Tipu’s wife was ‘old, rather large, and not handsome’

The Tiger of Mysore is dead. Within months, the feisty Henrietta Clive, wife of Madras governor Lord Edward Clive, travels to Seringapatnam to see what is left of Tipu Sultan’s world

On 4 March 1800, Lady Henrietta Clive, her two young daughters and an Italian artist, accompanied by a retinue of 750 people with provisions on 100 bullocks, embarked on 14 elephants on a seven-month journey to fulfil 'a most indescribable wish to go and see' Seringapatnam after the death of Tipu Sultan.

Centuries later, scouring through archival material, primarily Henrietta's letters to family and friends, her journals and the journal of her daughter Charlotte Florentina, Nancy K Shields masterfully reconstructs the expedition in Birds of Passage Travels through South India 1798-1801. An extract:

The route of Lady Henrietta Clive’s seven-month journey across South India. Map courtesy: Speaking Tiger

August 7th, Seringapatam, Henrietta to Lord Clive

My dear Lord Clive . . . We are now in the Doulat Baugh, which is pleasantly situated upon the bank of the river. When Colonel Close was at Bangalore it was agreed that as Colonel Wellesley had been so civil about his house it was right to go to that, though I should have preferred the Lal Baugh very much . . . In the evening we went to the Lal Baugh, which really is charming. The garden is not in great order but the situation is very pleasant and the whole being surrounded by walls and garden is more like Chantilly than any place I know.

We went to Haidar’s fort and saw the remains of Tipu. The place is kept in high order and is beautiful. It certainly gives one more the idea of respect and attention to the dead than any of our monuments.

This morning I have had a visit from Captain Marriott’s [Thomas: later Lieut. Colonel] eight princes. They are fine little boys. The eldest is very like Haidar and Tipu. Afterwards Bucherow made me a visit and I expressed a wish to have the pictures of the Rajah and Rannie to which he says there will not be any objection. Captain Brown afterwards explained to him that it was impossible for me to receive any present of value from any person and begs he prevent any such thing from being offered. This he has promised to do.

We have just heard of Dhoondiah having escaped with his great guns and that his army had in part been surrounded and the rest dispersed except a part which he had sent to another place on the River. His stores, baggage, elephants are all taken. Many of his people threw themselves in the river meaning to swim and were drowned. The great guns fired upon the troops . . . men and horses killed. I suppose you have heard all this long ago.

Today we breakfast at Colonel Jason’s garden where we are to see the breaches that were made and hear the history of the siege.

Loves from the girls, ever my dear Lord,
yours very affectionately
H. A. C.

Charly in her journal entry for August 7th offered a succinct description of the young princes . . . ‘The eldest of them is twelve years old, and the youngest between three and four; some of them are good-looking, but they have a little of Tipu’s ferocious look, apparent in all.’

Following a visit to Tipu’s zenana, Charly gave her account of Haidar’s and Tipu’s wives:

‘We saw Haidar’s first. There were thirty or forty of them in a verandah altogether; the head-lady sat in the middle, dressed in a white muslin dress, and a white shawl; all the rest had coloured shawls, which are the only coloured things they can wear, as they are widows; they had one pair of gold earrings only.

‘One of Haidar’s wives could not come out of her room; therefore we went into it. It was, I supposed, at the utmost ten feet long, and six feet broad. The only light it had was from the door. She is a very clever woman, and can read and write Persian, (which not above one in a hundred can). They say she told Tipu, two or three days before the storming of Seringapatam, that she was sure it would be taken and he had better make peace.

‘We went to about nine or ten different verandahs to see them all, some of them were of a very light complexion and were very beautiful. In the last was a relation of Chunda Sahib. She was sitting in the middle of the verandah and cried a great deal; they all did a little, out of form, but she really seemed to feel much. They are very quarrelsome, and seldom meet, but they did so this occasion to see us. They each have slaves, and there is only one man allowed to go into the zenana, to keep the slaves in order.’

The eldest of them is twelve years old, and the youngest between three and four; some of them are good-looking, but they have a little of Tipu’s ferocious look, apparent in all.
Description of Tipu’s princes in Charlotte Florentine’s journal

August 7th, Henrietta’s journal

I went to the zenana where we were received by the chief guard at the door and conducted to Haidar’s real wife . . . She has the appearance of having been a very beautiful woman . . . and from thence to Tipu’s wives and daughters where I saw also the youngest sons who are still in the zenana. Some of the women have fine features and are light brown. His daughters were dressed with jewels and pearls. Their eyes were large and there is a great degree of family likeness between them all. The last we saw was the real wife of Tipu . . . She was old, rather large, and not handsome. She met me on the step of the veranda and cried so much that it was really painful to see her. She was in more state than the rest and had a carpet of scarlet and gold to sit on supported by cushions. I was really glad to quit her. She was really distressed to a great degree. It is not surprising.

The place where they live is large. The court in the middle has trees planted in it and on each side there are verandas where the ladies sit when they meet together. Their private apartments, I did not see, except that which I have mentioned.

We went through the ceremonies of receiving betel, limes, and not being perfumed, but poisoned with bad oil of sandalwood, besides a shower of rose water. The bottles of the great Begum were filigree. She had more an air of state than the other ladies.

Two or three times a year Tipu visited the zenana in form and they were all drawn out round him. He usually spoke to them for a few minutes and went away. There are women of all castes and religions (Hindus and Christians) but he obliged them to change their religion immediately upon arriving there. Many of them are the children of fathers whom he had destroyed. Whenever any person was executed, he seized their effects and the girls were sent into the zenana. Sometimes there were two or three sisters of the same family. They pretended some of them to cry but I do not think they all did it sincerely.

The Moor women never wear jewels after the death of their husbands, but they have been allowed to keep all they had at Tipu’s death. Tipu had made his father’s wives give up all their jewels and fine clothes when Haidar died. After the death of Tipu when Haidar’s wives found that they were better treated than they themselves had been, a violent quarrel broke out between the ladies. I hear that it proceeded to very violent language and blows as they insisted on dividing the effects of Tipu’s ladies.

(Published from Birds of Passage, Travels in South India 1798-1801, Henrietta Clive edited by Nancy K Shields, with permission from Speaking Tiger)

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