Over the last couple of weeks I have stayed in Bristol, London, Durham, Sheffield, Grimsby and Cambridge. Arranging places to stay and booking train tickets has been both tiring and expensive. I have had to rely on the kindness and generosity of friends and family. But then yesterday, whilst I was researching in the Centre of South Asian Studies’ Archive at the University of Cambridge, I came across a task that put my planning difficulties into perspective. How do you post a living tiger from Burma to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century?
This was the task that faced Kendal Coghill of the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers in 1855. He wanted to send his pet tiger cub back to Britain from the town of Moulmein in Burma. He detailed the logistical challenges that faced him in a letter to his brother. He complained of the ‘exorbitant’ prices that most ship captains quoted him, and the problems of having a suitable iron cage built for his ‘precious Betsy’. He eventually found a captain willing to take her for the sum of £20, with an additional £6 for carrying the cage. But even after he had found a ship for her, arranging for Betsy to be collected on arrival was no simple task. The ship was due to leave in September, and was expected to arrive in either January or February 1856. The lack of certainty about the time that the ship would arrive, was made worse by not being able to guarantee where it would arrive. He informed his brother that it would probably arrive in either Falmouth, in Cornwall, or Cork, in Ireland. There was even an outside chance that the ship would end up in Sunderland in North East England.
Since it would have been impossible for his brother to know in advance when and where the ship would arrive, and therefore be impossible for him to be there when Betsy arrived, Coghill wrote to the customs house officers at Falmouth and Cork, asking them, ‘to take charge of it and feed it and either forward it direct to you or let him know of its arrival.’ This was quite a favour to ask of customs officers. Of course, collecting the tiger was just the beginning. When she had been picked up, his brothers would have to look after her – a growing tiger cub who had been confined on a ship for at least four months. Fortunately, Coghill sent the following instructions for handling her:
Whatever you do, don’t give her raw meat or you’ll make her so savage as not to be able to let her out for a run – at present she has never been tied up and comes when I call Bargh, to eat breakfast with me… Don’t let any one near her at meal times as she allows no one but myself near her even now – as she spits and lets out with her paws in a surprising way. She understands the word Bargh, and if I chirp, as if to a bird, she’ll come and she makes a sort of grunt through the nose which I imitate by a sort of gurgle in the back of the throat, which always puts her in a good humour.
As if looking after a tiger armed only with the knowledge that she likes people to chirp and gurgle to her was not enough to expect, Coghill asked his brother whether he would measure her for him when she arrived.
I don’t yet know if Betsy made it to England (or Ireland), but I will try to find out what became of her. Nevertheless, Coghill’s letter gives us an insight into the uncertainties of sending items back home from empire in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also an example of the affectionate and the ill-conceived relationships that imperialists forged with wild animals.