Tipu Sultan’s delegation to Istanbul

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The Embassy headed by Ghulam Ali

As the 8th decade of the 18th century was drawing to a close, Fateh Ali, a.k.a. Tipu Sultan was left in a quandary. The Maratha wars had been raging and things were not going too well. The years of conflict finally ended with Treaty of Gajendragad in March 1787, as per which Tipu returned territory captured by Hyder Ali, to the Maratha Empire. Tipu agreed to pay four-years of tribute arrears amounting to 48 Lacs while the Marathas agreed to address Tipu sultan as “Nabob Tipu Sultan Futteh Ally Khan” and recognized his kingdom. Why would this address be so important to Tipu?

We saw in the previous article introducing Hari Singh (see link), the detail of how Hyder Ali rose from the position of a lowly soldier, to eventually overthrow the Wodeyars of Mysore and usurp their throne. Hyder, then marshaling support the Ali Raja and the Moplahs, decimated Kolathunadu and Central Malabar, ending with the Calicut Zamorin committing suicide in 1766 and becoming the master to those areas. But the wars were not kind to Hyder, and he passed on, soon after. During the final years of his reign Hyder Ali did consider to send an embassy to the Ottoman Sultan, but that never materialized.

Leaving behind his governors and administrators to mop up tax revenue and continue the search for larger treasures secreted in temples, Hyder’s successor Tipu Sultan kept himself busy in Mysore and the Deccan, fighting alternating wars with more powerful Maratha and British armies. Things did not look good and that was when Tipu decided to seek support from the powerful Sultan Abdul Hamid at Constantinople or Istanbul. In addition to this, he needed a lot of money to fight these wars and pay the Marathas, and knowing that Travancore had it, his next plans were to raid Travancore where he felt the fleeing Malabar princes had hid their treasures. We will for now focus on Tipu’s attempts at wooing the Ottoman Sultan to his side.

The undeclared purpose
If one were to review the political situation of that time, they would not fail to see the declining Mughal empire, the rise of the Marathas, and observe the English and the French vying to achieve economic successes by aligning with one king or the other, waiting for an opportunity to settle down and annex power using legal and not so legal means. The smaller powers in Deccan and the Tamilakam were key to the rise of the Mysore sultans but we can see that the Nawabs of Arcot and the Carnatic as well as the Nizam of Hyderabad, with their alignment with the British, were proving to be the biggest tumbling blocks for Hyder who had already annexed Mysore and Malabar. Travancore was always in the plans, but being a bit distant, was not urgent.

The Nizam was legally the Viceroy of the Deccan, while the Nawab of the Carnatic, the Nizam’s dependent state had also received a Walajah title. The legal sovereign was the Mughal ruler Shah Alam and the aforementioned rulers were his representatives. Joining them was the Marathas who had also obtained their sanads (legal backing) from the Mughals. The Mysore rulers were nominally under the Nizam, while the Travancore king was technically a tributary of the Nawab of the Carnatic, the Nawab Wallajah.

Haider was not in the bigwigs list even in the late 1770’s, and was mentioned only as a Zamindar reporting to the Mysore Raja. Even after Hyder’s demise, the Nizam continued to mention him only as his ‘late’ servant, rankling Tipu who by then possessed not only greater power, but also a larger domain. He was considered a usurper with no legal titles and was placed well below the titled Nizam and the Nawab. Tipu was thus known to the world only as Fath Ali Khan, not a nawab or a sultan and was hell bent on legalizing his position, but realized that if he approached the Mughals in Delhi (the titular and religious head of Muslims), he would only be titled as a subordinate of either the Nizam or the Nawab of Arcot. This was not a feasible solution because he was fighting both of them and in addition, they were allied to his enemy - the British.

The fact of the matter was that while Hyder was a dalawa of the Mysore Raja and briefly the Nawab of Sira (Carnatic-Balaghat), Tipu had illegally dethroned the Mysore Raja to take over power. He tried hard to get the Nawab of Arcot’s title transferred to him by repeated overtures on the administration in Delhi using French influence, but it did not work as the British (Maj Brown) had a greater clout with the Shah. The desire to be an independent Raja, thus, seemed hopeless for Tipu. He tried to force the Marathas and the Nizam whom he had military successes against, to recognize him, but that was also not successful, only the Marathas agreed to call him Tipu Sultan.

He finally decided to simply declare his independence, but for that to be valid, he had to gain recognition from a much higher authority. He tried corresponding with Zaman Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan as well as Karim Khan of Iran. The next was to approach the Ottomans at Constantinople (now Istanbul), who were the Khalipha’s or Caliph, the custodians and protectors of the two holy mosques at Medina and Mecca.

Recall that the cooperation between Malabar and Constantinople dates back to the Portuguese days and we had studied about how an Ottoman naval force was sent out to battle with the Portuguese. The Ottoman Sultan did try to help and so that was the new route taken by Tipu. 

While this is believed to be Tipu’s primary purpose, other researchers conclude that Tipu actually executed a multi-pronged mission, where he would seek recognition not only from the Afghans, the Persians and the Ottomans, but also the French and if possible, the English. Honor and ijjat or prestige was paramount in any Islamic tradition and leaving behind his legacy as an illegal usurper was a stain what Tipu considered an honorable and deeply religious reputation.

However, I must in all fairness add here that Islamic researchers are divided in their opinion about the purpose of the Constantinople mission, with Irfan Habib questioning IH Qureshi’s contention that recognition from the Ottomans was Tipu’s primary aim. Irfan suggests that this was not documented as a purpose in the detailed written instructions and for that reason, may not have been the purpose. I tend to agree with Quereshi’s outlook.

The stated purpose
After a probing mission in 1786 in order to lay the groundworks for the departure of a larger embassy, Tipu deputed the larger one in 1787, the subject of this article. The stated purpose was to obtain firmans to establish factories in Ottoman domains in order to sell his produce (in return he would give them ports on the Malabar west coast i.e. Mangalore). Another was to obtain recognition or title confirmation for Tipu himself and the third was to obtain military support to fight the English. Additionally, the embassy was to strengthen the relations with the Emir of Oman and obtain concessions from the Shah of Persia. The embassy was headed by Tipu’s confidante, Ghulam Ali Khan, who unfortunately was ailing and had to be carried in a palanquin during this trip. The most active envoy was one Nurullah Khan, and the scribe being Abdul Qadir who penned the formal report titled Waqai-i manazil-i Rum, covering the embassy’s trip, but only until they left Basra for Istanbul. The rest of the trip is detailed only in the records kept by the Turks, since the second part of Qadir’s report is missing. The embassy was meant to call on the Ottomans, then proceed to France and later England. Note here that in the various chronicles, Constantinople (Yesterdays Istambul and today’s Istanbul) is called the Sublime Porte (Bab-i-Ali, the imperial gate to the Topkapi palace at Istanbul) and Turkey was known by the name Rum (Turkish empire).

The mission and its plight
The ambassadors left Seringapatanam in Nov 1785, then sailed out from the Mangalore port of Tadri in March 1786 when the winds were in favor, in four ships, totaling to about 900 people. A huge number of gifts were on board, a lot of trade material, so also four elephants (one each for Turkey, France, Britain and the last for sale to recoup the expenses for the journey). After a very stormy journey and the loss of one of the elephants, the ships arrived in Muscat roughly a month later. Things were not going quite well already and a few men vamoosed, fleeing back on other cargo ships returning to Bombay. After selling some of the produce and visiting other islands, they reached Basra in August, losing one of the four ships and many men. Two more elephants died and almost all the presents for the Ottoman Sultan had been lost. The ailing Ghulam Ali had to be carried all the way in a silver chair or palanquin. Anyway, after a year and a large amount of tribulations, in Feb 1787, a group of 400 men escorted by some 200 sepoys left Basra for Istanbul via Baghdad, reaching there on 25th Sept 1787, sans all the elephants who had died due to the heat by this time and hardly any gifts (save a gold and wood pulpit and two Urdu speaking birds)! In Oct, they met the Grand Vizier without ceremony and a month later on Nov 5th, the Sultan Abdul Hamid.

To convince the Sultan, Tipu argued that about 10,000 Muslim children had been forcibly converted to Christianity and that many mosques and Muslim cemeteries had been destroyed and turned into Churches. In view of this and his religious responsibility, he said, he opted for jihad and had already won many victories against the Christians. The Turks were not committal and demurred.

Tragedy continued for the Indians when plague broke out in Istanbul and many of the 400 camped there succumbed to its vagaries. By Jan 1788, the number had dwindled from 400 to 70. The reminder of the motely group moved to Uskudar and it was then that they found that Tipu had already sent another mission to France and so a second Indian mission rerouted from Istanbul was not ‘quite’ welcome in France, so they decided to go back home. After a final meeting with the Sultan in March, they sailed to Alexandria, then south over the Nile to Cairo, and later moved to Jeddah. After completing pilgrimages at Mecca and Medina (where again they ran into problems and were nearly robbed off all their belongings), they sailed back, reaching Calicut in Dec 1789. From there they sped to meet Tipu who was battling at the Travancore lines and gave him a report. One item gifted to Tipu by Sultan Abdul Hamid was a jeweled sword, was that the one captured by the Travancore Nairs? Food for thought.

The Mark Wilks (History of Mysore p.p. 361-367) description of this embassy is overtly critical of Tipu, full of ridicule, and thus not reliable or factual, but there are some additional aspects detailing the misfortunes faced by the embassy at Istanbul and the cold reception they got from the Turks.

Curiously, the Turks on the street thought that this huge bunch of Indians led by their portly leader (Ghulam Ali) on a throne carried by 12 men, were soldiers from India who had come to fight for the Ottomans, against Russia! Moreover, the Turks were interested in formal discussions only when they heard about territory on offer to Turkey. Just imagine if Mangalore had been taken by the Turks! The Vizier felt insulted to see Tipu offering Mysore troops to keep Basra safe, when Tipu himself was requesting support to fight the English!

The outcome
The 5 years had taken a terrible toll, only one boat survived the voyage, many hundreds of personnel were lost, and all they got was an approval permitting Tipu to assume a ruler’s title, strike coins and have Khutba’s recited in his name. The Turks could not provide material support, military assistance or any trade permits due to their own difficulties, what with the Russia – Austria allied forces which were poised to attack the Ottomans. Tipu’s offer to complete the canal project at Najaf, started by the Nawab of Oudh, and all the other idealistic plans such as the exchange of ports, military exchanges etc. were put aside for future consideration. Also, the Sultan advised him to maintain peace with the British. In fact, Britain was busy mediating peace between Turkey and her enemies. The Ottoman Sultan therefore, was in no mood to help Tipu and lose British friendship. But Tipu Sultan was allowed to have his name included in the Khutba (Friday sermon). The Muayyadu’l-Mujahidin is a collection of fifty-two Khutbas read each week in Tipu’s kingdom.

However, no document or firman has ever been documented, confirming Tipu’s investiture, perhaps it was alluded to in the Sultan’s reply titling Tipu as Tipu Sultan and taken note of by a reporter who published - Golam Alley Beg died in that country and another man returned having accomplished his means (sic) and he also procured from the Sultan the title of King and permission to hold (sic) a mint and to have the Khutba read in his name. Ghulam Ali did not die there, he returned to India.

While some historians insist that Tipu was more interested in trade and cooperation, I find the claim dubious.  Did Tipu believe that the Ottomans, so distant geographically would be interested in establishing themselves in the port of Mangalore? Similarly, for Tipu to maintain a unit in Basra without his own navy was tough. Yes, the Turks could have provided the requested craftsmen and military support, but that was about it, for neither Tipu nor the Ottoman Sultan had a good navy at that juncture to control the flow of goods between Malabar and Basra.

But the very fact that Tipu sent such a big mission to Turkey, the fact that he obtained some kind of investiture etc. had an effect on the English, who started viewing him in a different light. He did win many wars, he was trying to reach out, far and wide and had the support from the French. Their ally the Nizam felt belittled, for Tipu had been recognized by someone superior to their suzerain, the Mughal emperor. The reverse effect of this all was the determined effort by the British eagerly supported by Tipu’s domestic rivals the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Arcot.

After the debacle at the Travancore lines and a retreat due to the rains and problems at home, Tipu had to contend with the British in the third Anglo Mysore war. In the end he was forced to sign a treaty and delivered his sons to be held as hostages, till Tipu paid a huge war indemnity. And thus, Tipu formally tied up with Napoleon and the French, and we studied about his alliances and the Jacobian club earlier. Napoleon on the other hand planned to take India after the conquest of Egypt and ally with the Mysoreans and the Marathas, though he wrote to Tipu thus: "You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible army, full of the desire of releasing and relieving you from the iron yoke of England." But as we know, France lost the naval battle at Egypt. In spite of the British victory in this battle, the campaign was a strategic success for France and Napoleon was free to continue the war in the Middle East returned to Europe personally unscathed, though he dropped his plans to go on to India.

Even though the subject topic has been dealt with, I must add a bit of the continued correspondence between Tipu and the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, who succeeded his uncle Abdul Hamid. Napoleon had taken Egypt, but stooped short there and did not continue on to India. Tipu succeeded in drawing military trainers and mercenaries into his fighting forces. But to go all out and win against the canny British, he once again decided to ask for support from the Ottoman Sultan. Around the same time, the British also contacted the Sultan who was their ally and asked him as the ‘acknowledged Head of the Mohammedan Church’ to advise Tipu not to fight the British and break away from the French. Accordingly, the Sultan, allied with the British, replied Tipu, criticizing the French action in Egypt and emphasized that the true aim of the French was to take India and colonize the whole Muslim world.

In reply to this communication, Tipu Sultan wrote twice to the Ottoman Sultan in a manner which apparently did not please Selim III. In his second letter Tipu stated that if the French were the enemies of Islam and the Sultan, Muslims should not be friendly with them. But since the British were the invaders in his country, he could not be expected to change his attitude towards them. With that the frail relation between Mysore and the Ottomans was broken.

The end game
The British marshaled support from the Nizam and the Marathas and as a final ploy delivered the Caliph’s (Sultan Selim’s) letter imploring Tipu not to fight the British. When Tipu scoffed at it, the war horns were sounded and the attack on Seringapatanam, the 4th Anglo Mysore war took place where Tipu was killed.

Some books mention that Ghulam Ali died in Istanbul, well, Ghulam Ali Mir Noor Khan, the ( called lame, langda, gumchi) Sirdar who headed the team, had the last laugh. He was a shrewd diplomat alright, in 1792 he accompanied Tipu's hostage sons, Abdul Khaliq and Maizzuddin, to Madras. After the 1799 Mysore defeat and Tipu’s demise, Ghulam Ali Khan ‘the traitor’ became a pensioner of the British, receiving 3000 star pagodas per annum, was appointed as the Munsif of Krishnagiri in 1816; retired in 1854; and died at Krishnagiri in 1863 at the age of 105; to be buried on the southern side of Shahi Masjid Fort.

In spite of all this, the Ottoman’s did end up getting connected by marriage to the wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad. Moazzam Jah the son of the last Nizam married Princess Niloufer, the last Ottoman princess in Nov 1931. On the same day, Jah's elder brother Azam Jah married Niloufer's cousin Durru Shehvar. These weddings were held as "union of two great dynasties" by contemporary records and many believed that the alliance between the Nizam and the deposed Caliph could lead to the emergence of a Muslim ruler who could be acceptable to the world powers in place of the Ottoman sultans.

Confronting Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization Under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan
History of Tipu Sultan - Mohibbul Hasan
Maysor Sultani tipu ile Osmanli Padişahlarindan i Abdülhamid ve 111. Selim Arasindaki Mektuplaşma - Hikmet Bayur
Tipu Sultan’s Embassy to the Ottoman Court – Syed Tanvir Wasti
Arabs and Euro-Asian maritime contacts – AK Pasha
Attempts to use the Ottoman Caliphate as the legitimator of British rule in India - Azmi Ozcan
Tipu Sultan's Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain -Kate Brittlebank 
Waqai-i manazil-i Rum: Tipu Sultan's mission to Constantinople - Mohibbul Hasan
Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800 - Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Note: Sultan Abdul Hamid addresses Tipu as follows: Janab imarat maab aylat nisab hukumat iktisab daulat intisab nasir ur islam was muslimin aun ul-ghusat wal mujahuddin hami-yi il mamalik I patan was Hindustan ali-ushan Tipu Sultan. The Daulta intisab part approximates a proper royal title according to Prof Muzaffar Alam.


  1. Orang Bintulu

    Thank you. An unbiased informative account- a rare commodity nowadays.

  1. Maddy

    thanks orang bintulu..glad you liked it.

  1. Mujahid

    Please provide the references for the word stated Mir Ghulam Ali as traitor, with few references and a play from girlish Karnak that he was loyal and a relative to tipu sultan from one of his wife and a prominent sayyid. For more clarification you can write to me on “muju09384@gmail.com”.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Mujahid,
    it comes from here, please check the article.
    He is cast as a traitor or Namak Haram for moving to the British side, of course.

  1. Mujahid

    @Maddy : thanks for an update, but this article has no source of determining him as an impostor.

  1. Mujahid

    @Maddy : thanks for an update, but this article has no source of determining him as an impostor.

  1. Mujahid

    @Maddy : thanks for an update, but this article has no source of determining him as an impostor. Though many of the gazetteers are showing him as a power of tipu and relative too.

  1. Mujahid

    @Maddy : thanks for an update, but this article has no source of determining him as an impostor. Though many of the gazetteers are showing him as a power of tipu and relative too. Appreciate if you could share with me any source of him related to his lineage. Thanks

  1. Maddy

    Can’t help you there Mujahid, perhaps more of oral history as they call it , anyway I will check a bit more.
    Meanwhile another article provides another angle to his life, quite unbelievable

  1. Maddy

    If you read the Waqai-i- manzil by Mohibbul Haasan (pg1) and Irfan Habib's State & diplomacy (pg62) you will find that Ghulam Ali Langra was put in jail and then released after his return from Istanbul. Later on, after the fall of Seringapatanam, he was granted a pension in 1799 by the British and you will find many references to his pension, entreaties by his wife Sara Begum to the British for its reinstatement etc in the 'guide to the N Arcot records'. That he was provided a large and handsome pension by the British would have meant that Ali had helped the British somehow, and this led to the conjecture by his detractors that he was a traitor.

  1. Maddy

    For exact details of the treachery, see page 320 of Mohibul Hasan's History of Tipu Sultan.Ed2, 1971, page 320 (earlier editions do not have this para)

    Harris informed Ghulam Ali Khan, mir sudur that if he helped the English in securing the surrender of Mysore forts, the Governor-General would confirm him in his jagir in perpetuity that he had held under Tipu and would also, in addition, grant him adequate compensation. Ghulam Ali Khan, thereupon, issued orders to the commandants to surrender their forts to the English. Gooty and Hulal alone resisted but were captured. Ref W.P., B.M. 13728, Harris to Wellesley, May 18, 1799, ff. 98a-b

  1. Mujahid

    Thanks Maddy was informative, appreciate if you could share the details of his lineage/descendants. As I believe there were 2 ghulam ali in tipus court and till the fall of tipu he was very much involved in their court matters.


  1. Maddy

    Some other time, my friend- he is at the extreme periphery of my present interests, these studies take a lot of time, as you know! Maybe there is another Ghulam Ali, as you believe!

  1. Novelemporium

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