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On Jim Corbett and his Kenyan connection

Shantanu Mukharji

Updated: July 25, 2013, 12:03 PM IST
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Today (July 25) is Jim Corbett's 138th birthday. Yes the same Jim Corbett, author of 'Man eaters of Kumaon' and world famous conservationist. Born on July 25, 1875, Corbett was brought up in Kaladhungi and Nainital. After his early schooling, he went to Mokameh Ghat, Bihar, and worked in the railways for several years. He saw action during the First World War in France and other places and after the war was over, he settled down in Nainital where he lived till 1947.

While living in Nainital, Jim spent most of his time in the jungles saving the locals from leopards and tigers who had turned man eaters. These exploits of shikar are well known to most of us as they are comprehensively featured in well documented books including in Corbett's autobiography.

What is perhaps not so well known is Jim Corbett's Kenya connection. Immediately after our Independence on August 15, 1947, serving Englishmen left first, then the well-to-do domiciled ones and the Anglo Indians. Sensing threat to his existence as a Briton, Corbett decided to leave India and on November 30, 1947, he left Nainital, accompanied by his sister Maggie and sailed for Mombasa (Kenya) aboard SS Aronda on December 11, 1947. He recorded: "Our regret at leaving our old house is very great and the further we get from India, the worse we feel at leaving our good and faithful friends". Such was his love for Nainital.

From Mombasa, the Corbetts moved to Nyeri near Nairobi and joined with other Englishmen like Col Wyndham and EP Gee who had already left India and now settled in Kenya, still under the British rule and considered a safer haven for the whites. Corbett became one of he directors of 'Safari-land', a tour company to guide the visitors through the forests of Kenya. The high point of his stay in Kenya came on 5th February, 1952 when he received an invitation from Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh who were staying during their holiday in hotel Treetops in Kenya to meet them. It was the finest hour for Jim to meet the Royalty as he felt proud as a British loyalist. Duke discussed the Abominable Snowman with Jim among other topics of environmental interest. The old Shikari was honored that night with a seat between the two Royals at the dinner.

The night the Princess spent in Treetops, her father King George VI died. Jim Corbett wrote for the posterity in the logbook of Treetops: "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".

On April 19, 1955, following a massive heart attack, Jim Corbett breathed his last. He is buried in the Cemetery of St Peter's Anglican Church at Nyeri. Corbett's grave is the only one with an epitaph. Jim and sister Maggie had both desired in their wills that they be cremated "if practicable". Jim, however, was not cremated. Two days before his death he told a young visitor: "Live everyday as if it were your last".

A day before, on April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein died at Princeton, New Jersey. Though Einstein hit the front page of Indian newspapers the next day, Corbett's death was reported 48 hours late. DC Kala, an authority on Corbett's life and times, writes: "They both were unpretentious wizards, one of mathematics and physics and the other of junglecraft. They both spent a life time studying the laws of nature in their own right. Alas, even after that there were just bare reports in the Indian press on the hunter's death".

Other than visits to the Corbett National Park, Jim Corbett is hardly spoken of. This generation ought to know his contribution to the flora and fauna and for his efforts on conservation of wild life. Here is our tribute to him on his birthday. Much material is available on him and his lifetime. 'Jim Corbett of Kumaon' by DC Kala, 'Carpet Sahib' by Martin Booth, 'Jungle Lore' by Jim Corbett and 'My India', again by Jim Corbett, are must read for young wildlife enthusiasts.
First Published: July 25, 2013, 12:03 PM IST

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