The Wallace Collection

The Sword of Tipu Sultan
1805 aquatint portrait of Tipu Sultan, based upon a contemporary painting by Edward Orme (1774-1822)
1805 aquatint portrait of Tipu Sultan, based upon a contemporary painting by Edward Orme (1774-1822)
Jade-hilted and jewel-encrusted ‘hunting knife’ (OA1387) reputed to have once belonged to Tipu.  (Case1, in this Gallery)
Jade-hilted and jewel-encrusted ‘hunting knife’ (OA1387) reputed to have once belonged to Tipu. (Case1, in this Gallery)
Treasure of the Month - June 2006

The Sword of Tipu Sultan

This sword (OA1402) is one of the great treasures of the Oriental Armoury and it is of the most exquisite Indian workmanship.

The hilt is carved from jade, intricately inlaid with gold and set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, while the blade is richly damascened in gold with an inscription identifying this weapon as being ‘the personal shamshir (sword) of Tipu Sultan’. His personal ‘badge’ of a tiger, similarly worked in gold, features prominently. Tipu Sultan (or Tippoo Sahib as he was also known) had a particular affinity for tigers… indeed, he was popularly known as ‘the Tiger of Mysore’. He made extensive use of the tiger motif, and often likened himself to a tiger; many of his possessions were decorated with tiger heads or ‘bubri’ (tiger stripes).

Significantly, he is famously credited with saying "In this world I would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep” Born c.1750, he became sultan of the southern Indian state of Mysore upon the death of his father, Haidar Ali, in 1782. Haider Ali had not been of noble blood at all, but had risen through military prowess and political ambition to command the army of the Rajah of Mysore, becoming his chief advisor and eventually virtual ruler. Tipu consolidated this position of power, and continued his father’s policy of expansion and resistance to British political and territorial ambitions in the region.

In 1798 Tipu made an alliance with the French, with whom Britain was at war. Napoleon’s landing in Egypt the same year was intended as a threat to British interests in India, which this gave Governor-General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the first Duke of Wellington) a reason to invade Mysore. After a prolonged siege, on May 4th 1799, at the conclusion of the Fourth Mysore War, Tipu was killed defending his palace-fortress and capital at Seringapathan. His possessions, both territorial and personal, were plundered and divided amoung his enemies.

The manner of Tipu’s death inspired widespread admiration, even among those who had fought against him. In a way, his greatest legacy was his own legend. Tipu’s life and death caught the imagination of the public throughout the civilized world at the time, and his appeal continues to the present day. The anniversary of his death is marked by major celebrations every year at Seringapathan, and elsewhere across India. Politically, however, his long stand against the expansion of British influence ended with his death. Without Tipu’s charisma, drive and determination to exert his authority over the lands under his control, Mysore ceased to be a thorn in the side of British imperialist aspirations in India.

The weapon displayed here was undoubtedly one of many owned by Tipu. Despite its rich decoration, it was nonetheless capable of use in battle, and could well have seen action during its working lifetime. The blade is of the finest crucible steel, possibly of Persian origin, perhaps dating to the 17th century, such blades being highly prized and often re-hilted in the current fashion. The sword entered the Wallace Collection, through Sir Richard’s father, the fourth Marquess of Hertford, who was much taken by the early 19th century fashion for Orientalism.

It was exhibited by Lord Hertford in the 1865 Musée Retrospectif exhibition in Paris (listed as no. 6194), and was illustrated in the Gazette des Beaux Arts of 1869. Hertford almost certainly purchased the sword in France, but there is unfortunately no record of how it came to Europe, or who previously owned it. It probably formed part of the vast treasury of objects, armour and weapons looted after the fall of Seringapathan, much of which is now scattered in museums and private collections across the world.

Further Reading

  • “The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India”, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1999
  • “Treasures from India: the Clive Collection at Powis Castle”, The National Trust, 1987
  • “Tiger of Mysore”, Denys Forrest, Chatto & Windus, London 1970