The Great British Loot: Indian animals in the Royal Menagerie of 18th century London

As with every excess that the East India Company has perpetrated, its Indian roots lie with Robert Clive, arguably the first English Nabob. Even in this specific case, Clive set the precedent for importing Indian animals into England

Sandeep Balakrishna September 12, 2022 15:47:23 IST
The Great British Loot: Indian animals in the Royal Menagerie of 18th century London

Robertson Royal Menagerie, 9 The Strand, London, c. 1820, oil painting by unknown artist, State Library of New South Wales, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hector Sutherland Munro, son of Hector Munro, the British Major instrumental in the triumph in the crucial Battle of Buxar, aspired for similar glory in India. As a cadet in the military service of the East India Company, Munro Jr was headed towards Madras from Bengal. On 21 December 1792, he headed out on a tiger-hunting trip in Saugor Island with his friends Downey and Lt. Pyefinch.

The 12 July 1793 edition of The Sheffield Register narrates what transpired next: “…an immense royal tyger sprang upon the unfortunate Munro, who was sitting down. In a moment, his head was in the beast’s mouth, and he rushed into the jungle with him, with as much ease as I could lift a kitten; tearing him through the thicket bushes and trees… [Munro] lived for twenty-four hours in the extreme of torture; his head and skull were all torn and broke to pieces…[His friends were thankful that they were able to] recover his body rather than to leave him to be devoured limb by limb.”

Hector Munro Jr was only seventeen.

The gruesome mauling described so graphically, obviously hurled Hector Munro — now a “Sir” — into depression. Elsewhere, it had infused enormous glee. In rather expected quarters. In faraway Srirangapattanam, Tipu Sultan not only guffawed with delight but decided to commemorate Munro Jr’s death. A derisive celebration. Tipu had a good reason. Just five months ago, he had surrendered more than 60 per cent of his territory and had sent two of his sons as hostages to be released upon the full and final settlement of Rs 33 lakh as war indemnity to the disgusting Christians of the East India Company.

And now, Tipu made a mechanised sculpture, a symbol of his exultation at Munro’s ghastly death. It showed a ferocious tiger sitting atop a ruddy European. A switch activated the device. Immediately, the European’s arms flapped and flailed, trying to push the tiger off his chest. A small musical instrument inside the tiger emitted guttural sounds mimicking a tiger’s growl. The toy was seized by Cornwallis’ army after Tipu died in the ill-fated Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. Nicknamed Tipu’s Tiger, it remains a tourist attraction in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Sheffield Register’s explicit description of the young Munro’s mangling was also impelled by an ulterior motive and echoed a popular public sentiment of the period.

For about three decades past, an impossible array of exotic fauna was being imported into London from across the globe with Indian species making up the bulk. The Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London had been thrown open to the public as a tourist destination around 1780. The menagerie’s pens and stalls and cages bloated almost in direct proportion to the expansion of the British colonial empire — premised ostensibly on commerce but executed through excesses. Tourist guidebooks lavished their attention on the special prevalence of Indian “lions, tygers, elephants & c., in every street in town”.

The books further lured the tourists by emphasising that London also boasted of “birds of paradise, a serpent whose size is most remarkable…and many other animals…which came from India and are being kept to gratify the curiosity of the publick”. Tigers, cheetahs, leopards, snakes, elephants, civets, gazelles and exotic tropical birds were given as gifts to Dukes and Earls and Lords…it seemed as if no British aristocrat worth his salt did not have an Indian animal either as a pet or a collectible or both. In 1759, King George III received the gift of a caracal christened Shah Ghost, which was originally a gift given to Robert Clive by the Nawab of Bengal.

Not just the animal, but its keeper had also been shipped to England from Bengal for it would obey only him. In March 1795, The Caledonian Mercury thrillingly reported the arrival of a new elephant in London. Almost immediately, massive crowds flocked to see this “most wonderful beast” paying one shilling per head. Indeed, Indian animals were responsible for making entire careers cutting across a cross-section of British society. Artists like George Stubbs made a fortune by painting Indian animals and selling them at exorbitant prices in the galleries of London. Britain’s leading scientists and zoologists got a first-hand opportunity to examine these beasts and fit them into an orderly taxonomy that conformed to Linnaeus’ principles.

This scale of unrestrained import of animals and birds from across the world simply reflected another dark tinge of the unflattering rainbow of British colonial plunder. While ordinary British citizens thronged the zoos, not everyone was amused. Quite the contrary, a steady outrage had been simmering in some influential sections of British society for roughly the same three or four decades. The source of the outrage included but was not limited to these imported animals. It spanned diamonds, expensive jewellery, “vulgar” eastern dresses, trinkets, turbans, exotic furniture and sprawling acres of prime real estate. The source really was the sudden, explosive wealth flooding into and fattening select realms of British society. The source was embodied in the officials and agents of the East India Company.

As with every excess that the East India Company has perpetrated, its Indian roots lie with Robert Clive, arguably the first English Nabob. Even in this specific case, Clive set the precedent for importing Indian animals into England. His granddaughter, Charlotte apparently kept a gazelle as her bedside pet and underwent sustained depression when it died. But by the 1780s, Indian animals in Britain had begun to serve more insidious purposes.

In 1786, India’s first governor-general, Warren Hastings gifted six exotic tropical birds to King George III and a hyena to the Prince of Wales.

Which is where our story begins.

[To be continued]

The author is founder and chief editor, ‘The Dharma Dispatch’. Views expressed are personal.

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