Sunday, 4 July 2010

Ahmadabad, tigers and narrow scrapes

 Tiger hunting from elephants

As a small child my great aunt would delight in telling me stories about my great great grandfather Charles James Barton and his tiger hunts.

Charles served in the Bombay Artillery during the middle years of the Nineteenth Century, and eventually became a Major General.  These stories were probably amongst the very first stories that fired up my abiding interest in India.


Lieutenant Charles Barton circa 1850

Very recently and quite by chance, I stumbled upon another account by a fellow East India Company officer, William Johnson, which although does not refer to the same incident, confirms Charles Barton’s involvement in tiger hunting, and a hair raising incident when a tiger came very close to killing him.

The first story recounts how Charles would hire an elephant and mahout, on which to go out into the jungle to flush out tigers. On one occasion he spotted a tiger in the long grass, at which he shot with his musket. He must have ether missed or failed kill it, for the tiger instantly sprang up onto the howdah situated on the elephants back, and had plunged its teeth into Charles arm, attempting to pull him from the elephants back.

At his point Charles is supposed to have shouted "Drop me Sir!".

Which apparently is what the startled tiger did!

Where upon Charles was able pick up his second rifle, with which he dispatched the animal.

Commanding as he did an Artillery Battery, he must presumably have developed a fairly commanding voice, with which to pass on orders. It must have been a terrifying moment.

With the passing of time, we had no idea where these events had taken place, but by great good fortune I may have stumbled across the answer,

A description of another tiger shooting incident involving Charles Barton in about 1853 is contained in a book written by a brother officer serving in the Guzerat Irregular Horse who was stationed also stationed in Ahmadabad.

This rare book based on letters and journals kept by William Johnson have recently been republished by Leonaur Ltd.

Johnson devotes many pages of his journals to hunting expeditions, and to a modern reader these often seem like wilful slaughter of wildlife that is sadly absent today.

He describes how with his brother officers, Harington Bulkley, Gordon Cumming, Leeson, Babington, Seward and Whitehill starting in October 1851 they would set off on expeditions into the hills and forests surrounding Ahmadabad to hunt and to track down and kill wild boar, tigers and tanthers.

These animals would frequently endure being shot many times before they were dead, and many fought back savagely often wounding beaters, and even jumping onto the backs and heads of elephants used to push through the forests.

The dilemma for hunter’s who had wounded a tiger or panther but had not killed it, was that it would become even more dangerous for the villagers, on whose behalf many of these hunts were undertaken.

The wounded animals had to be tracked into their refuges.

“There was once marked down for me in a small patch of bushes a large panther, which I knew to be very severely wounded, and I thought disabled. I took my rifle — a handy, double barrelled Lancaster – and walked towards the bushes. When I was within forty yards, he came out at me so quickly that I had but just time to put up my rifle, and fire both barrels as quick as I could. Most fortunately one bullet entered just above the left eye, and came out behind the ear, somewhat confusing him, but not in the least checking his speed He knocked me over, and bit and clawed me severely.

Some of my men of the Guzerat Irregular Horse behaved very well, and, attacking him, drove him off me with their swords and carbines; we killed him at last, but I had a very narrow escape.”

Johnson, whose leg had been ripped open from top to bottom, wrote this account in a letter to his mother (who lived in Enborne in Berkshire) who was understandably worried.

Johnson’s answering letter, can hardly have provided much reassurance to his mother, but provides me with another priceless glimpse into my great great grandfather’s life.

“You seem to have been in a great state of alarm about my accident, which I am sorry for. I think I told you I was nearly all right, and there was no cause to be anxious about it, although it was lucky it was no worse; and in one respect I dare say it is a good thing, as now, perhaps, it will be a warning to take better protection next time. Young Barton, of the Artillery, has been wounded much in the same way, but he was more mauled than I was; the tiger took him up and shook him, and knocked his head against the rocks; but he is a tough little chap, and is all right again now.

Graham, who was close to him at the time, fell off the same rock down below without a gun, and had the satisfaction of looking on, expecting his turn would come next, and soon as the brute caught his eye he came at him, but luckily missed him.” [1]

I have managed to establish that there was only one Barton in the Bombay Artillery at this time, and that Charles Barton was at that time Quarter Master & Interpreter to the Headquarters of 4th Battalion Bombay Foot Artillery based at Ahmadabad according to the Bombay Calendar for 1851.

While many of his generation of artillery officers had the most adventurous of careers, particularly during the Indian Mutiny, Charles seems to have taken part in few if any actual battles.

His main role was that of a staff officer. Perhaps his qualification as interpreter in three languages, Hindustani, Mahratta and Gujarati set him apart from the other artillery officers who rarely had this qualification for even one language, let alone three at this time.

He appears in Johnson’s Journal for a second time, and on this occasion they are on an expedition after some robbers.

“I hate this country quite as much as ever, and rather more, if possible. I can’t make a residence out of England. I want to see some healthy-looking faces again; I feel as if even that would do me good. We are all of us on a wild-goose chase after some murders, about eighty or a hundred miles off, and we are going to try to put salt on their tails; but I am afraid they are quite sure to get news of our whereabouts, an bolt before we get near them. We shall get a lot of snipe, and perhaps have a run after a pig.”

His history doesn’t recall if they ever got the murderers, but it does record Charles Barton getting a wild boar.

Pig Sticking in Bombay Presidency 1856.[2]

Describing a pig sticking outing Johnson writes:

"we were all close up at the first spear, which was taken by one Barton, who thoroughly deserved it, for he rides magnificently. I never saw a man ride a pig so perfectly as he does. He belongs to the Artillery, rather short and stoutly made, and rides an Arab Galloway, one of the cleverest animals I suppose that was ever foaled. It is a treat to see a man go across country in the way he does."[3]

Several small artefacts from his life in India survive to this day.

One a small envelope, which contains several elephant’s hairs, labelled

"Elephants hairs, sent from India by my brother Charles".

We like to think they are from the same elephant in the first story, but of course at this remove we shall never know.

Charles had several sons who went on later to settle in America where Charles Barton had brought a house at Virginia Beach following his retirement.

These families preserved a tiger skin until well into the 20th Century as well as one of his rifles.

Charles Barton's Rifle.

[1] Page 29, John Company's Cavalryman, from the letters & journals of William Johnson re-published recently by Leonaur Ltd.

[2]"A pig-sticking scene," from the Illustrated London News, 1856. from

[3] Page 31, John Company's Cavalryman.

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