The Letters That Destroyed a Sultan
History, Mumbai, People
The Letters That Destroyed a Sultan
Percy Bharucha
OCTOBER 23, 2019

India was always famous for its wealth and resources.

And it was the promise of all this wealth and resources that lured many foreign nations to Indian shores. The British arrived in 1612 and the French in 1668. Both began a race for supremacy. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended that race. The British had successfully crushed the French ambition of ruling India.

But the rise of Napoleon in the late 1790s revived  French ambitions in India. Napoleon knew that England’s power came from its control of India and its wealth. He was determined to get a toehold here.

He found a willing ally in Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, a state in South India. Tipu had long despised the British, and fought them at every opportunity. He  had even hired a few French officers to train and command  his armies. He had also been writing to the French government since 1786, expressing  his love for the principles of the French Revolution. The French were impressed.

Napoleon hatched a daring plan. His idea was to march to India, link up   with Tipu’s army and drive the British out. In 1798, Napoleon reached Egypt, a hop, skip and jump away from India. He wrote a letter to Tipu, declaring his support:

‘To the most magnificent Sultan our greatest friend Tipoo Sahib, you have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible Army, full of the desire of delivering you from the iron yoke of England.’

Above: The assault of Seringapatam, on the 4th of May 1799. Coloured engraving by Sir Alexander Allen, 1802. [Public Domain]

Unfortunately for both Napoleon and Tipu Sultan, this letter was intercepted by the British.  They realised that Napoleon was a major threat and had to be stopped before he joined forces with Tipu. They engaged him in a fierce battle in Acre, in modern day Israel.   Napoleon’s army was defeated, his navy was destroyed and his dream of driving the British out of India was shattered.

In the meanwhile, in South India too, the British managed to put together a large army to defeat Tipu Sultan. In 1799, over 50,000 troops attacked the fort of Srirangapatnam, Tipu’s capital. The French did try to help. They sent a ship called Le Preneuse to Tipu’s aid in 1798. But the troops that landed were swiftly forced to surrender by a British detachment. Tipu himself was defeated and killed. A large chunk of the state was annexed by the British. A new king was put on the throne, a man loyal to the British. And with this, the British became undisputed masters of South India.


But the idea of a Napoleon-Tipu union had really spooked the British. In recent years, some tunnels and bunkers have been discovered under heritage buildings in Mumbai. And there are some people who insist that these were built by the British as Plan B, just in case Napoleon came anywhere dangerously close.

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