As part of the Heritage Open Day programme and this year’s theme of Hidden Nature, we take a look at a Decorative Arts Pearlware enamelled figure group.
This ceramic figure group shows a huge tiger mauling a man dressed in military uniform. It was made in Staffordshire in 1825 and is part of the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery, on display in Brighton Museum.
When you look closely what strikes you most?
Is it the size of the tiger, its unusual markings or even the lack of blood on the victim?
The real story
This somewhat gruesome ceramic was inspired by a true incident that took place in India in December 1792. Munro, only 16 years old and a cadet in the East India Company, disembarked from his ship along with three other passengers on 22 December to hunt deer on the Island of Saugur. The island, known to be rich in game, was also notorious for its large ferocious game-hunting tigers that swam in the rivers.
As the group sat eating lunch of cold meats by a fire, they were disturbed by a tiger hidden in the undergrowth. As one of the members of the party described in a letter:
‘I heard a roar, like thunder, and saw an immense royal tiger spring on the unfortunate Munro…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.’
His friends fired at the tiger which released Munro from its savage jaws. Munro staggered back covered in blood but his injuries were too severe to survive. His friend reported that Munro ‘lived 24 hours in the extreme of torture; his head and skull were torn, and broke in pieces, and he was wounded by the jaws all over his neck and shoulders..’ On 23 December his body was ‘committed to the deep’.
Who was the victim?
The victim’s full name was Hector Sutherland Munro, identified as the illegitimate son of General Sir Hector Munro of Novar, KB, MP. General Sir Hector Munro, who was unmarried but had several children by different mothers, had made his fortune in India and was well-known for the part he played in the British Conquest of India. The victim enlisted in the East India Company as a cadet in May 1792, and arrived in Calcutta, India in November 1792. The manner of his death and his father’s identity meant that when news of the incident reached London in July 1793 it was widely reported and was published in the Sporting Magazine and Gentleman’s Magazine.
It appears that Hector Munro was not the only son of General Sir Hector to meet an untimely end. His youngest son, Alexander, who also enlisted in the East India Company in 1803 was devoured by a shark off Bombay aged 18.
More about the Tiger
The ceramic tiger figure, relative to the victim, appears huge and incredibly powerful. This was no doubt influenced by the description given by Munro’s companions:
‘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.’
The beast was a male Royal Bengal tiger, a species that lives in India, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. Larger than other species of tigers, the males can grow to 3 metres long and weigh up to 569 pounds (258 kg). They attack stealthily and with their exceptionally large canines and killer instincts, poor Munro stood little chance. It must have been a truly fearsome sight for the group who had probably never seen a real-life tiger before.
The death of Munro was recounted as cautionary tales for children in various books as well as plays over the first half of the 19th century showing the long-lasting popular appeal of the incident. Ceramic pieces such as this one began to appear around 1810. It is unlikely that some of the potters had seen real tigers which would probably account for the odd-looking markings on the tiger.
The most famous exhibit possibly related to the death of Munro is ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a mechanical organ in the form of a tiger savaging a soldier. Taken in 1799 from the palace of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, it is now in the V&A Museum, London.
Finally, Munro’s death may have had some impact on the fate of tigers on Saugur Island. In 1819 the Saugor Island Society was formed to reclaim and develop the island, with rewards given for every tiger killed. There are now no tigers on Saugur Island. In common with other species of tigers, Bengal tigers are now an endangered species with only 2967 recorded in India in the 2019 Tiger Census report.
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Cecilia Kendall, Curator, Collections Projects