The first recorded use of the word “rocket” was in 16th-century England, where it referred to a fiery stick used by children. The name likely came from the German word Rakete, which means “rocket.” Rockets were originally called fire arrows and they were used as weapons against enemies or for hunting game.
The rockets’ red glare national anthem is the United States National Anthem. The song was originally written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.
The South Asians who developed the short-range missile are responsible for America’s national anthem (and sold it to the British)
Britain was fighting a proxy war on the Indian subcontinent while fighting a revolution proclaimed by its American colonies. The British East India Company, a royally commissioned commercial corporation that combined the duties of commerce, administration, and military conquest and occupation half a globe away, was on the march. Similar organizations were working on behalf of the crown in other locations throughout the globe.
A 1704 map of the Indian subcontinent’s southern half depicts the beginnings of Mysore’s fight for independence from the British East India Company.
The British East India Company, founded in 1600 to trade in spices, tea, cotton, indigo, silks, and other goods, arrived in India in the early 1600s and gradually penetrated promising markets, gaining political clout in the process. In 1757, the Company’s armed troops, which were made up of Indian mercenaries known as sepoys who had been trained in European-style warfare, beat those of Bengal ruler Nawab Siraj ud Daula in the hamlet of Plassey. Using better military tactics and modern troops, the Company outwitted and outfought local authorities in successive triumphs. The Company gained tax collection rights by installing indigenous puppet characters at the helms of conquered regions. Imperialism, enforced on conquered areas as a way of expanding a British empire on which, it was claimed, “the sun never set,” became the Company’s main stock in trade. The Company shifted its focus to South India and the Kingdom of Mysore, which ruled a large triangular area at the subcontinent’s toe, the Deccan peninsula, after subjugating populations headed by famous Indians such as Siraj ud Daula, the last nawab of Bengal. Mysore fought back, resulting in a series of conflicts.
A map from 1780 depicts the extent of Mysore’s power.
Mysore was a self-contained principality that was landlocked, small, and on the verge of extinction. Haider Ali, a lucky soldier who had earned a name for himself fighting for Mysore, was given leadership of the kingdom’s army. Haider Ali defended Mysore against the Maratha Kingdom to the north, which was seeking to extract tribute and extend its territory at the expense of Mysore. Haider Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, dubbed “the Tiger of Mysore,” extended Mysore in all directions, conquering the Deccan peninsula. Greater Mysore, which stretched from the River Krishna in the north to beyond Dindigul in the southern Tamil Nadu region, was bordered on the west by the Arabian Sea and on the east by the Western Ghat Mountains. Seringapatam, an ancient temple island far inland, served as the kingdom’s capital.
Mysore’s army was upgraded by Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, who fielded over 100,000 regulars organized into cushoons, risalas, and juqs, which were equal to brigades, battalions, and companies. Theirs was the most well-equipped and disciplined of the indigenous armies. The majority of Indian soldiers still used swords and other edged weapons, with matchlock guns reserved for elite forces, but Mysore was mass-producing and distributing high-quality flintlocks. Heavy cavalry—armored horsemen on armored horses and elephants—was used by the majority of local troops. Light cavalry and musket-wielding infantry were mixed in the Mysore army, which was trained by European mercenaries. Riders of “fighting camels” trained to shoot their flintlocks with deadly precision while on the move.
The father and son were the first local rulers to recognize the British desire to conquer them. Other indigenous kings had a more difficult time. After defeating Mughal Emperor Shah Alam at Buxor in 1765, for example, the British compelled the emperor to give the Company tax collecting powers in vast northern regions. The Company troops, however, met their equal in the First Mysore War, which lasted from 1766 to 1769. The British pleaded for peace after being besieged by Haider Ali within the walled city of Madras, the company’s provincial headquarters in south India.
Mysore produced enough European-style flintlocks to challenge the British East India Company’s dominance over much of India at a period when most indigenous South Asian armies depended on swords and edged weapons. This locally manufactured flintlock musket was recently auctioned at Bonhams for £722,500 ($993,234). (Sotheby’s, The Tipu Sultan Sale, 25th May 2005) (Private collection)
The Second Mysore War erupted as a result of further Company invasions (1780-84). In September 1780, at Pollilur, near Kanchipuram, the father-son pair and their freedom fighters whipped Company troops, in part by deploying corps of rocketeers who shot explosive projectiles with frightening effectiveness at Company sepoys. The Mysoreans, who had long used bamboo rockets for signaling, constructed iron rockets and loaded them with gunpowder. Tipu’s rocketeers were taught to fire projectiles from handheld or shoulder mounts, as well as from carts that were stacked for optimum impact. Rockets inflicted significant damage, terror, and suffering among Company troops at Pollilurm. That loss was dubbed “the greatest catastrophe that had befallen British weapons in India” by Sir Hector Munro, and the dismay on the battlefield echoed back home in Britain.
Mysorean resistance to British tyranny generated a lot of respect in revolutionary America. The Pennsylvania legislature commissioned the USS Hyder-Ally as a warship in 1781. A friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, poet Philip Freneau, wrote a poem on the ship:
She gets her name from an Eastern prince, who avenges his country’s wrongs by smiting Usurping Britons with freedom’s holy flame.
Three American privateers, including Hyder-Ally, were assaulted by British warships in 1782 as they led a fleet of five rebel merchantmen through Cape May and into Delaware Bay. On the battleship General Monk, which the Americans seized, the British lost almost 50 men and every officer.
Three British vessels, including the Hyder-Ally, assaulted three American privateers in 1782 as they led a fleet of five rebel merchantmen through Cape May and into Delaware Bay. The British lost more than 50 men and every officer aboard the battleship General Monk, which the Americans seized, in the following fight. Lieutenant Joshua Barney, commander of the Hyder-Ally, was decorated and sent to France with messages for Benjamin Franklin.
Haider and Tipu were also mentioned in dispatches by well-known Americans. From Paris, Thomas Jefferson, the French minister, gave a detailed account of Tipu’s mission to that country. To his mother, a young John Quincy Adams wrote about the British defeat at Pollilur. The practice of naming racehorses after Indian leaders became fashionable. The opposing parties in Williams v. Cabarrus, a case filed in 1793 in North Carolina, contested a horse racing wager. “Hyder Ally” was the name of one of the horses.
When General Lord Charles Cornwallis, who surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, was appointed governor-general of India in 1786, the Company got its vengeance. During the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1790-92), Cornwallis commanded Company troops against Tipu Sultan, establishing alliances with other regional powers against Mysore.
Tipu Sultan, who refused to engage into convenient alliances, lasted long enough to be a thorn in the Empire’s side, resulting in the Fourth Mysore War (1798-99). In laying siege to Tipu’s stronghold at Seringapatam, a coalition of Marathas joined the Nizam, as Hyderabad’s ruler was called, the nawab of Carnatic, and other Company allies. Tipu Sultan gave his life in defense of Mysore and independence. In response, on July 4, 1800, John Russell, a Baptist preacher in Providence, Rhode Island, spoke to his congregation, recounting Tipu’s death while fighting for independence. Russell stated Tipu Sultan “defended his authority with a passion that demonstrated he earned it.” “He died in a manner befitting a king.” The Company sent seized Mysorean projectiles to the United Kingdom, where armorer Sir William Congreve replicated their characteristics, resulting in Congreve rockets.
Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, was on a diplomatic mission aboard a British ship in Baltimore port on September 14, 1814. He saw the British attack Fort McHenry with Congreve rockets for 25 hours. The Stars and Stripes were still flying at daybreak, according to Key. His poetry was turned into the National Anthem after being adapted to a famous song. (Halftone based on a 1913 artwork by Edward Percy Moran.)
Mysore faded from American consciousness, yet a relic of the Indian state found its way into American society. In 1814, American novelist Francis Scott Key was aboard a truce ship during a British naval siege of Baltimore, Maryland. After seeing a 25-hour bombardment of Congreve rockets carving crimson lines across the black sky but failing to bring down Fort McHenry, Key penned a doggerel poem about “the rockets’ red brilliance” and “bombs exploding in air” as the fort held out through the night. Set to the melody of the traditional drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” Key’s lyrics became the American national anthem, immortalizing the Congreve rocket, which had ancestors in the Kingdom of Mysore. A painting of Mysorean rockets wreaking havoc among British troops during the Second Mysore War is on display at a National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, in honor of that connection—a tribute to the arc of history that connects nations halfway around the globe.
Mohammed M. Masood, a Bangalore-based independent historian, specializing in medieval Indian history. He is a numismatist, bibliophile, and collector of ancient South Indian edged weapons, and is pursuing a master’s degree in history. He may be contacted at [email protected] and blogs at www.bygonechronicles.com.
The the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air meaning is a phrase that has been used since the early 1800s. It was originally written by William Whiting.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the rockets red glare?
The rockets red glare was a phrase that originated from the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson. In this poem, the speaker is describing a battle between British and Russian soldiers during the Crimean War.
What did the glare from the rockets and bombs allow key to see?
The glare from the rockets and bombs allowed key to see what was happening on the battlefield.
Why does The Star Spangled Banner mention rockets?
The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. It was originally meant to be a poem that would be sung on the battlefield at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.
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