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  3.8 The Battle of Pollilur 1780: D/ Halidar Ali and Tipu Sultan  


©Otto Money
The Battle of Pollilur 1780, D/ Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan

Gouache on five sheets of paper, with canvas backing
224.8 x 976 cm

Unknown Indian Artist c.1840

hen, on 7th August 1778, the British Government at Calcutta received official confirmation that war with France had been declared in Europe, Warren Hastings was already prepared for action. The French settlements, including the ports of Pondicherry and Mahe were his target, and Sir Hector Munro, with a large force, was dispatched to attack Pondicherry. In fact, a more significant opening battle - as in the recent American War of 1776 - was for control of the seas, and although the action was indecisive, it resulted in the withdrawal of the French squadron and reduced the defences of Pondicherry, Nevertheless, the siege lasted over 10 weeks, and claimed the lives of 800 men before Munro finally entered the city. Other French settlements offered less resistance, but when Haidar was informed that the British next intended to attack Mahe, he protested vigorously. After the fall of Pondicherry, Mahe was his critical gateway for the procurement of French military aid, and he dispatched troops to defend it, his colours flying beside those of the French until Mahe surrendered to the British in March 1779. Haidar also claimed that all the European settlements on the Malabar coast were under his protection, and that if the British attacked Mahe, he would attack Arcot and Mohammed Ali, sometime ally of the British.

'The government of Madras at this period was lulled into the most fatal and supine security and affected to treat reports of Haidar Ali's hostile intentions as without foundation,' observed the Scotsman, the Hon. James Lindsay, who was serving there with his brother, John. The arrival of reinforcements in January 1780 may have contributed to this momentary sense of security. Certainly the disembarkation of the 1st Battalion 73 Highlanders at Madras had attracted much curious interest. The men arrived in their kilts, but were soon required to exchange them for the 'East India Uniform' of a short single-breasted coat and white gaiter trousers which were considered more suitable for fighting men in India.

Fearing the establishment of a quadruple alliance between the Mahrattas, the Nizam, the French and Tipu, the Madras Government decided to send missions to Seringapatam in July 1779 and again in Spring 1780, to placate Haidar. He declined even to meet the second envoy, proclaiming that he had abandoned all faith in the British. While Madras took no action, Haidar quickly and purposefully prepared for war. In June 1779, the mightiest army ever seen in South India - some 90,000 native troops - marched out of Bangalore: 15,000 infantry, highly trained in the European fashion; 12,000 regular infantry; a total force of 55,000 foot; 28,000 horse, rocket men and a corps of some 400 French soldiers. All these were supported by a well-organised commissariat. In addition, Haidar's scorched earth campaign had left Madras and Vellore isolated in a desolate and devastated countryside.

Against this formidable foe, the British forces were not even united to meet the initial attack. Less than 5,000 men remained at Madras itself. 1,500 men were with Col. Braithwaite at Pondicherry - where Haidar was poised to attack with any attempt to move North. 2,000 sepoys were with Col. Cosby at Trichinoploy - but Haidar's son, Kurreem Sahib, was based to the North of them at Porto Novo, and on the route to Madras. The remaining force of 2,800 men, under Col. Baillie, were at Guntoor on the River Kistna. It was they who were fated to meet Tipu's force of some 10,000 men at the field of Pollilur.


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