Saturday, 3 July 2010

Indian adventure

The events depicted in the Sharpe stories also take this "brilliant but wayward" soldier into conflicts other than the Napoleonic wars, for example the earliest tales take us to India under the command of the East India Company and chronicle Sharpe's years spent in the ranks.
During the late 18th Century, The British Empire would be found in a great many parts of the globe and one particular jewel in the crown was India. In the stories, Sharpe serves four years as Armoury Sergeant in Seringapatam, which was the location in 1799 of a hugely significant battle.
The Battle of Seringapatam was important because it was the final confrontation between the British and Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who was killed when the British broke into the fortress. Because of the British victory, the fate of India changed forever, as did English dominance in the continent.
Being a fictional hero, Sharpe's creator Cornwell frankly admits he has taken license with history, often placing Sharpe in the place of another man whose identity is lost to history. These achievements include killing the Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam, saving Wellesley's life at the Battle of Assaye and personally taking command of a regiment that drives off the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo.
However, the fact that the character of Sharpe is so closely intertwined with such key events in European history means that the series has great opportunities to reveal the bloodshed, drama and European politics that erupted during this period, while at the same time spinning more cracking good swashbuckling yarns than you can shake a sword at! The Siege of Seringapatam (4 May 1799) was the final confrontation of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Mysore. The British achieved a decisive victory after breaching the walls of the fortress at Seringapatam (as Srirangapatna was then known) and storming the citadel. Tippu Sultan, Mysore's ruler, was killed in the action. The British restored the Wodeyar dynasty to the throne after the victory, but retained indirect control of the kingdom.

The battle consisted of a series of encounters around Seringapatam (as Srirangapatna was then called) in the months of April and May 1799, between the combined forces of the British East India Company and their allies, numbering over 50,000 soldiers in all, and the soldiers of the Kingdom of Mysore, ruled by Tippu Sultan, numbering up to 30,000. The Fourth Anglo-Mysore War came to an end with the defeat and death of Tippu Sultan in the battle.
When the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War broke out, the British assembled two large columns under General George Harris. The first consisted of over 26,000 British East India Company troops, 4,000 of whom were European while the rest were local Indian sepoys. The second column was supplied by the Nizam of Hyderabad, and consisted of ten battalions and over 16,000 cavalry. Together, the allied force numbered over 50,000 soldiers. Tippu's forces had been depleted by the Third Anglo-Mysore War and the consequent loss of half his kingdom, but he still probably had up to 30,000 soldiers.

The British forces consisted of the following:
12th (East Suffolk) Regiment of Foot 19th Light Dragoons 25th Light Dragoons 33rd (Duke of Wellington's) Regiment of Foot 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot 75th (Highland) Regiment of Foot 77th Regiment of Foot Scotch Brigade [later 94th Regiment]
The Indian (sepoy) forces consisted of the following:
1st Madras Native Infantry 2nd Madras Native Infantry 1st Madras Native Cavalry 2nd Madras Native Cavalry 3rd Madras Native Cavalry 4th Madras Native Cavalry Madras Pioneers Madras Artillery 1st Bengal Native Infantry 2nd Bengal Native Infantry Bengal Artillery.

Seringapatam was besieged by the British forces on 5 April 1799. The River Cauvery, which flowed around the city of Seringapatam, was at its lowest level of the year and could be forded by infantry — if an assault commenced before the monsoon. When letters were exchanged with Tippu, it seemed that the Sultan was playing for time. He requested two persons to be sent to him for discussions and also stated that he was preoccupied with hunting expeditions. Tippu Sultan's prime minister, Mir Saadiq, was a traitor bought by the British. He pulled out the Mysore army for paying wages in the midst of the battle, thus allowing British forces to storm the boundary wall with little defence. Another key treachery to help the British was the spilling of water in the basements where the Sultan's army stored its gunpowder, which rendered the gunpowder useless.

The Governor-General of the East India Company, Richard Wellesley, planned the opening of a breach in the walls of Seringapatam. The location of the breach, as noted by Beatson, the author of an account of the Fourth Mysore War, was 'in the west curtain, a little to the right of the flank of the north-west bastion. This being the old rampart appeared weaker than the new.' The Mysorean defence succeeded in preventing the establishment of a battery on the north side of the River Cauvery on 22 April 1799. However, by 1 May, working at night, the British had completed their southern batteries and brought them up to the wall. At sunrise on 2 May, the batteries of the Nizam of Hyderabad succeeded in opening a practical breach in the outer wall. In addition, the mines that were laid under the breach were hit by artillery and blew up prematurely.

The leader of the British troops was Major General David Baird, an implacable enemy of the Sultan: twenty years earlier, he had been held captive by the Sultan for 44 months. The storming troops, including men of the 73rd and 74th regiments, clambered up the breach and fought their way along the ramparts. After the Company troops had taken the city, the Sultan's body was found among the dead, shot in the head and stripped of his jewels.
The assault was to begin at 1:00 p.m. to coincide with the hottest part of the day when the defenders would be taking refreshment. Led by two forlorn-hopes, two columns would advance upon the defences around the breach, then wheel right and left to take over the fortifications. A third reserve column, commanded by Arthur Wellesley would deploy as required to provide support where needed.
At 11:00 a.m., on 4 May 1799, the British troops were briefed and whisky and a biscuit issued to the European soldiers, before the signal to attack was given. The forlorn-hopes, numbering seventy-six men, led the charge. The columns quickly formed, were ordered to fix bayonets, and began to move forward. The storming party dashed across the River Cauvery in water four feet deep, with covering fire from British batteries, and within 16 minutes had scaled the ramparts and swept aside the defenders quickly.
The column that rounded the northwest corner of the outer wall was immediately involved in a serious fight with a group of Mysorean warriors under a short fat officer, which defended every traverse. The officer was observed to be discharging loaded hunting weapons, passed to him by servants in his service, at the British. After the fall of the city, in the gathering dusk, some of the British officers went to look for the body of Tippu Sultan. He was identified as the fat officer who had fired hunting weapons at the offenders, and his body was found in a choked tunnel-like passage near the Water Gate.

The Siege is depicted in:
Wilkie Collins's novel The Moonstone begins with the looting of the jewels removed from Seringapatam in 1799 from the legendary treasury of Tippu Saltan. The Battle of Seringapatam was adapted, and was the main conflict in the novel Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell.
Two cannon captured by the British during the battle are now placed in front of the officers mess at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Elizabeth Longford (Elizabeth Harman Pakenham, Countess of Longford), 1996, Wellington: The Years of the Sword, Smithmark Pub, New York, ISBN 978-0831756468. Jac Weller, 2006, Wellington in India, Greenhill Books, London, ISBN 978-1853673979


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