Congreve rocket, from schematic by Sir William Congreve, dated 1814 — William Congreve [Public Domain]
Many times in your life you find yourself repeating words without really thinking about what you’re saying.
When you’re singing along in the car with a song on the radio, you often don’t stop to think if the words make complete sense. The same thing can happen with words in a poem or statement of deeper meaning as well.
For instance, in the American national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, there’s the mention of bombs bursting in air and the red glare of rockets. Most will know this is a description of the 1812 British attack on Fort McHenry. However, where did the rockets come from? They’re a modern invention, aren’t they?
Well, this wasn’t poetic license or a turn of phrase to sound good in a song. There were rockets back then. What’s more, they have an interesting history which stretches back to India and carried itself to America via the British.
The British Face A New Weapon In India
British Forces Attacked By Mysore Rockets / Battle Of Guntur — Charles H. Hubbell [Public Domain]
“Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column…The shrieks of our men from these unusual weapons was terrific; thighs, legs, and arms left fleshless with bones protruding in a shattered state from every part of the body, were the sad effects of these diabolical engines of destruction.”
As the British East India company attempted to conquer the subcontinent, they ran into the kingdom of Mysore. According to Kallie Szczepanski in her article in Thoughtco, the kingdom was run by an experienced military officer named Hyder Ali who led as sultan. He gave his son Tipu Sultan an extensive education, part of which came under French military officers. By 15 Tipu led soldiers successfully into battle.
The British East India company fought four wars with Mysore, losing the first two in humiliating defeats. They’d also encounter a weapon which was new to them in the 1780’s and 1790's. The British had likely seen fireworks previously, but they were suddenly being pelted with military rockets.
Roddam Narasima in his speech to the National Aeronautical Laboratory and Indian Institute of Science described the new weapons in depth. Their innovation revolved around the use of iron tubes to hold propellant.
“this enabled higher bursting pressures in the combustion chamber and hence higher thrust and longer range for the missile. The rockets consisted of a tube (about 60 mm diameter and 200 mm long), fastened to a sword or 3m bamboo pole, and had a range of 1–2 km.”
Mysore Rocket Man (Late 18th Century) — Robert Home [Public Domain]
Narasima mentions both Hader Ali and his son employed entire units of rocket troops. 1200 were used by Hader and later 5000 by Tipu after he became sultan of Mysore. Rocket fire from these troops helped Hader’s forces win a critical victory at the Battle of Pollilur in the Second Mysore War after a British ammo cache was hit by rocket fire.
Szczepanski explains the 3rd and 4th Mysore Wars went in favor of the British East India Company. Eventually Tipu Sultan was killed in battle and caches of his rockets were captured and sent to England for study.
The Congreve Rocket
William Congreve began tinkering with rockets in England in the early 1800’s. He was likely inspired by the stories of rockets used against English soldiers and prototypes recovered in India.
He thought they’d be an excellent way to fend of French fleets according to Frank Winter’s article in Air and Space Magazine. Congreve began with cardboard prototypes more resembling fireworks, then moved on to iron bodies, much like the Mysore rockets.
Congreve created a series of rockets of different sizes, varying from 6 lbs, to 300 lbs. According to Winter, the 32 lb rocket was the most popular. Congreve applied Newton’s laws and science to the primitive rockets and greatly increased their ranges. Although accuracy was still an issue, they did perform well in some battles and he achieved distances of up to 3000 yards.
The inventor also modified warships to fire rockets specifically. The Golago was converted to a rocket ship and faced off against Napoleon’s fleet in Europe.
His second ship the Erebus headed to North America. It was used in actions on the Chesapeake coast, attacking Fort McHenry with 32 lb rockets.
1814 Depiction Of Rockets Being Fired From Ships — Col. Congreve / [Public domain]
Winter explains 600 to 700 rockets were volleyed at Fort McHenry with little effect. An American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was imprisoned aboard the British flagship during the assault and watched the all-night barrage.
The fort still stood after the terror of the night and a large American flag was raised above it to prove the fact. Keys wrote a poem called “The Defense Of Fort McHenry”, which later was put to music and became “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
The Modern Global World Isn’t So Modern
In our present day we tend to think of a world connected by instant communication.
Ideas spread seamlessly across the globe at incredible speed. A song popular in South Korea can become a worldwide phenomenon. Moreover, styles in New York can spread to places far and wide which the creator would never consider. However, this is nothing new.
In the instance you read above, an Indian invention was copied by the British and carried to North America where it became unknowingly part of an American anthem. So, every time in the future you hear the stanza saying, “rockets’ red glare”, remember the strange history of the rocket. It wasn’t just a turn of phrase, there were rockets and a world much more connected than we’d assume.
In fact, a cache of 1,000 rockets stock piled by Tipu Sultan were recently found in India. These archaic and effective gun powder missiles found their way into the cultural heritage of a country far away with little notice. They’re also sung about regularly, without most of the singers realizing it.t.