The Native Matchlock – Tiger Hunting in India

A slightly  bloodthirsty story (to our squeamish modern taste) but with an amazing moment of suspense straight out of Kipling or Conrad. A real life account - the author was almost certainly Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Wray. The manuscript was in an envelope with 3 other chapers addressed to him at 'The Croft, Guildford' and he is known to have written With rifle and spear : reminiscences of Lt.-Col. J.W. Wray. Copac gives his dates as 1851-1924 and record this book as being published by The General Press, Ltd.,. They estimate the date as 1925. Certainly these accounts mention rifles and spears, Wray was a dedicated game hunter. The manuscripts came from a couple of very old soldiers Basil and Russell Steele.

No copies of the book are available and it has not been digitised. Web archives reveal he was in the 108th Foot Regiment and he was a member of the Northumberland and Northern Counties Club. Punch mentions him and his wife in 1916 - the victim of a Pooter like misprint: 'Mrs. Wray entertained the recruiting staff, numbering £21, to tea at Brett's Hall, Guildford, on Thursday.' They add 'Sterling fellows obviously'.

The photo, supplied merely to give atmosphere, is actually of Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este in Rajasthan 1892, Wray's adventure is probably from a decade later. The game of "fly loo" needs reviving, especially with global warming - a game for very hot days, played for high stakes.

    One desperately hot day, in one of the hottest Stations of India, with the thermometer standing at anything between 105 and 115 degrees in the shade and life a burden, we in the Mess were trying to forget our mid-day miseries by playing "Fly Loo" after Lunch. "Fly Loo" is about the only game that can be played in that temperature as it requires no exercise of intellect or fatiguing effort of any kind. All that the players have to do is to sit round the table each with a lump of sugar in front of him and he whose lump of sugar a fly first seats itself wins the game and becomes the possessor of the stakes which, of course, are quite nominal. The excitement is intense and the simultaneous shouts of claimants dispel all forebodings of heat apoplexy and the consciousness of discomfort which are inseparable  from the stifling atmosphere.

    During one of these entertainments, a Mess Waiter whispered to me that a villager was outside and wanted me urgently.

    I slipped away from the excited players unobserved and unquestioned as it was for too hot, and the game too absorbing for any of them to interest themselves in other people's affairs, and I was glad of this for I knew that it meant news that I had been expecting for some days of a large tiger, and selfish as it may seem I was anxious to go after him alone, as the jungle, which he had been monopolizing for some time past was not big enough for more than one gun.
   On reaching the Verandah, I found a breathless and streaming villager, who had come in with a message from my "shikarri" (tracker) to say that the Tiger had killed a Cow where I had expected on a small wooded hill - 15 miles away, and had eaten a portion of the carcase and was lying in a small wooded ravine at the bottom of the hill - and the "shikarri" had placed men in the vicinity to see that he was not disturbed.
    It was then 2.30 p.m. and there was no time to be lost for at sunrise he might be moving again. I hurried to my bungalow, taking the villager with me and gave him my rifle and told him to go on ahead with it and that I should overtake him for I did not wish to be seen passing the Mess carrying my rifle myself, for reasons above stated. I then changed into my Khaki clothes, left a note for the Adjutant in case I had to sleep out of barracks, mounted my pony and started.

    After going about a mile, I wondered what had become of the man with my rifle, and thinking he must have picked up a Camel and gone ahead, I continued to gallop on fearing to lose time by going back or hanging about to look for him. At last I concluded that he must have taken a different track and that I must have passed him (which turned out to be the case) and I made up my mind that the only thing to do was to go to the Village and trust to finding some sort of gun there and take my chance with it and the Tiger.

    At 4 o'clock I reached the Village and found my shikarri (who was a hot tempered person) very much exercised in his mind as to the lateness of my arrival - He told me the Tiger was still lying up and it was a certainty that I should get a shot if we hurried on - and he was so busy saying "Come along Sahib" that he did not notice that I had no rifle with me. I had to break it to him however, and he was much concerned and he showed it by cursing all the ancestors of the man who had failed me, and had thus deprived me, as he said, of the biggest Tiger that had ever been known and so on. Then I told him it would be alright if we could raise a couple of Matchlocks in the Village, but he demurred saying - there was not tree to sit in and as that meant standing on the ground it would be too dangerous to attempt the Tiger so inadequately armed as I should be. I explained that this could not be helped and that I meant to take my chance if I could only get hold of a gun of some sort. He shrugged his shoulders & said "Nasib ka ghat" (It's a matter of fate) and in a few minutes he had procured a couple of old village muskets, some coarse gun powder and a few bullets. These guns have a very small bore and an immense length of barrel. On the hammer is a pinching contrivance which holds a piece of cotton with which, when the trigger is pulled descends on to a small round pan at the bottom of which is a hole communicating with the powder in the barrel. Immediately before use the round pan is filled with loose gunpowder and the cotton is ignited and smolders. When the trigger is pulled the lighted cotton wick descending on to the loose powder in the barrel is reached and the gun goes off. I have described this rather particularly because that half second's fizzing the powder in the barrel is reached and the gun goes off. I have described this rather particularly because that half second's interval between pulling the trigger and the shot nearly cost me my life.

    We lost no time in loading the two antiquated muskets and shouldering one each we started - the shikarri giving on more anxious look round for the man with my missing rifle and muttering a few more curses on him for not appearing. A few minutes' walk brought us to the "Kill", the carcase of the Cow, and we were the satisfied that enough had been eaten by the Tiger to make him lazy and inclined to lie up close by and also that he had left enough to keep him there looking forward to another meal that night.

    The Nullah or small ravins or hollow ran along the bottom of the hill and continued round it to the lower ground beyond and towards the big jungles which we knew the Tiger would make for when aroused.

   The ascent of the little hill commenced as it were immediately out of the ravine and though it was a short out to the big jungles, we imagined that the Tiger would feel too slack to climb over the steep hill when he could make his point by sneaking quietly round it through the bushes of the Nullah. I therefore placed the beaters (there were only a dozen or so required) above the "Kill" and told them to walk quietly down the hollow on each side of it, clapping their hands gently but not shouting. It is only when the area is large, and the exact whereabouts of the Tiger are unknown, that it is necessary for beaters to make a great noise. It is much better in beating a small place for a Tiger that is actually located to rouse him gently and let him walk quietly in the direction that he wishes to take, rather than frighten him into breaking away unseen.

    The shikarri and I were so confident that this Tiger would choose the easier and more secluded way down the hollow, that we did not waste time in placing "stops" to guide him along it. So telling the beaters to wait till we were in position we crossed the Nullah, ascended the opposite slope of the hill for about 25 yards and took up our position.
    It was October, and the grass was very high. There was no tree worth getting into or from where I could get a satisfactory shot, so I selected a large stone in the long grass from which I had a capital view of the path which I thought the Tiger was bound to take - from left to right, and I fixed upon the spot that he should reach before I fired at him where there was a little opening in the bushes past me, as it were, to my right front.
    The shikarri I insisted upon placing in a small tree a little higher up the hill and giving him one of the matchlocks, I took the other - lighted the piece of cotton and filled the pan with gunpowder and took up my position on the stone and then signaled to the man who was to communicate with the beaters, and the beat commenced and not a bit too soon for it was then nearly 5 o'clock.

    In a few minutes I saw the Tiger's tail above the bushes and then I saw him clearly wending his way through them, coming slowly down the hollow and in a moment he was opposite. I brought the gun up to my shoulder and was on the point of firing when to my astonishment instead of keeping along the Nullah and passing the open space I had selected for the shot, he swung round and turned sharp up the hill towards me and I saw that in another minute he would be passing me within a few feet. I slipped down quickly and silently from my stone, and lay on my face in the long grass with the musket up to my shoulder and waited. In a few second the grass was waving close to me really not much further than the length of the musket and the Tiger was stalking slowly past me. I waited till his head and half his body were past, and then I fired thinking my little bullet was bound to go straight through his heart and that he would bound forward and drop dead, but I had forgotten about  the fraction of a second which had to elapse between the pulling of the trigger and the shot, and my bullet instead of striking behind the shoulder penetrated the Tiger's body too far back missing the vital parts. He gave a bound in the air roaring terribly and began, as far as I could judge, to go round and round in a circle biting I supposed at his wound as I have seen them do. There was nothing further to be done as I was unarmed and there was no possibility of running away, so I lay perfectly still hardly daring to breathe and awaiting events. I confess I made up my mind during those few moments that if that Tiger would go away, I would give up Tiger shooting for the rest of my life for I can say without exaggeration that he was sometimes within a foot of me and though he did not discover me, but he made such a noise that he could not have heard me breathing and he was far too angry with his wound to think of anything else for the moment. Of course the suspense seemed longer than it really was, but it was soon over and the grass round me grew gradually still again and i knew the Tiger had gone. I waited, as I was, for the shikarri's signal for I was sure he would communicate with me as soon as he thought it safe to do so, and in a minute or two I heard the low whistle and I got up and went to his tree. He pointed up the hill and gave me his matchlock. I lit the cotton, filled the pan and started in the Tiger's track which was easily discernible through the long grass. I knew from the shikarri's signs that he had gone over the brow of the hill and I therefore felt safe in hurrying as far as that and I hoped to get a view of him from the top. Just before I reached the brow, however, I saw him emerge from a little dip in the ground and go slowly on to a large slab of rock and look over the edge of it. Finding it too steep to descend in his wounded condition he halted and turned the broadside to me, his length outlined against the sky. While he hesitated looking round him I fired. He reared up on his hind legs, twisted half round, gave a great plunge forward and disappeared over the edge of the rock and I knew that this time he was shot through the heart and had fallen over where he found it impossible to descend. I waited a few moments and went up to the slab of rock and looked over, but all was still in the dense forest below or beyond. I whistled to the shikarri, who came up and we waited for a little and then determining that it would be folly to look for the Tiger in the rapidly increasing darkness of the evening, we started back for the village and as I had no duties in barracks next morning, I resolved to stay the night.

    I invariably carried my saddlebags enough for a mall meal in case of necessity and the villagers produced some clean rice & straw which they spread in the Verandah of one of their little houses and I had a fairly comfortable night. In the meantime my rifle had arrived and I looked forward to finding the Tiger next morning where he had fallen.

    At dawn we started again, the shikarri and I, and going round the hill to the far side, we made straight for the spot where the Tiger had plunged over and there we found him dead.
    The first bullet, as I imagined, had hit him too far back to be immediately fatal, and though he would probably have bled to death later on, it might have been a matter of days. I was therefore glad I had the second matchlock to follow him up with for that shot must have killed him instantaneously.

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