Sometimes, history is written not by the men who fire rockets but by the ones who survive them. During the Battle of Baltimore in 1812, Francis Scott Key, the American lawyer, and author was on a truce ship, watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
The Royal Navy (the world’s largest at the time), fired a barrage of Congreve rockets. These were iron-cased rockets, whose launch sounds similar to that of a modern-day missile launch – terrifying. In their wake, they leave a red trail and easily start fires on impact.
For 25 hours these rockets bombarded the fort. But at the end of the barrage, the fort was still standing. And the United States flag still flew from the top of it. Francis was inspired by the sight and started to write his report/poem. Two lines stand out:
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
They read like an unlikely tribute to a Mysorean ruler, Tipu Sultan, who had invented the rockets that the Congreve was based on. Mysore was the last major kingdom holding out against British domination of the subcontinent. The 18th century saw four Anglo-Mysore wars, with Tipu holding out until the last in 1799, when he perished.
The use of rockets in combat dated back to the Mughal emperor Akbar. But early rockets were relatively primitive – often just swords that were strapped to a booster. Tipu, a naturally inquisitive ruler with an affinity for science, was introduced to rocketry by his father, Haider Ali. Haider had commanded a rocket Corp under his predecessor, The Nawab of Arcot.
But Tipu’s rockets are the first instance of iron-clad missiles being deployed in combat. Earlier rockets were made of bamboo, and couldn’t travel very far – or pack much of a punch. Iron casings allow you to pack in more explosives or propellant. It’s the principle all modern rockets are based on (albeit with fancier materials).
Tipu’s rockets were varied. Some carried swords, that would tumble on its final descent creating a spinning flurry of death. Others discharged their ignited gases from the sides, setting fire to enemy targets. In 1780, during the second Anglo-Mysore war (1780-84), a Mysorean rocket blew up a British ammunition reserve at the Battle of Pollilur (also known as the Battle of Guntur), resulting in a decisive victory for Tipu’s forces.
It’s not surprising then, that India’s current missile scientists hail Tipu’s rocket as the birth of indigenous missilery in India. In 1991, India’s ‘missile-man’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam commented on the rockets during a lecture:
The motor casing of this rocket is made of steel with multi-nozzle holes with the sword blade as the warhead. The propellant used was packed gunpowder. Weight of the rocket is about 2 kg. With about 1 kg of propellant, 50 mm in dia[meter], about 250 mm [in] length, the range performance is reported 900 metres to 1.5 km. Our designers analyzed and confirmed their performance. What a simple and elegant design effectively used in war!
The British inventor of the Congreve had little to say or cite about his invention’s origins.
To William Congreve, the rockets were his own invention, for he considered the Indian rockets inferior to his creation.
What I have done, therefore, towards the perfection of this weapon, is as much my own as if the original invention of rockets in general were mine.
Except that Congreve’s rockets were not an improvement over the original. His early experiments failed to match up to the Indian rockets he was copying. In one test, his rocket failed after traveling only 600 yards (half a kilometer), compared with the 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) range of Tipu’s rockets. Tipu’s rockets were custom made for Indian conditions, and simple imitations wouldn’t achieve the same effect.
By the end of his reign, there were over 5,000 rocket men in Tipu’s army. He had developed a manual on rocketry – titled ‘Fathul Mujahidin’. There was even a rocket launcher that could fire five to ten rockets at once.
In Tipu’s final years, thousands of rockets were fired against the British, to varying ‘annoyance’ and success. But what defeated him was diplomacy – in 1799, he had the armies of the British, the Nizam and the Marathas all stacked against him.
Thus, Tipu would not have lived to see the Americans defeat the British – a deed that would have greatly pleased him.
The United States was no stranger to the kingdom of Mysore either. During the American War of Independence, Mysore was a co-belligerent in the fight against the British. Through a common enemy – the British – and a common ally – the French – the story of Haidar Ali became prominent in the ‘New World’. Though the battlefields were continents apart, Americans remembered Haider’s brave fight against what was then the world’s largest superpower.
From an eastern prince she takes her name,
Who, smit with freedom’s sacred flame,
Usurping Britons brought to shame,
His country’s wrongs avenging
In India, this glare was blue, courtesy the ‘Bengal Fire’ (also called the Bengal Lights); a type of flare that was used by Indian troops as a flare to light up the night and identify enemies.
Between the Red, White, and Blue, three nations united against one common oppressor in the 18th century. The result was that today, the fourth of July marks America’s independence from Britain. “Brexit 1776” has a fascinating history that spanned the globe.
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