History on Display: Tipu’s Tiger

“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. )

Easter Island: Not So Mysterious After All

Once upon a time, like many nerdy little girls, I wanted to be an archeologist.  Today I get my hands grubby with old books and the occasional leaking ink pen instead of the sands of time, but my copy of C. W. Ceram’s classic Gods, Graves and Scholars remains a prized possession and I still enjoy a good archeological read.

I was delighted to have the chance to read and review The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.

Anthropologist Terry Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo turn the accepted wisdom about the ancient culture of Easter Island on its head in this well-written story of scientific discovery.


From the time the first Europeans arrived on Easter Island in the eighteenth century, Westerners have been fascinated by the island’s monumental stone sculptures and baffled by how an impoverished prehistoric culture could have built them.  The standard explanation was that the island had once been as fertile as other inhabited islands in the Pacific.  Over time, its population committed ecological suicide, cutting down thousands of giant palm trees to support the statue cult.

When Hunt and Lipo arrived on Easter Island in 2001, they expected to simply add a few details to the already well-developed account of its early history.  In their fourth year of fieldwork, they found evidence of the giant palms that scholars believed covered the islands when Polynesian settlers first arrived.  It was a major discovery. There was only one problem: the oldest layers were several hundred years later than the latest accepted date for colonization. If the island was deforested over decades instead of centuries, then everything archaeologists thought they knew about the early culture of Easter Island was in question.

Hunt and Lipo re-examined, and re-built, archaeology’s fundamental assumptions about Easter Island, using discoveries from other Pacific island cultures, local oral traditions, previously discounted field research, satellite images from Google Earth, studies by evolutionary biologists, game theory, and accounts by early European observers. They make a compelling case against the traditional version of Easter Island’s pre-history.  Instead of “ecocide”, they describe a culture of careful environmental stewardship.  And along the way, they prove how a small number of men can make a giant monolith “walk”

(A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.)

Public toilets, heads of state and –teddy bears?

A few people have weighed in with answers to my question on a previous post outside the comments box.  Some of them were too good not to share.  In addition to vespesianos and London bobbies, here are some more eponymous tributes to heads of state, statesmen, and mere politicians:

1.  The Teddy bear, named after Theodore Roosevelt

2.  The Wellington boot, popularized by the Duke of Wellington (Those battlefields must have been muddy!)

3. Gerrymandering, named after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814).  (Personally, I’d rather be known for public toilets.)

Keep ’em coming!