What happens when the world’s preeminent conservationist is asked to pull the trigger on the world’s most magnificent endangered species?
There is plenty of evidence left in our time to document the day in 1936 when Louis Bromfield shot a tiger. There were photographers on site to capture the obligatory portrait with slain game; and there are photos of his home a decade later where the tiger rug is prominently posing on the floor in the front hall.
These snapshots of the past indicate Bromfield did his part in fulfilling the stereotypical role of celebrity Sahib hosted by a Maharaja in the age-old tradition of the tiger hunt in India.
There is more to this story though, and the rest of it has a more elusive quality than generally transmits through the decades. It requires a closer look. Reading through the letters and stories he wrote regarding the event, it is not difficult to see another side of the picture.
And if you look closely at the trophy photos taken in the Indian bush that day to study Bromfield’s face, the back side of this tale is already clearly suggested: because that look on his face is worth a thousand words and none of them is exactly pleased.
No doubt Bromfield had been groomed since he was a boy to enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to shoot a tiger in India. That was the glamour attached to the concept of India from before he was born.
And he was born just two years after Kipling had published The Jungle Book, so his boyhood was imbued with romance of the jungle. Early on he embraced the powerful mythos of the British Colonial adventure: taking civilization into the wilds like some sort of celebrity summer camp.
As a kid he was raised with aspirations to greatness, which in his America of the turn-of-that-century, meant affecting European elitist snobbery. By 1926 he had published two best-selling novels in the US, and was well on his way to climbing the continental snob pile by moving to France where he was making more in royalties than most of the other—more famous—expatriates in Paris.
By the time he made his first journey to India in 1933, Bromfield was a bona fide celebrity and genuinely influential in the world of letters. He had some of Europe’s most cultured personalities dining at his home on Sunday afternoons, and among them were authentic royals from the Princely States of India.
So it was at the invitation of the Maharani of Cooch Behar that he took his family to India.
At the time of Bromfield’s first trip to Bombay, Indian tiger sport was already well known to the world because of the great publicity attendant upon a famous visit that George V made there in 1911. Newspapers all over the world carried extensive photo coverage of the King’s great ten-day tiger hunt with 645 elephants; 340 brush-beating natives; and 39 dead tigers all laid out in a row.
Clearly the image impressed upon the world was that killing tigers was not only a regal pastime, but noble enough sport that even the apex of royalty could enjoy it with dignity.
Tigers were, after all, a national terrorist threat.
Terror of Tigers
Hunting tigers in India certainly did not originate as a sport: it began in dire necessity, because tigers hunt people. In fact, humans are some of the easiest meals in a tiger’s diet, and have been on the menu since humans first found their way into the subcontinent more than 50,000 years ago.
The idea of hunting tigers from atop an elephant—romantic and entertaining as it seemed to adventurous sportsmen of the 19th and 20th centuries—originated as a simple matter of survival. Homo sapiens stood a better chance of coming out alive if the big cat had to scale a mountain of muscle to get at them. It gave humans a sporting chance.
By the time Bromfield climbed up on top of an elephant in 1933, the craft of surviving a tiger kill had many millennia to be honed into an art so fine it was almost commonplace. The event could be downright boring to the natives sent out to whack the ground with sticks, in spite of the immanent peril.
It was the peril that drew Europeans by the trainload. Peril can be entertaining.
When Bromfield wrote to his friend Edith Wharton about his first hunting expedition, it sounds like a party stunt:
“I can imagine nothing more exciting than the moment when you see these elephants advance majestically, pulling up whole trees and uprooting and trampling cane and bamboo. Then out pops the leopard and you try to hit him—which is extremely difficult—he is not a big mark and moves like a flash of lightning. Twice we had exciting times when we encountered leopards who had been shot at before and knew the tricks: they charged the elephants, climbing up the trunk or the tail. There is nothing to do but hang on for dear life and let the elephant shake him off. Then after a time the elephants grow panicky and trumpet and jostle each other and confusion reigns. It’s especially exciting as there are women and children—all your friends in fact—clinging to the backs of the live elephants.”
It sounds like Bromfield was having fun. Photos of his home in France show the leopard rug he brought back from India as his party favor.
A Novel of Modern India
Inspired by what he saw and felt in India, Bromfield conceived an idea for a powerful novel that could exercise his best writing skills. What he saw was an awakening nation, and it seemed to parallel the awakening of his own soul within him, so he could honestly incorporate all his emergent energy to say something that was more than simply entertaining—something that could be wholly meaningful on many levels to a world hungry for hope. A novel about death and rebirth: exactly as he was experiencing it.
His epic undertaking was ultimately titled, The Rains Came.
This book meant so much to him, he spent more time on it than any other writing he ever attempted. And after two years of earnest effort, he needed to go back to India to take a closer look.
That was when he shot a tiger in Bangalore.
He wrote to Edith Wharton from Mysore on February 22, “Tomorrow we go off to the jungle to spend several days on elephants, perhaps to bag a tiger and a bison or two.”
The next letter she got from him was brief, but it included a postscript: “I have just shot a magnificent tiger.”
That was all he had to say about it, and this short, declarative sentence indicates no particular sense of what shooting a tiger might mean to him.
Take a look at him in this photo though, and it’s not hard to see a certain ambivalence about the deed.
The “Tetched” Author
The next time Louis Bromfield wrote about his experience in the Kingdom of Mysore was seven years later. During the intervening period, he had moved back to the US, established Malabar Farm, and made the first footprints through the field that would lead him to become the best-known farmer in America, and the most recognizable voice for conservation in the world.
The only account he ever wrote of the tiger hunt showed up in a short story called Up Ferguson Way in his book, The World We Live In. The story told of a woman he had known as a boy growing up in Mansfield, and focused on how this woman, who he called Zenobia, would never kill any living creature. He wrote:
“I have never been a hunter. I have never shot a rabbit or a quail or any small living thing. Although I have killed lions and tigers, panthers and leopards, I never did so with any pleasure but only out of politeness to my host. It took will-power to force myself to kill the first leopard I ever saw, spitting and snarling at me in the tall elephant grass beneath the howdah. And I felt sick the first time I shot a great tiger, for it was like destroying beauty and magnificence itself. Once I infuriated a fellow hunter when he was about to kill a superb bison in the bamboo and teakwood jungles of Mysore by crying out, “You can’t kill anything as splendid as that!”
“I am even an indifferent fisherman when it comes to keeping the fish. Although I love the sport, my impulse is always to throw back the fish. I suppose that is what Zenobia meant by saying I was “tetched.” In any case, I know that on the night I killed the tiger in far-off India, I dreamed of Zenobia.”
Cause and Effect
Of course, in 1936 when Bromfield was pointing his rifle at a tiger, the big cats were not an ‘endangered species.’ Even though the numbers of tigers had been in sharp decline for decades, the ‘endangered’ specification had not yet entered cultural consciousness as we know it today.
Fame had provided Louis with a powerful glamour over the world of popular culture, but it also cast a spell over him as well, that made him forget who he was. We know this because his novels and stories from that time became increasingly more cynical as his income grew; and the characters he wrote about were progressively more disillusioned, jaded, and lost.
Before he could become the man who stood for conservation and protecting the Earth, he needed to wake up and remember his true strength that came from his connection to the planet.
On the day when Louis Bromfield shot a tiger, he was the farthest he ever went from Richland County, and the furthest from his innate values as a conservationist. Perhaps the tiger was his figural turning point, that sent him back to find his roots again—in his native home; in his humanity and his empathy for the Earth and its creatures.