‘Tipu’s Tiger,’ the striking Indian automaton of a tiger mauling a red-coated European man, is now held in the V&A Museum. It was taken from the palace of the ruler of Mysore during the East India Company’s capture of Seringapatam on 4 May 1799. Equally remarkable and valuable was Tipu Sultan’s library, seized in the same battle, during which Tipu was killed. Even in the history of this raid the Bodleian Library was invoked to set the standard based on which Tipu’s own library was assessed.
Captain David Price, prize agent for the Bombay Army, was one of the individuals tasked with making a selection of the texts to be presented by the army to the court of directors of the East India Company. :
The library and depôt of manuscripts, was a dark room, in the S.E. angle of the upper virandah of the interior quadrangle of the palace. Instead of being beautifully arranged, as in the Bodleian, the books were heaped together in hampers, covered with leather; to consult which, it was necessary to discharge the whole contents on the floor. The selection, which we completed, with all the care and discrimination in our care to bestow, extended, in the whole, to the number of 300, and something over, all of them manuscripts of the choicest description; whether for matter, beauty of penmanship, or richness of decoration … We did not take any account of the remainder, or bulk, of this princely library. But I should conceive that it must have contained, altogether, from 3 to 4,000 volumes, or about ten times the number of our selection. (Price, Memoirs, pp. 445-6)
Looking back on the event as he wrote his memoirs, Price chose the Bodleian Library, in which books were stored on shelves, as a contrast to the arrangement of books in Tipu’s library, from which, according to his perception and his narrative, books could be plundered. The reference reflects the Bodleian’s position within British imperial thought. Price poses the Bodleian as the ideal library as opposed to the preservation practices of Seringapatam, although another officer has written about the excellent condition of the records and the system Tipu Sultan had in place for the management of the library (“Curious Particulars”, p. 266)
It seems there was something more than monetary value that made Captain Price and other officers select items from Tipu’s collections. Joshua Ehrlich argues that Tipu Sultan’s library is key to understanding the power aspirations of both British soldiers and the Sultan himself. Tipu amassed a library of great value, some of which he acquired through plunder. This brings us to the collection item bestowed upon the University of Oxford, after the plunder of the Seringapatam library by Company soldiers.
Manuscripts from the raided library in Seringapatam (Srirangapatna, Karnataka, India today) would come to enrich the collections of libraries in Britain, including the Bodleian, in part as gifts from the Company.
An inscription (pictured) inside this Safavid Persian Qur’an (MS. Bodl. Or. 793) states that it was presented by the East India Company directors as a gift to the University of Oxford in 1805. Other Qur’ans from Tipu’s library were also given as gifts to Cambridge University, St. Andrews University and the Crown. The choice of institutions of national importance to receive these significant books was done ‘evidently hoping to garner goodwill,’ [Ehrlich, p. 490]
A digital facsimile of this Quran can be seen in Digital Bodleian, where it is described as ‘From the library of Tipu Sultan, Fath ʻAli, Nawab of Mysore, r. 1753-1799.’
Link to digital item
However, this brief statement and the earlier language of ‘gifting’ in the East India Company’s inscription within the book provide provenance descriptions that gloss over the Company’s forcible seizure of Tipu’s library. These neutral statements ignore the episodes of violence in the book’s history, which go back even farther: Tipu’s own plunder of other libraries. It is the power aspirations of those who seized the books which historian Joshua Ehrlich recounts in his history of Tipu’s library. (See: The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, 2023)
Below is a comment on the Qur’an from Professor Sadiah Qureshi, Sassoon Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in 2023:
‘Muslims regard the Qur’an as the revealed word of God requiring ritual ablution and many special acts of respect when handling and reading. Seeing the Qur’an reduced to an object, especially plundered loot, within any collection is deeply distressing, and should be a thing of the past.’
This case study prompts us to ask the following questions:
– Who has the right to present an item as a gift? Is it a gift if it is a spoil of war or violence? How do the means of acquisition complicate the provenance of an object?
– How are an institution’s handling and display practices informed by the historical provenance and religious and cultural significance of the item? What idea does the presence or lack of said practices convey about the institution?
Sims-Williams, Ursula. “Collections Within Collections: An Analysis of Tipu Sultan’s Library.” Iran : Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 59.2 (2021): 287-307.
Price, David. Memoirs of the Early Life and Service of a Field Officer, on the Retired List of the Indian Army. England: W. H. Allen, 1839. Digital copy available from the Bodleian Libraries
Ehrlich, Joshua. “Plunder and Prestige: Tipu Sultan’s Library and the Making of British India.” South Asia 43.3 (2020): 478-92.
“Curious Particulars Relative to the Capture of Seringapatam.” The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany, 1785-1803 (vol. 15, January 1800): 260-66. Digital copy available from the Bodleian Libraries