A debt of money can be repaid. But a debt of kindness is a debt forever.
War is Hell. And war is also steel, blood, mud, mutilated men, dead men, traitors, villains, heroes, defeat and victory.
But every war also has stories where the best in men and women, not always great Generals and warriors, but small, simple individuals come to the fore and give us hope that something can still be salvaged from the mess that humanity has got itself into.
And I will illustrate here two such acts, one by someone who remains unnamed to this day and another by one of England’s greatest war heroes, both of whom though at opposite sides of the war front did not only do what was expected of them but did what they felt was right.
We shall begin here from that early morning on 10 September, 1780 a day that would be remembered by 4 generations of British army men in India as their darkest hour. It was on this day at a little village called Pollilur in today’s Tamil Nadu State in India, that 2 flank companies of the British 73rd regiment were virtually decimated by the Mysore army under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. The companies were under the command of Captain David Baird and Captain Hon. John Lindsay, two men who are among the primary actors in this article.
Captain Lindsay received 3 sabre wounds on the head and a pike thrust through his shoulder and lay under a mass of British dead. He was pulled out by another Englishman and the both of them sought refuge with the French who were a part of Hyder’s entourage.Captain Baird on the other hand had fallen senseless to the ground after receiving 2 sabre wounds to the head and a pike-wound in his arm. He remained unconscious through the rest of the day exposed to the raging heat of the sun in the day and the ravages of ‘tigers and jackals’ during the night. It was not only animals that were attracted to the wounded British, Hyder Ali had offered 5 rupees for every European head brought in, and ten for every European prisoner brought in alive.
Lying on the ground for some more time, Baird was woken up by some British stragglers and together, they dragged themselves to the French position where Baird encountered his friend and colleague Lindsay. Lindsay writes of the meeting – ‘When I came out, a figure, covered all over with blood, came limping up to me and called me by my name, which from the voice I soon discovered was my old friend David Baird; this was a most welcome meeting to both of us.’ But the next day, he along with the other British were handed over to Hyder Ali and then onwards was a prisoner in the hands of the Mysoreans.
Lindsay by his own account was in the meanwhile not provided with any medical aid. His wounds festered and the violent fever that he had had now for a long time, turned into a severe flux, and having no method of cleaning himself, and the want of clothes, he was covered with vermin, and, as my circumstances would not admit of his purchasing a comb, his servant shaved his head with a piece of glass bottle.
On the 24th, they arrived at Polore, which is a fort, after a severe march of twenty miles, and Lindsay’s complaint now became so violent and painful as almost to deprive him of speech. On the 27th, they arrived, after a very long march, at Shangernagore, a fort near the pass of the Carnatic into the Mysore country. This last march completely overpowered Lindsay, and violent spasms and a strong hiccough seized him. It was evident that he was now in the last stage of his disorder, and Baird and the rest of his companions did all in their power to force him to take a little rice to sustain him, but without effect. It was now only a matter of time before he would meet his end.
What happened next is surprising as well as touching. Let us hear of it in Lindsays’s own words – ‘At this time that a sepoy of our guard came up to me, and, after standing by me for some minutes, told me that he would prepare me some medicine if I would take it. I told him that I would thankfully take any thing that he would give me, but that I had no money to pay him for it. He said that he did not want. any money from a prisoner, and then went away.
In a few minutes he came back, and brought with him three green pomegranates and a large bowl of sour milk, and after mixing the fruit with his hands in the milk, having previously mashed them into a ball upon a stone, he desired me to drink it. In any other situation I would certainly have refused to take such a medicine, but, as it was, I took it and with great loathing drank it off, it having a most dreadful taste. He then desired me to endeavour to sleep, which I did, and in a few hours afterwards I awaked much better, my fever having abated, and my flux was not near so severe; and, for the first time since I left Arcot, I ate a little boiled rice.
The next morning, the sepoy came to see me, and was much rejoiced at seeing me so much better. I told him that I owed him my life, and that, although I was poor here, I had plenty of money in my own country, and that I would reward him for it if ever I returned, he then told me that he was not very rich himself as his pay was only a pagoda and a half a month,—and, at the same time, drew out his little purse and offered me a rupee. This generous behaviour, so different from what I had hitherto experienced, drew tears from my eyes, and I thanked him for his generosity, but would not take his money. ‘
Baird who all along was tagged with Lindsay on account of both being officers must also have been witness of this generous act. Ten days after this both the prisoners reached the capital, Seringapatam and they would remain confined to prison here for next 3 years. Both Lindsay and Baird had their legs chained with 8 Lb. Leg irons most of the time. Finally on the 22nd of March, 1784 they were released at Tipu’s orders but freedom was a costly purchase. Many of their captive companions including the gallant Colonel Baillie were dead by now.
Let us now move forward several years to the most eventful day in modern Mysorean history – The fall of Seringapatam, 4th May 1799. At 10 minutes past 1 in the afternoon, a tall and tough looking man, a General in the British army, his uniform soaked in sweat and his face scorched red by the sun, turns to his men, sword in hand, yelling in his loud booming voice, “Now, my brave fellows, follow me and prove yourselves worthy of the name of British soldiers!”. This General is none other than David Baird, the young Captain we saw 18 years ago limping into Hyder’s captivity after the debacle at Polilur.
Despite the ferocity of enemy fire, it took just six minutes for the ranks of red coats to reach the top of the breach. Up went the colours and we follow Baird as he clambers forward into the river knee deep with water while ‘shot fell around him in every direction like hail’. Going forward he with the right British column clears the Southern rampart and pushes forward to meet up with the left column. With the fort rampart firmly in British hands, he despatches Major Allan to the palace to call upon the Mysore leadership to surrender. Major Allan receives the surrender of two of Tipu’s sons in the palace and receives General Baird who arrives at the palace gates. Baird orders that the Princes be safely conducted off the island to ensure their safety into the protection of General Harris, Commander-in-Chief of the Assault on Seringapatam. Within some time Tipu’s body is recovered in the presence of Baird from the heap of dead in the water gate.
Baird now rises to the situation and despatches officers and parties in every direction to halt his victorious troops from continuing their orgy of violence and plunder, wide scale sacking of the city had begun by now. It is now more than 14 hours that Baird has been on the field leading his men through the breach, fighting his way through and organising the takeover of the city. He tired and exhausted, requests General Harris for a temporary relief from command so that he may rest. Permission being granted and preparing to retire, he is informed of great trepidation in the late Sultan’s Harem with the women and children inside greatly fearing for their lives and honour upon hearing that city had been given over for pillage.
It is now that Baird’s character comes to the fore and he does something which still surprises as well as fills every Englishman’s heart with pride. This past prisoner in Tipu’s dungeons for over 3 years and now the all conquering hero instead of retiring to any of Tipu’s stately rooms for the night, gave orders to his men to disarm and stack their weapons in a courtyard. The order after being complied with, Baird asks for a carpet to be laid on a veranda right in front of the entrance to the Harem. He lies down on this carpet on the floor and makes it his bed for the rest of the night. The message to any potential mischief maker was obvious; anyone entering the harem had to walk over General Baird. Not one Lady in the harem was harmed that tumultuous night.
Here ends my narration of these two acts of kindness by two different people on two opposite ends of the divide. One an unknown Mysore sepoy, in all probability an unlettered man but with a big heart. He had no business treating the wounds of Captain Lindsay but did so without any expectation and even gave a third of his monthly pay as a gift to the Captain. He did not have much yet, gave much of the little he had. It was the martial and moral character of sepoys like him which would carry the Tiger flag of Mysore fluttering from Dharwad in the North to Calicut in the South.
And at the other end we see the kindness shown by General Sir David Baird to women of a man who tormented him and his men in a dungeon for 3 long years just a couple of furlongs from where he stood now in the palace. General Baird did not go seeking loot that night or looking for revenge on the family of those who had wronged him. Instead he spent the night lying on the cold floor doing what the thought was the right thing. And it was the character of men like Baird that would ensure that the Sun would never set over the British empire for another 150 years.
From Oskar Schindler who emerged as a cooling balm out of the fires of the Nazi led Holocaust in WWII Germany to Gandhi who fasted to bring peace in the midst of the communal carnage that was sweeping through Bengal as partition happened, history is replete with examples of brave men who did not let hate get the better of their humanity. These two men I have illustrated in my article can also proudly claim their place in the company of such heros.
And yes, one act of kindness does beget another!
1. Journal of an imprisonment in Seringapatam, Hon. Sir John Lindsay
2. Life of Gen. David Baird, T. Hook
3. The Baird Jewels and Archive, Dix, Noonan and Webb Auctioneers