Casket Case Study: Material culture from Seringapatam

4 - Tipu Sultan from the V&A

Tipu Sultan by anonymous Indian artist, c. 1790, V&A IS.266-1952,

Tipu Sultan, born on 20 November 1750 to Hyder ‘Ali’s second wife, Fatima, or Fakr-un-Nissa, was well-known during his lifetime as one of the most formidable opponents of the East India Company and his reputation endured throughout the nineteenth century.[1] Both his and his father’s resistance to European expansion effectively kept the Company at bay for decades through their command of large and well-resourced armed forces in battle.  The fall of Mysore and Tipu’s death at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799 became symbolic of East India Company domination in the subcontinent, all the more potent as Tipu was a respected leader who had resisted for so long and died heroically defending his city.

Beyond the inevitable political shifts which occurred in the wake of the defeat of ‘the Tiger of Mysore’, the impact of the battle was transmitted tangibly to Britain by the dissemination of images and the material legacy of the encounter.  Artists in Britain were inspired by the dramatic events, imagining key moments in the battle and depicting these in paintings and in prints which were popular and circulated widely.[2]  Robert Ker Porter created one of the most spectacular renditions of Seringapatam in the form of a 21 foot high and 120 foot long semi-circular painted panorama, first displayed in the Lyceum in London which then toured Britain and the US.[3]

The seizure of material from the palace and city by the East India Company army had an even wider impact.  The extent of the looting and plunder of the palace was vast and unprecedented.  According to Moienuddin: “The manner in which Tipu’s palace was pillaged for his priceless possessions, handkerchiefs and footwear included, has no parallel in Indian history.”[4]

5 - finding body of TS

‘The finding the body of Tippoo Sultaun’, etching after Robert Ker Porter, the British Museum: 1872,1008.2812


‘Tipoo’s Tiger’, Mechanical organ, Mysore, India (ca.1793), Painted wood with metal fixtures, 2545 (IS), Victoria & Albert Museum

The Prize Committee, officially charged with the task of allocating Tipu’s possessions and the contents of his treasury, noted that: “There was everything that power could command or money could purchase.”[5]  The most celebrated of these objects is of course the so-called Tipu’s Tiger (see right) – the mechanical organ which when wound creates a roaring sound as the wooden tiger mauls an English soldier.  This object, along with several others, was donated to the East India Museum and displayed in its galleries in Leadenhall Street, reportedly causing women to faint at the sound of the tiger’s growl.[6]  In 1880, when objects from the renamed India Museum were dispersed after its closure, the tiger was moved to the South Kensington Museum, later the V&A, where it remains on display.

The vast majority of the material from the siege and the Prize sales, however, was not presented to the Company but remained in private hands.  As Anne Buddle writes, ‘Any Seringapatam souvenir was carefully preserved.’[7]  Moienuddin attempted in 2000 to trace as many of these objects as possible and notes not only the quantity in museums across Europe and the US but also the large number which remain still within the private collections of the descendants of army officers present at Seringapatam.[8]  In this context, material culture represented family connections to India and such associations, as this project seeks to demonstrate, became incorporated into familial identities.  Spectacular pieces included the tent of Tipu Sultan which was installed in Powis Castle, the home of Lord and Lady Clive, the latter travelling to Seringapatam in 1800 where she ‘collected obsessively.’[9]  A large number of smaller pieces were taken.  Two such objects – a sword and a ring – typical of this type of material which purportedly belonged to Tipu Sultan are in the British Museum collections and currently on display in the Enlightenment gallery.  Manuscripts, jewellery, armour, cabinets, silverware, porcelain and weaponry were amassed in Britain, many of which were described as the personal property of Tipu Sultan.[10] As Jasanoff writes: “To judge from all the objects in collections today that are said to have been found on Tipu’s body, the king had staggered into battle swaddled in turbans, padded jackets, helmets and sashes; slung around with pistols, muskets, daggers, and sabers; and packed up with a baffling assortment of trinkets and bibelots – from a folding wooden telescope to a gold European pocket watch.”[11] She highlights the importance of direct connection to Tipu’s body to objects gaining specific value as relics.  The careful preservation of these objects in many families, evidence of which can be seen in the exhaustive work of Moienuddin, indicates how attachment to Tipu remains significant to this day.  These myths which located the provenance of the pieces as personal possessions of Tipu Sultan, whether established by the soldiers who seized them or later embellished within family folklore, indicate the particular significance of proximity to the great ruler and the family’s direct involvement in the iconic battle.  Such myths can be seen as a form of self-affirmation by EIC families which became part of their communal memory – the object providing authenticity to the narrative of acquisition.  They also ensured that Tipu’s legendary status endured – it was vital that he was seen as a powerful foe in order to maintain the significance of the British victory.  Interestingly, Moienuddin notes that Wellesley ordered all Tipu’s personal belongings to be returned to England to prevent them “from being distributed as ‘sacred relics of Tipu Sultan the Martyr’, lest they be used to mobilise the people against the expansionist policy of the British”.[12]  By returning them to Britain they became relics of a different kind – from the palace in Mysore to British domestic settings, they reinforced the importance of family service to the expanding Empire.

Examples of such objects are referred to in the second of the documents which accompany the casket, where Isabella Heath commented on “an article in a recent no. of ‘The World’ on Mr Lowe”. This refers to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe, later Viscount Sherbrooke.  Lowe’s distant cousin, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, who rose to become Governor-General of British North America in 1816, had earlier in his career led one of the battalions at Seringapatam.  Throughout his life he retained “the curved sword of Tippoo Sultaun, with its blade inlaid with mother-of-pearl; and his rhinoceros-horn drinking-cup, known as the ‘poison cup,’ a short, flat bottle, which he exclusively used to avert being poisoned.  Also Tippoo’s bridle, saddle, and holsters.”[13] These items evidently passed to Lowe, who had as a boy had referred to Sir John as ‘Uncle’.[14]  The reference to the ‘poison cup’ draws attention to contemporary British perceptions of ‘Oriental’ courts as dens of intrigue and danger.

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[1] Anne Buddle, ‘The Tiger and the Thistle’, in The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India, 1760-1800, ed. Anne Buddle (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1999), p. 10.

[2] Pauline Rohatgi, ‘From Pencil to Panorama: Tipu in Pictorial Perspective’, in The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India, 1760-1800, ed. Anne Buddle (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1999), p. 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 51–52.

[4] Mohammad Moienuddin, Sunset at Srirangapatam: After the Death of Tipu Sultan (Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 2000), p. xii.

[5] Quoted in Buddle, ‘The Tiger and the Thistle’, p. 37.

[6] See also Stronge, Tipu’s Tigers and Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Tipu’s Tiger and Images of India, 1799-2010’, in Curating Empire: Museums and the British Imperial Experience, ed. John McAleer and Sarah Longair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 207–224.

[7] Anne Buddle, ‘Myths, Melodrama and the Twentieth Century’, in The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India, 1760-1800, ed. Anne Buddle (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1999), p. 63.

[8] Moienuddin, Sunset at Srirangapatam, p. xii.

[9]Jasanoff, Edge of Empire, pp. 187, 186–196. See also Nancy K. Shields, Birds of Passage: Henrietta Clive’s Travels in South India 1798-1801 (London: Eland, 2009).

[10] Buddle, ‘Myths, Melodrama and the Twentieth Century’, p. 65.

[11] Jasanoff, Edge of Empire, p. 182.

[12] Moienuddin, Sunset at Srirangapatam, p. 33.

[13]A. Patchett Martin, Life and letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, with a memoir of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1893), pp. 596 – 7.

[14] Ibid., p. 539.