“The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape, of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the Dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib” by James Scurry

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This memoir was first published in London in 1824, two years after the death of the author. Born in Devonshire, James Scurry had gone to sea at a very young age, probably accompanying his father. His Indian ordeal began at the age of 15 when he was captured by the French off the Coromandel Coast and handed over to Hyder Ali. After a decade in captivity he made a daring escape and managed to return to England where he built a chequered career, and died at the age of age of 57, leaving behind a widow and son.

Scurry begins his amateurish narrative by telling us he set sail from Plymouth Sound in the ship Hannibal and ended up near Ceylon where they ran into trouble with the French. He dived into the shark-infested waters and tried to swim to safety. “I had nothing about me but a silk handkerchief with two rupees, all my treasure, tied up in the corner.” He mentions Trincomalee, Batticaloa (which he called Bloody Bay), Tranquebar and finally Cuddalore where he was taken along with others after his capture. The year was 1781.

After two months of imprisonment in Hyder Ali’s fort of ‘Chillembroom’ where a famine was raging, the prisoners were marched off to Bangalore. “No butcher ever drove oxen with more cruelty than we were driven.”

Eventually, a group of 52 boys aged 12 to 17 were assembled and told they were now the ‘sons’ of Hyder Ali. They were marched off to Seringapatam, and their heads shaved. Months passed and Hyder Ali ‘Cawn’ died. “…towards the close of his life, when the ulcer was rapidly spreading, he, by advice, ordered several criminals at different times to be killed, in order to apply their livers to his sore.”

Scurry makes an intriguing observation that, “Hyat Saib was the rightful successor, but Tipoo proved the more powerful.” (Hyat (Ayaz Khan), was a Nambiar boy from Chirakkal who had been captured in 1766, converted and re-named before growing to be a prime favourite of Hyder Ali. Hyder is said to have publicly proclaimed that he wished Ayaz was his son and successor.) Did Hyder actually nominate Ayaz to succeed him? Or was Scurry referring to palace whispers?

Tipu’s accession aggravated the misery of the English captives, as they were incorporated into slave battalions. “Our ears were bored and a slave’s mark was put in each of them.”

Scurry describes the fate of Brahmin prisoners and English officers in Tipu’s custody. “…Colonel Bailey, who was in leg irons, with Captian Rumney, and Lieutenant Fraser and Sampson. The three latter had their throats cut at Mysore. Colonel Bailey appeared much emaciated; I rather think grief was the cause of destroying his constitution.”

Of the Malabar (Mangalore) Christians, Scurry records that 30,000 of them were driven to Seringapatam, “where all who were fit to carry arms were circumcised, and formed into four battalions.” Tipu wanted their daughters for his harem and when they refused, they were all imprisoned. “The chumbars, or sandal-makers were then sent for, and their noses, ears and upper lips were cut off; they were then mounted on asses, their faces towards the tail and led through Patam…”

“The principal street in Seringapatam, on each side, was ornamented with paintings, such as, elephants whirling Europeans in the air – tigers seizing whole battalions of English sepoys – five or six English officers supplicating for mercy…” Later when Tipu feared the English would get to Seringapatam, these paintings were removed.

Scurry asserts that Tipu was a coward and a tyrant, and probably mentally deranged. Tipu kept nine large tiger cages in front of his treasury. Three of his principal officers were thrown to the tigers and devoured in an instant. The tigers didn’t live long either. Tipu went hunting and brought in new ones. Scurry describes in detail the unique instruments of torture that Tipu used. “But his most common mode of punishment was that of drawing to death by the elephant’s feet.” This corroborates the accounts of other writers in Malayalam and English.

Scurry also describes Tipu’s ‘games’ that would have put the ancient Romans to shame. When Tipu concluded peace with the British in 1784, and the customary exchange of prisoners took place, Scurry and a 100 other boys were sorely disappointed. Had their government forsaken them? Scurry records that he went into depression for three months.

To cut a long story short, Scurry was circumcised, re-named Shamsher Khan (he spells it Shum Shu Cawn), and forced to marry a dark-skinned girl from Arcot, also a prisoner. “She was an affectionate creature by whom I had two children, one died and the other I left in the arms of its distracted mother.” Scurry eventually escaped into Mahratta territory and returned to England in 1793. His efforts to trace his wife and child proved futile. Recounting his final moments with them he wrote, “I was eager to give them a final embrace; but fearful of the consequences. Oh my God! What were my sensations then! And even now, after a lapse of more than thirty years!”

Scurry’s language and spellings are quaint. We hear of him speaking the “Moorish’ language, the Canary language and the Tellingey language. He also recounts ‘seeing the Bramin women ascend the funeral pyre with the dead bodies of their husbands, apparently with as much composure as we would sit down to our breakfast.” His words are straight from the heart of an unlettered man.

Overall Assessment: Certainly worth reading.

The captivity, sufferings, and escape of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib
Author: James Scurry
Publisher: Forgotten Books
Year of Publication: 2015 (Original 1824)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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