Korbit Sahib – the English tiger-hunter with the heart of a lion

Posted in Animals, Bravery, Historical articles, History, Nature, Weapons, Wildlife on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about India originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Shooting a tiger, picture, image, illustration

Shooting a tiger

The three Englishmen who were making their way cautiously along the old watercourse had no means of seeing over the top of its steep banks. Behind them, a party of Indian policemen followed warily. Somewhere nearby in the jungle lay the hidden camp of the notorious bandit, Sultana, and his men. The slightest sound was liable to bring a hail of bullets in return.

The leading Englishman had been following a trail of footprints invisible to his companions, but eventually even he came to a baffled full stop. Perhaps his quarry had left the nullah for the shelter of the trees? The tracker started to clamber up the bank, hauling himself up by the roots of an old tree. The mud was soft and he fell down. He tried again, and the same thing happened.

Each time the white man’s head appeared over the edge of the gully, ten hidden rifles swung towards it, waiting for the moment when more of the body would appear. But it did not. The earth gave way each time, and eventually the climber gave up and padded along his original path. Only then did the hidden men relax and exchange worried glances.

“Korbit Sahib!” they muttered to each other. “That was Korbit Sahib!”

What chance had they of escaping if the legendary hunter of killer tigers was turning his attentions to men?

Anyone who lived in India during the years between the wars had either met, or at least heard of, Jim Corbett, one of the greatest tiger hunters the country had ever known. Few people realised that when he was not shooting man-eaters, the life of the quiet, unassuming little man showed a special kind of heroism. The unsung, unpublicised courage that endured loneliness, poverty and sickness without complaint. Courage that prompted him time and again to risk his life for the shy, primitive hill folk to whom he became almost a minor god.

Jim Corbett was an Englishman of the breed that was born in India and looked on his adopted country as home. He went to school in the lakeside settlement of Naini Tal, deep in the fir-clad Kumaon Hills. It was in 1898 that the head of the Locomotive Department of the Bengal and North-Eastern Railway gave him the order that was to set the pattern of his life.

“Go to Mokameh Ghat and take over the freight handling contract.”

As orders they were not particularly exciting, but at the time Corbett had been in need of a job, so he accepted, well aware that Mokameh Ghat was far from most people’s idea of a good posting. It was a lonely spot on the River Ganges, half way between Benares and Rangpur. If it had any importance at all it was for railway men, for it was at Mokameh Ghat that the metre gauge railway came to an end and the broad gauge line began, with the river in between. This meant that all freight, much of it coal, had to be transferred from one set of trucks to another, using a ferry. And at the turn of the century, every pound had to be lifted by hand.

It was dull, hard, back-breaking work for the Indian coolies, and almost as taxing for the man who supervised it. Hundreds of men to care for, and a million tons to be moved each year.

Corbett, when he took the job, was still not twenty-one.

Even if one allows for the changing value of money, it seems unbelievable today that anyone could ever work for so little. For every 35 tons the labourers moved, they were paid 9 pence. Corbett himself received only £2.50 a week, and when he first arrived at Mokameh Ghat, he was not to have a single day off for three months.

It was typical of Corbett that as soon as he did manage to get any time to himself, he devoted it to starting a school. When any of his men fell sick and proved to be of such low caste that no one else would bother, it was Corbett who nursed them back to health.

That much of the sickness was deadly did not concern the young railway official at all. On one occasion he discovered a traveller stretched out by the river bank waiting to die. One glance showed that he had the dreaded cholera. Corbett unhesitatingly took him home and cared for him. When the stranger recovered, it turned out that he was a one-time merchant who had lost all his money to a dishonest partner and had abandoned hope of ever being able to start up in business again. Without a second thought, Corbett lent the man the greater part of his life savings.

Before long, the tales of man-eaters started to come in. Corbett had spent his childhood in the jungle, and even at Mokameh Ghat, was dependent on his gun for food, as he was so hard up he could never afford meat unless he had hunted it for himself. He stalked game at night for the simple reason that it was the only spare time he had, so when a leopard or tiger threatened some lonely village, it seemed natural enough for the hill farmers to turn to Korbit Sahib for help.

Today, when the tiger faces extinction, it is hard to admire the hunters of old who killed scores of them. But Corbett was not a man who killed for fun. Two leopards he hunted had managed to kill 525 men, women and children between them, and Corbett was satisfied that once a big cat had developed a liking for human flesh, it had to die.

Yet as the years passed, Jim Corbett found himself shooting less and less. A friend had made him a present of a movie camera and he found more pleasure in recording the habits of the magnificent animals he loved than in exterminating the rogues. Even Sultana’s bandits, watching Corbett and his friends making their way stealthily along the old watercourse knew it. What puzzled them was the fact that Korbit Sahib had taken to hunting men.

The answer was straightforward enough. Corbett had agreed to help the police only because Sultana was a murderer many times over. Even so, he had left his rifle at home because he was uncertain of the use to which the police might expect him to put it. Corbett’s love of the people with whom he had spent his life was such that he could not bring himself to harm even the worst of them.

Jim Corbett was an old man when he died soon after World War Two and the India he knew had passed into history. But the people of India have never forgotten that Korbit Sahib was their friend. Today, the greatest of the Indian game reserves is named after him.

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