George Gray’s embassy to Hyder Ali - 1780

"On 14th January 1780, I was appointed by the select committee to proceed to Srirangapatna, on an embassy to Nawab Hyder Ali Khan, to demand the release of some English subjects who had been stopped at Calicut by Sardar Khan, Hyder's faujdar there, but I was particularly instructed by Sir Thomas Rumbold to endeavour to bring Hyder into a better understanding with the English than he had for some time shown and if possible to gain his confidence."

(The Journal of Mr. George Gray)

In a previous post, we explored Father Schwartz's mission to Hyder Ali. Now, let's explore an intriguing account of George Gray's embassy to Hyder Ali, the envoy of Thomas Rumbold, the governor of Madras. Unlike Schwartz, Gray was met with a very cold reception from Hyder.

The tale begins when Sardar Khan seized a Danish ship with cargo on the Malabar coast in November 1779. The passengers were looted and taken as captives to Srirangapatna. However, upon discovering that there were no military personnel among them, Hyder ordered their release.

Upon the first intelligence of this capture, Thomas Rumbold decided to send an envoy to Hyder to demand the release of the prisoners and explore the possibility of establishing a friendly alliance.

The person selected for this task was George Gray, a former member of the Bengal civil service. On January 20th, 1780, Gray departed from Madras. He had to wait at Ambur, the British frontier, for a few days to obtain his passport from Hyder. During this time, the prisoners had already been released, and Gray had the chance to meet them at Ambur.

Gray, however determined to proceed to Srirangapatna for his second mission. Finally, on February 5th, he obtained his passport and continued his journey.

Upon reaching Rayakottai, Gray received a letter from Hyder, which he described as disrespectful and stripping him of his title. Gray was permitted to continue his journey with only a small retinue. When he neared the capital, Hyder sent another letter, explaining that there was no room for Gray within the city walls, but he had arranged a quarters for Gray approximately two miles from Srirangapatna.

On February 14th, Gray reached his quarters and was surprised to find that no officers from Hyder's court had come to welcome him. The quarters he was given were in an old ruinous choultry, half filled with artillery ropes and yokes. Gray's attendants were not permitted to go with a message to Hyder, and none of his people stirred from the shed without being openly attended by a spy.

On the evening of February 18th, Hyder granted Gray an audience. When Gray reached Hyder's palace, he was led to a crowded open veranda, filled with peons, sepoys, messengers, and other courtiers. He described the experience, saying, "There I was stared at and made an object of curiosity to all that passed...I was detained in this place nearly two hours. When ashamed of my situation and impatient at the indignity put upon me, I ordered one of the Nawab's messengers that attended me, to go and tell that if the Nawab was not at leisure then to receive my visit I would go and come another time." 

Description of Hyder's Court:

Eventually, Gray was escorted to the durbar. As Gray paid his respects by removing his hat and bowing, Hyder responded with a simple and silent salam, placing his hand on his turban. Hyder was seated in the middle of the durbar, between two pillars, on a crimson velvet musnud edged with gold lace. A sword and shield rested beside him, while an attendant stood behind him holding a gold moorchal.

Hyder was dressed in a short Jama open on the left side, with his sleeves tucked up to show a pair of diamond bracelets and had a large diamond ring on his finger. Gray was seated to Hyder's right on a carpet. He then presented Hyder with Thomas Rumbold's letters. Rumbold had also sent gifts of a saddle and a gun for Hyder, which Gray delivered to Hyder's attendants.

At this time, Gray received a letter from Thomas Rumbold instructing him to inform Hyder of the European goods that would pique his interest. Hyder replied that he had about 600 coss of sea coast from near Goa to below Calicut where ships of all nations resorted and he had his own ships to procure whatever he needed. He also mentioned the great expenses his forts cost him.

As the saddle and gun were presented, Gray explained the unique design of the gun and its specific handling requirements to Hyder. After a brief examination, Hyder assured Gray that he would send someone the next morning to learn how to use it. Hyder then granted Gray permission to depart.

The next morning, Muhammad Osman, a confidant of Hyder, returned the gifts. He explained that the saddle, not of Hindustani design, held no value to the Nawab. He also expressed concerns about the gun's susceptibility to malfunction, as the local workmen do not know how to repair it.

On February 21st, Gray proceeded to the private audience he had requested in order to discuss the purpose of his embassy. He was informed that personal audiences were not customary, so Gray had to convey his messages to Hyder through his confidants, Muhammad Osman and Muhammad Ghias. Gray informed them of his second mission, which was to strengthen the alliance between Hyder and the British by forming a closer union of interest.

The confidants passed to the durbar and soon arrived with Hyder's reply. Hyder said that he would have been glad of the friendship of the British, but questioned its purpose. The confidants added that Hyder concluded one treaty with the British in 1769, which he had faithfully followed, but the British had failed in every point and the treaty is absolutely broken. They emphasized the British's failure to provide the promised assistance during the Maratha invasion that ruined Mysore.

Gray stated that he had not come to speak of old grievances under former governments, but to propose a remedy against new ones. He emphasized that the current British officials were eager to establish a strong alliance with Hyder and could provide military support when needed.

Osman and Ghias argued that Hyder does not need any assistance and was strong enough to take care of himself. They also mentioned the exorbitant payments made by Nawab Muhammad Ali Wallajah to maintain favor with the King of England.

Gray stated that the British sought Hyder's friendship not out of weakness or fear, as they were quite powerful in India at that time. Thomas Rumbold had sent him with the belief that it would be mutually beneficial for Hyder and the British to unite their interests. Gray declared that after informing Hyder of the friendly intentions of the British government towards him, he had fulfilled his mission. He would either return with Hyder's answer or write to the governor about the outcome of their meeting.

Hyder asked Gray to write to Madras and remain at Srirangapatna until he received a reply. Since Hyder's post did not allow him to send letters, Gray had to use special messengers.

In his journal, Gray noted that despite his repeated requests, he was not allowed to visit Hyder until March 19th. On that day, Hyder informed Gray that he would grant him an audience of leave that evening.

Final Meeting with Hyder:

Gray wrote, "I was conducted to the same outward apartment as on my last visit, where I waited near two hours before I was sent for. In the durbar, I was placed at a greater distance from the Nawab, than before, separate from the other people in his front, so as to be an object of exhibition to the whole durbar. He did not speaks to me, and scarce deigned to look towards me.

I determined as he had sent for me for a particular purpose, not to be the first to speak, especially as I was seated so far from him that I could not address him without being heard by the whole durbar. Although it was his desire that I should write to Madras an account of the conference I had at my preceding visit. Yet he could not but suppose that the letter I had received was an answer to what I wrote. I thought it would not only be ineffectual, but regarding to speak concerning it, as everything convinced me I had no favourable answer to expect, I was resolved not to give him an opportunity of making me an insulting one, in the face of the durbar.

After I had sat above an hour in silence, some gold stuff, a shawl and two bags of 500 rupees each were brought to me with betel and attar."

Hyder then gave him passport and a letter for the governor. Here is the content of that letter:

"When Chanda Sahib and the French formerly invested the fort of Trichonopoly, the promises and engagements you then made have not been performed on your part; afterwards the governor and council concluded a treaty of friendship between me and the company; the substance of which was as follows: they would consider those who are my friends or enemies, to be friends or enemies to them, and that we should mutually assist each other when circumstances required. I assured myself that the Company would not swerve from their engagements. The treaty above alluded to you will have in your possession, and which you will please to peruse.

At the time of the war between me and the Marathas, although I did not stand in need of your assistance, yet, in order to know whether you regarded your engagements, I repeatedly requested you to send me a small body of troops, pursuant to your promises; but you then omitted to send them. Some time ago you wrote me you would assist Basalat Jung with troops, and you did so accordingly, and a skirmish happened between my troops and those of yours.

Besides this, yours and my boundaries bordering on one another, from Dindigul to Cuddapah, frequent disturbances arise from the people on your side. The commandant of Tellicherry in particular has afforded protection to the nairs belonging to my country and has given refuge to their families within his bounds, has supplied them with arms and ammunition, and incited them to raise disturbances in my territories, and they have plundered a country worth 20 lacs of rupees and are still continuing to ravage it. When such improper conduct is pursued, what engagements will remain inviolate? I leave it to the judgment of you and your counsel to determine, on whose part the engagements and promises have been infringed." (19th March 1780).

Gray wrote, "And thus ended my embassy to the Nawab Hyder Ali Khan Bahadur during the course of which I was rather received and treated as a spy than an ambassador, and rather confined than lodged." Gray set out on 20th and arrived at Madras in ten days.


During his visit, Gray presented a letter to Hyder, written by Thomas Rumbold, the governor of Madras. The letter stated that, in addition to the Company's vast military resources, a fresh army had arrived from England. The object of the Company was to maintain peace in India with all the native powers. However, their warlike preparations had resulted in significant expenses, which would be still further increased by keeping in constant readiness a disposable force sufficient to quell all disturbances and prevent any hostilities. The letter concluded by demanding ten lacs of pagodas from Hyder, to assist the Company in carrying out its peaceful policy, the payment of which would entitle him to their uniform support and alliance.

Hyder replied, "The request of the East-India Company is doubtless fair and reasonable; the money shall be forthcoming; but, as I am a strict observer of my word, I purpose bringing the tribute in person. In the mean time. Sir, you and your monkey (Gray had one of those animals with him) may return to Madras." 


Historical Sketches of the South of India by Mark Wilks
Reports from Committees of the House of Commons 1781-82