Haidar Ali (1721-1782) was the Indian ruler of Mysore. He was the most formidable enemy of the British in their struggle for supremacy in South India.
Born at Budikote in Mysore, Haidar Ali started his career as a soldier. In 1749 he was a petty officer in the Mysore army attending on the nizam, theoretically the Mogul deputy in South India. The nizam was assassinated in 1750, and in the ensuing confusion Haidar came by enough wealth to equip his own contingent and to distinguish himself in the service of Nanjraj, the new strong man of Mysore.
Nanjraj's involvement in the Anglo-French contest for supremacy in India gave Haidar the opportunity to master the art of warfare and learn the value of European as compared to Indian military training. Under Nanjraj, Mysore went bankrupt. Haidar, known for efficient leadership, first rose to be Nanjraj's most trusted lieutenant and later replaced him as usurper. Some nobles, in conspiracy with the Marathas, almost ousted him, but because of developments in North India the Marathas withdrew, and Haidar recovered full control in 1761. By 1764 he had extended his sway northward well beyond the Tungabhadra. For the rest of his life, with his superior diplomacy and strong army, Haidar Ali struggled to retain or add to his possessions against the Marathas in the northwest and the British on the east and west coasts.
The Marathas made four very damaging campaigns against Haidar. But after the death of their greatest leader, Madhava Rao I, in 1772, Haidar exploited their internal discords and their confrontation with the British to extend his control beyond the Tungabhadra to the Krishna, and then he enlisted their support against the British.
Haidar tried to gain the friendship of the British to be able to cope with the Marathas, but the British wanted to undermine his power. In the inevitable First Anglo-Mysore War (1767-1769), the British were forced to enter a treaty of mutual defense with him. But during the subsequent Maratha-Mysore wars, the British did not keep their promise. Knowing that his peace with the Marathas could not endure, in 1780 Haidar launched his second war against the British to eliminate their influence from South India. The French, hoping to regain a foothold in India, sent help but not enough for him to realize his goal. Still he was more than holding his own in 1782, when he died of cancer aggravated by overexertion.
Haidar owed his success to extraordinary determination, diligence, and a sense of realism which enabled him to always proceed from calm calculation. The last quality brought him many victories, but even in his repeated reverses it served to keep defeats from becoming utter routs. In diplomacy and civil administration, it enabled him to gear his policies to utility rather than passion and become the power that he was.
N. K. Sinha, Haidar Ali (1941), is a balanced biography. An old account is Lewin B. Bowring, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan (1893). Two works indispensable for an understanding of South Indian history during the 18th century are Robert Orme, A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (2 vols., 1763-1778; vol. 1, rev. ed., 1799), a vivid picture of the period to 1761; and Mark Wilks, Historical Sketches of the South of India, in an Attempt to Trace the
History of Mysore (3 vols., 1810-1817; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1869), particularly valuable for evidence derived from "living characters." More recent surveys include K. M. Panikkar, A Survey of Indian History (1947; 4th rev. ed. 1964); J. C. Powell-Price, A History of India (1955); Percival Spear, India:A Modern History (1961); and Michael Edwardes, A History of India (1961).