Ads Top

The Rockets of Mysore

mysore rockets

Rockets were originally invented not to send things into space, but to shoot enemies with. Their effectiveness in warfare was demonstrated for the first time by the Chinese in the 13th century, when they used them against the Mongol invaders and successfully kept them away for months. These early rockets, known as ‘fire arrows’, were similar to bottle rockets we use today in firework celebrations, only larger. A short tube was filled with gunpowder, closed at one end and attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, hot gases and smoke escaped out of the open end producing a thrust that carried the rocket across no man’s land and towards the enemy.

As weapons of destruction, these flaming arrows didn’t have much impact, but the psychological scarring was remarkable. Eventually, the Mongols adopted rockets for their own use, and wherever the marauding armies went, they left behind rocket technology.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, many developments in rocketry took place across Asia and Europe. In England, a monk named Roger Bacon worked on improved forms of gunpowder that greatly increased the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart found that more accurate flights could be achieved by launching rockets through tubes. In late 16th century, a German fireworks maker Johann Schmidlap invented the two-stage rocket to reach higher altitudes.

Rocketry also reached India via the Mongols in the 13th century. By the mid-14th century Indians were well into rocket warfare. It was in India where the next significant development took place.

Back then rockets were made of bamboos and wood and were little more than fireworks. Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore, took this regular bamboo rocket and turned it into a deadly weapon by making one simple change—he forged them out of iron. Remarkably, despite centuries of use, nobody had ever perfected a rocket made out of iron. Haider Ali’s hammered soft iron rockets were crude, but the explosive power of the black powder contained inside a canister made out of high strength iron made the rockets extremely lethal.

tipu sultan's rocket

A cache of Tipu Sultan’s rockets found in Nagara village of Karnataka’s Shivamogga district in July 2018.

Haider Ali used them generously against the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars of the late 18th century. At the Battle of Pollilur fought in 1780, the British suffered one of their worst losses in the subcontinent, partly due to the use of rockets that spread chaos and confusion among the British infantry. The rockets instilled so much fear among the soldiers of the East India Company that they began to call them “flying plagues”.

Haider Ali’s son Tipu Sultan continued to expand the use of rocket weapons. Like his father, Tipu Sultan kept a rocket corps in his army, specially trained in the use of rockets. These rocket men could quickly calculate the necessary angle of fire from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. Tipu Sultan’s rockets had a range of more than a kilometer, or two kilometers according to some sources—significantly greater than contemporary European rockets. Although they were not terribly accurate, precision became less important when a barrage of them were launched against a large cavalry.

Colonel Bayly, a British officer, describes in morbid detail the havoc these Mysorean rockets caused as his regiment faced off Tipu Sultan’s army on April 5, 1799.

The ground of encampment was on the upper part of an inclined plane, at the foot of which, on the opposite bank of the River Cauvery, stood the proud fortress of Seringapatam, at three miles’ distance, from whence they already began to throw shot from guns of a huge calibre, and so pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from these rocket missiles....

The rockets and musketry from upwards of 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to its rear causing deaths, wounds and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them. The instant a rocket passes through a man’s body it resumes its initial impetus of force, and will thus destroy ten or twenty until the combustible matter with which it is charged becomes expended. The shrieks of our men from these unusual weapons was terrific; thighs, legs, and arms left fleshless with bones protruding in a shattered state from every part of the body, were the sad effects of these diabolical engines of destruction.

retreat from Seringapatam

The retreat from Seringapatam was lambasted by the British media. Image courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite causing great fear and confusion, the rockets could not tilt the balance decisively in favor of Tipu Sultan and his armies. The British stormed the fort at Seringapatam and that was the end of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. After Tipu Sultan’s fall, the British found 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets in the Mysroean arsenal. Some of the rockets had pierced cylinders to allow them to act like incendiaries, while others had sword blades and pointed spears bound to the bamboo. These blades made the rockets very unstable towards the end of their flights causing the blades to spin around like flying scythes, cutting down anybody and anything that stood in their paths.

Tipu Sultan’s rockets thoroughly impressed the British triggering a vigorous rocket building program back in Britain. Many of the samples recovered from Seringapatam Fort were sent to the Royal Woolwich Arsenal at Woolwich, where William Congreve reverse engineered them and built an improved version called the Congreve rocket. These rockets were used effectively during the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824–1826, the Opium Wars, and the Triple Alliance War of 1865-1870.

Only a handful of specimens of the Mysore rocket survive today. Three pieces are at the government mus­eum in Bangalore, which aren’t on permanent display, and are hence not very widely known, and a couple at the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich. One of the three in the Bangalore museum is probably the only example of an intact rocket that exists today—an iron cylinder strapped to a bamboo pole using hide.

tipu sultan's rocket

An intact Mysore Rocket at a Bangalore museum.

Ads bottom

Powered by Blogger.