in India , while the British had to pay for their services.
The agreement struck, the de Meurons  joined the war against Tipu. The assault troop (Forlorn Hope) selected to storm the fort first was mostly made up de Meuron Regiment known after its commander, Comte Charles-Daniel de Meuron.
The de Meuron was a regiment of infantry originally raised in Switzerland in 1781. Its commander Daniel de Meuron was born in Neuchatel in 1738.
They served the Dutch in Ceylon and South Africa (Cape Town). When the British eyed Ceylon, they sent a delegation to Count de Meuron where a deal was struck to hand over control of the Regiment to the British.
The Regiment refused to fight alongside the Dutch against the British. They also gave details of  Dutch fortifications  to the British. They subsequently entered British service with the understanding that the British would enroll them at the same rate as regular British soldiers and give them the back pay owed by the Dutch East India Company.
The soldiers of de Meuron were in the frontline if the battle against Tipu. They lost eighty of their men, but succeeded in pinning down the Mysore gunners and the infantry.
The regiment later served the British in the Mediterreanean and Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic wars between 1806 and 1812. It also travelled to Canada where they played a key role in the Battle of 1812  and also in the War of the Red river Colony.
The eighty who died in Srirangapatna are buried in the Garrison Cemetry near the Srirangapatna fort. Many European officers, both military and civil, are buried in this place.
After 1799, the British East India Company transformed  Srirangapatna into a military garrison, before setting up there permanent base at Bangalore. For the next six decades (till 1860) this cemetery was in service of the British.
The descendants of the de Meuron family had come forward to restore the cemetery. Most of the tombs are repaired with the same kind of technique used in the original masonry.
Though the cemetery is a short walk (300 meters ) from the highway to Mysore, it is a bit difficult to locate the path. It starts opposite the Mysore Gate ( facing the Bangalore Mysore highway towards Mysore side). You will find a milestone by the side of the highway. There is a zigzag path with a series of steps and a pathway. Every 100 meters, you will find a milestone showing the direction to the cemetery.
The gates of the cemetery are opened between 9 am and 6 pm. It has 310 tomb stones.
So next time you visit Srirangapatna, head for the cemetery for a slice of history.

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