Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2024

Sport in Old Madras

– Extracted from The Nabobs of Madras by Henry Dodwell, 1926

Any time you want to get a good laugh out of the antics of the British in Madras, Dodwell is the answer. Here he is, holding forth on what constituted sport in 17th and 18th century Madras.
– The Editor

In a country where Englishmen had horses, there was naturally hunting, though it were after no nobler an animal than the jackal. The first reference to this has been thought a letter of 1776 asking for a yearly draft of couple of hounds for the “Madras Hunting Society.” But jack-hunting was certainly followed twenty years earlier. In the Mayor’s Court papers of 1753 is a horse-dealing case, in which the seller demands specific performance of the contract, while the buyer claimed to have bought the horse under warranty of soundness. The horse in question, it appears from the evidence, was that ridden by Pigot on an occasion celebrated by Orme, when in 1751 Pigot and Clive saved themselves from a body of the enemy by the superior speed of their animals. When the plaintiff recalled this incident as a proof of the goodness of the horse, the defendant rejoined that that was before it “was sprained by Mr. Pigot in a fox-chase.” Hunting saddles occur frequently in the inventories; there are four for instance in 1768; and I think that hunting though perhaps in a rough and ready form, was popular round Madras. In 1791 Roebuck writes to a Calcutta friend:

“Will you excuse me troubling you with a trifling commission, which is to procure for me any number of half-bred hounds, from one couple to six couple. They are dogs bred in this country from the Europe fox-hound and a half-bred country dog, and they live better than the Europe hounds … The dogs are for the Madras Hunt, and I have undertaken to procure them. The fleeter they are the better, as our present dogs are very fast …”

Roebuck must have been reckoned a doggy man, for only a couple of years later I find him ordering two pointers from Pondicherry for a friend in Bombay. The jack was coursed as well as hunted. Watts escaped from Murshidabad just before Plassey on the pretext of a coursing match; and leashes of greyhounds occur in the Madras inventories. Even in the nineteenth century Sir William Denison got some rattling good gallops when he got near enough to the jack to slip a grey hound.

The origins of racing at Madras are as obscure as those of hunting. I expect many scratch races were run long before the sport was in any way organized. The Fort St George orderly book of 1773 contains the first reference known to me. Colonel Lang there announces that not more than half the officers off duty can be allowed to be absent at one time to attend the races at the Mount; but in order that “they may partake of the diversions day and day about, and for the convenience of such as have not accommodations at the Mount, the gates will be ordered to be opened every morning at 4.0’ clock”.

The earliest-mentioned form of field-sport, however, was none of these, but hawking. So early as 1654 the Agent, as the first governors of the Fort were called, went hawking by the Mount. In 1771 Warren Hastings, during his short stay upon the Coast, did the same. Captain Fletcher had sent him a present of hawks from Ongole, which Hastings thus acknowledged:

“I return you many thanks for your genteel present. … I have been twice abroad with the hawks, and hope I may find an inducement in them to use the exercise of a morning ride, which I much want. They seem to be well trained, and the chief man, as well as his bird, very intelligent and expert in their respective professions. The only difficulty is to meet with game for them. The Carnatic yields none but kites, crows, and paddy-birds. The two former will not be catched, and the latter are hardly worth catching. These however afford me sufficient entertainment”.

To big game I find hardly a reference. Not for lack of game. After the Second Mysore War the Carnatic was teeming with tigers, and no doubt many an officer in the up-country garrisons went after them, either on elephants, which were common enough too in the south in those days, or with his muzzle-loader on foot. The records of shikar belong almost entirely to the nineteenth century.

However, among the stray references is one that I wish to mention, for it introduces as well the concluding topic of this chapter. In 1794 Captain Alexander Macpherson and Mr. Dawson Logan were stationed at Ambur, in hilly, jungly country where you could easily flush a brace of tiger before breakfast. They were out shooting together, and got on the track of an animal which Macpherson said was a tiger. Logan denied it, and that with so much heat and persistence that the other was at last obliged to inquire the meaning of his behaviour. A duel followed, in which Logan was shot. And if there are few records of shooting tigers, there are plenty of shooting men.

It is very natural, for the manners of the age with doubt often exceeded. 400 was reckoned an average for a serviceable animal.

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