Updated November 23, 2020 08:02:41
They took a symbol of fierce resistance. But should they give it back?
A British soldier is being mauled.
The man's mouth is frozen in a shocked smile as the tiger's teeth sink into his chest.
His eyes are dead.
If it wasn't for their glass enclosure you could reach over and turn the tiger's handle.
The tiger has a faded brass handle.
As your hand cranks it, out come screaming and groaning noises.
The soldier's arm flails in agony.
The tiger is just the kind of item that intrigues Alice Procter.
She's a historian who specialises in the stuff people often don't want to talk about the reminders of those uncomfortable, dark, violent parts of empires.
The stuff the British stole.
Alice's tours of museums and galleries focus on this stuff.
"A lot of museums use this term of 'contested histories', as this way of glossing over what's actually being contested, which is that nine times out of 10 they were stolen in very violent circumstances or taken as part of looting after a conflict," she says.
The tiger is one of those objects. Its name is Tipu's Tiger.
It now sits, frozen mid-mauling, in its glass case in central London's V&A museum.
But it once belonged to a man named Tipu Sultan an 18th century ruler of a kingdom in southern India.
Maya Jasanoff's first encounter with the tiger made an impression she was five and wrote about it in her diary.
"I've gone to the V&A and I saw a funny object of a tiger killing an Englishman," she wrote.
She's now a professor at Harvard University, teaching and writing about the history of the British Empire.
Maya is slightly obsessed with the tiger, and the man who owned it.
"He was one of the fiercest opponents of continued British expansion in the Indian subcontinent," she says.
Tigers were kind of Tipu's thing.
"He made a kind of fetish out of the tiger. He used tiger stripes as a kind of logo," Maya says.
They were on his soldier's uniforms, on their swords. His signature was shaped like a tiger's face.
But while Tipu Sultan was obsessed with this wild untamed animal, for every minute of his 17-year reign he was caught.
Caught between two superpowers, between two huge revolutions, between two generations.
His life was spent carrying out the unfinished business of his dad a man called Hyder Ali.
The father and son were Muslim leaders who ruled, sometimes brutally, over Hindus and Christians.
They were on the hunt for more land, more people, and more power.
But they weren't the only ones.
Other powers, most notably the East India Company (a private commercial army serving the British empire), were also interested in "grabbing a piece of the action", as Maya puts it.
This meant war.
The father and son warlords fared surprisingly well against the might of the British Empire.
They took a whole bunch of captives and by the time Tipu inherited his father's throne, the British were angry. Very angry.
"It was fuelled by accounts that were coming from the captives, who came out with these tales of things like 'I was forcibly circumcised' or 'I was forced to dress up in women's clothes and dance before the king'," Maya says.
She says we don't know how much of this is true, but true or not Tipu was demonised by the British as a despot to be feared.
These depictions continue to shape the image of Tipu today. He's a controversial and, right now, deeply political figure.
Shashi Tharoor thinks Tipu's more complex than the villain he's become.
"I happen to have a slightly unfashionable view in India today that he was a hero. And that's largely because he was a resolute anti-colonialist," he says.
Shahi's a member of Indian Parliament, a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations, and the author of 20 books.
The Hindu politician knows very well why Tipu isn't beloved.
Tipu was involved in slavery and massacres. There's a campaign underway in India to remove him from parts of the school syllabus.
"There are a lot of accounts, both in terms of British records, which may be biased, but also folklore and tales passed down the generations of his rather gruesome persecution of large numbers of Hindus and Christians, which have not endeared him to descendants of those communities," Shahi says.
But he still finds him remarkable.
"The people of his kingdom of Mysore enjoyed the highest standards of living in the known world. The per capita income was higher than the highest European power at the time, the Dutch," he says.
"He was both an extremely effective general who won more wars that he lost."
But Tipu's loss in the third Mysore War came at a high cost.
Maya says his sons were taken hostage by the British to keep him in line.
"Also maybe as a demonstration of sorts of a kind of superior British way of doing things," she says.
Tipu was enraged and humiliated. A fourth Mysore war would soon follow.
But he wasn't the only one who hated the British.
The French and the British were engaged in a global war, and India was emerging as a potential new battleground.
Tipu was wedged between them.
So he helped the French, they helped him.
French military advisors showed Tipu's army new military tactics and technology.
"To the extent that there was a technological gap between Western and Indian forces at that time, which wasn't huge even to begin with, that gap was flattened," Maya says.
This melding of technology wasn't limited to weaponry.
It gave Tipu's Tiger its voice.
"The wood that it's made out of is Indian wood. That part was manufactured in India. But the mechanism inside of the organ that creates these noises is of European manufacture," Maya says.
But the same alliance that would create Tipu's Tiger, this symbol of his rage against the British, would also be his undoing.
Enter Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon, an upcoming general, writes to Tipu from Egypt, which he'd just invaded.
"[He] says 'I'm going to send over my 10,000 men to come and join you and chase the British away'," Maya says.
The British intercept the letter.
"So in May of 1799, the East India Company marches on, surround Srirangapatna and they decide to go for it and to capture the capital," Maya says.
"They bombarded the thick fortifications, broke holes in it and set up their ladders and went running over and into the city.
"There was hand-to-hand fighting in the streets."
Shashi says while there was an underground passage Tipu could have used, his pride wouldn't allow him to flee.
"He felt once his capital had fallen, there was no point in living on. He would rather die with honour. That's the kind of man he was."
He was found in a heap of bodies by the city gates.
"Tipu Sultan's fall was, I think, the end pretty much of any meaningful Indian resistance to steady British expansion," Shahi says.
"He was the last substantial monarch to be willing to fight the British."
Alice says with Tipu dead, British soldiers "go absolutely wild for three days, destroying stuff, looting stuff".
When order is restored the "official looting" can begin.
That's when they find the tiger.
"Stuff like Tipu's throne is broken down because it's made of gold and it's more valuable for its material than for its design. The tiger survives in this very weird way because people don't think it's valuable enough."
But what do you do with a wooden tiger (and his victim)?
Alice says they first think to put it in the London Zoo it's a tiger after all. Then it bounces between a few museums and libraries.
"They have all these letters in the archives of students who are like, 'I'm trying to use your library collection. But people keep coming in and making the tiger roar, it's really disruptive to my studying'," she says.
"For a while, they think about taking it off open display because people are fainting in horror at the sight of it because apparently it's so frightening."
Shashi thinks for Tipu, the tiger now belonging to his hated rivals is the ultimate humiliation.
"A statue that had been prepared essentially for him to actually demonstrate his contempt for the British to actually be in British hands. He would have been pretty, pretty, pretty upset about that."
Historian Zareer Masani isn't so sure.
"I think Tipu would be quite pleased because he was a very vain man, and [would like] the idea that the whole world was learning about him, which is something that happens via an object like the tiger."
He says there is no tradition of museums in India, before colonial times.
"The reason it survived is that it was shipped off to England and conserved and preserved. Had it been in India would have just fallen to pieces eventually because no-one would have been interested for a couple of hundred years."
While the V&A tells the ABC that there has not been an official request for repatriation, Shashi wants the tiger back.
"There's something wrong about stealing items that belong to another people and then, self righteously claiming you look after them better than those who are entitled to own them would," he says.
"I mean, if someone literally dug your father's grave up and put it on display in his backyard, would you feel that morality was on his side? It's that kind of story you're talking about."
Zareer says millions of people learn Tipu's story where it is now, and that's its purpose.
"I think if it were returned to India now, it would just be another nationalistic sort of icon to be displayed somewhere of an Indian tiger eating a British soldier. I don't think anyone would particularly be interested in the history beyond that."
There is one person it means more to than that.
Bakhtiar Ali Shah is a sixth-generation descendant of Tipu Sultan.
He says its return would be symbolic, and meaningful.
"I don't think of myself as royal," he says with a laugh. "I'm an ordinary person, I just happen to be in the family."
Bakhtiar, who works as a lawyer, is proud of being related to the "visionary" and says he's amazed at how his legacy survives, after all these years.
"It has a ripple effect on us. People still want to connect, they still have that kind of an aura about him which rubs off on us."
But being related to Tipu wasn't always such a good thing.
"As usually happens, once a king is vanquished his entire family has to suffer."
Bakhtiar says Tipu Sultan's family were imprisoned, then exiled to marshy, mosquito-infested land.
"We were left here to die," he says.
"Somehow we survived.
"All those people who went against the British, they're in bad shape. In India, people who worked well with the British, they still have their royalty and everything, even today."
What does he think of Tipu's Tiger sitting in a British museum?
"He'd be turning in his grave."
History is personal and it's messy.
There are reminders of that in the objects that remain, the tangible clues to the story of how we ended up with the world we have today.
When journalist Marc Fennell first laid eyes on that murderous tiger he didn't yet realise his own connection to that dark, uncomfortable chapter in history.
In the first episode of Stuff the British Stole, he discovers just what Tipu Sultan's rule would have meant for some of his ancestors.
Digital Producer: Nick Wiggins
Editor: Monique Ross
Series Producer: Zoe Ferguson
Executive Producer: Amruta Slee
First posted November 23, 2020 05:55:00