Tipu Sultan’s foreign diplomacy through the letters of Thomas Jefferson

Ameen Ahmed

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Introduction

Tipu Sultan was a modern Indian king with a truly international outlook. While his father Haidar Ali recruited European soldiers and even received fighting men from Persia, Tipu went a step ahead. Not only did he continue his military contacts with the Europeans, chiefly the French, he also sent his emissaries on foreign trade and diplomatic missions to Europe and Arabian Peninsula. Aware of the global reach of British, his arch enemy, he relentlessly sought to establish global alliances with political and military powers outside India. The fact that Tipu sent ambassadors to other parts of south Asia, West Asia and Europe is fairly well-known to students of modern Indian history. Let us explore an interesting phase of global diplomacy when a founding father of America recorded Tipu Sultan’s foreign missions in his official correspondence.

Tipu and foreign powers

Born and raised at a time when European powers were in a race to colonise Indian sub-continent, Tipu had to wade through a minefield of foreign relations to try and save his kingship. Tipu learnt of his father Haidar Ali’s death in December 1782 and was preparing to take over the reign of Mysore kingdom amidst a war with the British, in which the French were his principle ally (1). At the same time, Americans, also supported by the French, were fighting for independence from the British (2). American revolutionaries not only took inspiration from Mysore Kingdom’s battles against the British under Haidar Ali but also celebrated his many victories, including that of Tipu Sultan’s at the battle of Pollilur (3). But signing a peace treaty in September 1783, England and France agreed not only to cease hostilities against each other but also to stop supporting each other’s allies that were against these two nations in the Indian subcontinent. The fact that France signed the treaty without consulting Tipu, its ally in India, upset him (4). He looked to form alliances with other international powers that could help him permanently uproot British from south Asia.

Tipu’s international diplomacy

Tipu sent many diplomats to Constantinople, capital of Ottoman Empire in 1785. He instructed these diplomats to then travel to Paris to meet French King Louis XVI and onward to London to meet the King of England before returning to Srirangapatna, his capital. He wanted them to meet these two kings to convince them not to support Marathas and the Nizam in his conflict with them. But Tipu recalled the diplomats from Constantinople and instead sent a separate embassy to France in 1786. Until recently, historians believed one of Tipu’s objectives in sending his embassy to Constantinople was to have himself recognized as a sovereign by Ottomans. However, Iqbal Husain presented a paper relating to this embassy at the Indian History Congress in 2001 in which he argued that Tipu treated himself at par with the monarchs of Ottoman Empire, France and England. Nowhere in his communication directed to these kings, particularly to the Ottoman king, did he address himself as someone who was of a lesser stature (5).

Tipu’s French embassy through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is a founding father of America and the principal author of Declaration of Independence. He was also its third president (6). After America formally gained independence from Britain in 1784, he was the country’s ambassador to France. A nascent America was keen to develop commerce with East Indies- India and its neighbouring region as it was known then (7). It is no surprise that America’s founding fathers followed the affairs of India’s rulers particularly Tipu Sultan, both within Indian subcontinent as well as in Europe. In his official correspondence from Paris, Jefferson provided, and received, regular updates on the reception of Tipu’s ambassadors at the French court.

The peace treaty signed at Versailles, France in September 1783 did not diminish the French mistrust of the British, as can be seen from Jefferson’s letter to Moustier on 17 May 1788. He expressed fears that European powers would fight for supremacy in Western Europe. He listed steps that were taken in this direction by various countries including France, which had sent three regiments to India along with French officers to help Tipu (8). In the same letter, as well as another to John Jay on 23 May 1788, he wrote how France was expecting Tipu’s Embassy (9). In his letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 11 June 1788, Stephen Cathalan, Jr., wrote from Marseilles about the arrival of Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors at Toulan. People at Marseilles expected to see these guests on their way to Paris and that ‘a noble reception’ as well as ‘festivals’ was prepared for them (10). Jefferson, in his letter to Andre Limozin dated 18 June 1788, confirmed the arrival of Tipu’s Ambassador in Toulon on 10th June and that they were accorded with ‘a magnificent reception’ (11). In another letter to Robert Montgomery written on the same day, he reconfirmed news of arrival of Tipu’s embassy. He then continued his updates on the upheaval that happened around France in the run up to the French Revolution (12). He wrote to John Rutledge on 13 July 1788 about the continued internal chaos in France as well as the wait for Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors by the French (13). On 3 Aug. 1788 he wrote to John Jay, again about the continued internal chaos in France. He added that Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors had arrived in Paris ‘in pomp and ceremony’, though he was unaware about the purpose of their visit. He noted the beginning of a military conflict between Russia and Sweden, the latter being supported by England and paid for by Turkey. Naval battles between Turkey and Russia also took place, according to him (14). This conflict between Turks and the Russians, and the support the former received from England, could have been an important reason for Tipu’s Embassy to Turkey failing to strike a military alliance.

Jefferson wrote to Mary Barclay, on Friday, 8 August 1788 about the reception of Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors at Versailles that Sunday, which he intended to attend (15). He wrote to Moustier on 9 August 1788 that Tipu’s Ambassadors were to be received at Versailles the next day ‘in great pomp’. In the same letter Jefferson wishes that Madam de Brehan was there to paint the event (16). Madam de Brehan, was the sister of Count de Moustier, French minister to the United States in late 1780s. She accompanied her brother to US where she made several original paintings of George Washington starting 1787 (17). It is not known if Madam de Brehan painted did indeed paint this event, but the same was done by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Elisabeth also exhibited her paintings of Tipu’s ambassadors at a salon the next year in Paris (18).

The next day he wrote to John Jay that Tipu’s ambassadors were received with unusual pomp by the French King amidst numerous people. He added that, from what he could hear only ‘mutual assurances of good will’ were exchanged and nothing more (19).

Tipu’s mission to France failed. One factor being that the country was in the throes of a revolution that would ultimately throw the King. Around the same time, the Ottomans’ conflict with Russia continued and its alliance with the British remained in place. These circumstances may have played a role in Tipu failing to get support for military alliances with either of the nations against the British before the onset of the 3rd Anglo Mysore War in 1790. Tipu suffered a huge setback in this war which ended with him having to cede half of his richest domains to the British and its chief allies- Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas. Till he paid the crippling war indemnity, two of his sons were held ransom by the British. But he was not to be subdued. He invited Napoleon Bonaparte and Shah Zaman of Afghanistan to join hands with him to eliminate the British. He was perhaps the last of kings in Indian sub-continent to fiercely pursue a foreign policy independent of British, a fact acknowledged by global powers of that day and age.

References

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  1. Johnston, Elizabeth Bryant., Original portraits of Washington including statues, monuments, and medals. Boston Osgood and Company, Boston, 1882
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