There’s a Tiger in the Town…

One of the hallmarks of a good story (and a storyteller) is that despite seeming to strike out at a tangent and introduce elements of what may prima facie seem to be extraneous detail, but in the course of the narrative, seamlessly integrate them and in such a manner that the listener/reader is left praise for the additional inputs.

Another is the inclusion of a host of motifs. Take this story I am going to share with you (again out of the books of military anecdotes that have recently come to me after decades, and will provide quite a few of the posts you will see here in the coming days. You have been warned) – it contains considerations on hunting, the upkeep and habits of wild animals, imperial and Raj history, Victorian mores and attitudes, perverse (to civilian) habits of the military, measures affecting local economies, discipline in the armed forces, the effect of carousing and imbibing unwisely, the need and ability of making desperate decisions, are among those I can cite….

And when they are set in vigorous but sparkling prose that evokes several splendid images, what else could one wish for to read or hear? But that is enough of my own peroration. I see you all are impatiently awaiting the account I have been praising and I will not keep you off  any longer – lest it leads to you to think uncharitable thoughts or seriously anticipate some action. So here goes…..

~~~~In the nineteenth century, when tigers had not yet become an endangered species and were still a great threat in rural India to livestock, and, to a lesser but still lethal extent, to humans, tiger shooting was a respectable sport. It required skill, courage, patience and quick-wittedness. It could be dangerous. It could yield lasting evidence of success. After taxidermy, large enduring trophies were available for display about the house, ultimately to decorate or to disfigure, according to spectator reaction, the homes of retired pukka sahibs in places like Cheltenham and Budleigh Salterton in which the reminiscences of old men about how they shot the hearthrug generated in their children either admiration or revulsion.

Two officers of the 5th Lancers, on leave in the Terai, shot a tigress during the hot weather of 1869. In it death spasms it sprang and fastened on the arms of one of the killers. His arm had to be amputated and he died in hospital two days later. At the site of the shooting there were found to be deep, instinctive reasons, beyond anger at being attacked, for the tigress’s ferocity. She had had two young cubs with her.

The injured big game hunter, the body of the tiger and the cubs were carried back to base by the beaters. The cubs were taken to Lucknow. There, one cub died. The other was presented to the Royal Madras Fusiliers, for whom it became the regimental mascot. It was named Plassey, after the regiment’s most memorable battle in which the force commander had been a former Madras Fusilier officer, Robert Clive.

The origins of the Madras Fusiliers dated back to the days of the Honourable East India Company. ‘John Company’ was a huge commercial enterprise with its headquarters in the city of London and with quasi-governmental auspices; it underpinned its trading activities by providing both the civil administration of that part of India in which it operated (which was most of it) and the armed forces needed to support the administration. The majority of John Company’s troops, who at their peak numbered more than 200,000 was Indian. A tiny minority of regiments were exclusively European. The Madras Fusiliers was one of these.

After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, largely engaged in by units of the company’s Bengal army, John Company was dissolved and India became the direct responsibility of the Crown. The Company’s European regiments were incorporated en bloc into the Queen’s army, a not entirely popular measure that stimulated one of the earliest recorded sit-down strikes in either military or industrial history. The British army paid less, took discipline more seriously and had different terms of service. To turn volunteers for one army into conscripts for another, without consulting them, was to ask for trouble.

The discontent was mollified by the customary mixture of coercion, conciliation and bluff. Little of this remained an issue by the time that Plassey put in his appearance as the regimental mascot, but one ramification was of relevance. The Fusiliers, in their 250-years of existence, had been stationed out of India only twice, for brief periods in both Burma and the Dutch East Indies, and they were now liable for home service. They were posted to Dover. They brought with them Plassey and an inherited collective attitude to the small change of day-to-day life better suited to India than to the United Kingdom.

To be continued……


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