April 09, 2023

Fake History, Rockets and Tipu Sultan

Prabir Purkayastha

THE British saw the Mysore Kingdom of Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali as a significant obstacle to the British Empire in India. The British lost the first three Anglo-Mysore wars before defeating Tipu in the fourth war. The British allies were the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Peshwas. Cutting to the present, the BJP's battle against Tipu is limited: it is about the Karnataka elections. The attack on Tipu is a not-so-thinly veiled attack on the Muslims. Since it is difficult to make heroes out of the British while vilifying Tipu, two Gowdas who allegedly fought against Tipu and killed him, had to be invented. Tipu has to be defeated by Gowdas and not by the British. That this incident figures in no history book or in any account of the 4th Anglo-Mysore War matters little to the social media warriors of the BJP; and certainly not when what is at stake is winning elections in Karnataka.

What the BJP misses completely is that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan not only kept the British at bay for more than 30 years; they also significantly advanced rocketry beyond what existed anywhere at that time.

The military significance of rockets had dwindled with the improvement of cannons. Rockets, in comparison to cannons, had a lower range and lacked accuracy. This is where Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan's advances in rocketry came in. Instead of using cardboard or wood as the casing of the rockets that Europeans used, Mysore rockets used iron casing for the body. This allowed a larger amount of powder to be packed in the rocket, increasing its range and explosive power. The Mysore rockets also used a long bamboo pole or a sword tied to the end of the rocket, not only to provide stability but also to injure enemy soldiers.

Under the leadership of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, rockets became a major part of Mysore's forces. The British Army found it difficult to combat the massed rocket charges of the Mysore forces. They had not faced this kind of arms anywhere. Mysore's rocket barrages led to the breaking up of the British formations and their defeat in the first three Anglo-Mysore wars. It was only in the 4th and final battle in Seringapatam that the British, in alliance with the Nizam and the Peshwas, prevailed.

The American forces for their independence were well aware of the British colonial wars. The Anglo-Mysore wars were a part of the larger battle between France and England, in which the US gained its independence while India lost its freedom, becoming a British colony. The French aided the American War of Independence and allied with Mysore in India. The American leaders regarded Mysore as an ally, and in the naval battle of Delaware in 1812, one of its battleships was named Hyder Ally

A part of the reason that Britain let the 13 colonies – the nucleus of the United States – win their freedom was that they could no longer fight in both Indian and North American theatres of war. They took a conscious decision about which of the colonies was more valuable for their empire and which could be let go. 

I will leave the history of the Anglo-Mysore wars and their significance to the historians who are much better equipped to handle them. I will, instead, focus on rocketry and its significance. Let us not forget it is rockets that today carry astronauts and let us explore Mars and the moon; carry instruments to monitor monsoons, drought and weather phenomena like cyclones; and provide us with the signal for our TV at home. And, of course, weapons of all kinds, including weapons of mass destruction, the nuclear bombs. Science and technology are, unfortunately, inextricably linked to war and commerce. Rocketry is no exception.

So what did Tipu's rockets do for the world? Roddam Narasimha, in his 1985 paper Rockets in Mysore and Britain 1750-1850, traces the history of Mysore rockets, the advances it made and its further course in the hands of the British. After the fall of Seringapatam, the British brought a number of rockets to Woolworth, where Britain's Royal Arsenal was located, to do what we now call reverse engineering. According to William Congreve, who was in charge of the rocketry project, "...the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from them (the rockets) than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy." Congreve's task was to see why the Mysore rockets were so much more effective than their European counterparts and create more advanced rockets for British military's use.

Congreve has left us a series of papers and books identifying the reason that Mysore rockets were superior to their European counterparts. He then set out to improve the Mysore rockets and standardise their production. For this contribution, they were widely known as Congreve rockets. He also pointed out the benefits of using rockets over cannons in naval bombardment, as unlike cannons, rockets, when fired, have no recoil. This allowed ships to fire a larger number of volleys than using cannons. Also, in land wars, while cannon balls were more accurate than rockets, rockets had the advantage that did not require heavy cannons to fire them. This made it easier to move them in battle and also transport them over distances.

Roddam mentions that Mysore could produce better quality iron than England could at that time. Though this is a separate history, South India had developed high-carbon steel – called wootz steel – outside India (wootz is possibly derived from the Telegu word for steel, ukku). This was made using crucibles, and the resulting wootz balls were exported to Central and West Asia, from where they made their way to Europe. This is what gave rise to the famous Damascus blades, though similar blades were common in South India. The story of high-carbon steel and its use in Sheffield is a separate story and not directly linked to the development of the Congreve rockets.

Congreve rockets were widely used by the British against France, both in the continent and in North America. Arthur Wellesley, later Duke Wellington and the victor in Waterloo, used rockets, as can be seen in pictures of the war painted at that time. As I have written earlier, Congreve's rockets were also used by the British against US forces in their Battle of Baltimore in 1812. The very first stanza of the US national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, contains the lines:

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Not many people know that the rockets mentioned here refer specifically to the Congreve rockets. Francis Scott Key, who penned these lines, was an American prisoner on a British ship and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, and therefore these lines. Of course, the Star Spangled Banner also glories about "freemen", prescribing death to the slaves in the third stanza:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

It is because of the association of white supremacy and slavery with the Star-Spangled Banner that black American athletes kneel in protest when it is sung, refusing to honour it by standing up.

To end this story, when India's rocket man APJ Abdul Kalam was visiting NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, he discovered Tipu's pioneering contributions to rocketry. A painting of Tipu's use of rockets against the British is displayed in the main reception there. Real history is always more interesting than manufactured ones.