by Dr. Jocelyn Anderson
An extraordinary object
Tipu Sultan’s mechanical tiger has long been one of the most well-known items in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A large automaton (a machine that can move by itself), the tiger is shown in the act of attacking a European man. When played, the man’s left arm flails and the organ emits the sounds of the roaring cat and the cries of its victim. Perhaps what is most striking about the tiger is its change in ownership and meanings: it was made for an Indian ruler who spent much of his adult life fighting the British, and it later became a tool for imperial propaganda in Britain.
Tipu Sultan and tigers
Tipu Sultan was the ruler of Mysore, a territory in what is now southern India. Coming to power in 1782, Tipu Sultan was a strong, assertive leader, committed to strengthening his power: he established Mysore as a kingdom independent from the Mughal empire (which controlled much of the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1858), and he attempted to develop new alliances and industries. Throughout his rule, he was interested in adapting European technologies and in building Mysore’s international profile: he ordered a wide range of European goods for his court, hired European craftsmen, reformed his military and sent embassies to the Ottoman empire and the king of France.
Tipu Sultan adopted the tiger as a personal symbol of his rule—representations of tigers decorated his throne, weapons and armor; the tiger stripe motif was painted on walls and used in uniforms; he kept live tigers to guard his palace. The British referred to him as the “Tiger of Mysore.” His mechanical tiger was a part of this personal display, albeit an unusual one. It combines a painted wood casing (possibly made by an Indian craftsman) with an internal metal and ivory mechanism (possibly made by a European craftsman working at his court).
Tipu Sultan and the British
Even before Tipu Sultan’s rule, Mysore had a hostile relationship with the the East India Company (an English company formed to pursue trade with the "East Indies" that ended up seizing control of the Indian subcontinent), which had been expanding their influence in the Indian subcontinent since the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The First Anglo-Mysore War broke out in 1767, during the rule of Tipu Sultan’s father, and ended in 1769 in British defeat; the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780–84) also saw significant victories for Mysore but neither side ultimately made material gains. Unlike the first two, the Third Anglo-Mysore War led to a clear British victory in 1792. In the treaty negotiations, General Charles Cornwallis demanded a massive financial tribute as well as half of Mysore’s territories. In order to ensure Tipu Sultan met these demands, he took two of Tipu Sultan’s sons, Prince Abdul Khaliq and Prince Muza-ud-din, then ages eight and five respectively, as hostages. Numerous British artists painted depictions of this moment, typically showing Cornwallis as a benevolent leader welcoming the children into his care (see below and more here and here). For Tipu Sultan, however, this treaty was extremely debilitating for his country, and humiliating and hurtful for him personally. It was after this treaty that he had the mechanical tiger made.
The fall of Srirangapatnam
The Fourth Anglo-Mysore War broke out in 1799, and ended when the British took Srirangapatnam, Tipu Sultan’s capital (known to the British as Seringapatam) in May of that year. Tipu Sultan was killed during the attack, and soldiers serving under the British looted and pillaged the palace and city; it was a few days before Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, established order. Many of Tipu Sultan’s most valuable treasures were distributed as prizes, and items made of precious metals and jewels were broken up. Pieces of his magnificent gold throne were sent to the king and the East India Company directors in London. The mechanical tiger was not especially valuable, but it was unique, and it too was sent to Britain.
The Tiger in England
For Tipu Sultan, the mechanical tiger represented his hostility to the British, but for the British, it came to represent the type of ruler he was. Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the first press reports about it:
The following may be deemed a sufficient proof (if any yet were wanting) of the deep hatred of Tippoo Saib towards the English nation: A most curious piece of mechanism, as large as life, representing a Royal tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European Officer, was found in a room of the Palace at Seringapatam … There are some barrels in imitation of an organ within the body of the tyger, and a row of keys of natural notes. The sounds produced by the organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress, intermixed with the horrid roar of the tyger. The machinery is so contrived, that while the organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up to express the agony of his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this machine, which is of wood, was executed from a design of, and under the immediate orders of, Tippoo Sultaun, whose custom in the afternoon it was to amuse himself with a sight of this miserable emblematical triumph…’ —‘Musical Tyger,’ St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 17 – 19 April 1800 (Issue 6605).
The mechanical tiger was placed on display shortly after it arrived in London, and it became an emblem of fierce hostility between the British and Indian rulers. At the height of the British Empire, it was associated with colonial propaganda which depicted Indian leaders as cruel tyrants. More recently, in the postcolonial context, the tiger has come to represent Indian resistance to British rule, as well as British prejudice and imperial aggression.
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