Thus were the British defeated

Colin Munro

On 21 December 1792 the Shaw Ardaseer, bound for Madras, was taking on cargo at the mouth of the Hooghly River near Calcutta. ‘With a view of diverting the tedium of a ship at anchor’, four passengers, among them a young man called Munro, went ashore to hunt deer on Saugor Island. Another member of the party, Captain Henry Conran, described what followed in a letter to a friend:

About half past three we sat down on the edge of the jungle, to eat some cold meat sent us from the ship, and had just commenced our meal, when Mr Pyefinch and a black servant told us there was a fine deer within six yards of us. Mr Downey and myself immediately jumped up to take our guns; mine was the nearest, and I had just laid hold of it when I heard a roar, like thunder, and saw an immense royal tiger spring on 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 thickest bushes and trees, every thing yielding to his monstrous strength. The agonies of horror, regret, and, I must say, fear (for there were two tigers, male and female) rushed on me at once. The only effort I could make was to fire at him, though the poor youth was still in his mouth. I relied partly on Providence, partly on my own aim, and fired a musket. I saw the tiger stagger and seem agitated, and cried out so immediately. Mr Downey then fired two shots, and I one more. We retired from the jungle, and, a few minutes after, Mr Munro came up to us, all over blood, and fell … I must observe, there was a large fire blazing close to us, composed of ten or a dozen whole trees; I made it myself, on purpose to keep the tigers off, as I had always heard it would … The human mind cannot form an idea of the scene; it turned my very soul within me. The beast was about four and a half feet high, and nine long. His head appeared as large as an ox’s, his eyes darting fire, and his roar, when he first seized his prey, will never be out of my recollection. We had scarcely pushed our boats from that cursed shore when the tigress made her appearance, raging mad almost, and remained on the sand as long as the distance would allow me to see her.

Clockwise from top left: 19th-century Staffordshire pearlware (photograph © Myrna Schkolne); Karen Thompson’s ‘Death of a Species’ (2013); Michell and Napiorkowska’s ‘Sauce Boat Inspired by Tipu’s Tiger’ (1976); the V&A’s mechanical organ.
Clockwise from top left: 19th-century Staffordshire pearlware (photograph © Myrna Schkolne); Karen Thompson’s ‘Death of a Species’ (2013); Michell and Napiorkowska’s ‘Sauce Boat Inspired by Tipu’s Tiger’ (1976); the V&A’s mechanical organ.

Munro was carried back to the ship, but despite the attention of surgeons from the East Indiamen Valentine and General Goddard, both anchored nearby, he died the following day. His body was ‘committed to the deep’ on 23 December. The killing of a European by a tiger was not unusual; a Calcutta silversmith called Dawson had met the same fate nearby five years previously, and a member of a woodcutting party from the General Goddard two years after that. Neither East Indiaman’s journal mentions the death of Munro. When the news finally reached London in July 1793, however, it spread quickly. The victim was reported to be the only son of General Sir Hector Munro of Novar KB, MP, who had played a famous part in the British conquest of India; he was victorious at the Battle of Buxar in 1764, which secured control of Upper India, and responsible for the capture of Pondicherry from the French in 1778. This success had been parlayed into a Parliamentary seat (for Inverness, held for 36 years) and, through the influence of Pitt and Dundas, the colonelcy of the 42nd Regiment, prior to his promotion to general. Conran’s graphic account of the incident was quoted in numerous newspapers, and printed in full in magazines in Britain and America. (Blake’s ‘Tyger’, first known to have existed in October 1793, may have drawn inspiration from the tiger’s ‘eyes darting fire’.)

In the following decades, the death of Munro was recounted dozens of times, in volumes of natural history and books of instruction or cautionary tales for children. In A Short Description of Sixty-four Beasts, Birds, Fishes & Insects such as Generally Excite the Curiosity of Young Persons (1818), Augustus Caulfield asks his aunt, ‘Is not the tiger esteemed one of the most beautiful as well as the most ferocious of animals?’ to which Lady Collins replies with a verbatim recital of Conran’s letter. The story was also related in The Third Chapter of Accidents and Remarkable Events Containing Caution and Instruction for Children (1801); Scenes in Asia for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers (1821); and The Terrific Register, or Records of Crimes, Judgements, Providences and Calamities (1825). In September 1829, the Royal Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel staged ‘an entire new Indian Spectacle, called THE TIGER’S VICTIM; or, The Death of Major Munro’. The part of the major was played by Mr Wood; the tiger, by ‘the famous Dog Bruin’. And as late as 1845 the advertisement for a sideshow in Bristol ran: ‘To be seen within, the same tiger that killed Major Munro on Saugor Island, with the major in his mouth, in the agonies of death, and his two friends firing at the tiger and endeavouring to save their friend.’

But the most long-lasting legacy of Munro’s death is the fame of ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a mechanical organ in the form of a tiger savaging a soldier in European dress that was among the treasures the British recovered from the palace of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, after his death in the seige of his capital Seringapatnam in 1799. The organ attracted great public interest when first exhibited in London in 1800, and is still a popular exhibit at the V&A. When a handle on the side of the organ is cranked, the soldier waves his arm and wails. Thus were the British defeated. However, while the tiger is undoubtedly emblematic of Tipu, the self-styled Tiger of Mysore, and his fierce resistance to European colonialism, there is no evidence he had a particular European in mind. He may well have heard about the death of Munro – two of his sons were being held hostage by the British in Calcutta at the time – but Susan Stronge of the V&A has pointed out that a similar scene is depicted on a silver mount from a gun dated 1787-88, five years before Munro’s death.

The arrangement of tiger and soldier may have inspired the Staffordshire pearlware figures entitled ‘The Death of Munrow’ which began to appear around 1810 and are usually attributed to the potter Obadiah Sherratt (though he had many imitators). The figure with his head in the tiger’s mouth, formally dressed after a military fashion, was probably borrowed from a pre-existing mould and appears remarkably unconcerned by his plight – even when shown with one of his legs missing. In 2003, one of these figures was sold in New York for $50,190. The ghost of ‘Munrow’ reappears in more recent works, among them, Roger Michell and Danka Napiorkowska’s Sauce Boat Inspired by Tipu’s Tiger (1976), Bill Reid’s Bunny Eating Astronaut (2006), and, more pointedly, Karen Thompson’s Death of a Species (The Death of Munrow) (2013), in which a nonchalant pipe-smoking Munrow stands on a tigerskin rug.

Of Munro’s three companions on Saugor Island, Pyefinch died besieging Pondicherry later that year, but Captain, later General, Conran lived until 1827. The Irish satirist William Maginn reported that Conran ‘shot a tiger one day, who was engaged in the diversion of eating a gentleman of the name of Monro; and he told the story so often that he got the nickname of Tiger Conran’. George Downie (Downey), who died in Bengal in 1808, may have been equally keen to share it: in Travels in India a Hundred Years Ago (1893) Thomas Twining told of meeting in about 1800 a ‘Captain O’Donald’ who claimed to be one of those present at Munro’s death. Having just broken his thigh in a hunting accident, he began to tell the story while awaiting rescue.

Munro’s first name is rarely given, and when it is he is usually, and incorrectly, called Hugh, who was a younger son of General Sir Hector Munro. The report of his mauling in the Madras Courier in January 1793 named him as Hector, but the Madras Courier appears not to have reached London. Most museum representations of the ‘Death of Munrow’ describe him as Lieutenant Hugh Munro. In other accounts ‘Mr Munro’ is either a ‘writer’ (the term for junior servants, or secretaries) on leave from the Madras establishment of the East India Company, or a lieutenant, captain or major in their army. The victim’s full name was actually Hector Sutherland Munro, and he was born on 10 July 1775 to Sir Hector and a woman called Sarah, though his surname was omitted from the record of his baptism at St Marylebone in London. In May 1792 he was sponsored for a cadetship by Robert Thornton MP, an East India Company director. A note signed by Sir Hector corrected the error in the baptismal record. Young Hector was a ‘cadet for Madras’ and sailed on the Earl Talbot a month later, arriving at Calcutta on 8 November. His expected arrival was also recorded in Madras, the destination of the Shaw Ardaseer.

Sir Hector was unmarried but supported and educated several children by different mothers out of his huge fortune (he was one of the original nabobs, bringing back £30,000 from his first tour of India alone). Both of his other acknowledged sons also took their chances with the East India Company. Hugh, two years the tiger’s victim’s junior, enlisted as a writer in 1796 and rose to be collector and mintmaster at Bombay, before dying on the voyage home, aged 37. Alexander, the youngest, enlisted as a cadet in 1803, and the following year was ‘devoured by a shark’ off Bombay aged 18. Of Sir Hector’s children, only Hugh survived him. His Novar estate near Dingwall was inherited by his legitimate nephew, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, who ‘lived a sensuous life’ and was a friend, travelling companion and patron of Turner, and used the money he inherited to amass the so-called Novar collection, which contained many works by Turner, including Rome, from Mount Aventine, which sold for £30.3 million three years ago.

In his biography of Saki, whose real name was Hector Hugh Munro, A.J. Langguth asserted that ‘another of Hector’s military relatives had also perished in India when a tiger ate him.’ It has been suggested that the victim was Saki’s great-uncle, and that his story, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, in which a polecat ferret makes a meal of a young boy’s tyrannous elder cousin, was inspired by the tiger. Saki’s grandfather Charles Adolphus Munro was born in Calcutta in 1784, but Sir Hector was by then back in Scotland and, other than having given names common in the clan, there is no evidence that the two Munro branches were closely related. While in Burma Saki kept a ‘tiger-kitten’, a more likely model for the ferret. As for the fate of the tiger and his fellows, in 1819 the Saugor Island Society was formed to reclaim and develop the island. William Dunlop, a Scottish army surgeon and adventurer, was appointed to superintend the clearance of the land, which included clearing it of tigers. The usual government reward of 10 rupees was to be paid for every tiger killed, to which the society would add another five. In 1821 the society’s report noted that ‘the accidents from Tigers in the course of this year have not been very numerous; the society has lost altogether only three persons.’ The society was wound up in 1833, after a devastating cyclone. ‘Tiger’ Dunlop went to Canada, where he became involved in politics. There are no more tigers on Saugor Island.