Look who’s thumbing their nose at the British (Empire)

The Tipu Tiger (aka Tippoo’s Tiger) was made between 1782-1799

Who doesn’t like a bit of under-dog irreverence? One of the V&A’s highlights, the Tipu Tiger, taunted the British Empire in the most hilarious way.

Automatons are the forerunner of modern robotics. Ideas for building them dated back to the Ancient Greeks with mathematician and inventor extraordinaire Archimedes. Automatons resurfaced in popularity in 18th Century Europe, which makes it no surprise that one of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s highlights is a semi-automaton; semi because the ‘Tipu Tiger’ operates on a hand crank.

Carved from wood and nearly life size, the Tipu Tiger depicts a tiger mauling a European (hmmm British Empire, anyone?) soldier. As the crank rotates, gadgets inside the tiger trigger the unlucky White Man’s hand raised in self-defense as he gasps in horror, moaning in his agonizing and violent death!

Who was the Tiger?

Meanwhile the ferocious tiger – symbolising Tipu’s Southern Indian Dynasty – growls from an 18-note (yes, the tiger hits eighteen notes) pipe organ roaring from within the tiger’s throat. A flap on its side allows someone to open the tiger up and play the organ. Tipu’s Tiger was clearly built by the most talented tinkerer in the land. The Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in India, even had his soldiers dress in Tiger-clad uniforms, he took the ferocious emblem so seriously.

Emulating the Mughals, the British hunted tigers. This was a symbolic defeat of Tipu Sultan and all those who dared to stand up to British Empire domination! Possibly not the smartest move: In 1792 a Briton named Hugh Munro savagely met his death in a tiger attack in the Bay of Bengal; his father, Sir Hector Munro was a division commander during the Second Anglo-Mysore Battle (1780-1784). It was this battle which had defeated Tipu Sultan’s father. Understandably, by the time Tipu came around, he had a major chip on his shoulder about the British.

Sultan Tipu of Mysore, 1790-1800, V&A Collection

For Sultan Tipu the tiger striking down the European represented his symbolic triumph over the British – until, of course, the East India Company soldiers stormed and pillaged Mysore in 1799, pillaging their treasures — and killing Sultan Tipu. The British soldiers pocketed many of the sumptuous tiger treasures (From plates and tea sets to gilded door knobs, crowns and the Sultan’s throne) for themselves, as well. That the Tipu Tiger was only made of wood and served no real purpose, was its saving grace.

The Tiger’s arrival to London

Upon arrival to England, the Tipu Tiger was wildly popular & displayed at the East India House on Leadenhall Street from 1808. The public was even able to play the soldier’s wailing and tiger’s grunting with the crank-handle turns. Flaubert, bored on his visit to London for the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, wrote of his visit taking a turn for the better when he ventured up to Leadenhall Street to see the Tipu Tiger! 

East India House, by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), watercolour over etched outline. Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (which has a great collection)

We’re looking at converting a treasure hunt so you can play at home. We’d greatly appreciate any and all suggestions for how you could picture playing with our treasures, such as the Tipu Tiger! To rack up bonus points, our in-person V&A treasure hunters were requested to imitate the attack, the videos of which were a great hit with corporate team building, especially!

What automaton would you design to chronicle our times? Perhaps a bunch of humans chatting in front of their computer screens on zoom?

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