Tigers and tea? They might be as different as chalk and cheese, but their unlikely pairing made its way into a beloved children’s book, the Berlin-born Judith Kerr’s 1968 classic, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Not since Tigger, the endearing stripy tiger that Winnie the Pooh befriends in A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, has a tiger landed in a children’s story with such aplomb. Kerr’s book revolves around a famished tiger who arrives un-announced at Sophie’s doorstep, for tea. Luckily for Sophie, her mother takes it all in her stride. Without batting an eyelid, she invites their unexpected guest to join them in the kitchen where a delicious spread of tea and snacks awaits. As is to be expected of a large, furry beast, the tiger dispenses with such niceties as sipping tea from a teacup. Instead, he gobbles up all the biscuits and buns, and tips the Brown Betty right into his mouth.

The tiger came to life when Kerr first made up the story for her daughter Tacy. When he appeared in her book, he resembled a Royal Bengal tiger that might be spotted in the London zoo, or a tabby cat who could be found wandering about the kitchen in search of tasty tidbits. No matter what the origins of Kerr’s furry feline, there is no mistaking the teapot in her illustrations as anything but quintessentially English (incidentally, Kerr sold her first drawing in a Lyons Teashop). A seventeenth-century invention, the Brown Betty was first made in the Staffordshire town of Stoke-on-Trent, the celebrated hub of English pottery (both Wedgwood and Spode were manufactured here). Till this day, for the Brown Betty to be the real thing, the genuine article, it must be produced in Staffordshire. Foreign copies do not count. Easily recognized by its round belly and glossy chocolatey brown glaze, this unpretentious pot is thought to be particularly well suited to making the perfect cuppa tea. For its rotund shape ensures that the tea leaves swirl gently in the hot water poured into the pot, their aromatic flavor infusing the liquid to create a satisfying brew. By the time Kerr was busy sketching her furry tiger, the Brown Betty was a familiar household item in Britain, if not, an iconic example of British ceramics.

What then do we make of the tiger? Kerr’s hungry feline might seem at odds with afternoon tea, but it was by no means a stranger in a tea plantation. Nor was it unusual to spot a tiger in London where Kerr relocated soon after her family escaped from Hitler’s Germany. For tigers and tea can be traced back to the nineteenth century when both emerged as unmistakable signs of the British empire. Be it in a tea shop, a café, the zoo, or the natural history museum, tea and tigers soon became staple features in London’s landscape.  

In 1886, a cluster of stuffed wild animals “cleverly designed and grouped” by the acclaimed Victorian taxidermist Rowland Ward, went on display in an artificial “jungle” recreated by Ward for the lavish Colonial and Indian Exhibition. The exhibit left a lasting impression on a reporter for the Illustrated London News who rhapsodized about “a hunting elephant…seen beset by fierce tigers, one of which has sprung upon his trunk, into which it has fastened its fangs.” This bloodcurdling scene “doubtless reminded” the exhibition visitor of the Prince of Wales’s “tiger-hunting experiences in the Terai during his visit to India some ten years ago.” Procured with the help of the maharaja of Cooch Behar, a keen hunter and an impressive shot, the tigers in Ward’s display were no ordinary trophies. They were spectacular emblems of the sport of kings.

A princely state in British India accorded a thirteen-gun salute by British authorities, Cooch Behar was located close to prime tea growing country in the Dooars. Here, thick jungle teeming with wild life swept across the plains of north Bengal. Tigers, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and rhinoceroses were plentiful. Not surprisingly, several tigers from Cooch Behar and the Dooars went onto feature in Ward’s compendious Records of Big Game published a few years after the exhibition, in 1899 (several editions followed). By then, a fledgling tea industry in North Bengal had transformed vast swathes of forest into plantations, and plantations themselves had emerged as prime terrain for hunting big game.

From Rowland Ward’s Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886

Not far from the Dooars, high up in the Himalayas, the Darjeeling Planters’ Club was established for tea planters and army officers in 1868, on a plot of land donated by the maharaja of Cooch Behar who became one of the club’s most active members. Stroll into the club today and an array of wild life trophies stare down at you. A royal Bengal tiger’s head pinned to a heraldic shield, its jaws agape and its menacing snarl silenced into an uncanny replica of a once living creature, stands out immediately. During a visit to the club some months ago, I was reminded of a sprawling tiger skin in my family’s home in north Bengal, its head so enormous and its glassy gaze so terrifying that we tiptoed around it as children, as if we were afraid that it might spring to life in the blink of an eye. Shot in tea country in the Dooars, it was testament to a bygone era of plantation life when planters were skillful hunters and tigers were frequent visitors in plantations.

“To be suddenly aroused in the middle of the night by squeals issuing from the direction of the stables, followed by a sudden irruption [sic] into your bed-chamber of the chowkeydar and his black satellites, green with fear, and yelling in chorus, “barg, Barg” (tiger), is not the most pleasant awakening. There is not a moment to be lost if the horses are to be saved. A light is secured, rifles, together with all the odd firearms that can be speedily collected together, are distributed, and the procession starts for the stables in the following order. First the sahib, behind him the light-bearer, succeeded a few yards off by the chowkeydar with a gun; then, some considerable distance in the rear, the establishment armed with anything handy, slowly come after.”

In this colorful extract from his 1884 memoir, the Assam planter George Barker recalls the perils of confronting a tiger on the prowl. Such encounters between man and beast may seem archaic to us now, but they still resonate with many a tea planter who has come face-to-face with big cats. Carved out of dense jungle, plantations remain time-honored corridors for wild animals ranging from elephants to tigers. Unlike Barker’s time when tigers abounded, today, the big cat is an endangered animal. Not far from Cooch Behar Palace lies the Buxa Tiger Reserve located inside the Buxa National Park, which borders a number of tea plantations. In Barker’s Assam, three tiger reserves including the famed Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, rub shoulders with swathes of leafy plantation. Further south, the Anamalai Tiger Reserve is situated in the vicinity of prime tea country. Once untrammeled terrain, these jungles have steadily shrunk to accommodate the tea industry since the nineteenth century.  

Perhaps Kerr’s tiger was not so out of place after all at afternoon tea at Sophie’s. For big cats were testament to tea, a drink that in Barker’s words was made by the “Planter who toils in the jungle far from civilization to provide the civilized with their cheering beverage.” Less than a century after Barker penned his memoir, the tiger was no longer a formidable foe or a prized hunting trophy. A few years before Kerr published her endearing tale of tigers and tea, Edward Pritchard Gee, a tea planter turned conservationist published his influential Wildlife of India (1964), a book that launched key conservation initiatives in post-Independence India. A prime example of the enlightened planter, Gee drew attention to the importance of protecting the incredibly rich areas of bio-diversity of which plantations are a vital part. Today, his legacy is continued by several Indian planters who have started initiatives of their own, or joined forces with the Indian Forest Service, scientists, and conservationists, to preserve what is left of the Indian wilderness.