The Second Continental Congress of the United States represented by thirteen British colonies in North America declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. As Britain tried to subjugate the fledgling country, the United States looked to Britain’s enemies to draw inspiration in its own struggle. Among the conflicts that caught its interest was Britain’s confrontation with the Kingdom of Mysore.
In 2010, the National Archives collaborated with the University of Virginia to host a website with historical documents relating to the United States’ founding fathers: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. These men shaped the country’s destiny in its infancy, and their correspondence and intelligence gathering – which can be found on the website – reveal their keen monitoring of British affairs around the globe. By the mid-1770s, the French had offered its ready support to the US to get back at Britain for its defeat in the Seven Years’ War of 1754-’63. But the founding fathers were hoping that Britain would lose to her enemies, particularly in India, where it arguably faced its stiffest military and political challenge.
There are numerous letters to, or from, the founding fathers that name Mysore Kings Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan or refer to the fate of the British in India. I am selecting a few to help you understand the impact these two men had on America’s path to freedom.
Enemy of enemy
The founding fathers’ first formal introduction to the Indian rulers was through a letter in French sent to Benjamin Franklin by Comte de Tressan, Lt. Gen. of the Armies of France, from Paris. In the letter dated June 24, 1777, Comte de Tressan called Haidar Ali a “brave Moghul Prince” and offered to put the US Congress “into an intimate correspondence” with a European who served Haidar Ali.
Three years later, when the Second Anglo-Mysore War began, American revolutionaries followed the events assiduously. John Adams, in a letter to the President of Congress on June 10, 1780, provided the Congress with details of the movement of British Admiral Hughes’ squadron and referred to Haidar Ali as “the famous Hyder Aly”. The letter was read out to the second Continental Congress of the US on September 25, 1780.
Through 1781, American revolutionaries continued to correspond on the Anglo-Mysore conflict. There was a strong hope and wish among them for England’s defeat. On April 4, 1781, Edmund Jennings Randolph gave John Adams a detailed account of Haidar’s campaign in a letter from Brussels. In it, he mentioned receiving a British newspaper that included information about Haidar Ali’s army of 80,000 horses and his siege of Arcot. It narrated the rout of Col. Baillie and Col. Fletcher, and spoke of the loss of 400 Europeans and 4,000 Indian sepoys, as well as Haidar Ali’s territorial gains and the narrow escape of Col. Munro to Madras. Randolph was an aide-de-camp to General George Washington in 1775 and was the second US Secretary of State, succeeding Thomas Jefferson in 1794.
John Quincy Adams, who became America’s sixth president in 1825, wrote a diary as a child. At 13, he wrote to his mother Abigail Adams from Leyden on April 8, 1781, about Haidar Ali’s victories and mentioned the death of Col. Fletcher and the capture of Col Bailey.
On August 28, 1781, the Rhode Island Delegates wrote from Philadelphia to William Greene, the Governor of Rhode Island, expressing their happiness at the suffering of the British in India.
As negotiations for recognition of an independent United States continued, the concessions to Americans oscillated with the military fortunes of the British and its chief opponents in India, that is, the French, Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. In a letter dated June 13, 1782, John Adams wrote to Benjamin Franklin from The Hague and wished to communicate with the enemies of the British.
A few days later, on June 25, 1782, James Madison wrote to Edmund Jennings Randolph from Philadelphia and discussed issues that affected America’s independence, including Haidar Ali regaining an upper hand over Englishman Eyre Coote in the battlefield. Madison was later elected America’s fourth President in 1809.
John Adams wrote to John Jay – later America’s first Chief Justice – on August 13, 1782, from The Hague about the Fitzherbert Commission constituted in the US. This commission was authorised to work with “four Powers” that were at war with Great Britain, but Adams was unsure if one of these referred to Haidar Ali or the Marathas.
In late September 1782, peace negotiations were on in Paris. In a letter dated September 23, 1782, John Adams wrote to Robert R Livingston from The Hague on how the Americans looked for good news from India and elsewhere on an hourly basis at a stage in negotiations where they were greatly optimistic. Livingston was then America’s first ever Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Department of Foreign Affairs created that year by the Continental Congress.
On December 24, 1782, Virginia Delegates to Confederation Congress wrote from Philadelphia to Benjamin Harrison, then Governor of Virginia. They had received a report that the French, with Haidar Ali’s help, had captured Madras, though they did not have an official confirmation of this.
On January 20, 1783, an end to hostilities was conceived in the form of a provisional peace treaty between the warring European nations – Spain, France and British – as well as America. The treaty was formalised between Britain and the US on September 3, which ended the war and accorded British recognition of an independent America along with its boundaries. This was ratified by the US Congress on January 14, 1784. As France, the main European ally of Tipu Sultan, ceased all military hostilities with the British, the British got an opportunity to focus on its affairs in India. Tipu Sultan had no option but to make peace with the British, despite having an upper hand in his ongoing battles.
The world today is considered a global village, thanks to the means for people to travel and communicate between nations. But it may surprise us that even in the 18th century, seemingly local political events made an impact on lands and societies far away. Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan gave many lessons in military and political strategies to European colonial powers like England and France. Their bravery and political strategies echoed across the seas in distant North America for many decades. Not only did this shape US founding fathers’ views of India during the nation’s formative years, it also encouraged them in their own struggle to establish their great nation.
This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared on the writer’s blog The Told and Untold History of Mysuru Kingdom. This original, primary research-based story was presented as part of the Tipu Sultan and USA webinar organised by The American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, California on July 4, 2020, to highlight the connection of Tipu Sultan and his father Haidar Ali to American Revolution and its founding fathers.
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