Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. 5 June 16-30, 2020

The Battle of Tiruvottriyur – 2

by Karthik Bhatt

Royal Firman and the Mughal Emperors

Saadatullah Khan I

(Continued from last fortnight wherein we ended with Saadatullah Khan, the Nawab of the Carnatic refusing to honour the Mughal Emperor’s firman to hand over five villages to the English.)

Saadatullah Khan I was one of the ablest Nawabs of the Carnatic. Named Mohammad Sayeed at birth, he was given the title he took on later in life by Emperor Aurangazeb. He served as the Dewan to Daud Khan, his predecessor who had time and again proved to be a thorn in the Company’s flesh between 1700 and 1710. On Daud Khan’s recall to Delhi, Saadatullah Khan succeeded him as the Nawab of the Carnatic.

On September 2nd 1717, Governor Collett read out translations of letters from Saadatullah Khan, Chief Merchant Sunku Rama and the Company’s spy at Arcot to the Madras Council. While Saadatullah Khan’s letter was in ‘general terms with many a great compliment’, and stated that he was ‘desirous to maintain a good understanding with the English’, the communications from Sunku Rama and the spy made it clear that the Nawab wished to see the original firman before giving up possession of the five villages.

Thanking the Nawab for the assurances of friendship and favour, Collett replied stating that being a Royal Firman, neither he (the Nawab) nor any of his officers could demand to see the original papers and that the Company would produce copies of the same duly attested by the Chief Kazi of Madras. He was probably wary of the original firman being confiscated by the Nawab. The reply also explicitly stated the intention of the Company to take possession of the villages after a period of 21 days from the date of the reply. The Madras Council had also sanctioned the gifting of a sum of 500 pagodas and a piece of superfine scarlet cloth to the Nawab keeping in mind a long given-up custom of the Company greeting the ruler of the place on a new President taking charge of Fort St. George. A separate sum of 200 pagodas was sanctioned as present for Dakkan Ray, the Nawab’s Secretary.

Following up on the 21-day deadline, Collett set out for Tiruvottriyur on September 23 and took possession of the place and returned to Fort St George that evening, having taken possession of two more villages (probably Kathivakkam and Sathangadu) during the course of the day. The next day, Richard Lordon took possession of the other two villages without any opposition. Things seemed quiet for about a week, before a communication was received from the Nawab’s court at Arcot stating that the present of 500 pagodas received from Sunku Rama on behalf of the Company was insufficient and that a minimum of 1000 pagodas was expected. In the first signs of an offensive, the communication announced that the roads to the city from Poonamallee had been blocked so that merchandise and other necessities such as firewood could not reach Madras and that Diaram, the Head Renter was on his way to ‘distress them further’. It was decided that the Nawab’s demand of 1000 pagodas be accepted conditional to obtaining a letter from him confirming peaceful possession of the villages.

On October 9th, Collett read out a letter to the Council from Diaram on the same lines as that of the Nawab’s original letter, wherein he demanded that the villages be made over to him unless the Company was able to produce warrants under the seal of Saadatullah Khan or issued by Sayyid Hussain Ali Khan, the powerful General of the Mughal Court. Diaram was probably preparing the ground for a financial negotiation. Collett was quick to reply firmly that the occupation was pursuant to the order of the Emperor himself and that the Company would defend it with all its might.

That it was some financial gain that Diaram was after was confirmed ten days later, when an emissary arrived carrying his message that the villages would be forcibly taken the next day if 1000 pagodas were not given to him. As the message was being delivered, news arrived that Diaram’s son had entered Tiruvottriyur with a force of 250 horsemen and 1000 foot soldiers, and had cut down the English Flagstaff in a blatant attempt to hold the Company to ransom. After due deliberation, it was decided that the enemy be driven out by force, as the Company’s claims to the territory were genuine and that acceding to the demand could set a bad precedence for future acts of blackmail and encourage them to inflict further injuries. The stage was set for the Battle of Tiruvottriyur.

Around 2 a.m. on October 19, Lieutenant John Roach left Fort St George with a force of 150 men and reached Tiruvottriyur at day break. Initially taken by surprise, Diaram’s forces got into order and occupied the several streets in the village and also endeavoured to take possession of the Thyagarajaswami Temple and its tank, which constituted the middle of the town. However, it was a futile attempt as at the end of the early exchanges that lasted for about an hour, they were forced to retreat. This was followed by repeated forays which were constantly warded off by the Company’s forces. On seeing a reinforcement of about 500 horses coming to support Diaram’s army, Roach sent out a call of help to Fort St George.

On receiving the distress call, Collett ordered Lieutenant Fullerton to march with 100 men and a sufficient quantity of provisions and ammunition to join Roach. He also ordered the militia at Madras be raised to guard White Town from any surprise attacks and Gunner Hugonin to patrol Washer Town (Washermanpet) and Tondore (Tondiarpet) with the Governor’s Horse Guards in order to prevent plundering from that side. Fullerton joined Roach around 4 p.m., by which time Diaram’s forces had been forced to retreat well beyond Sathangadu. The Flagstaff had been retrieved and hoisted again in the middle of the village. The entire action had lasted around six hours and there was not much of damage to the Company’s forces save a few injuries. Diaram’s forces, however, had suffered several casualties, though a count could not be made as they had carried away most of the dead. Diaram’s son himself was grievously injured, having been shot through the shoulder blade.

John Roach and Fullerton returned to Fort St George around 8 p.m. the same evening to a joyous welcome. A grand feast to celebrate the success which cost around 700 pagodas followed. The expense was accounted for in the books as ‘Charges Extraordinary’. In recognition of his services and display of valour, Roach was appointed the Major of all the Honourable Company’s forces on the Coromandel Coast and the island of Sumatra.

The Company’s possession of the villages was settled by a peace treaty signed with Saadatullah Khan in December 1718.

Today the battle is consigned to the footnotes in almost all chronicles of the Company’s growth. However, as John Keay mentions in his book The Honourable Company, this battle’s significance lies in the fact that it proved that the English could make limited interventions in a land that was fast degenerating into several small power centres following the decline of the Mughal Empire. This would set the tone for similar courses of action in the following decades, including the so-called Battle of the Adyar, that would eventually lead to the growth of the Empire.


Madras in the Olden Times, James Talboys Wheeler, 1861.
The Story of the ‘Present’ by V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar presented at the Indian Historical Records Commission, Gwalior 1929.
The Honourable Company by John Keay, 1993

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  1. Jayaraman Raghunathan says:

    Karthik, this is a beautiful piece of history and inspires me to write a few short stories as fall out flowers of this great banyan tree called History. kudos for a rivetting story telling!

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