A general mistreated by the enemy settles the score—and is immortalized in a painting that came to symbolize Britain’s domination of India.
A few years after her husband died, the widow of Major General David Baird approached British painter David Wilkie with a commission. Lady Baird felt her husband had been cheated of the recognition he deserved for his role in the 1799 British victory at Seringapatam, more than 30 years earlier.
Baird had led the final British assault on the Indian fortress, but Colonel Arthur Wellesley—later famous as the Duke of Wellington—had been rewarded. Baird’s wife hoped to remind the public of his starring role in the battle.
She got her wish, and then some. Wilkie’s tribute, Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultaun Tippoo Sahib, after having captured Seringapatam, made him the central figure of an image that came to symbolize Britain’s conquest of India.
In the 18th century, the British East India Company was one of several powers competing to replace the disintegrating Mogul empire as the dominant force in India. The company’s biggest rival was the kingdom of Mysore in southern India. Mysore pursued two goals that put it in conflict with the British: aggressive territorial expansion and diplomatic ties with France, Britain’s nemesis. The East India Company and Mysore went to war three times between 1767 and 1790 yet resolved little.
The company’s troubles in India took on new urgency when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, his first step in a bid to restore French influence in the East. With a base in Egypt, his troops would be poised to drive the British from the subcontinent.
When rumors spread that the French had joined forces with Tipu Sultan, Mysore’s ruler, Baird and 1,800 British regulars were sent from their garrison at Cape Town in South Africa to Madras, the East India Company settlement closest to Mysore. Soon after, British agents claimed to have intercepted a letter from Napoleon to Tipu offering his aid in the Indian struggle against “the iron yoke of England.” (The British may have fabricated the letter to justify war.)
With that, the East India Company invaded Mysore on March 5, 1799, in a two-pronged attack from Madras in the east and Bombay in the west. Its objective was to take Tipu’s capital, Seringapatam, a fortified city on an island in the Cauvery River. After a monthlong siege, British cannons opened a breach in the city’s outer walls. Baird volunteered to lead the assault into the city.
The veteran officer had a very personal stake in the fall of Seringapatam. Twenty years before at Polilur, British forces had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Tipu, the self-declared “Tiger of Mysore.” Hundreds of British soldiers were taken prisoner and held captive for nearly four years in the dungeons of Seringapatam under conditions that were horrific even by the standards of 18th century Europe. One of those taken prisoner was 22-year-old David Baird, then a captain.
Now, preparing his troops for the assault on Seringapatam, Baird talked of “paying off old scores.” His force crossed the Cauvery under a barrage of musket fire, fought its way into the newly opened gap, and took the ramparts. After just two hours of fighting, the city fell to British control.
Later that evening, believing Tipu had been killed in the assault, Baird launched a search for his body. The British dug through piles of the dead and dying, checking their faces by candlelight, and eventually found the Indian ruler.
Major Alexander Beatson, historian of the Seringapatam campaign, summed up the moment of discovery in Victorian terms: “He who had left the palace in the morning a powerful imperious Sultaun, full of vast ambitious projects, was brought back a lump of clay, abandoned by the whole world, his kingdom overthrown, his capital taken and his palace occupied by the very man, Major-General Baird, who…had been…in irons, in a prison scarce three hundred yards from the spot where the corpse of the Sultaun now lay.”
The victory at Seringapatam played an important role in British expansion in India. With the end of the Mysore dynasty, the East India Company secured control of southern India.
Baird’s storming of Seringapatam and the recovery of Tipu’s body captured the British imagination. But his moment of glory was brief. The following morning, Colonel Arthur Wellesley—the younger brother of India Governor-General Richard Wellesley—arrived with orders to take command of the captured citadel. Baird was later knighted for his actions at Seringapatam, but he remained bitter that he had been denied the command.
After Baird died in 1829, at 71, his widow campaigned to ensure his role in the history of British India was never forgotten. In addition to commissioning Wilkie for the painting, she hired novelist Theodore Hook to write a biography and erected a towering obelisk in Baird’s memory.
Wilkie was the most famous British painter of his time. His work drew tens of thousands each year at the Royal Academy exhibitions, leading the academy to cordon off the paintings—a first in its history. Thousands more bought engraved copies. Constable, Turner, Gericault, Delacroix, and other major artists praised his paintings.
When Baird’s widow approached Wilkie in 1834, he was still relatively new to history painting. Early in his career he had earned an international reputation with genre paintings—detailed pictures of everyday life. In the late 1820s, he shifted his focus to large-scale oils that could best be described as historical anecdote. Unlike classical history paintings, which attempted to illustrate moral truths using “noble subjects,” Wilkie’s history paintings were genre scenes writ large.
“Historical anecdote” was perfect for Lady Baird’s purposes. Rather than depict Baird’s forces storming Seringapatam, Wilkie chose to paint the scene that had captured the British imagination decades earlier: Baird discovering the body of Tipu Sultan. He worked hard to make the details of his painting accurate, creating sketches using borrowed Indian uniforms and armory loaned from the personal collection of the late King George IV. He persuaded Indian soldiers stationed at East India House, the British East India Company’s headquarters in London, to pose for him. He even prepared a box model to study the play of light and shadow on his figures.
The resulting painting is enormous—more than 11 feet by nearly 9 feet. Much of it is shrouded in darkness, creating a shallow, almost claustrophobic space. A slash of light from torches and a lamp extends diagonally from the upper left corner, separating Tipu’s followers from those of General Baird.
Baird dominates the painting. The general stands on a platform at the center of the canvas, in full military dress and bathed in light. A small grating in the wall below alludes to Baird’s imprisonment in the Mysore dungeons. On one side, a young soldier holds a lighted torch; on the other, behind Baird, stands an orderly who resembles the young Wellesley. A crowd of British soldiers and Indian sepoys fills the darkness behind them.
With a dramatic gesture, Baird directs the gaze of the viewer and the other figures in the painting toward the darkened foreground, where Tipu’s half-naked body lies, propped up by several Indian attendants. Sword and shield are on the ground just beyond Tipu’s reach. A cluster of Indian soldiers wearing Mysore army helmets peer from the left margin, balancing the mass of soldiers behind Baird.
Most of the contrasts between Baird and Tipu are obvious. The British soldier stands larger than life, while his Muslim opponent is prone, ragged, and diminished. The most important contrast is subtle. Wilkie depicted Baird with great care, working from a portrait by Henry Raeburn and a bust by Lawrence Macdonald. Although a well-known portrait of Tipu was available, Wilkie chose not to use it. Instead, he left Tipu’s face half in shadow and unidentifiable.
Despite Wilkie’s popularity, his painting of Baird was not considered an artistic success when first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839. Portraiture was never his strength, and critics complained that his treatment of Baird’s head was stiff and unnatural.
Nonetheless the painting more than fulfilled Lady’s Baird’s goal of immortalizing her husband’s victory over his old adversary. Wilkie transformed the defeat of the fearsome and threatening Tiger of Mysore into an image of conquered India lying at the feet of the British Army.
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.