The Spoils of War: Why Does ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ Exist and Why Is It in London?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

30 Oct 2019

One of the most bizarre objects in the vast collection of the V&A is a wooden figure of a tiger, mauling a British soldier.

So why does ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ exist, and why is it in London?

Who was ‘Tipu’?

Tipu Sultan was the ruler of Mysore, a kingdom in South India, from 1782-1799. In the late 18th century, Mysore came to blows with the British East India Company as they sought to extend British dominance in India.

As an extension of tensions in European politics, Mysore received support from French allies, who sought to weaken British control of India. The Anglo-Mysore wars reached a culmination with the final British assault on Seringapatam, Tipu’s capital, in 1799.

The storming of Seringapatam, 1779. Image source: Giovanni Vendramini / CC0.

The battle was decisive, and the British were victorious. Afterwards, British soldiers searched for the body of the Sultan, who was found in a choked tunnel-like passage. Benjamin Sydenham described the body as:

‘wounded a little above the right ear, and the ball lodged in the left cheek, he had also three wounds in the body, he was in stature about 5 ft 8 in and not very fair, he was rather corpulent, had a short neck and high shoulders, but his wrists and ankles were small and delicate.’

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The British army swept through the city, ruthlessly looting and pillaging. Their behaviour was reprimanded by Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who ordered the ringleaders to be sent to the gallows or flogged.

An 1800 painting titled ‘Finding the body of Tippoo Sultan’. Image source: Samuel William Reynolds / CC0.

One of the prizes of the loot was what became known as ‘Tipu’s tiger’. This nearly life-sized wooden wind-up tiger is depicted towering over a European solder lying on his back.

It was part of a wider collection of objects which Tipu commissioned, where British figures were attacked by tigers or elephants, or executed, tortured and humiliated in other ways.

The spoils of war

Now housed in the V&A, within the tiger’s body an organ is concealed by a hinged flap. It can be operated by turning a handle.

The handle also triggers a movement in the man’s arm, and a set of bellows expels air through a pipe inside the man’s throat, so he emits a noise akin to dying moans. Another mechanism inside the tiger’s head expels air through a pipe with two tones, producing a grunting sound like that of a tiger.

Image source: Victoria and Albert Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The French cooperation with Tipu has led some scholars to believe that the internal mechanics may have been made by French workmanship.

An eyewitness of the discovery was shocked at Tipu’s arrogance:

‘In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English.

This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European … It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.’

A cannon used by Tipu during the battle. Image source: John Hill / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tigers and tiger stripes were symbolic of Tipu Sultan’s rule. Everything he owned was emblazoned with this exotic wildcat. His throne was embellished with tiger head finials and tiger stripes were stamped on his currency. It became a symbol used to terrorise European enemies in battle.

Swords and guns were marked with images of a tiger, bronze mortars were shaped like a crouching tiger, and men who fired lethal rockets into British troops wore tiger striped tunics.

The British were well aware of the symbolism. After the Siege of Seringapatam, a medal was struck in England for every soldier who fought. It depicted a snarling British lion overpowering a tiger.

The Seringapatam medal of 1808.

Display on Leadenhall Street

After the treasures of Seringapatum were shared amongst the British soldiers according to rank, the automated tiger was returned to England.

The Governors of the East India Company initially intended to present it to the Crown, with an idea of displaying it at the Tower of London. However, it was displayed in the reading-room of the East India Company Museum, from July 1808.

East India Company Museum in Leadenhall Street. Tipu’s Tiger can be seen to the left.

It enjoyed immediate success as an exhibit. The crank-handle controlling the bellows could be freely operated by members of the public. Unsurprisingly, by 1843 it was reported that:

‘The machine or organ … is getting much out of repair, and does not altogether realise the expectation of the visitor’

It was also reported to be a great nuisance to students in the library, as The Athenaeum reported:

‘These shrieks and growls were the constant plague of the student busy at work in the Library of the old India House, when the Leadenhall Street public, unremittingly, it appears, were bent on keeping up the performances of this barbarous machine.’

A punch cartoon from 1857.

Featured Image: Victoria and Albert Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0