Kenneth Anderson and the Superficial Friendliness of Colonialism

One of my most vivid memories is from when I was thirteen, and spending the summer in India. I lay on my cot in the muggy Chennai evening and, with bated breath, watched a man-eating panther creep across a branch.

Well, alright – I wasn’t watching it, I was only reading about it, but in that dense hot twilight the big cats in Kenneth Anderson’s jungle stories leapt off the page and into my mind’s eye. I was terrified, but nevertheless couldn’t put the book down, spellbound by the cadence of Anderson’s experiences as a dashing hunter in the heyday of the Raj. I imagined what it would be like to meet him, and hear his stories firsthand; unlike another childhood favourite author of mine, Rudyard Kipling, Anderson seemed to actually respect Indians. He frequently wrote about his Indian friends from all faiths, and was fluent in both Kannada and Tamil. When he spoke of India and its inhabitants, it was with affection, not disdain – or so I thought.

Kenneth Anderson was a significant aspect of my childhood, a spinner of wild fantasies. But nearly twelve years later, after rereading one of his books, I was horrified – not only because of the man-eaters, but because, as it turns out, Anderson was racist. He casually tosses around slurs in his books, and even the way he describes his Indian “friends” carries a mocking undertone. They are “unfathomably Eastern”, in his view, and it is clear that he expected his readers to join in on laughing at their “bizarre” cultural quirks. Perhaps even more disturbing is his attitude toward the victims of the man-eaters he once stalked: while he does refer to their deaths as “tragedies”, he is appallingly nonchalant about them. There are so many Indians, according to him, and they (we) are generally lazy, apathetic, and profuse breeders. So what if a few have their lives brutally cut short? Why spend much time on mourning them?

Actually, I will let Anderson say it himself:

…in a land as vast as India, where the average expectancy of life is at present well below thirty years… where the birth rate is advancing to an alarming figure each year in spite of the early mortality and all the causes of death, eighty people being eaten by a tiger was but a drop in the ocean, and nothing to worry about unduly.

– “The Killer from Hyderabad”, from The Black Panther of Sivanipalli

I wonder if the victims, or their spouses or children, would generally agree that the agonising deaths of their loved ones were little more than part of a “drop in the ocean”. Most of them were Indigenous, from the Chenchu tribe – a group of people Anderson often paints as less intelligent than the ‘civilised’ white man. To them he ascribes emotions less complex than his own, for the simple reason that he was casteist and racist to the core. And in this respect he was not alone: the British administration passed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871, labelling some Indigenous groups and so-called “lower castes” as criminals for nothing more than the circumstance of their births.

Anderson went a step further in his brand of colonial, anti-Indigenous conservationism, laying the blame for declines in wild fauna populations solely at the feet of Indians rather than openly acknowledging that his ilk did the most damage in this area. In his writings he repeatedly refers to tigers as gentlemen, yet calls Indigenous Indians “rascals” for the crime of hunting on their own land. In one story from Nine Man-eaters and One Rogue, wherein he describes his first meeting with his Irula friend Byra, he talks about wanting to report Byra for hunting without a licence – despite the fact that Byra was an Indigenous man seeking out food for his family, and was doing so sustainably. Meanwhile, Anderson had no qualms shooting non-man-eating panthers and tigers for sport, justifying this with the fact that he had a licence provided by the colonial government. In this vein, more than once he has lamented India’s post-Independence environmental decline, and celebrated British-era environmental “protections”, while denying Indigenous people stewardship over their own land.

My takeaway, after this somber re-read, was simply: there is no such thing as an amiable colonist, even if he calls you “brother” and speaks your language. Some Britishers may have befriended individual Indians, crossing caste lines which many bigoted upper-caste individuals would not. Some Britishers may have respected the environment, and advocated for sustainable practices. Yet even these people, inevitably, approached Indians in general with derision. Even the nicest of colonists was – and is – a colonist, a white supremacist fundamentally opposed to equality.

––Aditi Ramaswamy