ELSEWHERE on this website, I have submitted two separate pieces about British colonialism in India, one dealing with the early activities of the East India Company (EIC) and another concerning the powerful Bengalese moneylenders known as the Jagat Seth. After carrying out some more research on the EIC, I came across some horrific accounts of the September 1780 battle that took place at the village of Pollilur between 5,000 disorganised Anglo-Scottish troops and 3,000 well-drilled soldiers from Mysore. The latter – who had access to rocket artillery – were under the command of Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), or the Tiger, son of the southern Indian ruler Hyder Ali (1720-1782).
In the aftermath of this rare and unexpected defeat, which sent huge shock-waves coursing through the EIC’s overseas headquarters in Calcutta, not to mention its trading offices in London, barely 800 of the 3,853 men led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Baillie (d. 1782) survived. Many were hired sepoys, or Indian infantrymen. According to one eye-witness from the 73rd Highland Regiment,
Such as were saved from immediate death were so crowded together that it was only with difficulty they could stand; several were in a state of suffocation, while others from the weight of the dead bodies that had fallen upon them were fixed to the spot and therefore at the mercy of the enemy […] Some were trampled under the feet of elephants, camels and horses, and those who were stripped of their clothing lay exposed to the scorching sun, without water and died a lingering and miserable death, becoming the prey to ravenous wild animals.
Over the next few months, around 7,000 EIC troops were captured by Tipu and taken back to his island fortress at Seringapatam. An estimated 300 British prisoners were forcibly circumcised and made to convert to Islam, with many of the teenage drummer boys forced to dress like women and perform erotic dances for Tipu’s men. One prisoner, James Scurry, who was finally released after a period of ten years, had completely forgotten how to sit in a chair or use a knife and fork. A report explained that his English “was broken and confused, having lost all its vernacular idiom,” his skin had acquired “the swarthy complexion of Negroes” and he had taken a dislike to European clothes.
I don’t like to see brutal treatment of this kind inflicted on anyone, but the EIC had no right to be in India and in the words of William Dalrymple:
This was the ultimate colonial nightmare, and in its most unpalatable form: the captive preferring the ways of his captors, the coloniser colonised.