For many officials, soldiers, and other British men serving in India in the late nineteenth century, one of the perks of being part of an occupying force was the chance to kill exotic South Asian animals. But, as historian Ezra Rashkow writes, this led to some intense conflicts with Indians.
Rashkow describes the experience of William Temple Hornaday, who would later be known as a father of American conservation. He visited India between 1876 and 1878, collecting specimens for US museums. Hornaday described several instances in which Indians shut his efforts down. In one case, he was speaking with an educated man in Bombay about finding gharial crocodiles. When the man realized that the expedition’s purpose was to kill some of the creatures to harvest their skins and skeletons, he declined to help him anymore, saying “I do not wish any thing to be killed, and if I tell you where you can find any animals I shall do a great wrong.”
Nonetheless, Hornaday’s party found some gharials in the Jumna River. But when they approached them, some local people washing in the river saw them coming and chased the animals away before the hunters could get to them. Another time, the group was hunting peacocks when a group approached them and pleaded with them not to shoot. Hornaday described this as a common experience for English soldiers: “It is said that they seldom go out shooting without getting into a row and perhaps shooting a native.”
Indeed, Rashkow writes, there were dozens of newspaper stories each year on violent clashes between British hunters and rural Indians, and these undoubtedly covered only a fraction of actual incidents. Meanwhile, Brahmin government officials often used what leverage they had to keep hunters away from their water tanks and temple groves. Another form of opposition came from indigenous Adivasi people, who British trophy hunters often depended on as guides. While they had their own hunting traditions, each adivasi society considered it taboo to kill certain animals and refused to help hunters who threatened them.
The colonial government eventually set limits on hunting to avoid charged encounters with Indians. But why was there such strong opposition to hunters to begin with? At the time, British administrators tended to describe these conflicts as the product of religious fervor, while Indian newspapers often treated them as instances of nationalism. Later, some scholars proposed other frameworks, such as “religious environmentalism” or “ecological nationalism.”
Rashkow argues that none of these explanations really cover the gamut of reasons Indians opposed hunting. Instead, he suggests that it might be best to understand Indian resistance to British hunters using a new concept he calls “cultural conservation”—referring both to conservation of nature as an aspect of culture and to the conservation of culture.
“Objects of conservation such as wild fauna became the sites of resistance to outside pressures and interference,” he writes, “And so cultural conservation served to protect local interests as much as it protected animal life.”
Read Hornaday’s thoughts about wildlife. Several of his books are available online.
Browse The William T. Hornaday Scrapbook Collection on the History of the Wild Life Protection and Extermination. The Wildlife Conservation Society has shared Hornaday’s scrapbooks, compiled between 1909 and 1935.
Contextualize colonial hunting practices in India’s princely states, starting with Julie E. Hughes’s analysis of semi-independent rulers’ attitudes on wilderness and wildlife management.