British Sport Hunting in Colonial India


A review of Guns and Shikaris: The Rise of the Sahib’s Hunting Ethos and the Fall of the Subaltern Poacher in British India, 1750-1947, by Fiona Mani.

In her dissertation, Fiona Mani sets out to trace the evolution of hunting practices in colonial South Asia, focusing on the relationship between British colonizers and their South Asian subjects. She makes the case for the emergence of an “Anglo-Indian tradition of hunting” that was the product of the fusing of English and Indian hunting practices in the crucible of empire. Mani clarifies that she uses the term “Anglo-Indian” to designate the English residents of the Indian subcontinent, departing from the more common connotation of the term to describe communities born of the intermixing of English and Indian blood (p. 5). Her research spans most of north and east India and also draws on source material from the rest of the subcontinent.

Mani opens up a new area in the history of modern India by studying “subaltern” participation in the new forms of hunting as they evolved in the colonial context. Her interest in incorporating the perspective of forest-dwelling communities and of “low”-caste communities in the history of hunting in colonial India, as well as in the evolution of conservation strategies in the period, is a welcome addition to a nascent conversation on the theme (see Ezra Rashkow, “Making Subaltern Shikaris: Histories of the Hunted in Colonial India,” South Asian History and Culture vol. 5, no. 3, 2014, pp. 292-313).

Mani begins by explaining in the first chapter the history of hunting in early modern Britain, pointing to its transformation into a sport that was the preserve of the elite. During the eighteenth century, the British began to view hunting as an exercise in building character, inculcating the spirit of sportsmanship, encouraging manliness, and boosting an appreciation of nature. At the same time, a moral code that valued restraint and righteousness and linked these to sportsmanship began to govern the practice. These values were also projected as defining traits of British national character and, in time, of Victorian notions of honor. Just as the aristocracy began to claim hunting as its own gentlemanly pursuit, it labeled non-elite hunters “poachers.” Hunting became a marker of elite status while the hunting practices of the lower classes were systematically criminalized. This was part of the widening social gap between the landed aristocracy and non-elites in early modern England. In the twentieth century, a concern with dwindling numbers of game triggered conservationist efforts and these, too, played into the vilification of non-elites for their supposed persistence with poaching.

In the second chapter, Mani presents hunting practices in pre- and early-colonial South Asia. Through a survey of Mughal rulers’ memoirs, she asserts continuity in the actions and attitudes towards ecology from the Mughal to the British Empire. Challenging existing historiography that sees the establishment of colonial rule as disrupting what had until then been a harmonious relationship of humans with nature, Mani points to instances in the Mughal period that are in conformity with colonial approaches to nature. For instance, she cites Mughal emperors’ excesses while hunting—the slaying of hundreds of beasts in a single hunt. The Mughals’ hunting practices were emulated by their subordinates and later, their successors, due to the association of these public rituals of power with imperial authority. Moving on to the mid-eighteenth century, Mani shows that as the British began to acquire political power and territory in South Asia in the eighteenth century, they too participated in regal hunts. For the helmsmen of the fledgling colonial enterprise, hunting helped in forging relationships with local rulers and in cementing, by association, their place among the elite. The hunting expedition aided knowledge gathering about the land, its people and their customs. It was during this period that the British formed their earliest relationships with local villagers and forest-dwellers who served as shikaris, or assistants and guides on the hunt.

Nineteenth-century British hunting practices in South Asia form the center of the third chapter. Mani argues that hunting by British residents in India was imbricated with imperialism. British hunters’ activities served to assert colonial authority over remote villages and a mastery over nature. The association of hunting with masculinity as well as its role in knowledge gathering and in the establishment of the colonial presence in remote places aided the strengthening of imperial control. Mani retraces how British hunters increasingly took on the paternalistic role of protectors of colonial subjects from the depredations inflicted by marauding predators.

The proliferation of hunting by British residents created new sources of livelihood for forest-dwellers and other villagers intimately familiar with the jungle. Shikaris—locals employed as trackers, guides and assistants for the hunt—played an indispensable role in hunting expeditions. They commanded an intimate knowledge of the locality and were skilled hunters themselves. Despite a recognition of their indispensability, British hunters generally portrayed locals as unworthy of being recognized as hunters. This was because the British considered all Indian hunters—whether maharajas or shikaris—to be given to excess, lacking in an ethical and fair approach towards game, unschooled in hunting etiquette and poor sportsmen due to a lack of skill with the gun. Mani sees this as part of the larger historical process of the construction of difference between the colonizer and the colonized. For the shikaris, this resulted in their incorporation into British hunting practice as subordinates. As the nineteenth century progressed, colonial officers and British residents began to notice the decline in game. They blamed diminishing wildlife populations squarely on the activities of native hunters, now deemed “poachers.” Mani argues that the same characteristics—a supposed absence of restraint, morality and sportsmanship—of Indian hunters now made them ineligible to legitimately hunt at all. Their hunting activity was now classed as poaching.

What Mani designates the “Anglo-Indian tradition of hunting” crystallized in the nineteenth century. British residents enjoyed participating in regal hunts, organized and hosted by Indian princes who were satraps (provincial rulers) of the colonial government. In identifying this hybrid style, Mani claims that these “imperial regal hunts” retained pre-colonial elements such as the emphasis on scale, spectacle and the use of enclosures to gather game, while also incorporating such English traits as an emphasis on etiquette (as it had evolved in eighteenth-century England), paternalism, and an ecological consciousness.

Mani’s narrative then moves on to the twentieth century, and in the fourth chapter she presents evidence for the continuing elaboration of the Anglo-Indian hunting tradition. While continuing to emulate Indian princely hunting styles, British hunters in India introduced new technologies and attitudes. Cameras and new types of guns became essential components of the hunt. A love of nature, an interest in natural history, a sense of paternalistic duty towards colonial subjects and an emphasis on masculinity, honor, and sportsmanship continued to inform the British attitude towards hunting. What was new to the twentieth century was the tension between British residents’ ecological consciousness and their continuing participation in large-scale, lavish regal hunts that involved the slaying of large numbers of animals. British residents organized societies and clubs and started to pass laws to conserve wildlife. The imperial hunt, however, continued in all its pomp and grandeur, essential as it had become for the expression of colonial authority. Shikaris remained indispensable in British hunting expeditions albeit as subordinates, while Indian hunters as a whole continued to be classed as poachers and held responsible for declining game numbers.

In the fifth chapter, Mani moves on to a study of the hunting experiences of Indians. Spanning the practices of elites such as maharajas and urban professionals as well as those of forest-dwelling and “low”-caste groups, she contends that contrary to British portrayals, Indian hunters displayed a strong concern with morality, ethics, and etiquette. They were no more bloodthirsty or inhumane in their attitude towards game than their British counterparts. Many were concerned about declining wildlife populations. Maharajas and other elite Indians, like the British, saw hunting as an expression of masculinity and considered it their duty to deploy their hunting skills for the protection of villagers and other populations from predators. Mani concludes that the Anglo-Indian hunting style was not just the preserve of Britishers in India but also adopted by Indians.

Bringing women’s experiences into the ambit of her study, Mani contends in her sixth chapter that hunting in the colonies produced a new type of woman, one who combined feminine and masculine traits. Building on scholarship that points to the active partnership of women in the colonial enterprise, she presents British women’s experiences as participants or observers in hunts in nineteenth and twentieth century South Asia. While on the hunt, women played roles that were at the time deemed “masculine” and in doing so, adopted male colonialists’ attitudes towards indigenous populations as being lazy, “effeminate”, and unworthy of being called hunters.

Colonial officers’ and British residents’ concern with dwindling numbers of game engendered conservation efforts that Mani traces in her dissertation’s seventh chapter. From the 1880s onwards, local governments introduced laws and regulations to restrain “excessive” Indian hunters. The conservationist ethos also modified the imperial hunt; it too was subject to a concern with restraint. The only target of the new laws and rules concerning hunting were “poachers”—non-elite hunters. Colonial authorities outlawed indigenous hunting methods, already disapproved of, and set up a system of licenses and passes for hunting which were only acceptable to members of clubs and societies. These policies, however, were of limited success since hunting by elites remained permissible. All the policies achieved was the creation of a bureaucratic structure around hunting. Those most affected by the colonial conservationist effort were non-elite hunters—members of forest-dwelling communities and residents of villages on the peripheries of forest areas. The evolution of hunting practice in colonial South Asia at first incorporated forest-dwelling (“tribal”) communities and “low”-caste groups in subordinate roles but eventually reduced the bulk of them to being objects of perennial suspicion as “poachers”.

Mani concludes the dissertation with an overview of conservationist efforts in post-colonial India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. She finds continuity from colonial times in conservation strategies as well as in hunting practices. They took on the roles that British hunters had earlier played—paternalistic protectors of people and masculine sportsmen who pursued game. Conservationist strategies, she asserts, were built on the foundations laid by colonial authorities. These strategies adversely affected forest-dwellers, created conflict with agricultural communities on the margins of forest areas, and frequently resulted in the conservation of some species at the expense of others. Meanwhile, poaching continued, observes Mani.

Mani’s dissertation is of interest due to its examination of relatively under-utilized primary sources such as British women’s writings on their experiences of hunting in colonial India. Her reading of British male hunters’ memoirs, hunting books, and governmental records from a fresh perspective is noteworthy, aiming to tease out the historical experiences of non-elite hunters such as forest-dwellers and “low” castes who became integral to British hunting in colonial India. Mani situates her dissertation in conversation with existing bodies of historiographical writing on the crosscutting relationships between hunting on the one hand and class, gender, conservation and empire on the other. Her narrative emphasizes the constitutive role of the colonized subject in the history of empire. Mani’s research will be of interest to students and scholars of ecological history, social history, gender studies, modern South Asia and the British Empire.

Divya Cherian
Department of History
Columbia University

Primary Sources
The British Library
The Center for South Asian Studies Cambridge University
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Shikar books, journals and other printed material from 1700-1950

Dissertation Information
University of West Virginia. 2011. 310pp. Primary Advisor: Joseph Hodge.

Image: Jim Corbett with the slain Bachelor of Powalgarh (1930) Wikimedia Commons.

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