With the United States and India strengthening military, diplomatic, and economic ties in response to a rising China, it appears the Asia-Pacific region is due for a grand strategic makeover. However, any attempt to bring the world’s two largest democracies closer together will have to account for history. For nearly two centuries, America’s primary exposure to India was through the British Raj, and after a brief moment in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported independence, the countries drifted apart during the Cold War.
That said, the growing alignment of the 21st century is not new. The United States and India aligned strategically before — at the former’s founding.
In the early 1780s, as now, the two countries faced a rising regional hegemon in Asia. In the late 18th century, it was Great Britain, then on a path of rapid but uncoordinated conquest across the Indian subcontinent. Fretting over Britain’s precarious debt situation after the Seven Years’ War, King George III proclaimed that tax revenue obtained by the East India Company would save “the real glory of this nation.” With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the colonial power’s primary antagonist was the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore, originally ruled by a Hindu dynasty, but then under the control of two Muslim soldier-statesmen, Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Already a powerful state within the region, Mysore under these cunning usurpers augmented its military with European weapons and tactics and fueled it with a rapidly developing economy. Shortly after the end of the Seven Years’ War, which saw France expelled from most of the subcontinent, Mysore went to war and defeated the East India Company, checking it militarily for the first time. The Company, based in Madras on the southeast coast of modern-day India, prioritized avoiding another war with Hyder. The War of American Independence changed all that.
America’s rebellion brought France into the war in 1778, which reignited Anglo-French hostilities around the world. In addition to a few outposts, the French had maintained relations with Indian rulers, including supplying Mysore with arms and mercenaries. Hyder watched the Company and remaining French forces battle in his neighborhood until the British took Mahé, a French port through which he received arms. He then took a massive army and swept down the plain outside Madras in 1780, stunning the Company’s leadership in Calcutta and the British government. At the end of that summer, a Mysorean army under Tipu Sultan decimated the Company’s main force at Pollilur.
Asking for reinforcements, the Company leadership wrote, “The object that is at stake is the preservation of India to Great Britain” and the associated advantages of its “Asiatic dominions.” Meanwhile, Lord Charles Cornwallis was in a stalemate with George Washington in North America; a British expedition to Spanish Nicaragua failed miserably; and the Dutch entered the war on the side of Spain, France, and the United States. Across the globe, Britain was under siege and Mysore threatened their position in the most promising colony.
America and Mysore had the same strategy for defeating Britain — enlisting the aid of foreign powers. Hyder wrote to Tipu, “The English are today all powerful in India… Put the nations of Europe one against the other. It is by the aid of the French that you could conquer the British armies which are better trained than the Indian.”
The American colonists and the sultans were aware of each other’s struggle. In the years since the Seven Years’ War, more colonists had gone from fervent supporters of British expansion in Asia to impassioned opposition in line with their changing views on empire. Unable to spare the resources for a proposed expedition to the subcontinent, the Continental Congress encouraged its pirate navy to attack East India Company ships, and Pennsylvania commissioned a ship named the Hyder-Ally. Tipu reportedly ordered a copy of the Declaration of Independence, in a prelude to his ringing endorsement of the French Revolution.
Meanwhile, as in North America, allying with the French remained key to defeating the British. In a parallel to recent French-Indian naval cooperation, France sent one of its most renowned admirals, Pierre Andre de Suffren, to coordinate with Hyder and battle the British fleet backing the East India Company, a campaign covered in detail by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his classic naval study The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Ultimately, however, the war fell into a stalemate as Hyder Ali passed away, and just as the French-Mysorean coalition appeared to regain the upper hand, the participants received word of the peace of Paris, making the Battle of Cuddalore in 1983 between the British fleet and de Suffren’s the last combat of the wider war sparked by the American Revolution. Tipu signed a separate treaty with the British supporting the pre-war status quo, though he dictated the terms.
Tipu’s fortune would run out, however; the British reoriented their focus on India in the aftermath of losing America. With a reform bill, Parliament undertook greater oversight of the East India Company, moving one step closer to the Raj. A force under Lord Cornwallis, redeeming himself after Yorktown, defeated Mysore in 1792; another campaign led by the Duke of Wellington, responding to Napoleon’s desire to link up with Tipu via Egypt, killed Tipu and reinstalled a pro-British, Hindu dynasty in 1799, ending the most serious threat to British dominance in India.
But for a brief moment in the early 1780s — and an important moment in each of their histories — the United States and India were aligned in their goal: contain the British Empire. In the 21st century, the rising threat comes from China, now on a campaign to cement power over its own neighborhood, spread commercial influence to its west with the Belt and Road Initiative, and reorient its place in the global system. However, if in the late 18th century the United States and India sought to challenge the status quo of British dominance, today they are largely attempting to uphold the existing order. If history rhymes, it tells us that a U.S.-India strategic alignment is not so new.
Richard Sambasivam is a master of public affairs candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His essay, “British Global Ambitions and Indian Identity,” will be published in the Smithsonian Press’s The American Revolution: A World War, forthcoming November 2018.