Sharpe's Tiger


Bernard Cornwell




Date Reviewed:

December 15, 2021

picked this book up because I know almost nothing about the Napoleonic Wars, other than that Napoleon lost at Moscow and Waterloo. This lengthy series (21 books!) by Bernard Cornwell apparently contrives to put his hero, Richard Sharpe, at each of the major battles fought by the British against Napoleon. So if I managed to read the entire series, I should have a much better grasp of the wars that convulsed the European continent at the start of the nineteenth century. Sharpe's Tiger is the first book in the series, and it is based in India - a prequel to the battle with the French.

Sharpe's Tiger - The Siege of Seringapatam, 1799 introduces the reader to Richard Sharpe, an illiterate private in the 33rd Regiment. The British army is marching through India to confront the Muslim ruler of Mysore, called the Tippoo. The Tippoo controls southern India, and dreams to expelling the British invaders from the sub-continent and setting up his own empire. The British are equally determined to wrest south India away from the Tippoo's reign and subjugate all of India to British imperialism. The armies march, and Richard Sharpe marches with them. But Sharpe doesn't like being the army, and is considering deserting. He hasn't bolted yet because he needs a good scheme for making good his escape; getting caught would mean execution as a deserter. Sharpe must make plans. Unfortunately, Sharpe has become enamored with a camp follower named Mary Bickerstaff. If Sharpe flees, could he convince Mary to run with him?

The British encounter the Tippoo's army in the open, and a battle ensues. Sharpe is delighted to be in a battle - fighting is much more interesting than the constant marching and then waiting. Fighting brings a chance for looting, which means potential wealth. Perhaps Sharpe can find enough wealth to aid his escape to civilian life.

The 33rd regiment forms up in a double line - it is a long thin line of 700 men bearing muskets. The Tippoo's army comes closer...and the 33rd Regiment fires all of its muskets. After the first volley, the 33rd fixes bayonets and charges through the smoke to confront the Tippoo's army. It quickly becomes a rout, the British destroy the Tippoo's men. The Tippoo and his remaining army retreat to the fortress of Seringapatam. Sharpe finds some loot on the dead soldiers. It seems like a good day...

Meanwhile, a British officer, Colonel McCandless, has been in contact with a member of the Tippoo's inner council. McCandless learns that the Tippoo has constructed a lethal trap along the west wall of Seringapatam. If the British army attacks Seringapatam from the west, hidden explosives will be detonated that will shatter the advancing troops. Unfortunately, before McCandless can relay this vital information to his superiors, he is captured by the Tippoo's forces and dragged into the dungeons of Seringapatam. The British officers are worried when McCandless does not returned, and hatch a dubious, desperate scheme to send a "deserter" into the Tippoo's fortress at Seringapatam.

Sergeant Hakeswill belongs to the 33rd regiment, and he envies how Sharpe as won the affection of Mary Bickerstiff. Hakeswill decides to kill Sharpe, so that Mary will be defenseless without her protector and vulnerable to him. Hakeswill traps Sharpe, staging a scene that makes it appear Sharpe is guilty of striking an officer. Punishment is 2000 whips of the lash, a punishment so severe it is certain to kill any man. But before the whips can complete the sentence, the British officers stop the flogging and order Sharpe to be patched up and sent to their tent. In the tent, General Harris offers Sharpe a choice - enter in the Tippoo's fortress and discover the fate of McCandless. Or else the flogging can resume. Naturally, Sharpe opts for the perilous task of becoming a spy, rather than face certain death by whipping.

Cornwell does his best to describe the battle conditions, the way the armies fought, the strategy of the British and the Tippoo. Details throughout the novel lend authenticity to the story. For example, the loading of the muskets or the uniform get mentioned. Cornwell shows how the British officers are notoriously careless with the men in their army. The climatic battle apparently is an accurate account of the actual battle of Seringapatam. Sharpe, of course, survives (another 20 novels to go!), which is pretty amazing, considering all the flying bullets. The muskets were notoriously inaccurate, but Sharpe naturally is an expert shot.

This seems like a pretty good introduction to the series. During the events of this novel, they mention Napoleon is campaigning in Eqypt. I assume that in the next novel, Sharpe and the 33rd will be confronting Napoleon. I will have to get Sharpe's Triumph from the the library next.