Orders, Decorations and Medals (25 September 2008)

Date of Auction: 25th September 2008

Sold for £7,800

Estimate: £7,000 - £9,000

The extremely rare and important Seringapatam Gold Medal awarded to General Sir David Baird, who commanded at the storming and capture of that place in 1799, when ‘shot fell around him in every direction like hail’

Honourable East India Company Medal for Seringapatam 1799
, gold, obverse, the British Lion subduing a tiger, the emblem of Tipu Sultan’s Government, with a banner above bearing the Union badge and an Arabic inscription ‘Assud otta-ul Ghaulib’ (‘The conquering Lion of God’), on the ground below the tiger the artist’s initials, ‘C. H. K.’, in the exergue ‘IV. MAY. MDCCXCIX’, reverse, a representation of the storming of the breach at Seringapatam (based on a drawing that was made on the spot), with the meridian sun denoting the time of the storm, in the exergue, in Persian, ‘The Fort of Seringapatam, the gift of God, the 4th May 1799’, Soho Mint, Birmingham striking, 48mm. diameter, pierced at 12 o’clock and fitted with gold ring suspension, edge bruising and contact marks, otherwise good very fine £7000-9000

Footnote

Ex ‘The Baird Jewels’, Dix Noonan Webb, 19 September 2003 (Lot No. 4), when purchased by the present vendor.

Just 30 original Gold Medals for Seringapatam were struck by Matthew Boulton’s Soho Mint in Birmingham. The later, Calcutta Mint issues, which were smaller and of inferior quality, were ordered by the Bengal Presidency several years later.

General Sir David Baird, truly one of Scotland’s greatest heroes, was a giant of a man in every sense, his height and physique far exceeding the standards of the day. He had the courage to match, his leadership at the storming of Seringapatam in 1799 being a typical example. On that memorable occasion he climbed on to the parapet of the forward trench and yelled, in his loud booming voice, “Now, my brave fellows, follow me and prove yourselves worthy of the name of British soldiers!” They did.

Here, then, Baird in action; an inspiring, tough, no-nonsense soldier, whose career encompassed many displays of great physical stamina and courage. Captured at Pollilur in 1780, after having received two sabre wounds to his head, a pike-wound in his arm and a musket ball in his thigh, young Baird was cast into the dungeons of Seringapatam, where his wounds festered and his compatriots died at an alarming rate. He endured this living hell for over three years, most of them in chains, gaily drinking the King’s health on each passing Fourth of June (the King’s birthday), all the while aware that death by poisoning or torture was the probable outcome of his defiance.

Then there was that occasion at Corunna in 1809 when he was hit by a round shot that ‘all but wrenched his left arm off at the shoulder’ and ‘literally shattered the bone to pieces.’ Undaunted, and aware that the nature of his wounds might unsteady others, he dismissed the services of two field surgeons (with instructions to go to the assistance of his gallant chief, Sir John Moore), and then calmly proceeded to walk down to a ship in the harbour. So successful were his efforts to disguise the true nature of his wounds that those he passed en route formed the impression that there was nothing wrong with him at all. When at length a surgeon did remove the shattered arm from its socket, after much grisly preparation, just a single exclamation of pain was uttered briefly by the gallant Scotsman.

If Baird’s impressive soldierly qualities brought him to the favourable notice of his seniors, his spectacular displays of bad temper achieved quite the opposite, and undoubtedly lost him command in the field on several occasions and probably a peerage. Even Baird’s mother drew attention to her son’s tendency to fly-off-the-handle, stating as she did, on learning that he was manacled to a fellow officer in the dungeons of Seringapatam, “God help the poor wee child chained to our Davie”. Such sentiments were certainly not lost on the Wellesley brothers, Arthur, the soldier (afterwards the Duke of Wellington), and Richard, Earl of Mornington, the Governor-General (afterwards the Marquess of Wellesley), both of whom were recipients of serious “Baird Broadsides.” So, too, presumably, was the Guards officer who described him as ‘a bloody old bad-tempered Scotchman.’

On those occasions when Baird had had appointments to which he felt entitled plucked from his grasp, he understandably suffered from great frustration and an abiding sense of injustice. Baird was no political animal, but rather a straight-talking, honourable and gallant leader of men, and the fact that others might be governed by different values was too much for him to bear. Fatally, too, Baird’s temper sometimes erupted right on the heels of a favourable despatch, as it eventually made its way back to Madras and/or London for due consideration and reward. So it was at Seringapatam in 1799, when Arthur Wellesley was given command of that place soon after Baird had led the storming party to capture it. As Wellesley’s senior officer, the much-irked Baird famously observed, ‘before the sweat was dry on my brow, I was superseded by an inferior.’

Nor was luck on his side after he had commanded H.M.’s forces at the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, a victory of immense importance to the continuing expansion of British interests in Africa, and for that matter in India. Persuaded to do so against his better judgement, he lent some of his troops to an ill-fated South American expedition, thereby incurring the wrath of his seniors back home.

Yet, vitally, there was little officialdom could do to diminish Baird’s popularity with the British people at large, the vast majority having long since been captivated by the man who survived the dungeons of Seringapatam, and never more so than when they read of his exploits at the final storming of that place in 1799, or of his extraordinary trek across the desert in Egypt in 1801. His exploits at Corunna, too, added greatly to his laurels, so much so that he was appointed a Knight Companion of the Bath (K.B., afterwards G.C.B.) and, in the following year, to a Baronetcy. Yet for an age where there were ‘Bishops in bibs and Colonels in short frocks’ such distinctions were long overdue.

In the early 1830s, Baird’s biographer, Theodore Hook, felt moved to write:

‘Certain it is, that the annals of military history do not record a similar instance of inattention or coldness, exhibited against a soldier first amongst the bravest and the best, who never hesitated to put himself in the front of the battle, and who never, where he commanded, quitted the field but triumphantly.’

Even the Duke of Wellington, in commenting on Baird’s famous temper and lack of tact, admitted in the same breath that he was a “gallant, hard-headed, lion-hearted officer.”