Catalyst | Purnaiah and Talleyrand

Two statesmen and survivors lived curiously similar lives around the same time and in far sides of the world.

In high school, we learnt of the attempts at collaboration between Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Mysore’s Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Both powers were implacable enemies of an expansionist British empire near the end of the 18th century, and tried to coordinate their efforts against the British in different parts of the world. Napolean tried to conquer Egypt and capture the Suez, largely in part because he wanted access to the Red Sea and India.

Many British individuals ended up playing significant roles in both theatres of conflict, including a young Arthur Wellesley. who participated in the final siege of Srirangapatna. Wellesley became a governor of Mysore and won a decisive victory against the Marathas at Assaye, before being spotted back home and pulled to the campaign in Europe against Napoleon. His military successes eventually led him to become the first Duke of Wellington.

Tipu, Hyder Ali and Napoleon were strong personalities in their own way, and some comparisons have been drawn between them both back then and later on. The novelist Walter Scott (of Ivanhoe fame) allegedly* had this to say, at the abdication of Napoleon in 1814:

Although I never supposed that [Napoleon] possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Hyder Ally, yet I did think he might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution which induced Tippoo Sahib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand. [Wikipedia*]

However, the most astonishing duo were not the heads of state, but the Mysorean and French ministers Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

Talleyrand and Purnaiah

Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was a French politician and diplomat, who grew up and trained as a clergyman during the last years of the Ancien Régime. Early in his diplomatic career, Talleyrand was unsuccessfully sent to Britain to prevent war. This was just a year before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in the French revolution. Though he had to seek exile during the tumultuous early years of the French revolution, he managed to make it back and become the Foreign Minister. In this time he also started working alongside Napoleon Bonaparte and continued as foreign minister under him.

Talleyrand had a significant role to play in improving peace at stability through treaties between Napoleonic France and other European powers – complementing the emperor’s conquering zeal. Like Purnaiah, Talleyrand made it back again as the foreign minister when Louis XVIII was restored to power after Napoleon.

Purnaiah had an uncanny ability to be found indispensable, no matter who was ruling Mysore. A realist and a statesman in his own right, he managed to continually save his own fortunes as well as promote the public interest. As Vikram Sampath notes,

After Tipu was vanquished, when the British forces traced [Purnaiah] and compelled him to surrender he supposedly declared ‘How can I hesitate to surrender to a nation who is the protector of my tribe from Kashi to Rameshwaram?’ Of course the alternate view point has been that it was Tipu himself who urged his Prime Minister to flee and serve the next ruler of the Kingdom. [Statesman and a survivor, Deccan Herald, 2011]

The case was not very different with Talleyrand. Both Purnaiah and Talleyrand had conflicted relationships with their longest patrons – Tipu and Napoleon respectively. Both fell out of favour at times, and acted on their own interests when they had to, but remained important and impossible to ignore or completely sideline.

Here’s to two statesmen and survivors, from far sides of the world. Purnaiah and Talleyrand.

PS. I first heard of Talleyrand through a quote of his. “The one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit at it.”

Photo: Crops of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), Metropolitan Museum of Art & Purnaiya, Chief Minister of MysorYale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

*I say allegedly because I can find this on Wikipedia but am unable to find the original source.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.