Portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Bowser, 1799
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Overall: 62cm (24in) x 55cm (21.5in)
Oil on canvas. Attributed to Thomas Hickey (1741-1824). Contained in a gilt wood frame.
This portrait was painted at Madras where the artist Thomas Hickey resided between 1798 and 1824, and where the sitter ultimately rose to the command of the Madras Army. The Dublin born Hickey was ‘a wit, a talker a man of intelligence and sensibility’, and in 1799 was the only European painter on the spot to record the likenesses of the main players in the Fourth and final Mysore War (1798-99). The present portrait bears testimony to Hickey’s ability to convey not just a likeness but something of the character of the sitter, even though his attention to the background detail could be scant. His skill at characterisation was that he put to good use over five months in 1799 when he found himself in furious demand to sketch everyone from the Governor-General Richard Wellesley to the sons of the recently vanquished Tipu Sultan. The sitter Thomas Bowser was a veteran not just the recent storming of Tipu’s stronghold of Seringapatam but also of the two previous Mysore wars. Furthermore he was one with more reason than most to celebrate the recent downfall of the Tiger of Mysore.
Some twenty years earlier in August 1780 Bowser was among the hundred survivors of two British columns that made a last stand against the 50,000 strong army of the de facto ruler of the kingdom of Mysore, Haider Ali. Compelled to surrender, Bowser’s Indian troops were slaughtered to a man while the Europeans were stripped and forced to present the severed heads of their comrades to the victorious Mysorean generals. Taken into captivity at Bangalore, ‘Lieutenant Bowser continued a prisoner, heavily ironed, until 1784’ never fully recovering ‘from the wounds he received in 1780, and the brutal treatment he, in common with the rest of the prisoners, experienced’. Salvation came in form of the humiliating (but welcomed) Treaty of Mangalore which ended the Second Mysore War. It was signed by Haider Ali’s son and heir Tipu Sultan and the British East India Company on 11 March 1784. This, however, coupled with the recent loss of the Thirteen Colonies, in America made the British even more determined to defeat the legendary Tipu Sultan. Notwithstanding his injuries, Bowser fought in the Third (1790-92) and Fourth Mysore Wars (1798-99), and ultimately exacted his revenge on his captors by lopping off and pocketing one of the jewel encrusted gold tiger head finials from Tipu’s throne.
Thomas Hickey (1741–1824) was born in Dublin, and trained at the Royal Dublin Society Schools. Hickey. The pursuit of his art took him to Rome, Naples, London and Bath before he received permission from the East India Company in 1780 to go to India, having been recommended by Sir Joshua Reynolds to Warren Hastings, recommending 'a very ingenious young painter' who wished 'to make a trial of his own abilities’. On his voyage out his ship was captured by Franco-Spanish squadron which led him to Lisbon, where, after receiving a number of commissions, he remained for three years. He eventually reached Bengal in 1784 and stayed there until 1791 when he returned to England. He was preparing to return to India when he received an invitation from Lord Macartney, whose portrait he had previously painted, to accompany him on his famous diplomatic mission of to Peking (Beijing). The mission lasted from September 1792 to September 1794, during which Hickey entertained Macartney with shrewd and clever conversation. Thereafter family matters compelled his return to Ireland but in 1798 he returned again to India just in time for the start of the Fourth Mysore War, whence his services were urgently sought. He made chalk drawings of fifty-five British officers (Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire) which were much admired, and he intended to paint a series of large history paintings describing the last Mysore war, which never materialized. Portraiture took up all his time: in 1799 he painted a full-length portrait of Lord Mornington, the British supreme commander, for the Exchange at Madras (Apsley House, London); a series of sixteen Indian dignitaries for Government House, Calcutta, was completed in 1805, and there were also his portraits of British residents. In May 1807 he moved to Calcutta where he stayed five years, although only one portrait has been identified from this period. In December 1812 he was invited back to Madras, where he settled with his elder daughter. He was much employed in repairing paintings and only a few of his portraits survive from these years. Hickey died at Madras in May 1824 at the age of eighty-three.
Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Bowser (1749-1833) was commissioned Ensign in the Madras European Regimen in December 1773. Following the declaration of war between tBritain and France in 1778, the Company seized the opportunity to drive the French from the subcontinent. Bowser was accordingly employed in the siege and capture of Pondicherry. The subsequent capture of Mahe on the Malabar coast in 1779, however, had consequences beyond the power struggle between the two European rivals, due to its importance as the entrepot for French arms and ammunition into Mysore. Haider Ali, ‘who hated the English Company with all his soul’, had explicitly warned the British that the port was under his protection and duly formed an alliance with the French, the Nizam of Hyderabad and local lords before launching the Second Mysore War against an old enemy complacent in its sense of ‘stupid security’.
In July 1780 Haider Ali invaded the Carnatic (Karnataka) with an army of 80,000 men pouring through the passes of the Western Ghats, burning villages and laying siege to British forts in northern Arcot. The British authorities, finally shaken from their lethargy, recalled their forces from outlying stations to defend the coastal enclave. Conjeeveram (Kanchipuram), forty miles out of Madras on the Arcot road, was selected as the rendezvous for the scattered British forces. The Historical Record of the First Madras European Regiment places Lieutenant Bowser at this critical time in Captain Ferrier’s Company of Grenadiers which marched out from Madras as part of the main army of 5,200 men under Sir Hector Munro, the Commander-in-Chief, to effect the junction at Conjeeveram. Munro reached Conjeeveram on 29 August and there awaited the arrival of the 2,800 strong detachment under Colonel William Baillie withdrawing towards them through increasingly hostile territory.
As soon as news of Munro’s advance reached Haider Ali, he dispatched his son Tipu Sultan with 10,000 men and 18 guns to intercept Baillie’s force which had been held up for week by floods on the river Kortalaiyar. On 6 September Tipu caught up with Baillie at Perambakkam, just fourteen miles from Munro’s camp, and launched an attack that was successfully repulsed. Munro, who could hear the action panicked, and learning of the additional approach of Haider to encircle Baillie, refused to advance any further. Instead he ordered a 1,000 strong column under Colonel Fletcher of the Madras Europeans to go to Baillie’s rescue. Accordingly Bowser now found himself advancing with Fletcher’s doomed force comprising the light and grenadier companies of H.M’s 73rd Highlanders, under Captain (later Sir David) Baird and the Captain the Hon. John Lindsay; two European companies of grenadiers (under Captains Ferrier and Phillips) and two battalion companies of the same corps. Five miles out, Fletcher’s force encountered two or three hundred enemy cavalry encamped on the road and for the most part asleep. The journal of the Hon. John Lindsay, which has served as a principal source for much of the subsequent suffering endured by the British prisoners in Mysorean hands, relates that almost the whole of this enemy picket was bayoneted where it slept.
Over the next two days Fletcher’s force advanced cautiously, anticipating correctly the intentions of local guides in Haider Ali’s pay to lead them astray, before wading the last part of the march to make contact with Baillie in the early hours of the 9th. At first light on the 10th the combined force moved off toward Conjeeveram to join Munro, advancing in a defensive square formation until coming under a heavy fire from Tipu’s artillery concealed in a grove. The British square was then assailed on three sides, but managed to repulse a charge of some ten thousand of Tipu’s cavalry, before making a concerted and partially successful effort to storm the enemy’s guns. Baillie now believed that the immediate danger had passed and assumed that with Munro’s camp only seven miles away reinforcement would be on its way. Unfortunately, the only troops to appear were Haider Ali’s main army of 50,000 men, the leading units clothed in red and playing The British Grenadiers.
At this point three tumbrils exploded in rapid succession in the midst of the British square destroying vital stocks of ammunition, killing a great many troops, and causing Munro on hearing the distant explosions to give the order for his force at Conjeeveram to retreat with all possible speed to Madras thereby sealing the fate of Baillie’s column. Tipu Sultan, ‘a worthy son to his martial father, instantly seized the moment of the advantage and without waiting for orders, fell with the utmost rapidity, at the head of the Moghul and Carnatic horse, into the broken square.’ The cavalry onslaught was immediately followed by a well executed attack by Haider’s French corps. Colonels Baillie and Fletcher, made one more desperate effort; under the fire of the whole immense artillery of the enemy, they rallied the remaining Europeans, and formed themselves into a tightly packed square of some hundred men on small rise.
Without ammunition Bowser and the other officers fought on using their swords, while the European grenadiers and Highlanders had to rely on their bayonets to fend off thirteen separate cavalry charges. As the Mysorean artillery was wheeled in close for the coup de grace, and the enemy cavalry and infantry massed for a final attack, Baillie, seeing his situation as hopeless, raised a white handkerchief on his sword point and ordered his men to ground their arms, but as soon as this was done Haider’s followers ‘rushed on and put seven-eights of their prisoners to the sword’ (Neill, 1843, p.278). Of the eighty-six officers in the combined forces of Colonels Fletcher and Baillie, twenty-nine were killed, including Bowser’s company commander, Captain Ferrier; thirty-eight, including Bowser himself, were wounded, of whom six died shortly afterwards, and only sixteen officers and privates escaped unhurt; while ‘nearly the whole of the Sepoys were taken or killed ... ’ (Neil, 1843, p. 280-81).
For the British survivors the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Pollilur provided a foretaste of the horrors of captivity to come. ‘The enemy took savage delight in cutting and hewing at the unfortunate wounded Europeans, many were crushed to death by the horses and elephants which were constantly being paraded over the field of battle. A few who lived for a short time, died miserably after protracted hours of agony during the following night and day.’ Bowser and the other survivors were stripped naked and herded together. Selected prisoners, some of whom were wounded, were then brought before Haider, seated in his tent six miles from the battlefield; and here forced to present him with the severed heads of their slain brother officers, Captain Phillips’s and Colonel Fletcher’s among them.
Lindsay’s Narrative of an Officer of Colonel Baillie’s Detachment in Captivity in the years 1781, 1782, 1783, and part of 1780 and 1784 continues, ‘Towards evening Colonel Baillie and fifty-eight officers were collected together at this tent, and some infamous provisions were flung upon a large cloth upon the ground, and we were desired to eat that or want. Two French surgeons were then permitted to come and dress our wounds, who, as soon as they saw our numbers, declared that it was impossible for them to dress so many without some assistance … in the morning it was discovered that three officers had died during the night, and vast numbers were delirious’ (Crawford & Balcarres, 1849, vol. III, p. 268).
A footnote in Lindsay’s journal suggests that Bowser was forced marched to Arnee (Arni) with all the wounded officers except Baillie, and Baird who with three others remained in Haider’s camp before being incarcerated at Seringapatam, while those unhurt were sent to the dungeons of Bangalore. All however shared the humiliation of being paraded in chains through the countryside and existing with the ever present threat of having their noses and ears cut off. The Historical Record of the Madras European Regiment states Bowser was held at Bangalore, inferring a transfer of prisoners at a later date, perhaps on the arrival of additional captives from the commands of the Colonel Braithwaite and General Mathews. Of these The Historical Record further adds that ‘Very few lived through their captivity, nearly all having died of starvation and want of medical treatment, and a great many were either poisoned or barbarously murdered’ (Neill, 1843, p. 280). The account of the naval rating and sometime captive at Bangalore, James Scurry, further records the ever present threat of circumcision and enforced enlistment into the Chela companies of the Mysorean military. It was a fate that was pushed upon junior British officers and the non-commisioned ranks including Scurry and eighteen Highlanders from Baird’s Light Company.
In May 1781 the Mysorean commandants of the fortresses holding the British prisoners received instructions from Haider that henceforth all the prisoners were to be fettered. In this respect Captain Baird fared considerably better than Bowser, as the commandant at Seringapatam accepted Captain Lucas’s offer to wear two sets of leg irons in order that Baird’s leg wounds might have a chance to heal. By grim comparison the The Historical Record of the Madras Europeans baldly states ‘Lieutenant Bowser continued a prisoner, heavily ironed, until 1784’ never fully recovering ‘from the wounds he received in 1780, and the brutal treatment he, in common with the rest of the prisoners, experienced, whilst a prisoner of war to the Mysore tyrant. The galling of the heavy irons on his legs whilst confined in the dungeons of Bangalore, were later said to produce a disease in the legs that could never be reduced’ (Neill, 1843, p. 547).
The fettering of Bowser’s limbs no doubt meant he developed another characteristic of the few who survived, as Lindsay relates: ‘The effects of this constraint were visible in the gait of many of these unfortunate gentlemen for some time after there release. “Though our irons” says one of them, “were knocked off, it was a long time before we recovered the use of our limbs and learned to walk with perfect freedom … We could never get the idea of our being in fetters out of our heads. No effort of our minds, no act of volition, could for several days, overcome the habit of our making the short and constrained steps to which we had so long been accustomed. Our crippled manner of walking was a subject of laughter to ourselves as well as others” (Crawford & Balcarres, 1849, vol. III, p.290).
An end to the torment of captivity was promised in September 1783 following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles by which Pondicherry and other small French possessions were returned to France. As the fortunes of war began to turn against Tipu, who had succeeded his father in 1782, rumours began to circulate amongst the prisoners that they were to be burned to death as a final gesture of Mysorean defiance. Such anxieties increased in March 1784 when it was learned that all the prisoners were to be collected together and relocated to Kavel Drook, at which place General Mathews and others had been poisoned. Orders for a move were received shortly afterwards at Seringapatam, Bangalore and elsewhere but the destination was changed under the terms of the Treaty of Mangalore by which it was agreed that the British and Tipu were to restore each other’s lands ante bellum. The prisoners were duly taken to Oscottah where on 15 April they were formally handed over to a British escort, which conducted them safely to the coast. Controversially, however, a number of the British other ranks were forcibly retained by Tipu, Scurry among them.
His earlier injuries notwithstanding, Bowser was promoted Captain and took part in the Third Mysore War (1789-92) being appointed commandant of Tipu’s fort at Dindigul in 1790 shortly after its fall. Advanced to Major in the Company’s Madras Army on 1 March 1794, and Brevet Major in H.M’s Army with effect from the same date, Bowser, whilst in command of the 7th Battalion, Madras Native Infantry was actively employed in early 1795 in operations against the Marawur Rajah of Ramnad following the latter’s attack on the neighbouring Zemindar of Shevagunga. (Wilson, 1888, vol. II, p. 248). Later the same year he was selected for service in the expedition against the Dutch in Ceylon. After an arduous march across the island of 125 miles to Paumbum, Bowser and the 7th Battalion, N.I., joined a detachment of the 73rd Highlanders on 5 October and embarked to take possession of the fort and island of Manaar. From Manaar, Bowser continued with his battalion against the fort at Calpenteenon on the west coast some 20 miles north of Colombo (Wilson, 1888, vol. II, p. 254).
On the outbreak of the fourth and final Anglo-Mysore war against Tipu in 1799, Bowser, having been promoted Lieutenant-Colonel in 1797, was placed in command of a brigade of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s contingent in the division placed under the Hon. Arthur Wellesley – an appointment that greatly annoyed Bowser’s former fellow prisoner of war, Major-General David Baird (Wilson, 1888, vol. II, p. 314). At the ensuing siege of Seringapatam (1799), Bowser participated in the successful attack on outpost of Sultanpett led by the future Duke of Wellington on 6th April, and was accordingly present when Tipu’s stronghold fell on 4 May 1799. Later the same month Bowser was detached from the main army, and, in command of the Hyderabad Subsidiary force, was entrusted with task of occupying places which it had been decided to make over to the Nizam. Bowser took control of these places without resistance except at Gooty where he was forced to engage in siege operations and was again wounded (Wilson, 1888, vol. III, p. 5).
Bowser married at St Pancras, Middlesex in 1804 Ann, daughter of Colonel Story of Ascot, and widow of James Brodie, H.E.I.C.S, who was drowned along the Madras shore by the upsetting of his boat. Following his return to India, Bowser reached the apogee of his profession on 1 June 1821 when he succeeded to the command of the Madras Army as its most senior officer before the arrival of a new appointee from England. He died at his home in Weymouth Street, London on 15 June 1833.
Crawford & Balcarres, A.W.C.L. (1849) Vol. III, Lives of the Lindsays, John Murray, Albermare Street, London
Neill, J.G.S. (1843) Historical Record of the Honourable East India Company's First Madras European Regiment, Smith Elder and Co, Cornhill, London
The East India Military Calendar (1824) Vol. II, Kingsbury, Parbury, & Allen, Leadenhall St., London,
Scurry, J. (1824) The captivity, sufferings, and escape of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib, Henry Fisher, Newgate Street, London.