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In a Country That Worshipped Tigers, Whence the Idea of ‘Man-Eater’?

In a Country That Worshipped Tigers, Whence the Idea of ‘Man-Eater’?

Shortly after the first anniversary of the killing of tigress T1, a.k.a. Avni, the National Tiger Conservation Authority decided to drop the colonial category of ‘man-eater’. Tigers suspected of attacks on humans will instead be called ‘dangerous’.

How is a dangerous tiger different from a man-eater? How will the change help, and just what makes the category of ‘man-eater’ so irksome? The answers lie in the accounts of British colonial sportsmen and officials. In the colonial imagination, the ‘man-eater’ morphed from a metaphor of Oriental despotism into a metonym for the alleged criminality of big cats. By casting tigers as man-eaters, colonial officials sought to legitimise their control over the subcontinent’s wildness.

In the court of Tipu Sultan, the tiger was a complex symbol of kingship where plural faiths converged. In Mysore, close to Tipu’s capital, the idol of Durga as Chamundi rides a tiger. Residents of the surrounding villages venerated, Huliamma, the tiger goddess, while the worship of martial pirs invoked the forest. Such worship has been alternately described as shakti and barakat, both of which were thought to embody the tiger. But the British erased this symbolism and turned the tiger into an exemplar of depravity.

The story of Tipu’s tiger is a good example. Tipu’s tiger was displayed in a museum in the imperial metropole and featured widely in early 19th century guidebooks. His playful mechanical tiger, shown devouring a British soldier, was used to instruct visitors about alleged viciousness of the East. Playing with the contraption allowed English visitors to vicariously participate in empire-building. They could even operate a crank that produced moaning sounds (for the human) and roars.

The man-eater as criminal

The man-eater haunted the colonial imagination well after the lore of Tipu’s tiger died down. The story of a man-eater in Bengal, first reported in 1793, became a classic in the genre. A tiger attacked a party of soldiers of the East India Company while they were hunting deer on Sagar Island, and the son of Major Hector Munro was mauled to death. An English captain who witnessed the event wrote:

The human mind cannot form an idea of the scene; it turned my very soul within me. The beast was about four and a half feet high and nine feet long. His head appeared as large as that of an ox, his eyes darting fire, and his roar when he first seized his prey will never be out of my recollection.”

The telling and retelling of stories like this one sanctioned the official classification of the tiger as a scourge.

In fact, the implicit correlation of tigers with man-eating laid the groundwork for colonial hunting policies. The British effort to exterminate tigers was driven partly by a desire to push the forest back and enhance agrarian revenues. Mahesh Rangarajan has argued that after the Bengal famine (1770), when large tracts of land lay uncultivated, “fewer tigers meant more cultivation and more revenue, their elimination a blessing of imperium after the elimination of an Oriental despot’.”

In the writings of Thomas Webber, a forest officer in the mid to late 19th century, a slew of derogatory epithets cloaked the tiger: “terrible destroyer”, “scourge of mankind”, “ravenous monarch”, “terrible in his nature”, “cunning” and “guileful”. Webber went so far as to suggest man-eaters were a subcaste of tigers in general. In his reckoning, lazy tigers began by hunting cattle and then turned to man as a “smaller victim more easily slain and tasty, and light enough to carry off as a cat does a mouse”. He contended there were sub-castes of man-eaters among tigers, showing how attitudes towards the tiger echoed the racial logic of colonial law. “Recalcitrant wild animals” were thus classified much like criminal tribes, thugs and dacoits.

After criminalising the tiger, the initial vulnerability of English soldiers in the Indian forest gave way to large-scale hunting operations. The colonial hunt was staged as a performance with three actors: the tiger as criminal, the native as victim and the colonial sportsman as heroic saviour.

Sometimes, this script was gendered in humorous ways. In a rare account of a European party’s encounter with a tiger in the Sundarbans, Thomas Pennant commended the steely character of an English lady who “observed a tiger preparing to take its fatal spring and with amazing presence of mind laid hold of an umbrella, and furling it full in the animal’s face, terrified it so that it instantly retired”. In the coolly executed act of unfurling her umbrella, the Englishwoman reversed the roles of terrorised and terroriser. Whereas the “weak and timid” Bengali peasant supposedly fled in cowardice, Englishwomen could stand their ground while only the Englishman was brave enough to reduce the hunter into the hunted.

The man-eater as errant gentleman

In the early 20th century, Jim Corbett reframed the tiger as the sportsman’s counterpart in nature. He argued that “the jungle folk, in their natural surroundings, do not kill wantonly”. In his first work, the Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), Corbett even described the tiger as “a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage”, and cautioned that if “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.”

In Corbett’s account, man-eating was explained as a disease with a personal history. So the human loss inflicted by man-eaters didn’t keep Corbett from sympathising with the vulnerability of an old tiger blinded by a porcupine attack or a maimed tigress having cubs to fend for. Personifying the tiger in this manner allowed Corbett to rationalise man-eating and encouraged him to face the tiger as a worthy opponent. Comparing the tiger to a “gentleman” seemed to have allowed him to enact both meanings of the word ‘sportsman’: a hunter as well as someone who engages in fair-play.

However, Corbett’s evaluation significantly obscured how colonial forestry had changed the nature of human-animal interactions in the subcontinent. By the early 20th century, the field/forest demarcation and large-scale hunting had transformed India’s socioecological world.

In the Himalayan foothills, for example, deforestation accelerated during the second half of the 19th century with the rising demand for railways. Successive Forest Acts in 1865 and 1878 empowered the state to appropriate and manage timber. The government prohibited local communities from hunting and collecting produce in state-protected forests. The effects of state forestry were also visible in an increasing incidence of attacks by wild animals.

These policies prompted uprisings in Kumaon and Garhwal in the early 20th century. Politically engineered ecological disruptions were not lost on anti-colonial activists. The 1921 report of the forest grievances committee in Kumaon complained that official restrictions on local techniques of hunting and denying gun licenses to villagers was leading to increasing attacks on people and livestock.

Moreover, the colonial assault on ‘wild vermin’ had resulted in the loss of over 80,000 tigers and 150,000 leopards between 1875 and 1925. Corbett point out causal connections between the increase in tiger attacks and the increase in bounty hunting. He further rallied to establish a separate game reserve in the region. While his stance marked a departure from late 19th century calls to hire paid tiger-killers, his approach continued to have much in common with older notions of paternalistic colonial control over nature. He was deeply suspicious of independent India’s ability to protect the tiger.

Addressing his ‘friends’ in independent India, Corbett wrote, “A country’s fauna is a sacred trust and I appeal to you not to betray this trust.”

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The storied trajectory of the ‘man-eating tiger’ in the colonial imagination shows how the names we use, and the stories we tell to breathe life into these names, matter. For this reason, we shouldn’t stop with rejecting the colonial category of man-eater nor should we uncritically extol the animal-loving instincts of the subcontinent’s precolonial past. Upper-caste love for nature has long coexisted with – if it hasn’t complemented – the hateful treatment of fellow human beings.

Consider Annu Jalais’s insightful study of Scheduled Caste partition refugees’ accounts of ‘man-eaters’ in the Sunderbans. Bengali refugees in the islands affirmed that tigers became man-eaters following brutal police firings at Morichjhanpi in 1979, which killed 36 people. To the refugees, the massacre proved that the government and Bengal’s upper-caste elite were more concerned with tigers than with nimnoborger lives. “Islanders believed that they had become ‘just tiger-food’ for Kolkata’s bhadralok,” Jalais writes. To make room for both tigers and humans, beyond doing away with the category of ‘man-eater’, it matters whose stories about animals we choose to tell.

Nivedita is interested in the politics of the past and the promise of the future. She would like to thank the community of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is pursuing a PhD in history, for their encouragement.

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