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The ‘Vizagapatam Toy Soldiers’ are a set of late-eighteenth century brass toy soldiers held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the National Army Museum, and the Sandringham and Madras Museums in India. A number of other soldiers are thought to be privately owned.

Vizagapatam toy soldiers from the Ashmolean

Vizagapatam was an ‘epic’ city and famous at the time for its bronze casting. The models represent the troops of the Sultanate of Mysore at the time, which was ruled by the rather bellicose Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), also known as the Tiger of Mysore. The toy army may have been made for one (or several) of his 16 sons. It would certainly have been a gift in style: Tipu Sultan’s ornate palace was said to contain ‘a great variety of curious swords, daggers, fusils, pistols, and blunderbusses’ [1].

Horseman from the National Army Museum Vizagapatam Collection

In any case the owner was a precursor of later British toy soldier collectors, says Michael Ball of the National Army Museum in this video.

One of the horsemen is holding rockets, according to Ball: ‘The first time the British actually encountered rockets was when they fought the Indian Princes.’ In fact Tipu Sultan’s father had greatly improved the quality of Mysore’s rocketry and Tipu used as many as 5000 rocketeers. After the decisive Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 the British captured several Mysorean rockets which inspired the Congreve rocket they would employ in the Napoleonic period.

Rocket-bearer from the National Army Museum Vizagapatam Collection

Although the soldiers accurately display the diversity of an Indian army around the year of 1795, by including troops based on European, Indian and Arabic warriors, they are not stylistically Indian, according to the catalogue of the National Army Museum:

The soldiers are caricatures with oversized heads and weapons. They are set into heavy rectangular bases. Neither caricature nor heavy rectangles is often found in traditional Indian art forms so the design of the soldiers remains a bit of a mystery.

‘The craftsman who made them has obviously been having some fun,’ says Ball: ‘I think what he’s perhaps trying to do is prick the pomposity of the military types. You can see these figures as sort of strutting their stuff.’

Caricature Maharaja from the National Army Museum Vizagapatam Collection

[1] Beatson, Alexander, A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultaun, London, 1800