The Goan Connection 

with Hyder Ali and 

Tipu Sultan

Iris C F Gomes

Goa certainly has an interesting history, with significant rulers vying for control over the prosperous coastal region. Two rulers of note are Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. Alan Machado spoke at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research on their differing policies with regard to Goans who had migrated to Kanara.

When Hyder Ali came to power in 1761 as the de facto ruler of the kingdom of Mysore, Goa was reeling from 150 years of a traumatic economic downturn owing to skirmishes with the Dutch. This had led to the end of overseas trade. Goans struggled with hardships related to famine as agriculture had also collapsed. The people of Goa began to depend on Kanara for rice. To add to their woes, the Marathas constantly attempted to gain Goan territory and in 1739 Goa lost its Northern territories. Owing to all these problems the people of Goa, primarily agriculturists in search of a livelihood, began migrating to Kanara.

Goa responded to this situation by building a disciplined, professional army made up of French officers and Indian Martial officers including Pathans. A buffer was thus built around Bardez, Tiswadi and Salcete, the core areas of Goa. New territories were acquired from 1760-1788 (?).

Hyder Ali remained illiterate until he died but he was a brilliant military strategist and administrator. He started his military career at around the age of 25, and with two cavalrymen and ten infantrymen he joined the Mysore army under Nanjaraja, the chief commander of the army. He gained success and a promotion with his first campaign at Devanhalli. The next military campaign was in Carnatic, which was under the control of the British East India Company and the Nawab of Arcot, Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah. From this campaign he took away knowledge of the changes in military tactics and strategies that had entered South India as a result of European influence. Carnatic had trained a highly disciplined force, with uniforms, martial music and English commands. They were supported by artillery and commanded by European officers and could put to flight much larger Indian armies. Hyder obtained booty which he withheld from the state and used to hire more mercenaries. He continued in this line and succeeded in becoming more powerful than the ruler of Mysore Krishnaraja Wodeyar II.

In 1763, he saw the opportunity to acquire new territory called Bednore, which brought him in proximity to Goans. He gained control over this region from the Rajas of Ikkeri, as well as Karwar from Sonda Raja. Christians who had migrated from Goa to Canara (40 to 50 thousand people) became his subjects. Hyder changed the name of Bednore to Haidarnagar. In time, he took over the entire kingdom and expanded it, calling it the Sultanat-e-Khudadad or the God Given Kingdom.

An astute ruler, Hyder did not judge people according to their race or religion but on the basis of merit and loyalty. An example of this is the rise of Sheikh Ayaz, a Hindu convert, who went from being a house slave to the governor of Bednore. He was well aware of his friends and enemies and treaded carefully in politics.

Hyder Ali’s relationship with Goa was guided by practical purposes. He needed Goa’s expertise in arms and gunpowder, and for the recruitment of army men (Goa was known for its expert artillery men). His forces were made up of men of diverse countries and cultures. These included Englishmen, Frenchmen, the Dutch, Irishmen, Tamilians, Kanadigas, etc. He also had a large contingent of Topasses, or men of mixed heritage (Portuguese or French with Indian). These were all Catholic. Needless to say, there were quite a number of Christians in Hyder Ali’s army. In 1763 and in 1768, Hyder is supposed to have recruited people from the Mangalore region. This was recorded by a Marathi accounts officer in Srirangapatna and a historian priest of La Société des Mission Étrangères de Paris (MEP), an order that replaced the Jesuits during the persecution of the priests of the Society of Jesus.

The building of a navy is what Hyder Ali looked to next to quell the English threat on the seas. For this he needed the expertise of the Goans. Goa was well aware of Hyder’s might and maintained cordial relations by sending men to him.

Tipu Sultan’s reign ushered in a different approach to people of other religions. While Tipu’s father was a man who was practical in his dealings and acted out his animosity only towards those who opposed him, Tipu took a different stance. The image that we have of Tipu Sultan is very ambiguous, with some sources disparaging him and others giving him the epithet of a patriot.

We have to consider that, on receiving the reigns of leadership from his father, Tipu had to grapple with a number of crises where his success or failure could make or break him. The first of these issues was the revolt of Sheikh Ayaz, the governor of Bednore, who defected to the British. Owing to this treachery, Bednore and Mangalore were lost to the British in 1781.

Tipu Sultan recovered Haidarnagar, or Nagar as it had been shortened to. However when it came to Mangalore, the monsoons proved to be a huge obstacle, causing tremendous losses to his cavalry. Soon the French, who were his allies, withdrew from battle after signing an armistice with the British. As a result, Tipu was forced to sign an armistice too. After this, Tipu was informed of a coup d’etat in Srirangapatna by Hyder’s foremost administrators, which had been fomented by the Wodeyars. The British army was gaining ground from the south and closing up on Tipu’s capital at Srirangapatna. In the midst of all these threats, Hyder’s trusted commander, Muhammed Ali, revolted; and Cannanore, another of Tipu’s territories, was taken by the British.

Disaster upon disaster was not doing Tipu’s reputation any good. He decided to adopt a different strategy, using his knowledge of Islamic law and history to safeguard his position. The Wodeyars continued to be nominal heads under Tipu as they had been under Hyder.

It is important to note that in the past every ruling family had its own deity which in effect ruled alongside the king. This way, the king claimed his divine right to expansion of the kingdom and assured his subjects of security, good harvest, etc. With Islamic rulers there was a difference wherein this divine right was assigned by the Caliph who was a representative of Mohammed (who in turn was a representative of Allah). These rulers were referred to as zill Allah or Shadow of God. When he came into power, Tipu sent his emissary to the Mughal Emperor, who had lost much of his power but was still seen as the authority for Muslim rulers in India. Tipu also sent an ambassador to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who was globally the sanctioning body for Muslims.

Since a majority of the population he ruled over were not Muslim, Tipu sought their allegiance by using the tiger as his emblem. The tiger had been used by other ruling dynasties such as the Hoysalas and the Cholas, and it went back to before the rule of the Wodeyars. Thus Tipu attempted to prove that his legitimacy as a ruler preceded that of the Wodeyars. He patronised Hindu temples to appease the Hindus in the kingdom.

To gain a firm foothold, Tipu had to prove himself a good Muslim to the court and Muslim clergy. He could do this by defending his kingdom, and defending and spreading Islam. Tipu differentiated between the French, who he called firangis, and the British, who he referred to as nasranis. Since nasrani was the word for Christians, his animosity towards the British was automatically transferred to all Christians, including the Goans who had migrated to Canara.

As evidence of his calibre as a capable Muslim ruler, Tipu set out converting Christians and removing all trace of the religion from his kingdom. He deemed it as ‘initiating them into the honour of Islam’. The young men (below 20 or 22 years of age) were taken into his slave battalions (Chelas). They were called Ahmadi after conversion, and were given religious training in the mornings and military training later in the day. They could rise in ranks and were treated well. Their battalions were called Lashkar-e-Ahmadi.

Tipu destroyed churches, which were seen as channels to the Divine, thus sealing his victory over his enemies. This was a common practice adopted by rulers towards those considered their opponents. His interest in Goa was of a strategic nature. In 1786, when Tipu was battling the Marathas, rumours began floating that Goa was to be attacked and taken by him. It is conjectured that the Pinto Revolt of 1787 may have had Tipu’s hand in it, though it has not been proved without doubt. However, all tension was dissipated when Tipu turned his attention to the Malabar region after 1787, where he was eventually defeated and humiliated in the Third Anglo-Mysore War. In 1797, he resumed relations with the French and planned to take Goa, intending to use the region to launch a major offensive against the British. Goa would have been a strategic point from which to attack the Marathas as well. Fortunately for Goa, Tipu died within a few years and the land was free of any threat from him.


This article is based on the lecture Haidar Ali, Tipu Sultan, Goa and the Kanara Christians given by Alan Machado at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research (History Hour).