Pre-Colonial India: The Case of Tipu Sultan
The later rules of Mysore built a regime and governance system which was far more rounded, subtle and modern than the conventional narratives. Habib edited a series of essays on the subject, ‘Confronting Colonialism’, and his own views of Tipu Sultan are both refreshing and revisionist.
He writes of his modernisation efforts:
"Since agriculture was the main sector of the pre-modern economy of Mysore, Tipu’s major concern was naturally with agricultural improvement. An order issued by Tipu shows concern that if revenue was collected at the wrong time, this would pauperize peasants by compelling them to sell their cattle. Such untimely collections were to be avoided, and ‘the resource-less’ (nadar) peasants were to be given taccavi loans ‘in the form of cattle and grain’ in order to enable them to undertake cultivation. Old canals and embankments were to be repaired, and new ones built. Similarly, old dams thrown across rivers were to be repaired, and new ones constructed. Headmen (‘patels, shanbhogs, etc.’) who oppressed peasants were to be punished. These regulations were largely in conformity with the traditional principles of earlier regimes including the Mughal administration. Buchanan’s gibe that Tipu merely interfered with and spoilt earlier irrigation works from a desire to set up his own, is not borne out by the concern shown in these injunctions for keeping the old works in good order.
Nine miles from Srirangapatnam is the famous modern dam on the Kaveri, built to create the great lake of Krishna Raj Sagara. When excavation work for it began in 1911, an inscribed slab was unearthed: dated 12 June 1798, this announced that Tipu Sultan had laid the foundations of the dam on this very site to provide water for irrigation; and a quarter of the revenue was to be exempted for those who thereby brought new area under cultivation. Since Tipu fell within a year of the foundation of the dam, it is no discredit to him that the work was left incomplete and neglected by the British-controlled regime that followed. But it speaks much for his acumen and interest that he should have chosen the exact site for the dam that modern engineers were to select more than a hundred years later.
Tipu was also interested in furthering agricultural manufactures. This is shown by a very interesting order he issued for raw-sugar manufacturers to be summoned and trained in the making of candied sugar and white sugar so that they might manufacture and sell these finer varieties in their own localities.
Another indication of Tipu’s farsighted innovation was the introduction of sericulture in Mysore, which was to grow later into such a successful industry. The raising of mulberry trees was assigned to particular land-farmers (talluqdars). Twenty-one centres (karkhanas) for the culture of silkworms were established; the worms were to be produced on a monthly basis; and the proceeds paid into the treasury: Tipu looked forward to an increase in silk production year after year.
Such interest in agricultural improvement could be creditable enough. But it was in the sphere of manufactures that his endeavours especially distinguished him from all contemporary Indian potentates. We have already seen that Haidar Ali had concentrated on modernizing his army and the manufacture of muskets. In 1787, Tipu instructed his prospective ambassadors to France to tell the French king that he had in Mysore ‘ten workshops (karkhanas) where countless muskets (banadiq) were being manufactured’. These muskets were modelled after those of Europe. Cossigny, governor of Pondicherry, examining one ‘produced by Tipu Sultan's workers’ in 1786, thought it equal to any produced in Europe. This was also the judgement in Paris pronounced on two pistols presented by Tipu's ambassadors to Louis XVI in 1788. Tipu’s ambassadors to the Ottoman court (1785–86) were asked to exhibit proudly to the Turks the muskets earned by the men in their train, that had been made in Mysore. But Tipu wanted further improvement, and he asked his ambassadors to Paris to request the French monarch to send him ‘other craftsmen who could make muskets of novel designs, ... cannon-pieces, and iron guns (baitaroi)’, to all of whom he would pay suitable wages. A founder, with four master craftsmen, was actually brought from France in consequence. Buchanan refers to a machine installed at Srirangapatnam by ‘a French artist’ to bore cannon: it was to be driven by water power, but was actually worked by bullocks.
Where Tipu went significantly beyond his father was in his anxiety to introduce modern technology outside the area of weaponry. He asked his ambassadors to France to get, on their own, ‘a printer of books, on suitable wages’. And the French Icing was to be requested to obtain for him the services of ‘a clock-maker, a maker of Chinaware and a maker of glass and mirrors’. By 1797, he was demanding from France 'ten cannon founders, ten ship-builders, ten manufacturers of Chinaware, ten glass and mirror makers, ten makers of ship clocks (literally wheels), and wheels (or engines) for raising water and other kinds of wheel work, and workmen versed in gold plating’.
Tipu could not establish a printing press, but he did succeed in making paper by modern methods (‘formed on wires like the European kind’). He also succeeded in manufacturing ‘watches and cutlery’. There was certainly a French watchmaker working at Srirangapatnam in Tipu’s late days; and his services might have been utilized in setting up clock and watch manufacture. As for cutlery, Tipu refers in his orders to his own workshop for the manufacture of knives, scissors and needles. Its superintendents were to gather ironsmiths from different localities and train them in the technique of manufacture, so that they might manufacture and sell these goods on their own in their own localities. In view of this exhortation, Buchanan’s allegation that Tipu wished to keep the new techniques a secret from his subjects seems especially ill-founded.
And can one say after all this that Tipu Sultan was ‘an innovating monarch, who made no improvements’; or that his aim was simply to impress his subjects rather than ‘to improve his country’?
It is obvious from these endeavours of his that Tipu was well aware that technology lay behind much of the Europeans’ success. He also simultaneously held the view that European powers had acquired their dominance by developing certain financial and commercial institutions and practices (companies and monopolies), and building and operating navies and fleets. Here too they could be emulated, but, as with the technological devices, this could be done only under the aegis of the state. Tipu, therefore, tried to build in Mysore an immense state-run trading enterprise, a veritable primitive public sector.
There is no doubt that pre-colonial Indian regimes often undertook commercial activities to augment their income. Seventeenth-century potentates on the western coast, like Malik Ambar and Shivaji, had ships trading across the Arabian Sea; and many rulers on the Karnataka and Kerala coasts controlled or monopolized the pepper trade. Haidar Ali had realized, as we have seen, that to protect his ships against the English, a navy was also essential. With Tipu not only did these ideas assume a far more vigorous form, but he developed them into a full-scale project to imitate the European East India Companies and make Mysore a sea power based on naval strength and maritime trade.
Accordingly, Tipu Sultan proceeded actively to rebuild the navy that Haidar had established and then lost in the Second Mysore War (1780–84). When, in 1792, the English seized Honavar (‘Onore’), they found on a fortified island nearby naval stores that contained ‘almost the whole iron work for a ship of sixty guns’, the ship having had to be scuttled by Tipu’s men when ‘nearly completed’, in order to escape capture by the English. Despite this fresh setback, Tipu set about planning to build a navy afresh after 1792: this was designed to consist of 7 warships (jahazat-i jangi), each to be mounted with 30 to 50 guns (darakhsh).
Tipu’s major interest was, however, in building ships which could be used for trade, though, being armed for defence, as was usual with merchant ships of the time, these could also be used in naval action. The initial area for their use in commerce and future naval ambitions was naturally the Arabian Sea. His ships already used to sail to Musqat (Oman), where a factory (trading house, kothi) of his government (sarkar) had been established before 1785. That year his larger plans led him to send an embassy to Constantinople.
This embassy, really consisting of a board of four officers, had both diplomatic and commercial objectives. In the official diary of the mission, which is unfortunately incomplete, commercial transactions dominate. The embassy and its large retinue and cargo was put aboard three ships, Pakhrul Marakib, Path-i Shahi Mu’izzi, and Nabi Bakhsh, and a galliot (ghurab) Surati, which sailed from the port of Tadri to Musqat (Oman) on 20 March 1786. The cargo carried by the ships consisted mainly of black (round) pepper, sandalwood, cinnamon and textiles, which was to be sold off at Musqat, the Iranian ports and Basra (Iraq). Tipu was, however, not spending so much money merely to sell goods: he hoped to make Basra a permanent depot for the trade, with the port under his own control. He asked his ambassadors to try to secure for him a farm (ijara) of the port from the Ottoman monarch; this would give a safe haven to his vessels a during the monsoons, and Constantinople would gain by what he would pay it for the farm. Clearly, he wished to act like the European Companies by establishing an overseas settlement of his own!"