Catch a Tiger by the Tail
By Erin Anderson, WPAMC Class of 2020
Once the sporting pastime of local rulers, tiger hunting became the hobby of British colonists in Imperial India, a logical progression from fox and stag hunting traditions in Britain. Firearm codes and the cost of labor and hunting equipment effectively limited the practice to wealthy Europeans who, in theory, followed chivalric rules of “fair” hunting to distinguish themselves from locals who hunted for sustenance and survival rather than sport. Tiger hunts quickly became a chance for colonists to flaunt their wealth by hosting large hunting entourages of both European and Indians. Hunters competed to kill the largest, most dangerous, and rarest animals. The pageantry and exhilarating danger of tiger hunts tended to draw in large crowds of spectators. Publicized accounts of tiger hunts became popular reading material, and improved photographic equipment with shorter exposure times, encouraged the market for staged photographs of hunters and their quarries.
Tigers and their signature stripes had historically been a symbol of regional Indian authorities, most famously of the Mysore Sultan Tipu (r. 1782-1799). Under imperial control, tiger hunting became a symbol of Britain’s dominance over native rulers. Contemporary artwork reflected this political ideology, depicting India as an untamed, ferocious, man-eating tiger and the British Empire as a white hunter or a lion (a reference to the English heraldic lion).
British audiences were familiar with these representations. They appeared frequently in popular magazines like Punch and in curiosities like the famous “Tipu’s Tiger,” an Indian-made mechanical organ in the form of a tiger mauling a British soldier looted from the treasury of Sultan Tipu following his 1799 death and defeat by the British.
Victorians at home interacted with a wide range of exotic animals, including tigers, thanks to popular attractions like zoos, natural history collections, traveling menageries, and demonstrations like the Great Exhibition in 1851 where living and preserved specimens dazzled enormous crowds. The most wealthy and adventurous might patronize London’s more than one hundred exotic animal dealers. Victorians also reveled in the bounty of the British Empire and increasingly sought exotic souvenirs for their own homes.
Hunting trophies including pelts, taxidermy mounts, and accessories made from fur, claws, or teeth became popular commodities. Tiger claws mounted in costume jewelry became a consumer item for both men and women, particularly for Britons living in India.
The Van Ingen & Van Ingen taxidermy firm in Mysore, India mounted an estimated 43,000 large cats in a fifty-year period, relying on their signature mold-based techniques and cheap, unskilled labor from the local population to complete the work. Taxidermy mounts frequently reflect the poses and ferocity of tigers as portrayed in prints: crouched and snarling with bared teeth. A good example is one of the thirty-nine tigers killed by King George V’s 1911 hunting expedition in Nepal, now housed in the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.
Ironically, it was the diminishing quality of hunting trophies that led Imperial Britain to undertake an aggressive conservation program to protect native tiger populations. Concerned with the disappearance of large, healthy tigers—considered the “worthiest” opponents—and the introduction of new weaponry which made hunting far easier, British rulers in India issued hunting licenses, imposed strict quotas, and passed the 1878 Indian Forest Act restricting the use of forested land, timber, and other natural resources.
Tigers remained a popular motif in art and design throughout the British Empire. They appeared in prints and paintings, books and printed ephemera, ceramics, jewelry, natural history collections and many other design forms as a symbol of India.