|Date of birth, Place:||25.07.1875, Naini Tal, India|
|Date of death, Place:||19.04.1955, Nyeri, Kenya|
|Burial site:||Cemetry of St. Peter’s Anglican Church; epitaph: “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away”|
Edward James (Jim) Corbett was of Irish stock. When eighteen his grandfather from father’s side left Dublin for Bengal, India, in 1814, after he voluntarily enlisted for the infantry. Jim was born as second last of nine children to Christopher William Corbett and Mary Jane Doyle (maiden name Prussias) on 25th July 1875 in Naini Tal, Kumaon. Both his father and mother had children from a previous marriage, so Jim had four stepbrothers and two stepsisters. His eldest brother Tom was Jim’s childhood idol who taught him the basic principles of hunting in the forests of Kaladhungi where the Corbetts had their winter home. Tom presented Jim with his first catapult and the first lessons when not to use it, which means that a sportsman never hunts when animals breed or look after their young.
It is assumed that his father had been an army doctor, and ended up being the postmaster in Naini Tal, which was not a bad career move in those days. On his transfer to Naini Tal he secured a grant of land in the village of Choti Haldwani at Kaladhungi. He built a house there, named Arundel (now converted into a Jim Corbett museum), to escape the bitter winters in Naini Tal. And there could have been no better place than Arundel for Jim to become a naturalist.
His father died in 1881 when Jim was still five years old. Although it wasn’t easy for Jim’s mother, who was fifteen years younger than her husband, to raise and educate seven children (the others old enough to fend for themselves) on just a widow’s pension, she managed quite well with the support of her daughter Mary. She even built Gurney House in Naini Tal where Jim was educated and spent most of his summers.
After the death of their mother in 1924, Jim’s favourite sister Margaret (Maggie) and himself were constant companions to each other and both chose not to marry. People have been speculating about Jim staying a bachelor all his life. Was it because he had to accompany his sisters and other neighbourhood girls, as a young boy, when they went bathing in the river? Could it be that the sights and sounds in the canal, especially when certain guests of the family (two boys) were around, put him off from any further involvement with women?
Jim hunted his first leopard at the age of six. He began hunting to help feed his family. Blessed with excellent eyesight, power of observation, keen hearing, remarkable memory, encyclopedic knowledge of the surrounding jungle, stamina and braveness, he became well-known for his jungle and hunting skills. Already from the age of about nine or ten, Jim used to go off into the jungle for several days and nights at a stretch, accompanied by their gardener.
Jim went from school, eighteen years old, straight to Bihar to work as a temporary fuel inspector of the Bengal and North-Western Railway. He would work with the Railway company until 1914. Though not from a wealthy family, he was able to buy real estate, already in 1906, and became a landlord in his hometown Naini Tal. He took good care of his tenants and was a member of the Municipal Board for a few years. So, he followed his father footsteps and was also a Naini Tal city father.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, he returned to Kumaon to raise a labour contingent for the British Army and served in France and Waziristan. After the war he settled down in Naini Tal, where he lived almost continuously until 1947, except for several trips to Tanganyika (modern Tanzania).….1. Both times when the World Wars broke out Jim Corbett offered his services to the army, and both times the army would not have anything to do with an old man (he was thirty-eight when WW I broke out). Nevertheless, both times he served his country well by training a labour force or training allied troops in jungle warfare.
After independence came in India and all their British friends left, Maggie and Jim realised that it would be very difficult for them to remain. So, reluctantly they left for Africa. In 1947, 30 November, Maggie and Jim Corbett left Naini Tal and settled in Nyeri, Kenya. There were several reasons for deciding on Kenya, such as it was a colony where White supremacy was acknowledged were, it had a rich wildlife and Jim’s two closest relations, a niece and a nephew, were in Kenya. Even after he left Jim took good care of his tenants and he ‘freed’ them.
As if a return might be a possibility he maintained legal rights of a sort over the Kaladhungi estate by remitting annually the land revenue to the government. Furthermore he maintained his bank account in Naini Tal until his death.
Jim continued his early career as a writer, describing his ‘killing man-eaters adventures’ when settled in Kenya, where they could live in comfort thanks to the royalties coming in from his first book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1946).
In his last book Tree Tops, published after his death, he recalls his greatest triumph in Kenya, when he escorted Princess Elizabeth — soon to become the Queen of England — to the famous wilderness hotel called Tree Tops.
Already of ill-health since WW II, he suffered a severe heart attack in 1955 and died the same day in hospital. He is buried at a cemetery at Nyeri, Africa, where another tracker and well-known scout, Lord Baden Powell, can be found.
Jim Corbett died as he lived: a simple, unassuming tall man with blue eyes, caring for the people and wildlife of Kumaon, who lived up to his reputation as a hunter and forester, and nearly always wore shorts for clothing.
1Jim Corbett of Kumaon by D.C. Kala
Jim Corbett was known as a shikari, a big game hunter and killer of man-eaters. He loved India and its people and understood their needs and respected their sentiments. It is for them that he risked his life many times when asked to shoot a man-eating tiger or leopard.
His life as a hunter has been a bit romanticised, as if he only killed big cats when they became man-eaters. This was true at a certain point in his life, but it must be said that he organised several shooting parties for high level people like governors, Viceroys and celebrities, including collectors and generals. Although not something to be proud of, it made him one of the most influential men in the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh, in the 1930-40s.
Jim’s reputation of being an exceptional good tracker and hunter already brought him a request to track down a tiger or leopard that had preyed on humans, as early as 1906, still in his railway days. This is when his active period of man-eater hunting started, which lasted until 1938, although he shot his last one, the marauder of the Ladhya valley, in 1946. Jim had two non-negotiable conditions when he agreed to hunt a man-eater: the district officers should withdraw the reward offered to kill the animal, and no other hunters should be assigned the task. But before all he had to be convinced that the animal was a habitual man-killer. Jim believed that animals that had been disturbed under special conditions, such as a tigress protecting cubs, a tiger on a fresh kill or when wounded, were not man-eaters. These animals should be given the benefit of doubt at least twice before labelling it a man-eater. Corbett was convinced that tigers only turned to man-eating — man being an easy prey — when they were wounded, like having broken canines, being cripple or having other injuries. Therefore he thoroughly examined the animals when shot to back up his theory. Only seldom he found that the suspect was in great shape and perfect health. His theory is supported by research published on 19 April 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports. Two scientists examined the remains of the two Tsavo man-eating lions which were killed by Colonel J.H. Patterson in Kenya in December 1898. Both lions showed evidence of dental problems, which probably made them turn to easy prey, such as man.
Jim Corbett was a very brave man, but not fearless. He often experienced fear or even terror while waiting for a man-eater to appear. Nevertheless, he would often get very close to the man-eaters who were his quarry, even though they could not be seen in the heavy brush. This risk he could take because he was able to sense danger at the subconscious level (extrasensory perception), and it saved his life several times. In addition he preferred to hunt alone when pursuing dangerous game, on foot. Especially he refused to have armed company while hunting, with only one exception for A.W. Ibbotson, with whom he hunted the Rudrapayag, Thak and Chuka man-eaters. Probably due to his sixth sense, he was quite a superstitious man. He considered Fridays bad for starting journeys, he was sensitive to ghosts all his life and he had the deep-rooted conviction that all his efforts to kill a man-eater would be unavailing until he had first killed a snake.
Like many professional hunters nowadays, Corbett took good care of the grounds he serviced. He had a zoo approach to Kaladhungi and the surrounding forest, zealously guarding the game it harboured. He treated the area as his own private reserve, with his own shooting laws which he enforced. His enormous respect for nature transformed into a conservationist, who worked for the improvement of Indian wildlife.
Jim Corbett had enormous respect for the tiger. This could be one of the reasons that after 1930 he took to photography, as he was of the opinion that: “While the photograph is of interest to all lovers of wild life, the trophy is only of interest to the individual who acquired it.”1 According to an article in the Hindustan Times (14 August 1956) the straw that broke the camel was a shooting party led by Corbett with three military officers. When coming upon a large batch of waterfowl the officers started shooting and went on and on. They killed over 300 birds and could not carry them home. It was just unrestrained slaughter as Jim recalled.
The skills he developed over the years enabled him to beckon animals very close to his camera. Through his footage he wanted to make people aware of the biodiversity of India and sound the alarm about declining numbers of tigers and other wildlife. Being a humanitarian throughout his life, he became an expert naturalist who even started lecturing on wildlife at Naini Tal school. In 1931 he even became a honorary secretary of the Association for the Preservation of Game in United Provinces, which also brought out a journal, Indian Wild Life.
Jim’s opinion and vision on the tigers of India is well reflected in his ‘author’s note’ in Man-eaters of Kumaon: “There is, however, one point on which I am convinced that all sportsmen — no matter whether their point of view has been a platform on a tree, the back of an elephant, or their own feet — will agree with me, and that is, that a tiger is a largehearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”
Unfortunately Jim Corbett did not live to see the honour he received from the Indian government by renaming its first national park in 1957 after him, the Jim Corbett National Park. It is famous for the elusive tiger and it harbours many other species, such as deer, wild boar, elephants and birds, though in 2011⁄12 activists claimed that the Park is a haven for poachers (more information here).
Furthermore, in 1968, one of the five remaining subspecies of tigers which is found in Indo-China and extreme South China was named after him, the Panthera tigris corbetti or more commonly the Indochinese tiger or Corbett’s tiger. With this he was honoured as a fellow naturalist by Dr Vratislav Mazak as an ‘excellent naturalist who devoted his life to the study and the protection on Indian wildlife, particularly the tigers’.
1Man-eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett
- Jim Corbett of Kumaon by D.C. Kala, 1999
- Website jimcorbettfanclub.com
- Wikipedia, Jim Corbett (hunter)
- Larisa R. G. DeSantis & Bruce D. Patterson. Dietary behaviour of man-eating lions as revealed by dental microwear textures in Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 904 (2017)(doi:10.1038/s41598-017 – 00948-5)