An Encounter with Tipoo’s Tiger: A Post-colonial Toy

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I have, of late, been thinking a lot about games and post-colonialism. JGVW (Journal of Games and Virtual Worlds) very kindly published one of my articles on cartography and empire in videogames. This isn’t a new thing for me, though. Anybody who cared to listen would have heard me harp on about how Bhagat Singh is the world’s first postcolonial videogame. Recently, however, with the release of Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry and some other titles, I’ve been thinking more about this. This post is, however, not about videogames per se. It is about a very famous toy. One that led me to think about the postcolonial and videogames. During my recent visit to London, I managed to run away for a bit to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the object that has fascinated me for years. It is called Tipu’s Tiger.

Tipu Sultan or ‘The Tipoo’, who was the cause of much worry for the East India Company and was defeated in the famous Siege of Seringapatnam, where Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was one of the commanders, is now a controversial figure in India. When I was a kid, the Indian national TV channel showed a multi-part TV-series called the Sword of Tipu Sultan that portrayed the Sultan as a national hero who fought the evils of colonialism and was a popular ruler among his subjects, both Hindu and Muslim. 

The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultan by Henry Singleton

It was here that I learnt that ‘the Tippoo’, as the British called him, had taken the title of the ‘Tiger of Mysore’. The French called him Citoyen Tipu and the new Republic (and later Napoleon) were allies in his battles with the British. For the British, Tippoo Sahib was a formidable enemy and the London papers often voiced panic about the potential dangers of a liaison between Napoleon and the Tipu. Until his defeat in 1799, Tipu had formed alliances with and against the neighbouring kingdoms, both Hindu and Muslim, to fight the British. He was accused of barbarism by the British and is now claimed by some as the champion of Islam. Bernard Cornwell’s hero, Richard Sharpe, is depicted as killing the barbaric and pudgy Tipu Sultan and then looting his treasures. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone is about a cursed gem that was part of the British loot after Tipu’s fort fell. The looting of Seringapatnam resulted in the East India Company gaining around a billion pounds in today’s currency and as historian Maya Jasanoff comments, the plunder and rape that followed exceeded imagination. To view Tipu a supporter of radical Islam too does not sit very easily as while he carried out forced conversions of Hindus, he also endowed Hindu temples and employed Hindus among his chief courtiers. While his politics and his religious bent are clearly more complex than they are made out to be, what is quite undoubtedly evident is his legacy in British colonial memory as the dangerous ‘other’ of colonialism. 

Tipu’s toy tiger, described as ‘man-tyger-organ’ by the poet John Keats who portrayed it as the plaything of an Eastern despot, was one of the first objects exported from India to England for public display. While Tipu’s swords, books and jewels ended up with private collectors (including Sir Walter Scott), the toy Tiger  was exhibited at the East India Museum. As Jonathan Jones writes in his article in the Guardian:

The most famous exhibit was the most macabre. It is still the most popular Indian artefact in London, and the very quintessence of a “curiosity". In 1814 a young woman from the provinces visited London. She went to the museum at East India House, one of the capital's attractions. There she shuddered to hear a dreadful moan, as of a man dying. She came face to face with a painted wooden tiger in the act of devouring its white-faced, red-coated victim. As the curator worked it, she had to be escorted from the museum "pale and trembling".

This toy that the frightened woman must have encountered is described in the V & A website as a life-size 18th century semi-automaton of a tiger devouring a prostrate British soldier. The website goes on to describe the Tiger thus:

Concealed in the bodywork is a mechanical pipe-organ with several parts, all operated simultaneously by a crank-handle emerging from the tiger's shoulder. Inside the tiger and the man are weighted bellows with pipes attached. Turning the handle pumps the bellows and controls the air-flow to simulate the growls of the tiger and cries of the victim. The cries are varied by the approach of the hand towards the mouth and away, as the left arm - the only moving part - is raised and lowered. […] Another pair of bellows, linked to the same handle, supplies wind for a miniature organ of 18 pipes built into the tiger, with stops under the tail. Its structure is like that of European mechanical organs, but adapted for hand operation by a set of ivory button keys reached through a flap in the animal's side. The mechanism has been repaired several times and altered from its original state. It is now too fragile to be operated regularly.

The exhibition of the Tiger, argue historians, was more a matter of propaganda for the Company - making it a symbol of power over subject nations that would replace its earlier image of a trader in indigo and spices. The Seringapatna Medal, to commemorate the victory, was cast in the image of Tipu's Tiger - only this time, the British lion is rampant over the tiger. If Tipu had ever played with the idea of a triumph over British imperialism was, the story now was reversed and only his toy tiger remains one of the few symbols of his political ambitions. The toy contains a further level of complexity: the wooden tiger might have been crafted in India but the mechanism inside is French. Then again, the exhibition of the tiger in the East India Museum (and later as the prize object of the V & A) must have been absolutely fundamental to the metaphorical establishment of victory over both of these threats to the Honourable Company: the combined bogeys of Napoleon and Tippoo Sahib.

The Tiger, however, seems to have fought back for centuries. Now placed among thousands of extremely valuable objects brought to Britain from its former colonial possessions, the Tiger rampant on a British soldier still challenges the ideal of British colonialism and fragile as its condition may be, the appeal of winding up the automaton is much too strong still. The video, above, of the V & A staff shows the toy in action. In a country where much of the tiger population now graces the colonial trophy rooms and where entire jungles have been replaced by a colonial apparatus of human settlements, the toy tiger, nevertheless, embodies the dangers faced by the colonial mechanism. Tigers are dangerous creatures after all and Tipu’s Tiger is modelled on a real-life incident - the death of a Lieutenant Hugh Munro who had gone out shooting in the forests of Bengal. The young Munro was the son of the hero of Buxar, Sir Hector Munro. The victory at Buxar brought almost the whole of North India under the Company’s rule.   Sir Hector was, however, defeated by Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali, and in Tipu’s toy tiger, the unfortunate death of Munrow junior was used as a metaphor for a possible reconquering of lands and the expulsion of a foreign power. One crucial detail about the tiger, however, remains unknown: whether Tipu himself ever played with the tiger is not mentioned by the historians and how important it might have ever been to him is not clear. To me, therefore, what gives the tiger its unique role as a post-colonial toy is, ironically, the status accorded to it in British India and in England even today. 

The Tipu's iTiger app is available for iPhone and iPod Touch

Most people in India, even the many who revere the complex and controversial Sultan as a national hero, do not know about the toy tiger and they certainly haven't seen it in its home in faraway London. As a toy, its appeal is that it allows us to play with an alternate reality to that of British colonialism. I suspect that same appeal could not have escaped the would-be colonial masters of India when they brought it over to London. For them, here was a powerful emblem of anti-British sentiment to be played against itself. However, the tiger itself remains - a constant replaying of an alternate history to colonialism. In fact, even for the Company, despite its attempt to 'replay' as their symbol of victory, the toy tiger was a dangerous plaything - Lord Wellesley is said to have wanted it locked up the Tower of London. From John Keats to Richard Sharpe, iconic Britishers, whether real or fictional, highbrow or otherwise, have stood in awe of the tiger-toy. In fact, even the experts who demonstrate how to use the tiny organ inside the tiger seem to need to impress on us its colonial predicament: at the end of the video (see above) you hear them playing 'Rule Britannia'! *

Indeed, it is because of this colonial obsession with the tiger that I am intrigued by it. There have been many copies of the tiger-toy - a ceramic version (called The Death of Munrow) can be found in the V & A itself.  The many copies and inversions of the tiger image symbolise for me the colonial power’s struggle to come to grips with its ‘other’ possible alternate realities and meanwhile, the original remains where it is - both a disturbing reminder of colonialism and a threat. That dangerous supplement - moved outside the borders of the Indian empire but into the heart of colonial London. 

Death of Munrow and its many iterations (Source: Google Image search)

For those who are interested, Susan Stronge’s authoritative book, Tipu’s Tigers, is available on Amazon Prime. Richard Davis in his Lives of Indian Images describes how the choice of the tiger image would have resonated well with both Hindus (whose gods have tigers as their vahanas or ‘vehicles’) and Muslims. He also discusses other important aspects of the tiger image in Tipu’s court. Maya Jasanoff’s Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 contains a detailed discussion of Tipu’s Tiger and the aftermath of the siege of Seringapatna. Jonathan James article in The Guardian can be found here: and there are a couple more interesting blog posts on the Tiger that I found online.

* I am grateful to Dr Amrita Sen for having pointed out the 'Rule Britannia' part.

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