Sunday, May 24, 2015

Carpet Sahib

“The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman,” Jim Corbett wrote in his intro to Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

It sounds Hemingwayish, but there's none of Ernest's macho posturing in Corbett's writings. In fact, he comes across as a very large-hearted gentleman himself.


His parents were born in India and after the Mutiny settled in Nainital, a "hill station" in the heavily forested Kumaon region of the Himalayas of northern India. Corbett was born there in 1875.

His first firearm (received at the age of eight) was a double-barrelled muzzle-loading shotgun with a split barrel and cracked stock. By ten he was lugging around a .450 Martini, a rifle capable of stopping an elephant. He was still a boy when he shot his first leopard.


At the age of 17 he left home to work, shouldering responsibility for his widowed mother, sister, half-sister, and three young children (a brother, a niece, and a nephew).

He found work with the Bengal & North-Western Railway, first in charge of a large labour force felling timber, then transshipping goods by steamer across the Ganges at Mokameh Ghat. He worked there for 22 years. On his holidays he hunted and fished, and returned to Nainital to visit family and develop business prospects there.


The railway refused to release him to fight in the Boer War, and by the time WWI broke out he was 38 and considered too old to fight. Instead he was given a wartime commission as Captain in charge of raising a labour corps which he took to France.  

When WWII arrived, he was in his mid-sixties. As before he contributed by recruiting a pioneer corps, and then by travelling to various bases in India to lecture troops on junglecraft. In aid of the latter, he crossed into Burma in 1944 to study flora and fauna there.


He left his railway job at the conclusion of WWI and returned to Nainital, where during the 1920s he focused on business matters. These included a store that his mother and sister helped run, and real estate interests that included a farm in Tanganyika, which he visited every year, and the improving of a run-down village that he had bought.


Man-eating tigers were responsible for killing many hundreds of people and inflicting a reign of terror over wide areas, sometimes for years. He hunted his first ones while still working for the railway. More followed in the 1930s, but by then he was becoming conservation-minded and more interested in photography than hunting. The first nature preserve in India was established near Naini Tal (and renamed after Corbett in 1957).

By the time he retired from business, he had been awarded the OBE and made some very high-placed friends, including the Viceroy of India. Man-Eaters of Kumaon was published in 1944 and became an international success. In 1946 he was awarded a CIE, Companion of the Indian Empire.


Yet he and his sister Maggie were nervous about the coming Independence, and in 1947 left India for Kenya. Over the next 10 years more books came out, until he died in 1957. He was buried in Nyeri near the tomb of Baden-Powell.


He was quiet, honest, superstitious, patriotic, philanthropic, extraordinarily brave, and had remarkable physical stamina. He lived simply, and was held in great respect by the “hill folk” of Kumaon, but often looked down on by other Europeans.

He was white but had cast off his heritage in order to associate with and side with the native. He ate native food, followed native customs and religions, spoke a number of dialects fluently, understood the 'Indian mind' and was generally at home in his supposedly alien environment. To cap it all, he knew his way around the forests better than many a native tracker.

He never married, mainly due to the isolation of his railway job, and the efforts of his mother and sister, who were jealously protective of him.

Carpet Sahib

The title comes from a local mispronunciation, “Carpet” instead of “Corbett.”

The book has an index and a few appendices but no photos or map. In the Acknowledgements over 60 people are named, some of whom knew Corbett. In a few places there are quotes from his own letters and from those who knew him.

One omission is any mention of Maggie's final years. Even a single sentence would have sufficed. She was an important part of Corbett's life.

A few readers have posted critical comments on Amazon, but I got the impression they were expecting an exciting account rather than the usual dry detail of a biography. Others have claimed the book blackens Corbett's name, which I assume refers to the following:
  • suggesting he had an affair with the wife of his friend Ibbotson
  • questioning his account of the Chowgarh tigress as “far-fetched” 
  • accusing him of “dirty" and “unsportsmanlike” tactics (poison, set-guns, and an 80-lb trap) in going after the Rudraprayag leopard
Of these criticisms, it seems to me that only the last one has merit. The leopard, after all, had killed more than 125 people over a period of eight years.