A Tiger Takes on Imperialism: Tipu Sultan vs Great Britain
Stroll through the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and you’ll encounter scores of historical gems that would please any purveyor of history. You can browse through illuminated manuscripts, early printed works by the likes of Shakespeare, ancient jewelry, and even bras from the 1980s.
But there’s one item, in particular, that seems like it should be on display thousands of miles away — a mechanical tiger mauling a British soldier. The museum bills the victim as a general “European,” but it’s clear the man is of the English sort. Weird thing to have in a museum named after a British monarch and her husband, no?
Displayed in the center of Room 41, this carved wooden semi-automaton is nearly life-sized, with a hidden organ waiting to be operated by a turn of the handle beside it. Give it a spin and you’ll be treated to the melodious sounds of what is supposed to be the soldier’s dying moans. For good measure, his arm flails up and down. How did such an intriguing object end up in London?
If your guess involves a word that begins with “I” and ends with “-ism” — ding ding ding!
The Kingdom of Mysore
A realm in southern India that is now part of Karnataka, the Kingdom of Mysore was founded circa 1399 and ruled (more or less) by one dynasty until Great Britain came a-creepin’.Even after that, the Hindu Wodeyar family hung on as puppet rulers under the British Raj until Indian independence in 1947.
By the time the British set their sights on the kingdom, Mysore had earned a reputation for being urban and developed. Ruled by accomplished kings who patronized everything from music to rocket science, Mysore was an established center of arts and culture.
Coup, There It Is
Despite centuries of power, the Wodeyar family did experience a shakeup now and again. During a brief period of weak leadership, Mysore fell under Muslim rule and shifted to a Sultanate style of administration. The man responsible for the change? Haider Ali.
Thanks to his incredibly savvy military and political mind, Haider swiftly rose through the ranks. He began as a soldier and worked his way up, racking up military victories and successful conquests. He grew to be indispensable to theMaharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar II, who made him minister of state.
As Haider gained more influence and power,Krishnaraja lost his. He struggled to hold his own against ambitious leaders in his administration. These opponents, who included Haider Ali, were sly and cunning. Soon he had no choice but to hand things over to his accomplished general and right hand man.
Some accounts claim Haider Ali put theMaharaja under house arrest, while others say his de facto rule was a-okay with the powers that be. Either way, the man was a machine of efficiency once he took the reins. He streamlined the administration, subdued nearby territories and feudal chiefs, and kept opponents domestic and foreign at bay.
He couldn’t throw all this hard-won progress away simply because the raja passed away and left behind a young son, could he? Sure couldn’t — Haider took power in lieu of the rightful heir. And instead of passing down the kingdom when the boy came of age, Haider bypassed him completely. The lucky new heir was his son, Fateh Ali, who would later be known as Tipu Sultan.
Nicknamed for the Sufi saint Tipu Mastan Aulia, Tipu Sultan was as cunning, ambitious, and strategic as his father. While Haider Ali collected territories and amassed power, his son received an extensive education worthy of a prince and future leader.
The boy learned everything from riding, swordsmanship, and shooting to Koranic studies and several languages. It was important Tipu could converse with the European allies who would help him fend off the encroaching British. On top of military and political strategy, Tipu received firsthand training from French officers stationed in Mysore thanks to the kingdom’s alliance with France.
Tipu was a quick study. By the time he was in his late teens, he was accompanying his father into battle and leading forces during an invasion of Malabar. We don’t know how his troops felt about being told what to do by a teenager, but they likely didn’t mind too much when they captured the Malabar chief’s family and forced him to surrender.
Haider Ali was proud of his son. And for a job well done, he gave Tipu command of 500 cavalries and five districts within Mysore. You know, the usual.
With his military career off to an explosive start, Tipu continued to learn vital tactics at his father’s side. One of their favorites weapons to play with? Rockets. Under both Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, Mysorean forces astounded the British with pure, unadulterated rocket power.
These weren’t shoddy projectiles, oh no — they were the most advanced rockets anyone had ever seen. They sported iron casings rather than paper tubing and could travel further, faster, and higher than contemporary rockets. They were also tipped with spears. Boom.
From Soldier to Sultan
When the Second Anglo-Mysore War rolled around, Tipu was leading sizable forces against the British. He fared spectacularly during this conflict, but his father did not. Haider Ali had been dealing with a growth on his back, one that was either cancerous or infected. His condition worsened, and the 60-year-old eventually died in December 1782. Tipu assumed the title of Sultan and took his father’s throne just a few weeks later.
Although they tried to keep it a secret, the British became aware of Haider Ali’s death within days. But instead of finding a power vacuum to exploit, Tipu’s succession was relatively smooth, especially within his military.
Sadly, the Second Anglo-Mysore War was not the last Anglo-Mysore conflict (spoiler — there were four). Tipu knew he needed to continue his father’s legacy of beating back British forces and interests, which remained a considerable threat. That meant keeping calm and carrying on — kicking ass and taking territories, that is.
Tipu did his daddy proud. Not only did hesuccessfully lead his troopsalongside the French against the British in the Second Anglo-Mysore War, but he was also able to invade and raid a British camp. This helped put the kibosh on the conflict, which they sealed with a treaty that gave the British a whole lotta nothing.
The Tiger of Mysore
In the interest of keeping the relationship between Mysore and France good and hot, Tipu consistently corresponded with King Louis XVI and frequently sent dignitaries to represent him at Versailles. Each power considered the other a vital ally, and this relationship yielded a host of benefits — including a sweet, sweet nickname for Tipu.
The story goes like this:
One fine day, Tipu and an unnamed French friend hiked through a forest to hunt. Unbeknownst to them, a tiger lurked in the shadows. Upon realizing the beast was there, the two men froze, hoping it would slink away. It did not.
Instead, the tiger leaped on the Frenchman and killed him instantly. At that same moment, Tipu grabbed his gun and fired. Lo and behold, the gun was jammed, and the tiger was now turning its attention on Tipu. Barely a second passed before the animal lunged.
Through sheer force of will, Tipu held the tiger off until he could slide his dagger from his belt. The man was well-versed with a blade, and he deftly stabbed the tiger and killed it.
Is this story total fiction? It’s likely. But whether he was the Tiger of Mysore because he bested one with a knife, or simply due to his military prowess, Tipu Sultan incorporated the motif of the tiger into everything.
Tipu’s possessions, as well as anything associated with him, frequently had tiger stripes and tigers worked into the decoration. His throne? Topped with jeweled gold tiger head finials. His coinage? Stamped with stripes. Swords and guns? Covered with tiger heads and stripes. Army mortars? Small bronze crouching tigers. Even the men who fired Tipu’s lethal rockets wore tunics woven with stripes.
Jack of All Trades, Master of One
During his time in charge, Tipu Sultan did more than just stave off encroaching imperialism — he helped modernize his kingdom. His reign saw the implementation of a new calendar, coinage, and seven new government departments. He strengthened infrastructure and helped develop the silk industry. And he wasn’t done improving his rockets, either.
Not bad for someone who spent half his time waging war against powerful enemies, huh?
In case you thought Tipu Sultan’s specialty was fighting Europeans, you’d be thrilled to know he warred with his peers too. The Kingdom of Mysore was a relatively small one on the sub-continent, with enemy territories just a stone’s throw away. A particular thorn in Mysore’s side? The Maratha Empire.
One of the most consequential victories Tipu claimed was over the Marathas during the Maratha-Mysore War of 1785. After a two-year tussle, Mysore came out the clear winner. But the Marathas remained formidable — just a few years later they were back for more alongside the British during the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1789.
Goodbye, Cruel World
No big deal, right? Except that 1789 happened to be a somewhat tricky year for Mysore’s biggest ally. Having overthrown Louis XVI during a little revolution you may have heard of, the shiny new French Republic had to break it to Tipu that his old friend would no longer be sending soldiers to meet him on the battlefield.
So Tipu went to the front sans his French amis. A bold and brave move to be sure, but one that inevitably failed. The Marathas and the British soundly defeated Mysore in 1792 and annexed half the kingdom in one swipe.
If you’re still rooting for Tipu after losing a huge chunk of his territory, bless you. But by 1798, the British devised an excuse to strike against Mysore without provocation. You see, Napoleon was making his way through Egypt, and had promised Tipu he would help, writing “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible army, full of the desire of releasing and relieving you from the iron yoke of England.”
So the British fired up their propaganda machine and looked for justifications to attack. With the recent revolution in France scaring many of the remaining monarchs of Europe, it wasn’t hard to come up with something compelling.
The fourth Anglo-Mysore War was brutal. The British launched a full invasion with double the troops Tipu had. They captured the capital of Mysore, killed Tipu, sent his heir into exile, annexed most of Mysore, and left a sliver of the kingdom under the rule of the oldWodeyar dynasty. It also didn’t help that the Marathas frequently raided and plundered the region as compensation for past losses to Tipu.
Back in England, a smear campaign was in full swing. They portrayed Tipu as a tyrant who ruled his Hindu population with an iron fist, forcing them to convert to Islam or face imprisonment. To this day, sources and scholars are in disagreement. It’s hard to get a clear picture of whether Tipu Sultan was indeed an intolerant, cruel king who liked to destroy local temples or was simply painted that way. Like with a lot of history, the truth is complicated and may never be fully understood.
The Leading Man of Mysore
However, you can’t deny the flair of a ruler who identifies with tigers, rocks stripes wherever he goes, and teams up with French engineers to create life-sized automatons in an era well before robots.
When the British defeated Tipu Sultan, they raided his palace and hauled off his treasures. A ring here, a sword there, you get it. Soldiers looted local houses, and things got so bad that a colonel had to hang and flog a few of the perpetrators to restore order. These trophies made their way into the hands of British soldiers before settling into life on display at various British museums and in personal collections.
Some of these valuables are either lost or floating around various basements, while a handful of the most important ones have made their way back to India. But still, Tipu’s Tiger continues to fascinate visitors at the V&A Museum.
Who would have guessed that of all the intriguing items in Tipu’s palace, the one destined to impress English museum goers centuries later would be a giant tiger ravaging an Englishman? You can’t help but think that in the end, Tipu got the last laugh.
Continue down the rabbit hole:
Vam.ac.uk. Tippoo’s Tiger.
Pitt Rivers Museum. Helmet (1884.32.4).
ThoughtCo. “Biography of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore.”Szczepanski, Kallie, Aug. 25, 2020.
Encyclopedia Brittanica. Hyder Ali.
Noble Blood. The Tiger of Mysore.
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