Jim Corbett

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Jim Corbett
Edward James Corbett

(1875-07-25)25 July 1875
Died19 April 1955(1955-04-19) (aged 79)
Resting placeSaint Peter's Cemetery, Nyeri, Kenya

Edward James Corbett CIE VD (25 July 1875 – 19 April 1955) was an Anglo-Indian hunter, tracker, naturalist and author. He was frequently called upon by the Government of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh to kill man-eating tigers and leopards that were attacking people in the nearby villages of the Kumaon and Garhwal Divisions. He recounted his hunts and experiences in books like Man-Eaters of Kumaon, which enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success. He was also an avid photographer and spoke out for the need to protect India's wildlife from extermination. In his honour, the Indochinese tiger subspecies has the scientific name Panthera tigris corbetti.[1]

Ancestry and early life[edit]

The Corbetts descended from several families who had emigrated from the British Isles to the Indian subcontinent over the course of the 19th century. His paternal grandparents Joseph and Harriet Corbett, having eloped together from a monastery and a nunnery in Belfast, had arrived in India on 7 February 1815.[2] They had nine children; the sixth, Christopher William, was born at Meerut in 1822, and followed his father into the army, where he served as a medical officer. He married Mary Anne Morrow in December 1845, and they had three children before her early death. Surviving the Indian Mutiny of 1857, he retired from military service and married Mary Jane Doyle née Prussia, a 22-year-old widow of Anglo-Irish descent, in 1859. She had had four children with Dr. Charles James Doyle of Agra, who had been killed in the rebellion.[3]

In 1862, Christopher William was appointed the postmaster of Naini Tal, a thriving hill station in northern India which had been untouched by the Mutiny. There, he and Mary Jane had nine children, and additionally raised four children of a deceased sister.[4] As Christopher William's salary was not large enough to support so many people, they supplemented their income through shrewd property investments, which Mary Jane was especially skilled at—she in effect became the first estate agent in Naini Tal, a valuable position in the rapidly-expanding town.[5] Through his social connections and friendship with Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of the Kumaon division, Christopher William was additionally able to acquire a plot of land in the southern plains near Kaladhungi, on which he built a winter residence he named Arundel.[6]

Gurney House

Edward James Corbett, the eighth and penultimate child of Christopher William and Mary Jane, was born on 25 July 1875 in Naini Tal. His early childhood years were privileged, and he was cared for by his mother, his elder sisters, and local servants; from the latter, he picked up the local languages, the basics of Hindu practices and philosophy, and some of their superstitions.[7] However, the family soon suffered two misfortunes: first, a large landslide on 18 September 1880 which killed 151 people additionally ruined several of the Corbett's property investments; and second, Christopher William, who had retired from postmastership in 1878, died on 21 April 1881 after suffering heart problems.[8] Mary Jane built a home on the opposite side of Naini Tal lake to the landslide; named Gurney House, it would be Jim Corbett's home for most of his life.[9]

Jim spent much of his childhood exploring the jungles around Gurney House; from these explorations, and from willing adults such as his eldest brother Tom, and a nearby headman named Kunwar Singh, he gained intimate knowledge of the habits of the local wildlife. He also began hunting, first with projectile weapons such as a catapult and a pellet bow, until being gifted an old muzzle-loading shotgun at the age of eight. With these weapons, he grew more skilled at hunting and tracking animals.[10] After surviving a near-fatal bout of pneumonia at the age of six, he began his formal education in Naini Tal at Oak Openings School; there, training with the local cadet company, the ten-year-old Corbett's shooting impressed a group of dignitaries including the future Field Marshal Earl Roberts enough that he was granted a loan of a military-specification Martini-Henry rifle.[11] Not long afterwards, he shot his first big cat—a leopard—with this rifle.[12]

Although Corbett soon became very proficient as a young hunter, as a student, first at Oak Openings and then at the Diocesian Boys' School, he was fairly average. Although he wanted to become an engineer, that required further education and money which the family did not have, as Tom had now married and was supporting his own family. He also knew that it would be his responsibility to look after his mother and two sisters in later years. In turn they, especially his one-year older sister Maggie, were quite devoted to him.[13] Leaving home at the age of seventeen, he took his first job as a temporary fuel inspector in Bihar, with a salary of one hundred rupees per month.[14]

Work career and military service[edit]

Corbett spent the two years of his contract near Bakhtiarpur, in charge of a sizeable labour force which collected timber to be used as locomotive fuel. The gruelling work was slightly eased by the rapport he, unlike most of European descent, could build with his men. In cutting down up to two acres (8,100 m2) of forest per day, he gained an appreciation for the then-unknown sciences of ecology and conservation.[15] At the end of his contract, Corbett's honesty in not keeping excess profits for himself impressed a senior railway agent and earned him a job at the Samastipur office, where he worked for a year on various jobs.[16] He was then appointed, in 1895, to the contract of transporting goods across the Ganges at Mokameh Ghat: by structuring his workforce efficiently and forming strong friendships with his subordinates, Corbett managed to clear the preexisting backlog, to the surprise of his superiors. He would remain in control of shipping goods at Mokhameh Ghat for the following twenty-two years.[17]

His life at Mokameh Ghat was regular and peaceful. Living in a bungalow with three servants, only rarely seeing other Europeans, he began to become an active member of the local community, building a small school; the initial number of twenty students rapidly expanded to over three hundred, and the local government was compelled to take over the institution's running.[18] Within a few years, Corbett was promoted to oversee the passenger steamers as well as the cargo shipping. This promotion gave him a large increase in salary, much of which he remitted to his family in Naini Tal, as well as access to the high-ranking travellers who often crossed the Ganges, such as Indian royalty and Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal. He also trained new arrivals from Britain whom the railways had recruited there. [19]

At Mokameh Ghat, Corbett had come to view himself as more Indian than any other identity, but he retained his patriotism for Britain. He attempted to enlist when the Second Boer War broke out, but the railway authorities refused to release him from his contract, believing he was too valuable in his position at Mokameh Ghat.[20] When the First World War broke out 1914, Corbett travelled to Calcutta to enlist but was rejected as too old at 38. However, as the war of attrition dragged on, the authorities began to recruit more heavily from India and he was commissioned as a captain in 1917, to the displeasure of his superiors.[21] Ordered to raise a labour corps, he easily recuited five thousand men in Kumaon, where he was greatly esteemed because of his hunting of man-eaters; he took a tenth of these as a personal unit, named the 70th Kumaon Company. They set sail from Bombay in late summer 1917.[22]

The Western Front in 1918; in January, Corbett was posted near Peronne, which would be overrun in March by the German spring offensive.

Landing in Southampton, Corbett and his men were soon transferred to the Western Front, where they were posted to numerous positions including La Chapellette near Péronne. In the difficult conditions, Corbett sought to protect his men and keep their morale high. In addition to being in an unfamiliar land and climate, the Indian troops, often scorned by their British counterparts, faced difficulties like not being able to eat tinned beef stew or pork, both staples of British trench warfare.[23] Corbett conducted himself well. After a visit to La Chapellette in January 1918, Lord Ampthill, who was in charge of the foreign labour corps, noted that Corbett struck him as "competent and resourceful", having introduced a novel way of heating the troop accommodation and having built, to Ampthill's astonishment, a "substantial brick building" containing a bathroom and drying room, both heated by an incinerator.[24] At the conclusion of the war in 1918, only one of the five hundred men in the company had died. Corbett, now promoted to the rank of Major, explored London for a day before departing from Tilbury, visiting the pyramids of Giza on his way back home to India.[25]

While negotiating with the railways on how he would rejoin their workforce, Corbett was unexpectedly called up again by the army for the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.[26] In late April or early May, he was sent to Peshawar, where he likely was in charge of the supply lines before the Battle of Thal, in which he may have seen action. He was subsequently involved in subduing tribes in Zhob district.[27]

Hunting tigers and leopards[edit]

Corbett with the slain Bachelor of Powalgarh, 1930

During his life, Corbett tracked and shot several leopards and tigers; about a dozen were well documented man-eaters. Corbett provided estimates of human casualties in his books, including Man-Eaters of Kumaon, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, and The Temple Tiger and More Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Calculating the totals from these accounts, these big cats had killed more than 1,200 men, women, and children, according to Corbett. There are some discrepancies in the official human death tolls that the British and Indian governments have on record and Corbett's estimates.

The first designated man-eating tiger he killed, the Champawat Tiger, was responsible for an estimated 436 documented deaths.[28] Though most of his kills were tigers, Corbett successfully killed at least two man-eating leopards. The first was the Panar Leopard in 1910, which allegedly killed 400 people. The second was the man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag in 1926, which terrorized the pilgrims journeying to the holy Hindu shrines Kedarnath and Badrinath for more than eight years, and was said to be responsible for more than 126 deaths.

Other notable man-eaters he killed were the Talla-Des man-eater, the Mohan man-eater, the Thak man-eater, the Muktesar man-eater and the Chowgarh tigress.

Analysis of carcasses, skulls, and preserved remains show that most of the man-eaters were suffering from disease or wounds, such as porcupine quills embedded deep in the skin or gunshot wounds that had not healed, like that of the Muktesar Man-Eater. The Thak man-eating tigress, when skinned by Corbett, revealed two old gunshot wounds; one in her shoulder had become septic, and could have been the reason for the tigress's having turned man-eater, Corbett suggested. In the foreword of Man Eaters of Kumaon, Corbett writes:

The wound that has caused a particular tiger to take to man-eating might be the result of a carelessly fired shot and failure to follow up and recover the wounded animal or be the result of the tiger having lost his temper while killing a porcupine

Corbett preferred to hunt alone and on foot when pursuing dangerous game. He often hunted with Robin, a small dog he wrote about in Man-Eaters of Kumaon.[29]

Corbett bought his first camera in the late 1920s and—inspired by his friend Frederick Walter Champion—started to record tigers on cine film.[29] Although he had an intimate knowledge of the jungle, it was a demanding task to obtain good pictures, as the animals were exceedingly shy. Together with Champion, he played a key role in establishing India's first national park in the Kumaon Hills, the Hailey National Park, initially named after Lord Hailey. The park was renamed in Corbett's honour in 1957.[1]

Post-railway career and retirement[edit]

After the Third Anglo-Afghan War finished in 1919, Corbett declined to return to the railways, and worked on a Kumaon house agency he had invested in and whose owner had subsequently died. Corbett expanded this business, named F.E.G. Mathews & Co. after its late owner, into hardware and tradesmanship.[30] Around 1915, he had purchased the near-derelict village of Chhoti Haldwani near Kaladhungi. Despite initial difficulties, the village came to prosper: Corbett imported new crops such as bananas, grapes, and maize, and maintained the village to a high standard. A 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) wall he built to protect the villagers remains standing.[31][32]

Corbett House, Kaladhungi

Corbett became close friends with Percy Wyndham, the Kumaon District Comissioner, and with him fought banditry in the jungles; they also invested together in East African coffee.[33] Wyndham retired in 1924 to the farm they had invested in near Majengo, and Corbett travelled to East Africa most years to inspect his investment and see his friend.[34] He also built a house for himself and Maggie in Kaladhungi, although he normally eschewed what was nominally his bedroom and preferred to sleep in a tent in the garden; when the house was later converted into a museum in his honour, staff erected a bust of him on the normal site of his tent.[35]

After 1947, Corbett and his sister Maggie retired to Nyeri, Kenya,[1] where he lived in the cottage 'Paxtu' in the grounds of the Hotel Outspan, which had originally been built for his friend Lord Baden-Powell.[36]

Treetops Hotel, rebuilt in 1957 after the original structure was burned down in 1954.

He continued to write and sound the alarm about the declining numbers of wild cats and other wildlife. Corbett was at the Treetops, a hut built on the branches of a giant ficus tree, as the bodyguard of Princess Elizabeth when she stayed there on 5–6 February 1952. That night, her father, King George VI died, and Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Corbett wrote in the hotel's visitors' register:

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—God bless her.

Corbett died of a heart attack a few days after he finished his sixth book, Tree Tops, and was buried at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Nyeri. His memories were kept intact in the form of the meeting place Moti House, which Corbett had built for his friend Moti Singh, and the Corbett Wall, a long wall (approximately 7.2 km (4.5 mi)) built around the village to protect crops from wild animals.

Man-eaters of Kumaon was a great success in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the first edition of the American Book-of-the-Month Club being 250,000 copies. It was later translated into 27 languages. Corbett's fourth book, Jungle Lore, is considered his autobiography.

The Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, India was renamed in his honour in 1957. He had played a key role in establishing this protected area in the 1930s.

In 1968, one of the five remaining subspecies of tigers was named after him: Panthera tigris corbetti, the Indochinese tiger, also called Corbett's tiger.

In 1994 and 2002, the long-neglected graves of Corbett and his sister (both in Kenya) were repaired and restored by Jerry A. Jaleel, founder and director of the Jim Corbett Foundation.[37]

Personal life[edit]

Corbett remained unmarried in life.

Hollywood movie[edit]

In 1948, in the wake of Man-Eaters of Kumaon's success, a Hollywood film, Man-Eater of Kumaon, was made, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Sabu, Wendell Corey and Joe Page. The film did not follow any of Corbett's stories; a new story was invented. The film was a flop, although some interesting footage of the tiger was filmed. Corbett is known to have said that "the best actor was the tiger".[38] 'Corbett Legacy' was produced by the Uttarakhand Forest Department and directed by Bedi Brothers which carried original footage shot by Corbett.[citation needed]

Other adaptations[edit]

In 1986, the BBC produced a docudrama titled Man-Eaters of Kumaon with Frederick Treves in the role of Corbett. An IMAX movie India: Kingdom of the Tiger, based on Corbett's books, was made in 2002 starring Christopher Heyerdahl as Corbett. A TV movie based on The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag starring Jason Flemyng was made in 2005.[citation needed]


Corbett received the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal in the 1928 New Year Honours.[39] He was made a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in the King's 1946 Birthday Honours.[40] Corbett was honored the title of India's first national park, Jim Corbett National Park.

  • A reserve area known as Hailey National Park covering 323.75 km2 (125.00 sq mi) was created in 1936 when Sir Malcolm Hailey was the Governor of United Provinces; and Asia's first national park came into existence. The reserve was renamed in 1954–55 as Ramganga National Park and was again renamed in 1955–56 as Jim Corbett National Park.
  • The Indochinese tiger was named after Corbett in 1968 by Vratislav Mazak who was the first to describe the new subspecies of the tiger living in Southeast Asia
  • Stephen Alter's In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel about Jim Corbett (2016) is a fictional account of Corbett's life.


  • Jungle Stories. Privately published in 1935 (only 100 copies)
  • Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Oxford University Press, Bombay 1944
  • The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag. Oxford University Press, 1948
  • My India. Oxford University Press, 1952
  • Jungle Lore. Oxford University Press, 1953
  • The Temple Tiger and More Man-eaters of Kumaon. Oxford University Press, 1954
  • Tree Tops. Oxford University Press, 1955 (short 30-page novella)
  • Jim Corbett's India – Selections by R. E. Hawkins. Oxford University Press, 1978
  • My Kumaon: Uncollected Writings. Oxford University Press, 2012

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Beolens, B.; Watkins, M.; Grayson, M. (2009). The Eponym Dictionary of Mammals. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-8018-9304-9.
  2. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 16–18.
  3. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 16–20.
  4. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 20–23.
  5. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 27–29.
  6. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 23–24.
  7. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 26, 29–32.
  8. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 32–35.
  9. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 35–36.
  10. ^ Booth 1986, chapters 3–5.
  11. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 45, 55–59.
  12. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 61–63.
  13. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 27, 67–68.
  14. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 68–69.
  15. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 69–72.
  16. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 73–74.
  17. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 74–77.
  18. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 78–79.
  19. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 81–84.
  20. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 78, 88–89.
  21. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 94–95.
  22. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 96–97.
  23. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 97–101.
  24. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 98–99.
  25. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 101–103.
  26. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 103–105.
  27. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 107–108.
  28. ^ Tiger and leopard attacks in Nepal Archived 24 October 2018 at the Wayback Machine BBC News (11 July 2012)
  29. ^ a b Rangarajan, M. (2006) India's Wildlife History: An Introduction Archived 12 May 2023 at the Wayback Machine. Permanent Black and Ranthambore Foundation, Delhi. ISBN 81-7824-140-4.
  30. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 110–113.
  31. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 124–127.
  32. ^ Trivedi, Anupam (18 February 2018). "In this Nainital village, Corbett's Great Wall stands between villagers, tigers". Hindustan Times. Retrieved 4 May 2024.
  33. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 119–121.
  34. ^ Booth 1986, p. 123.
  35. ^ Booth 1986, pp. 127–128.
  36. ^ "The day Princess Elizabeth became Queen". Guardian. Daily Telegraph. 8 January 2012. Archived from the original on 9 September 2022. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  37. ^ Jaleel, J.A. (2009) The Jim Corbett Foundation, Canada[permanent dead link]
  38. ^ Booth 1986, p. 230.
  39. ^ "No. 33343". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1927. p. 7.
  40. ^ "No. 37598". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1946. p. 2763.


External links[edit]