Tyrant! Tipu Sultan and the Reconception of British Imperial Identity, 1780-1800

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This dissertation argues that the figure of Tipu Sultan and the spectacle of the Mysore Wars were a key contributor to shifting British attitudes about empire in the late eighteenth century. Tipu was the ruler of the Indian state of Mysore, acknowledged by contemporaries to be a powerful ruler, a military commander of great distinction - and a hated foe of the British East India Company. Tipu fought three separate wars against the Company; during the course of these conflicts, he was portrayed by the British as a cruel and tyrannical despot, a fanatical Muslim who forced his subjects to convert to Islam and tortured captured British soldiers in his foul dungeons. The widespread presence of this negative "Tipu Legend" testified to the impact that empire and imperial themes exhibited on British popular culture of the era.

Tyrant! explores two key research questions. First of all, how did the Tipu Legend originate, and why was it so successful at replacing alternate representations of Tipu? Secondly, what can this story tell us about how the British came to terms with empire - despite initial reluctance - and forged a new imperial identity between 1780 and 1800? Using archival records, newspaper print culture, and popular art and theatre sources, I argue that the vilification of Tipu was linked to the development of an imperial culture. Expansionist Governor-Generals consciously blackened the character of Tipu to make their own aggressive actions more palatable to British audiences at home. Through a process of reversal, preventive war came to be justified as defensive in nature, protecting the native inhabitants of Mysore from the depredations of an unspeakable despot. The increasingly vilified and caricatured representations of Tipu allowed the East India Company to portray itself as fighting as moral crusade to liberate southern India from the depredations of a savage ruler. Company servants were recast in the British popular imagination from unscrupulous nabobs into virtuous soldier-heroes that embodied the finest qualities of the British nation. The study of the faithless and violent character of "Tippoo the Tyrant" ultimately reveals much about how empire is constructed at home and abroad.