Corbett’s .275 Rigby, and mementoes of his life and career, courtesy John Rigby & Co.

By Terry Wieland


Top of the Tree

Jim Corbett and the Queen



By a strange coincidence, I was in the midst of re-reading all of Jim Corbett’s books about India, the jungle, and his encounters with man-eating tigers and leopards, when the Queen died in early September.  Although seldom mentioned, Corbett and the Queen had a brief but important acquaintance in 1952.


On the night that King George VI died, and Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth, she and the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting Kenya.  They had traveled to Nyeri, and from there to the famous Treetops, where they were engaged in game-watching.  Their guide and guardian was Jim Corbett, already world-famous as an author and hunter of man-eaters.


Corbett was then 77 years old.  That night, while the Princess slept in the glorified treehouse, Corbett sat up on the balcony, his rifle across his knees, while a leopard played with the access rope that dangled to the ground and was used for hoisting up supplies.  It fell to Corbett in the morning to awake Her (now) Majesty and tell her the news of her father.


Later, in his last book, Treetops, he wrote that “for the first time in the history of the world, a girl climbed a tree as a Princess, and came down a Queen.”



Edward James Corbett, universally known as Jim, was born and grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the United Provinces of northern India.  He came from northern Irish stock, was one of a large—and far from rich—family, and became world famous late in life, with the publication, in 1944, of Man-Eaters of Kumaon.


Man-Eaters is one of the greatest books on hunting ever written, by anyone, anywhere.  Corbett, who was modest to a fault, did not have high hopes for it, and in fact wrote it to pass the time while he was recuperating from illness during the war.  Fortunately for us all, Lt. Col. Corbett was well connected, and his memoir was published by Oxford University Press, picked up in America as a Book of the Month, and became a world-wide best seller.  Its distinctive red and black rendering of a snarling tiger graced bookshelves everywhere, and this nightmarish image haunted my dreams from the first time I saw it at the age of seven.


Jim Corbett was born in 1875 and grew up in and around the hill station of Naini Tal.  When he was in his late teens, he took a contract working for the Bengal railroad, and stayed at it for the next 21 years.  He was, however, as much a child of the jungle as Mowgli and had been a hunter almost from birth.  In 1907, he was asked to hunt and kill the Champawat Man-Eater, a tiger that was terrorizing an area 

near Naini Tal.  Having succeeded where others failed, Corbett gained a reputation and was called upon many times in succeeding years to hunt man-eaters, both tigers and leopards.


It’s all the rage now to condemn the British Empire, root and branch, and deny that any good ever came of it anywhere.  Historians who dare to contradict this new “woke” gospel are shunned or dismissed as hopeless reactionaries, unworthy of either academic posts or publication of their work.  This is just as much a rewriting of history as occurred on a regular basis in Stalin’s Russia, where the history books were revised every time another member of the Politburo was railroaded in a show trial and went to the execution cellars.


Modern histories of India written by Indians, many with degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, or— like Mohindas Ghandi himself, University College London—emphasize everything bad that occurred in India during the 200 years of the British Raj, while dismissing or denying everything good.  In fact, there was a great deal that was good, and the life of Jim Corbett is a prime example.


Although he hunted man-eaters over the course of 30 years, Corbett stopped hunting non-man-eaters after 1911 and became a major voice calling for wildlife conservation, including the tigers he so admired.  In India today, Jim Corbett National Park, established for the purpose of providing a tiger sanctuary, gives some idea of the esteem in which he was held and, as far as I know, is still held, in the tiger country of the Himalayas.


Corbett never married, and he and his sister, Maggie, lived together throughout their lives.  They were astute business people, and made wise investments that allowed them to live comfortably.  In the 1920s, Corbett invested money in British East Africa and made regular trips there to oversee various projects.


When India became independent in 1947, Jim and Maggie left their home in Naini Tal and emigrated to Kenya.  The usual explanation for this is that Corbett may have been, by some definitions, an “Anglo-Indian” (he was born there, although he had no Indian blood), he was and always would be a British subject, unquestioningly loyal to the British Crown.


Undoubtedly, there was an element of this, although, ever since, Indians have gone out of their way to insist he would have been welcome to stay on.  This may be true, but it ignores the realities of the situation they faced.


The Corbett family went to India some years before the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and lived through that horror.  One of Jim’s uncles was captured by the mutineers at the siege of the Red Fort in Delhi, and was executed by being burnt alive; his brother witnessed this, and it became both family legend and family dread. 


It is common now to blame the British for the “rushed” exodus from India in 1947, and even to lay blame for partition itself on the British and not on the Muslim League that insisted on their own country (Pakistan).  It was such a complicated situation that trying to place ultimate blame is pointless.  The usual position is that, before the British, Hindus and Muslims coexisted quite happily, and it was only the British practice of “divide and rule” that caused enmity.


In My India, particularly, Corbett himself says that the people he lived among for 21 years, working on the Bengal railway, were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, the odd Christian, and more than a few animists, and everyone got along fine.  When partition and independence loomed in 1947, however, violence broke out almost everywhere, with Muslims slaughtering Hindus here, and Hindus slaughtering Muslims over there.


Today, estimates of the dead run around two million, and much of this occurred on and around the railways.  Jim and Maggie Corbett were not worried about the people they knew in Naini Tal, but they were certainly worried about roving gangs, and there was no shortage of those.  As well, as Corbett himself wrote, in an independent India they would certainly become “second-class citizens.”  Serves them right, anti-colonialists would say, but when you are in your seventies and ailing, that is no comfort regardless of your own feelings.


Jim Corbett loved India, and Indians of all stripes, but he was a “sahib,” like it or not, and you do not easily shed the beliefs (and fears) of a lifetime.  In 1947, he foresaw “a second Mutiny,” and was determined to evade it.


As David Gilmour points out in his superb book, The British in India – A Social History of the Raj, many of the best British administrators of the Indian Civil Service stayed on after independence to aid the transition, and this was equally true down to lower levels.  There was not wholesale slaughter of Europeans, as many feared.  But that’s hindsight.


While Jim Corbett is remembered today mainly for his books, most of which were written between 1947, and his death in Kenya in 1955, he himself most valued his conservation work.  As an early investor in Safariland, the safari company, he promoted photographic safaris more than hunting.  He involved his many highly placed friends and acquaintances, such as Lord Wavell, in conservation efforts, and when he died his conservation work figured as prominently in the obituaries as did his killing of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, which had at least 125 kills to its credit.


When the series The Crown was aired in 2016, I watched the early episodes to see how the producers would treat the events at Treetops in 1952.  Alas, Jim Corbett was not mentioned, even as a walk-on character, and the news of her father’s death was conveyed to the Queen by some functionary, I forget who.


For her part, the Queen never forgot Jim Corbett—she seemingly never forgot anyone—but he was conspicuously missing from her obituaries and the accounts of the events at Treetops in 1952 when she assumed the throne.


Sic transit gloria, as they say.  Still, there’s Jim Corbett National Park in India, and Man-Eaters of Kumaon still adorns bookshelves throughout the former British Empire.


Long live the King.