Col Jim Corbett
Edward James (Jim) Corbett who had been born 25 July 1875 at Nainital became famous
as a destroyer of man-eating tigers, naturalist and as an author. He grew up to
be a tall, slim, attractive blue-eyed man with exceptional eyesight, hearing and
powers of observation, and was known for his modesty, kindness and generosity, and
loved by all. At an early age he spent nights alone in the jungle becoming familiar
with the creatures of the jungle, their movements and habits. His mother and half-sister
Mary, who were religious and intelligent and imbued with a spirit of service, courage
and cheerfulness which had a strong influence on family life. All these qualities
He went to the English High School called Oak Openings at 7,500 ft on Sherkadanda
in Nainital. Oak Openings was part owned and run by an ex-Indian-Army-Officer nicknamed
"Dead Eye-Dick". He was a cruel and ruthless man who would thrash the children in
his care for the slightest misdemeanor. Oak Openings was Jim's first school. It
is he who describes the atrocious beatings given to children as young as 6 or 7
both in lessons and during cadet corps training when Jim himself was only 10 years
The Philander Smith's Institute, part of the American Mission Institute of Mussoorie,
took over the school in 1905. It was greatly increased in size and renamed Philander
Smith's College. At Philander Smith College and St Joseph's College, both at Nainital,
Jim proved him popular and were to excel in games. However he was not a great scholar.
In later years he gave talks to the boys of his old school which he illustrated
with a 16 mm. film and sounds of the jungle. He could mimic the calls of a tiger
and leopard, both male and female; in fact, he could mimic calls of all the animals
he mentions in his books. The school in those days, was very close to the jungle
where such sounds were quite common especially at night, so many of those listening
to him would recognize what they were and couldn't be fooled. They must have sounded
right because the real folk of the jungle were often fooled!
Leaving school he entered the service of the Bengal and North Western Railway when
he was 20 as an Inspector of railway fuel at Mankapur on a salary of Rs100 a month
(£36 13s). The exchange rate in 1895 was 1s 4d to the rupee, almost the same as
in January 1978.) He soon received a transfer, as Transshipment Inspector. When
he was 20, Jim took on the contract from the railways for handling the transshipment
of goods across the Ganges, described in 'Mokameh Ghat'.
He helped to raise from Kumaon, during a recruitment campaign in the Great War,
a force of over 5,000 and with himself as Captain took 500 of them to France in
1917. He returned with all but one in the following year. These he resettled in
their Kumaon villages. With his usual generosity he gave his war bonus to build
a soldiers' canteen. Thereafter, he saw fighting in the Third Afghan War, and in
the Waziristan campaign serving as a Major from 1919 to 1921.
In about 1920, at the age of 45, he settled down at Nainital to look after his mother,
his sister Maggie, and his step-sister Mary Doyle. A bequest in a will left him
a house at Nainital and this allowed him to leave the railway. He was now able to
give all his time to the people of Kumaon and their welfare. With his sister's help
a surgery at the house was opened for treatment of the sick.
In 1922 he took a share with Percy Wyndham in a coffee estate on the slopes of Mount
Kilimanjaro and used to go to it for about three months each year. Maggie testifies:
'As there was no proper living accommodation on the estate, nothing but huts, Jim
set to work, and with his own hands laid every brick of a two-storied house, with
a veranda upstairs. He was very pleased to find, on measuring the building when
it was finished, that it was not out by an inch anywhere.' Mary Jane, an Anglican,
lived into her eighties, dying on 16 May 1924 and she was buried at St John-in-the-Wilderness.
The churchyard by then had been closed but was specially opened for her burial.
During his time in the railways, Jim spent many holidays at their winter home in
Kaladhungi and in the early years of the century had bought the almost forsaken
and deserted village, Choti Haldwani. Here he resettled the inhabitants and paid
the villagers' taxes up to 1960. With a mile of wire he enclosed the area, divided
it into plots, and built new houses. As he could afford it, he increased the circumference
to three miles and built a 5-foot stone wall instead of the wire. He remained a
resident of Kaladhungi, where he farmed and did small business in winter when not
otherwise gainfully occupied arranging their shoots for high-ups in the Government
and their guests. The village was soon flourishing. Corbett lived with his sisters
at Nainital from April to October.
Jim Corbett, now a famous man after his classic 'Man-eaters of Kumaon' which had
been dedicated to 'the gallant soldiers, sailors and airmen of the United Nations
who during this war have lost their sight in the service of their country.' 'Man-eaters
of Kumaon' was an immediate success in India and was chosen by book clubs in England
and America, the first printing of the American Book-of-the-month Club being 250,000.
It had been issued as a Talking Book for the Blind and translated into at least
fourteen European languages (Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German,
Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish), eleven
Indian languages (Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Sindhi, Sinhalese,
Tamil, Telugu, Urdu), Afrikaans and Japanese. All the royalties on the first edition
went to St Dunstan's Hostel for Indian soldiers blinded in the war that was still
He completely identified himself with the local population which affectionately
called him 'Carpet Sahib'. He always had a word of cheer for all those in trouble,
a kindly nature and sympathetic attitude and was generous with his money. He was
of middle size and rather dark. One could see him going about in shorts, shirt,
a thick coat of coarse material and a hat. He never wore a tie.
Percy Wyndham spent most of his career hunting in Mirzapur district (the Wyndham
Falls are named after him) or in the Nainital Terai. He was Jim Corbett's friend
and a colorful person in his own right. He spent 12 years in the Kumaon Division
as its Commissioner. Corbett was a constant companion of Mr. Wyndham whenever he
was out looking for tigers in the Bhabar and Terai.
In his early life Jim was an excellent marksman and fisherman but in his later life
he found photography of big game was preferable to shooting them. At some undetermined
date, he resolved never again to shoot an animal except for food or if it was 'a
dangerous' beat. In the early 1930's (he told Rev'd A. G. Atkins, pastor of the
Union Church at Nainital) that having taken three officers out for a duck-shoot,
he was sickened by the senseless slaughter of 300 birds
His courage and patience is proved by the amount of film which he exposed in close
proximity to the animals he photographed. He was strong and fit and able to endure
hardship. For several months he went out daily and waited for a tiger to appear
and obtained 'a long sequence of six superb specimens, of which the nearest was
eight and the farthest thirty feet from his camera'. Now deposited in the British
Museum they are unusual and remarkable records of Indian wild life.
He was a pioneer conservationist and began to give lectures to local schools and
societies to stimulate awareness of the natural beauty surrounding them and the
need to conserve forests and their wildlife. His fluency in animal languages was
demonstrated to more critical audiences when he used them to call up a man-eater
or to drown the whirr of his camera when filming tigers.
He was asked to undertake the shooting of his first two man-eaters in 1907. These
were the Champawat tiger and the Panar tiger. He shot ten man-eaters altogether,
the last being shot in 1938. It was his belief that a tiger or leopard was not by
nature a man-eater but had received an injury and became one because it was unable
to pursue its normal prey any longer.
Jim Corbett's exciting accounts of the hunting and killing of these man-eaters which
had killed almost 1,500 Indians, are related with modesty in three of his books:
The Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1946), The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayang (1948),
and the Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1954). These forays meant days
without sleep and food, nights sitting waiting for the tiger to appear, with his
life always in danger. Because of his courage and resolve he received the love and
sometimes worships of the people.
In the Second World War Jim Corbett asked for duty and raised a labor corps and
recruited 1,400 Kumaons and served from 1940 to 1942 as a Deputy Military Vice-President
of district soldiers' boards.
In 1942 an attack of typhus reduced his weight from 12 and a half stone to 7 stone
and he was told he would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheel-chair. Refusing
to give way he recovered and was commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel and trained men
for jungle warfare in Burma despite serious illness. After a year of this strenuous
life, in training camps in Central India, he had a bad attack of malaria.
Neither Maggie nor Jim could face the thought of continuing to live, after the death
of the other in India, so they went to Kenya in 1947 and settled in Nyeri, Kenya,
in the house which Lord Baden-Powell had built, lived and died in.
Much of his time was spent filming wild life and to writing and he was made Honorary
Officer, Royal National Parks of Kenya and an Honorary Assistant Game Warden. Soon
after his arrival in Nyeri Jim founded a Wild Life Preservation Society and became
its Honorary Secretary.
It was at Nyeri that he wrote most of his books. He and Maggie sat together night
after night before their wood fire, he at his typewriter and her brewing the after-dinner
cup of tea. She said of him: 'He worked very hard; did his own typing, all with
one finger, and made four copies of each book - three for the publishers, London,
New York and Bombay, and the fourth copy for ourselves, known as 'The Home Copy'.
He was very neat and if there was even one mistake on a page, he would scrap the
page and type it all over again. He always wanted a sentence to read 'smoothly'
and would take infinite pains in making it do so'.
He received the Volunteer Decoration (1920), the Kaisar-i-Hing gold medal (1928),
the O.B.E., (1942) and the C.I.E.-Companion of the Indian Empire (1946). In India
he was granted a privilege only given once before - the freedom of the forests.
Jim Corbett was the most modest, companionable, and unassuming of men. He never
sought the limelight but was publicly honored by the Government of India both before
and after Independence.
In 1952 (by then aged 80) he received a note from an aide to Princess Elizabeth
requesting him to meet her and Prince Philip at Treetops that afternoon. Treetops
were a game observation platform owned by the Out span Hotel. The platform was over
30 ft up in the branches of a Ficus tree and was reached by a ladder. At the top
was a tree house and the platform overlooked a water hole and saltlick. The accommodation
comprised of a dining room, three bedrooms, and a toilet, a room for the resident
guard and another for staff. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were paying a
state visit to Kenya and spending part of their time about 20 miles away from Treetops.
Jim identified animals for the royal party and when they retired for the night at
Treetops he sat awake and on guard at the top of the ladder, with his army blanket
across his shoulders and his rifle in his lap. There he spent the night. The night
on which King George VI died. In the Treetops register, kept for listing the names
of animals seen, he wrote of that night 'For the first time in the history of the
world a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess, and after having what
she described as her 'most thrilling experience' she climbed down from the tree
the next day a Queen.'
Jim died at Nyeri on 19 April 1955 and was buried in St Peter's churchyard, the
same cemetery as Baden-Powell.
In 1957 the game sanctuary in Kumaon was named after him by the Indian Government.
It had been established in Garhwal in 1935. This was in recognition of one who had
dedicated his life to the service of the simple hill folks of Kumaon. Corbett National
Park, in the state of Uttaranchal, erstwhile state of Uttar Pradesh, exhibits a
wide variety of India's wildlife in the foothills of the Himalayas.
In January 1976 the Government of India issued a 25-paise stamp to commemorate Jim's
birth in 1875. A new, Annamese, race of tigers was, in 1968, named Panthera Tigris
Jim also wrote My India (1952), which is largely autobiographical; Jungle Lore (1953);
Treetops (1955) and published posthumously, an account of the visit of the Princess
Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to the hotel in the treetops near Nyeri. Over
a million of his books in English had been sold by 1957 and translations in eighteen
languages had been published.