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July 10, 2012

Documents reveal wealth seized by British after Tipu Sultan’s defeat

London: Memorandums dating from 1799 have revealed the gigantic amounts of wealth seized by the East India Company following the final defeat of Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam. The documents, to be sold by Sotheby’s on Tuesday, reveal that three hunting cheetahs were unquestionably despatched from India for the royal family’s pleasure after the ruler’s defeat. The papers also contain a description of the Sultan’s throne. The eight memorandums, more than 30 pages, were bought in a second-hand shop about 20 years ago. When the owner took them into Sotheby’s for evaluation, both he and the auction house were somewhat taken aback. “The more I looked at it, the more astonished I was – it is an extraordinary thing. I assumed it was a much later transcript of something but they are the original memoranda sent back from India ,” the Guardian quoted Books specialist Gabriel Heaton as saying. Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore , was one of India ’s greatest leaders and a huge thorn in the side to the expansionist ambitions of the East India Company. The newly discovered documents give a fascinating insight into Tipu’s court and provide some of the earliest known descriptions of the treasures within. Tipu was finally defeated after the siege of Seringapatam in 1799 and soldiers from the East India Company went, open-mouthed, into his palace and took what they wanted. Heaton said: “The main series of memoranda are describing the great treasures that are to be returned to London which in most cases are to be given to the king or other members of the royal family.” They include the hunting cheetahs for which the memoranda’s author, Benjamin Sydenham, gives a detailed description in which an unfair advantage for the deer seems to be made even more unfair. “Each Cheta was carried on a light Cart drawn by two Bullocks regularly trained for the purpose,” he wrote. “The Huntsman of each Cheta was seated on his respective Cart, and the other two attendants ran close to it on foot … On discovering a herd of deer, they … endeavoured to take up a position as should oblige the Antelope when chased to run up hill, or over broken ground … When they arrived within 4 or 500 yards of the Game, the men on foot turned the Cheta’s head towards the Antelope, uncovered the Cheta’s eyes and then let him loose …” Heaton said: “The idea was they would be sent back so that the royal family could hunt with cheetahs which is a pretty extraordinary thought - I’m not sure they ever did. It’s not as strange as it sounds, because, of course, hunting was the great preoccupation of the British aristocracy, as it was the Indian aristocracy.” There is also a description of Tipu’s throne itself, which was not sent back to London because it was made from gold. Instead it was destroyed and distributed among the company’s officers. “It was the most spectacular object which was therefore lost and is only known through descriptions such as these.” It includes the only known drawing of the throne taken from above. “You can see aspects of the throne which were otherwise not visible or known about before,” said Heaton. In particular it shows that there were 10 – and not eight, as thought – tiger head finials on the throne. “It was incredibly spectacular with masses of gold and heavily jewelled. Probably the most beautiful thing of all was the huma [a bejewelled bird of paradise] which is now in the royal collection.” The documents contain the first proper and detailed description of what is now one of the most popular exhibits in the V and A – Tipu’s Tiger. It says of the wooden tiger: “This piece of mechanism represents a Royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European …” Sydenham was assiduous in his record taking and became aide-de-camp to the governor general, Marquess Wellesley. The newly discovered copy would have accompanied the treasures by ship while another set, now among East India Company papers in the British Library, were sent overland. The documents have been given an estimate of between 15,000 pounds-20,000 pounds.

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