“Tipu’s Tiger” is one of the most popular exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For generations, British school children and American tourists have lined up to watch the large mechanical tiger maul a fallen British gentleman. Today the toy is too fragile to operate, but once upon a time the tiger roared and its victim screamed when the mechanical device was activated.
Tipu’s Tiger is a fascinating example of eighteenth century clockwork, designed to appeal to the ghoulish eight year old that lurks inside each of us. But that’s not the main reason it occupies prime space at the V & A. The gruesome mechanical toy belonged to Tipu Sultan, the self-proclaimed “Tiger of Mysore and once a serious threat to British power in India.
Seen through the perspective of the British Raj at its height, it’s easy to forget how precarious the British position in India was in the eighteenth century. The East India Company was only one of several regional powers competing to fill the power vacuum left by the disintegrating Moghul Empire. One of the most powerful of the Company’s rivals was the state of Mysore in southern India.
Mysore and the East India Company went to war four times between 1761 and 1799. At the end of the first three Anglo-Mysore Wars, plays, political cartoons, and sensational pamphlets confirmed the public image of Tipu as political bogeyman, one step down from the rascal Bonaparte.
Tipu Sultan’s final defeat at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 led to public rejoicing.* “Tipu’s Tiger” was brought back to London and paraded through the streets in triumph. The imagery was simple, brutal, and effective: the Tiger of Mysore was dead.
*As well as plays, political cartoons, pamphlets, a giant panorama with accompanying musical pantomime, and commemorative prints. By comparison, we are very restrained about the death of despots and terrorists. (Or maybe not. )