[This article first appeared in FIBIS Journal 31 (Spring 2014): 16-25. Photographs by the author. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images for to enlarge them.]
ate on a winter’s evening some years ago I stumbled upon a memorial in a Scottish churchyard to William Richardson “Captain in the East India Company Service and Quartermaster General to General Mathews’ army [who] was one of the unfortunate officers who suffered by the cruelty of Tippoo when confined in Gopal Drooge 1783”. It was only when coming across my notes again in 2013 that I determined to unravel Richardson’s story and find Gopal Drooge.
Tipu Sultan (as he is usually known) was the Muslim ruler of Mysore in southern India. He was the elder son of Hyder Ali who had extended his territories from the west (Malabar) coast almost to the east (Coromandel) coast of the sub-continent and posed a serious threat to the British East India Company and its southern Presidency in Madras (now Chennai). Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan were not only effective military commanders and charismatic personalities, but they were also adept at exploiting French colonial aspirations to good effect. For much of the period of their rule France was at war globally with Britain.
Left: View of Gopal Drooge. Captain Elisha Trapaud. 1799. Courtesy of the British Museum. Right: Gopal Drooge today. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
This much I knew already, but I had no inkling of General Mathews and not the slightest idea of where or what was Gopal Drooge. My researches revealed that Brigadier-General Richard Mathews’ campaign against Mysore was one of the least glorious episodes in East India Company history. He was sent to the Malabar Coast to draw the Mysore forces away from threatening the British in the Madras and Carnatic region. Mathews’ army comprised troops from the Bombay (now Mumbai) Presidency reinforced by a few regiments of the British Crown. Richardson was in command of the 3rd battalion of Bombay Sepoys (raised in 1769) which deployed with the 5th under Captain Eames and the 15th under Captain MacCulloch from their home bases in Surat and Broach (now Bharuch). There is no evidence that he was Quartermaster-General.
They landed on the Malabar (west) Coast of India near Merjee (now Mirjan) in December 1782 (at the very moment that Hyder Ali died and was succeeded by Tipu) before pushing north to take the port of Onore (modern Honnavar) and then inland to capture the fortress of Bednore (also known as Hydernagur and nowadays as Nagar) which housed much of Tipu Sultan's treasury. This treasure had an immediately disastrous effect on discipline, with Mathews’ troops more focussed on their share of the spoils than on preparing the town for the inevitable counter-attack.
This lack of discipline was demonstrated yet again on an operation in February against the town of Anantpore (now Anandapuram) where the troops were said to be responsible for atrocities. By now the incompetent Mathews had spread his forces so thinly in the region that he made it simple for Tipu to lay siege to Bednore and force the surrender of the garrison at the end of April. In the following days Tipu separated the captured officers into two groups. One would be sent to the fortress town of Chitteldroog (modern Chitradurga) and would mostly survive their captivity. The second group including General Mathews himself and Captain William Richardson would be marched in irons towards Mysore’s stronghold of Seringapatam (now Shrirangapattana). Their fates would be less fortunate.
Tipu had undoubtedly reneged on a promise to allow Mathews and his men to be escorted to the west coast where they would be picked up by British ships. However he claimed that Mathews too had failed to honour a promise to hand over all the money and jewellery seized from the treasury in Bednore. Mathews’ brother William, a lieutenant, was allegedly captured as he tried to flee with his spoils. I say "allegedly" because the truth was a particular casualty of this campaign. Just as the British tended to exaggerate Tipu's cruelty, there are also some luridly excessive accounts of both Mathews' greed and of the excesses of his troops. The biggest divergence centres on the events after the British capture of Anantpore. There seems little doubt that Tipu’s soldiers were given no quarter, but the treatment of the women and children is less clear. The curious thing is that some of the allegations emanated from the British side, driven it seems partly by jealousy and rivalry, and they were still being hotly contested in the House of Commons eight years later.
The march from Bednore to Seringapatam in irons must have been particularly arduous, but there was little respite when they arrived at the great fortress which stands on an island in the Cauvery River. Here Mathews’ officers were to join the numerous other British captives of Tipu Sultan. One large contingent of British and Company soldiers had been defeated at the battle of Pollilur in September 1780. Their commander Colonel William Baillie had just died in November 1782 in the dungeon at Seringapatam which still bears his name. A second batch of prisoners under Colonel John Braithwaite had surrendered at Annagudi in February 1782. In all, there were over a thousand British prisoners at Tipu’s mercy held in various prisons across his territories.
There has long been a dispute about Tipu’s treatment of his prisoners. Some were undoubtedly treated with great cruelty (as we shall see), but others were looked after well, provided with a small allowance for buying food in the market. Much seems to have depended on the humanity of the local commander. Sayyed Ibrahim at Bangalore treated his prisoners so well that the East India Company would later pay for a canopy to be erected over his tomb in his honour.
At the time, much outrage was caused in Britain that Tipu Sultan pressed British and Indian captives into his own army or obliged them to learn skills which would assist his military ambitions. Some of these men were obliged to be circumcised and to become Muslims. Some modern Indian historians suggest this was purely a matter of individual choice, but the records suggest that there were cases of coercion.
Many British officers and men died in captivity including Colonel Baillie himself, but General Mathews’ officers were treated with particular harshness and the main reason seems to have been the events at Anantpore. Many of the officers were to die in extremely distressing circumstances, and some of them at Gopal Drooge.
Finding Gopal Drooge
esearching the whereabouts of Gopal Drooge proved to be the most complex part of this quest. The word drooge, or more properly droog, has disappeared entirely from the modern lexicon. I had to turn to the 1897 Gazetteer for Mysore to find that a droog is a monolithic dome-shaped mass of granite. “These masses have usually one or more of their sides precipitous or at such an angle as to be inaccessible except at few points.” These remarkable droogs which are found mainly in the modern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, were later of considerable use to the British when they came to produce a trigonometrical survey of India, because in clear weather they can be seen from as far as 50 miles. The largest of them is Saven Droog (also known as the Rock of Death) at 4559 ft above sea level.
None of the prisoners in Seringapatam, either in their diaries or in their subsequent memoirs, identified the location of Gopal Drooge. Perhaps they never knew. Furthermore, they used a variety of spellings (which I shall retain throughout this narrative). Frances Robson and Captain Henry Oakes called it Coppul Droog. William Thomson referred to Kaval or Kavel Drook. Colonel Lindsay wrote of Copal-Droog. The British officer James Hunter, who was also a competent artist, produced a watercolour of Gopaul Droog in about 1805 and his colleague Elisha Trapaud painted one of Gopaldrug in 1799.
In modern India, it is virtually impossible to buy a physical map of the countryside showing mountains and rivers. Foreigners are not allowed to buy "topographical" maps and they are not permitted for export. All you can obtain are “political” maps which show cities, towns and state borders, or road maps for motorists. This is a throw-back to the days when physical mapping was regarded as highly sensitive and of use to a potential enemy. The Survey of India is still part of the Indian Government just as the British Ordnance Survey was until quite recently. Of course in these days of satellites and Google Earth, this secrecy about mapping is anachronistic, but procedures change slowly in all bureaucracies.
A second problem in identifying Gopal Drooge was that (as I have already indicated), the word droog no longer exists. In most cases it has been replaced by the word durga. This too causes confusion because durg and durgum in most Indian languages means “inaccessible place” or “fortress”. But the term durga usually refers to the goddess Durga and to shrines in her honour. As it happens, most of the larger droogs were natural forts and also provided ideal sites for shrines.
After much research and help from friends in India, I came to the working conclusion that Gopal Drooge is the modern Kabbal Durga. The 1897 Mysore Gazetteer describes Kabbal Durga as a “fortified conical hill... rising to 3507 ft ... Owing to its precipitous size it would... be almost impregnable. It is accessible only on one side and even there the ascent is very laborious... It was used as a penal settlement... and as the bad nature of the water which appears almost poisonous renders the hill pestilential, ...troublesome prisoners were generally sent there.” However it makes no reference to the events of 1783.
Nonetheless, for reasons that will soon become clear, this description gave this location the edge over the alternatives which included Kavale Durga near Shimoga and Koppal (previously known as Copaul, Kapal and once as Copaul Droog) near Bellary.
So what happened at Gopal Drooge? In early September seventeen officers of General Mathews’ army were marched out of Seringapatam to Gopal Drooge. This is a 60 mile trek which (having spent 4 months in irons) must have been agonising enough, but the ascent of the mountain, in their weakened state, must have been truly appalling. General Mathews, who was left behind in Seringapatam, was obliged to drink poison probably on 7th September 1783. On 16th August he hid a message in a spice box warning of his imminent demise. This was not discovered until 16 years later. He also scratched a similar message onto the bottom of a pewter plate. He resisted taking the poison for as long as he could but finally agreed once it became clear that his guards (who had been sympathetic to him) would be made to suffer if he refused. It took him six hours to die "in torment". Three other officers of his force, Major Rumley, Captain Fraser and Lieutenant Sampson, were poisoned at Mysore. At Bednore, Lieutenant William Mathews (General Mathews’ brother) and Lieutenant Wheldon, were taken out into the jungle and “hacked to pieces”.
On the summit of Gopal Drooge the seventeen officers were taken from their accommodation and told that they were to be poisoned on the orders of Tipu. The following account was provided by an Indian soldier who had formerly served the British and was “melancholy and cast down” by what he had witnessed. “The commandant... at the head of most of the troops in the place... repaired to the prison attended by some persons who held in their hands bowls of green liquid. The prisoners were ordered to advance two by two and the commander informed them that it was the nabob’s [Tipu’s] orders that they should drink the liquor contained in these bowls... The commandant informed them at once that the drink offered to them was poison... that it was, he assured them, a pleasant and easy death but that, if they persisted in refusing it, they were to be seized and tied and thrown alive down the precipice of Kavel Druk mountain... He... allowed them an hour to determine... They then drank the poison which operated with violence upon some but in the space of one hour the bodies of all were extended lifeless.”
The informant added that two papers had been taken from one of the officers when he lay dead, which appeared to have been written by Captain Richardson. A separate account, albeit unsourced, was provided by the French historian Joseph Michaud in his History of Mysore published in 1809. Michaud had little sympathy for General Mathews' men after their “reprehensible conduct” at Bednore, but he was appalled by the murders. Michaud says that “Captain Richardson, who was the last to be executed, fell on his knees and implored his executioners to ask for confirmation of his sentence; but they gave no heed to his entreaties. He perished with his companions.” Yet another account suggests that some of the officers had to be flogged to force them to take the poison and that after their murder "the armourers knocked off their irons and their bodies were then thrown into a wood as a prey for tigers".
Richardson’s request “for confirmation of the sentence” suggests that he knew that Tipu Sultan was in negotiation with the British authorities in Madras and that the French had ceased hostilities against the British in July. He may even have known that an armistice was provisionally agreed in early August only a month before the murders on Gopal Drooge. Indeed Richardson was probably the last British prisoner to die. All the others would be released after the treaty of Mangalore in March 1784. As the Victorian historian John Clark Marshman would comment “Of the prisoners who had fallen into the hands of Hyder and Tippoo, the most distinguished had been taken off by poison, or hacked to pieces in the woods, but 190 officers and 900 European soldiers still survived.” Marshman regarded the Treaty of Mangalore as disgraceful.
The lure of the Gopal Droog was now too great for me to resist. At 9am on a foggy November morning I caught my first sight of the massive rock shortly after turning off the Mysore to Bangalore highway at the village of Satnur. A first glimpse told me that this was the correct place, both because it was precipitous on three and a half sides and because it matched almost exactly the watercolour by Captain Elisha Trapaud (although he rendered it narrower than it really is). The ascent was extremely steep and would have been harder still had it not been for the ancient steps, now worn smooth, cut into the rock. These steps cleverly oblige any climber to use a route which is covered at several places by defensive positions which still exist 230 years after Richardson’s death. On reaching the summit there was ample evidence of the fetid, possibly poisonous, water to which contemporaries refer (some accounts suggest the poison was mixed with coconut milk). There are also two Hindu shrines and an accommodation block, presumably for defenders, as well as traces of defensive walls for part of the circumference of the summit. However my main interest focussed on a well-concealed, windowless, barrel-vaulted structure supporting a thick, heavy roof of masonry and earth.
Left: The Building used as a prison on Gopal Drooga. Right: Colonel Baillie's dungeon in Seringapatam.
This building, possibly once conceived as a magazine for explosives, was surely the prison occupied by Richardson and his sixteen colleagues. The two enormous hinges for the entrance through the thick brick walls, suggested there had once been a very heavy door. The structure was but a short distance from a wide expanse of open rock from which the prisoners’ corpses may have been thrown to the jungle below.
Left: Inside the vaulted building that served as a prison. Right: One of the reservoirs of noxious water.
A mystery remains. There was extensive coverage of these murders in the British press following the Treaty of Mangalore in March 1784. However the whole episode seems to have been almost forgotten over the next few years. As far as I know, there are no memorials anywhere to Mathews and his 22 murdered officers.
The precipice from which the corpses were thrown.
Certainly I have found none in the obvious places; Seringapatam, Mysore, Bangalore, Bombay or Madras. By contrast there is a splendid memorial to Colonel Baillie in Seringapatam. Perhaps there was a feeling that Mathews’ force had disgraced itself. There was also some rivalry between Madras, Bengal and Bombay Presidencies and officers. There was also a sense of embarrassment that the East India Company had felt obliged to sign a peace settlement with Tipu Sultan only a few months after the murders. But even in 1792 when Lord Cornwallis attached to a report some detailed lists of the fate of hundreds of British captives, he referred to only two of those who died on Gopal Drooge “Captains Landrum and McCullough lost their lives, not known how, at Gopaul Droog. It is to be remarked that the water of Gopaul Droog at the top of the rocks is very generally reported to be of a poisonous quality, which in a short time, kills all who drink it; the town below is a good one. They had not heard any particulars of the other Bombay officers who are missing.”
So for Captain Richardson his only memorial is in a bleak Langholm cemetery. But the almost impregnable Kabbal Durga serves as a permanent reminder of the cruel events of September 1783 at Gopal Drooge.
A prisoner at Seringapatam wrote a Prison Song of 15 verses humorously comparing their lives to those of their colleagues in comfortable Madras. The final verse is particularly poignant.
Still thus let's disguise, Our sadness and sighs, Thus chase away chilly despair,
Resign'd to our woes, And the chains of our foes, Submit to the soldier's hard fare;
Let's think each to-morrow, Must shorten our sorrow, Let hope serve instead of a dram,
That freedom once more, May open the door, Of our Jail at Seringapatam,
The seventeen officers said to have died at Gopal Drooge in early September 1783 were; Major Fewtrill, Captains Eames (5th Bombay Sepoys), Lendrum (11th Bombay Sepoys), Jackson (Bombay European Foot Artillery), MacCulloch (15th Bombay Sepoys), Richardson (3rd Bombay Sepoys) Gotlich and Clift, and Lieutenants Barnewell, Young (Brigade Major) and Olivier (Bombay European Foot Artillery); Charles Stewart (Paymaster) and Charles Chick (Deputy Commissary). These 13 were all from the Bombay Presidency army. The remaining four were Crown troops of the British Army namely Captain Dougald Campbell (HM’s 98th Regiment of Foot), Captains Alston and Fish (HM’s 100th Regiment) and Ensign Gifford (Surgeon’s Mate of HM’s 100th).
Dodwell and Miles. Alphabetical List of the officers in the Indian Army 1760 to 1837. London, 1839.
Hook, Theodore Edward. The Life of General, the Right Honourable Sir David Baird. London; Richard Bentley, 1832.
Keay, John. The Great Arc. London: Harper Collins, 2000.
Lindsay, The Hon John. Journal of an Imprisonment in Seringapatam. London, 1840.
Marshman, John Clark. The History of India. London, 1867.< /p>
Michaud, Joseph. The History of Mysore Under Hyder Ali and Tippoo Sultan. Paris: Gignet, 1809.
Rice, Lewis. Mysore, a Gazetteer in Two Volumes. London: Constable, 1897.
Robson, Francis. The Life of Hyder Ally: With an Account of his Usurpation of the Kingdom of Mysore, and Other Contiguous Provinces. London, 1786.
Roebuck, Peter ed. Public Service and Private Fortune; The Life of Lord Macartney. Belfast, 1983.
Scurry, James. Captivity, Sufferings and Escape. London; Henry Fisher, ,1824.
Thomson, William. Memoirs of the Late War in Asia: With a Narrative of the Imprisonment and Sufferings of our Officers and Soldiers by an Officer of Colonel Baillie's Detachment. London: John Murray, 1788.
Oakes, Captain Henry. An Authentic Narrative of the Treatment of the English who were Taken Prisoners on the Reduction of Bednore by Tippoo Saib. London; Johnson's Head, 1785.
A Retired Officer. Memoir of the life and character of the late Lieut Colonel John Campbell. Edinburgh 1836).
The London Gazette Extraordinary. Friday May 18th 1792.
A Vindication of the Conduct of the English Forces employed in the late War, under the command of Brigadier General Mathews, against the Nabob Tippoo Sultan. Parliamentary Register 1791.
Last modified 11 October 2014