Enter the tiger

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; 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.