This year marks the bicentenary of the writing of the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America.

The poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” was written by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), lawyer and amateur poet. During the Anglo-American War of 1812, Key was witness to the 25-hour bombardment of American-held Fort Mc Henry at Chesapeake Bay, at the entrance to Baltimore harbour, by British ships of the Royal Navy on the night of 13-14 September.

Key was sent across a few days earlier to the British flagship HMS Tonnant as part of a two-man delegation sent to secure the exchange of prisoners between the warring sides. However, since he and his colleague had heard details of the plan for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive aboard British warships until after the battle.

According to historical accounts, the Americans imposed a complete black-out in Baltimore, and the only light that rainy night was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry (“the rockets’ red glare”), illuminating the American flag, then with fifteen strips and fifteen stars, the “star-spangled banner”, still stubbornly fluttering atop the fort. At dawn, it was still waving, and Key knew that the British attack had failed. It inspired him to write the poem on the back of an envelope in his pocket while returning to Baltimore.


Key’s brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson realised that the words of the poem fit the melody of a popular tune “The Anacreontic Song” by English composer John Stafford Smith. It eventually took on the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Although it became the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag in 1889, and at military and other occasions in 1916, there was no official anthem. Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe it or Not fame) in 1929 drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, captioned “Believe it or not, America has no national anthem.” The Star-Spangled Banner was officially adopted as the national anthem of the USA in 1931.

It is not the easiest of anthems to sing, on account of its wide note range, a twelfth (an octave plus a perfect fifth).

The rockets referred to in the anthem are the Congreve rocket, designed and developed by Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) ten years earlier. It was developed at the Royal Arsenal after the impressive performance of the Mysore rockets deployed by Hyder Ali (1721-1782) and his son Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) against the British East India Company in India, in the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars, until the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ Tipu died valiantly in battle in 1799 and his kingdom fell with him. Several of the Mysore rockets were sent to England for analysis. From 1801, Congreve began a research and development programme at the Arsenal’s laboratory, leading to the Congreve rocket, an improvement upon the Mysore rocket.

In Tipu Sultan’s military manual Fathul Mujahidin, 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysorean rocket artillery brigade called Cushoon. He had 16 to 24 such cushoons at his command. The military success of his rockets was their iron casing. It acted as a combustion chamber and also contained densely packed black powder propellant. This gave Tipu superior firepower compared to the British, whose rockets were not iron-cased, and could not withstand large chamber pressures and therefore their range was significantly reduced. Tipu Sultan is widely considered to be the father of rocket artillery in battle, and the devastating use against the British especially in the Third and Fourth Mysore Wars is regarded as a milestone in military history.

According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles …..The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”

Other accounts corroborated this. It was claimed that “the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from the rockets than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy” and an eyewitness told Congreve that in at least one instance, “a single rocket had killed three men and badly wounded others”.

The rockets contributed hugely to the military successes that pressured the British East India Company to sign the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784, bringing the Second Anglo-Mysore War to a close. It is of historical significance as it would be the last time that an Indian power would be able to dictate terms to the British. The humiliation of the treaty and the concurrent loss of the Thirteen Colonies in America made the British determined to put an end to Tipu Sultan. It was the writing on the wall for the British East India Company, whose stock shares dropped markedly after this, a matter of great concern to the British as its trade represented a sixth of the national income.

The Science Museum in London still has two Mysore rockets in its collection.

The Congreve rockets were to see action in the Napoleonic Wars as well in the War of 1812.

There is another “Indian” angle to the War of 1812. The real losers of the war were the Native American people, in particular those tribes that were allied willingly or otherwise with the British. Occupation of the Midwest by white ‘settlers’ had been fiercely opposed by Indian tribes, but the War of 1812 changed all this to the detriment of the Indians. At the post-war peace conference, the British had initially demanded an independent Indian state in the Midwest, but the withdrawal of British protection to see this through and the disintegration of the Indian confederation ensured that the Indian state never materialised.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


I was pleased to receive today this feedback and information from Mr. Arun Prakash, and I reproduce it in full:

Dr Dias,
I enjoy reading your articles in the Navhind Times, even though I am often out of my depth as far as your learned commentaries on issues related to classical music are concerned.
However your latest piece on the Indian connection with the Star Spangled Banner gives me an opportunity to interact with you on a subject that I know a little about – ships.
In fact, when I read the title of the article, I assumed that you would be discussing the fact that Francis Scott Key was incarcerated on board HMS Minden (not the Tonnant),in Chesapeake Bay, when he was inspired to write, on the back of an envelope, the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry”, which later became the Star Spangled Banner.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find you, very ingenuously, building upon the tenuous Tipu Sultan-William Congreve rocket connection to construct your fascinating piece.
Should you wish to return to this subject ever again, the ship Indian connection is much stronger………
HMS Minden was a Royal Navy 74-gun ship of the line (frigate), built in the Duncan Dock Bombay by M/s Wadia Master Shipbuilders. Built of stout Indian teak, she was launched on 19th June 1810, and saw half a century of service before being de-commissioned in 1861.
Incidentally, the oldest warship afloat today is HMS Trincomalee, Also built by the Wadias of Bombay in 1817 she is anchored in Hartlepool UK.
Regards ,
Arun Prakash