The story of a domesticated tiger

On December 26th, 1788 the ship, Pitt East Indiaman, which was owned by the East India Company and captained by Edward Manning set sail for St Helena, Benkulen and then China. She reached St Helena in March 1789, Benkulen in July, arriving in China November 1789.

The 'Pitt' near Dover returning from China, 1787. Wikimedia Commons.
The ‘Pitt’ near Dover returning from China, 1787. Wikimedia Commons.

In China, she collected her cargo began the return journey back to England via St Helena, reaching England in August 1790.  There was nothing unusual in journey except that when they arrived in China they acquired an additional piece of cargo – a tiger.

A Tiger Resting: the frontispiece for "Oriental Field Sports", 1805, Samuel Howitt. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
A Tiger Resting: the frontispiece for “Oriental Field Sports”, Samuel Howitt. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

When first brought on board, the tiger was no larger than a puppy of one month to six weeks old, and the ship’s company were determined, if possible, to tame him. The familiarities used with this creature grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength until by the time he was almost a year old he was harmless and as playful as a young kitten.

We have no explanation as to why this tiger was onboard, whether it was destined for a circus in England we cannot say. The animal was described by the newspapers as:

a beautiful young male tiger, about ten or twelve months old and nearly the size of a large mastiff dog.

The Kentish Gazette in its coverage described the animal as being:

a singular instance of the practicability of taming and domesticating wild beasts, a tiger being allowed to be the most ferocious of the savage creatures.

Until he grew too large he lived in the carpenter’s cabin and frequently slept with the sailors in their hammocks, each becoming very fond of the animal.

During the passage home, he was mischievous as most young animals are and frequently stole the sailor’s shoes and hid their clothes, at one time he had in his concealment no less than twenty-five pairs of silk breeches.

He was extremely playful and would often climb about the ship like a cat and perform antics which you would have to have seen to believe.  He was known to play with the dog on board, tossing him in the air and catching him in his paws. The sailors used to make him lie down on the deck and three of them at one time would rest their heads on him using him as a pillow, the tiger never stirred until the sailors had taken their nap.

In return for this familiarity he was known to steal their meat – they became so fond of the creature that he was never really punished. One day during the voyage, however, he also stole the carpenter’s favourite roast beef, the carpenter followed the tiger and retrieved the piece of meat. On this occasion, the animal was punished but apparently ‘took it with the patience of a spaniel’.

Caricature of a sailor. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Caricature of a sailor. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Mr Murray, the purser, having left his cabin door open, the tiger jumped into the cot whilst he was asleep, but not liking his bedfellow Murray hastily jumped out leaving the tiger in full possession of both his cot and his cabin.

When the ship arrived at Gravesend, an old woman came on board with a basket of gingerbread to sell, the tiger set upon the old woman as a cat does when chasing a mouse, seized its opportunity, sprang at her, jumped upon her from behind and threw his paws around her neck. This unexpected attack, on the part of the woman was depicted with every tragic emotion; the basket, gingerbread, fruit and all its contents fell on the deck, which when done, as if conscious of the woman’s situation, he released his prisoner and wandered off to find something else to do in another part of the ship.

Six or eight sailors, part of the men put on board the ship to work her up to the moorings at Deptford, had at this time their portion of fresh beef served to them; and whilst they were debating whether it should be boiled or roasted, a diversity of opinions having taken place, the tiger who lay close by watched for a favourable opportunity, made a sudden spring and seized it, which not only ended the contest, but even saved them the trouble of preparing it, as the tiger it had been observed, preferred his meat  raw rather than boiled or roasted.

A Tiger by Charles Towne, 1818; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage
A Tiger by Charles Towne; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

The above story was reputed to be true and was verified by a gentleman who went on board the Pitt. This gentleman wishing to see this domesticated tiger was led to the carpenter’s cabin, where the tiger lay sleeping at the feet of the carpenter’s wife and sister. Encouraged by the account he was given of this docility, he first ventured to touch him, and after growling a little, which he always did when disturbed from sleep, he patted him in the most familiar manner and then proceeded to put his hand into the tiger’s mouth. The tiger was perfectly content with this.

What became of the tiger we have no idea, but presumably he came part of the circus, but it would be nice to think he remained on board with the carpenter, but it seems unlikely as only a few months later the ship, still under Manning’s command became a convict ship.

Sources Used

Kentish Gazette 31 August 1790

Featured Image

Three Tigers in a Rocky Landscape by Sawrey Gilpin. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

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4 thoughts on “The story of a domesticated tiger

  1. nmayer2015

    Where did William Blake see a Tyger? His poem doesn’t read as though the poet only saw an illustration of a tiger but seems to be more reporting of an actual creature. The trouble with domesticating such an animal is its sheer size . Just as a cat will bat a person with claws or even scratch the hand that feeds it, a tiger could do the same with more severe results. As the poor gingerbread seller discovered, few can stand up to a 200 or 300 pound creature jumping up on one — even in friendly greeting.
    Some fool sailor probably decided to tease the tiger as he would a cat and got mauled for his efforts and the poor beast probably ended up feeding the sharks for reacting naturally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      If he did actually see one, rather than just a painting of one, it would most likely to have been somewhere like the menagerie or a travelling circus, we’re really not sure.

      Like

  2. This is a great story, thanks. It seems that the Derby Mercury of 9th September 1790 did a little follow up on the beast:

    “A few days Since a new State prisoner was committed to the Tower— This is no other than the Tiger, from on board the Pitt East -Indiaman, whose various frolick-some misdemeanors have secured him this honourable lodging.”

    The tiger’s misdemeanors were obviously less appreciated by the general public than they were the crew of the ship!

    Liked by 1 person

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