Edward Hamilton Aitken.

Concerning Animals and Other Matters online

. (page 7 of 12)
Online LibraryEdward Hamilton AitkenConcerning Animals and Other Matters → online text (page 7 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

man and serve him, the long and difficult task of softening down the
wild instincts of a beast taken from the forests or the hills and
acclimatising its constitution to a domestic life was not likely to be

But there have been a few recent additions to our list of domestic
animals. The turkey and the guinea fowl are examples, and perhaps
within another generation we may be able to add the zebra. And there may
be many other animals fitted to enrich and adorn human life which would
make no insuperable resistance to domestication if wisely and patiently
handled. Here is a noble opening for carrying out in its kindest sense
the command, "Multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and
over every living thing that moveth upon the face of the earth."



I have met persons, otherwise quite sane, who told me that they would
like to visit India if it were not for the _snakes_. Now there is
something very depressing in the thought that this state of mind is
extant in England, for it is calculated, on occasion, to have results of
a most melancholy nature. By way of example, let us picture the case of
a broken-hearted maiden forced to reject an ardent lover because duty
calls him to a land where there are snakes. Think of his happiness
blighted for ever and her doomed to a "perpetual maidenhood," harrowed
with remorseful dreams of the hourly perils and horrors through which he
must be passing without her, and dreading to enter an academy or
picture-gallery lest a laocoon or a fury might revive apprehensions too
horrible to be borne. In view of possibilities so dreadful, surely it is
a duty that a man owes to his kind to disseminate the truth, if he can,
about the present condition in the East of that reptile which, crawling
on its belly and eating dust and having its head bruised by the
descendants of Eve, sometimes pays off her share of the curse on their
heels. Here the truth is.

Within the limits of our Indian Empire, including Burmah and Ceylon,
there are at present known to naturalists two hundred and sixty-four
species of snakes. Twenty-seven of these are sea-serpents, which never
leave the sea, and could not if they would. The remaining two hundred
and thirty-seven species comprise samples of every size and pattern of
limbless reptile found on this globe, from the gigantic python, which
crushes a jackal and swallows it whole, to the little burrowing
_Typhlops_, whose proportions are those of an earthworm and its food
white ants.

If you have made up your mind never to touch a snake or go nearer to one
than you can help, then I need scarcely tell you what you know already,
that these are all alike hideous and repulsive in their aspect, being
smeared from head to tail with a viscous and venomous slime, which, as
your Shakespeare will tell you, leaves a trail even on fig-leaves when
they have occasion to pass over such. This preparation would appear to
line them inside as well as out, for there is no lack of ancient and
modern testimony to the fact that they "slaver" their prey all over
before swallowing it, that it may slide the more easily down their
ghastly throats. Their eye is cruel and stony, and possesses a peculiar
property known as "fascination," which places their victims entirely at
their mercy. They have also the power of coiling themselves up like a
watch-spring and discharging themselves from a considerable distance at
those whom they have doomed to death - a fact which is attested by such
passages in the poets as -

Like adder darting from his coil,

and by travellers _passim_.

This is the true faith with respect to all serpents, and if you are
resolved to remain steadfast in it, you may do so even in India, for it
is possible to live in that country for months, I might almost say
years, without ever getting a sight of a live snake except in the basket
of a snake-charmer. If, however, you are minded to cultivate an
acquaintance with them, it is not difficult to find opportunities of
doing so, but I must warn you that it will be with jeopardy to your
faith, for the very first thing that will strike you about them will
probably be their cleanness. What has become of the classical slime I
cannot tell, but it is a fact that the skin of a modern snake is always
delightfully dry and clean, and as smooth to the touch as velvet.

The next thing that attracts attention is their beauty, not so much the
beauty of their colours as of their forms. With few exceptions, snakes
are the most graceful of living things. Every position into which they
put themselves, and every motion of their perfectly proportioned forms,
is artistic. The effect of this is enhanced by their gentleness and the
softness of their movements.

But if you want to see them properly, you must be careful not to
frighten them, for there is no creature more timid at heart than a
snake. One will sometimes let you get quite near to it and watch it,
simply because it does not notice you, being rather deaf and very
shortsighted, but when it does discover your presence, its one thought
is to slip away quietly and hide itself. It is on account of this
extreme timidity that we see them so seldom.

Of the two hundred and thirty-seven kinds that I have referred to, some
are, of course, very rare, or only found in particular parts of the
country, but at least forty or fifty of them occur everywhere, and some
are as plentiful as crows. Yet they keep themselves out of our way so
successfully that it is quite a rare event to meet with one.
Occasionally one finds its way into a house in quest of frogs, lizards,
musk-rats, or some other of the numerous malefactors that use our
dwellings as cities of refuge from the avenger, and it is discovered by
the Hamal behind a cupboard, or under a carpet. He does the one thing
which it occurs to a native to do in any emergency - viz. raises an
alarm. Then there is a general hubbub, servants rush together with the
longest sticks they can find, the children are hurried away to a place
of safety, the master appears on the scene, armed with his gun, and the

Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie,

trying to slip away from the fuss which it dislikes so much, is headed,
and blown, or battered, to pieces. Then its head is pounded to a jelly,
for the servants are agreed that, if this precaution is omitted, it will
revive during the night and come and coil itself on the chest of its

Finally a council is held and a unanimous resolution recorded that
deceased was a serpent of the deadliest kind. This is not a lie, for
they believe it; but in the great majority of cases it is an untruth. Of
our two hundred and thirty-seven kinds of snakes only forty-four are
ranked by naturalists as venomous, and many of these are quite incapable
of killing any animal as large as a man. Others are very rare or local.
In short, we may reckon the poisonous snakes with which we have any
practical concern at four kinds, and the chance of a snake found in the
house belonging to one of these kinds stands at less than one in ten.

It is a sufficiently terrible thought, however, that there are even four
kinds of reptiles going silently about the land whose bite is certain
death. If they knew their powers and were maliciously disposed, our life
in the East would be like Christian's progress through the Valley of the
Shadow of Death. But the poisonous snakes are just as timid as the rest,
and as little inclined to act on the offensive against any living
creature except the little animals on which they prey. Even a trodden
worm will turn, and a snake has as much spirit as a worm. If a man
treads on it, it will turn and bite him. But it has no desire to be
trodden on. It does its best to avoid that mischance, and, I need
scarcely say, so does a man unless he is drunk. When both parties are
sincerely anxious to avoid a collision, a collision is not at all likely
to occur, and the fact is that, of all forms of death to which we are
exposed in India, death by snake-bite is about the one which we have
least reason to apprehend.

During a pretty long residence in India I have heard of only one
instance of an Englishman being killed by a snake. It was in Manipur,
and I read of it in the newspapers. During the same time I have heard of
only one death by lightning and one by falling into the fermenting vat
of a brewery, so I suppose these accidents are equally uncommon. Eating
oysters is much more fatal: I have heard of at least four or five deaths
from that cause.

The natives are far more exposed to danger from snakes than we are,
because they go barefoot, by night as well as day, through fields and
along narrow, overgrown footpaths about their villages. The tread of a
barefooted man does not make noise enough to warn a snake to get out of
his way, and if he treads on one, there is nothing between its fangs and
his skin. Again, the huts of the natives, being made of wattle and daub
and thatched with straw, offer to snakes just the kind of shelter that
they like, and the wonder is that naked men, sleeping on the ground in
such places, and poking about dark corners, among their stores of fuel
and other chattels, meet with so few accidents. It says a great deal for
the mild and inoffensive nature of the snake. Still, the total number of
deaths by snake-bite reported every year is very large, and looks
absolutely appalling if you do not think of dividing it among three
hundred millions. Treated in that way it shrivels up at once, and when
compared with the results of other causes of death, looks quite

The natives themselves are so far from regarding the serpent tribe with
our feelings that the deadliest of them all has been canonised and is
treated with all the respect due to a sub-deity. No Brahmin, or
religious-minded man of any respectable caste, will have a cobra killed
on any account. If one takes to haunting his premises, he will
propitiate it with offerings of silk and look for good luck from its

About snakes other than the cobra the average native concerns himself so
little that he does not know one from another by sight. They are all
classed together as _janwar,_ a word which answers exactly to the
"venomous beast" of Acts xxviii. 4; and though they are aware that some
are deadly and some are not, any particular snake that a _sahib_ has had
the honour to kill is one of the deadliest as a matter of course. I have
never met a native who knew that a venomous snake could be distinguished
by its fangs, except a few doctors and educated men who have imbibed
western science. In fact they do not think of the venom as a material
substance situated in the mouth. It is an effluence from the entire
animal, which may be projected at a man in various ways, by biting him,
or spitting at him, or giving him a flick with the tail.

The Government of India spends a large sum of money every year in
rewards for the destruction of snakes. This is one of those sacrifices
to sentiment which every prudent government offers. The sentiment to
which respect is paid in this case is of course British, not Indian.
Indian sentiment is propitiated by not levying any tax on dogs, so the
pariah cur, owned and disowned, in all stages of starvation, mange and
disease, infests every town and village, lying in wait for the bacillus
of rabies. Against the one fatal case of snake-bite mentioned above, I
have known of at least half a dozen deaths among Englishmen from the
more horrible scourge of hydrophobia. In the steamer which brought me
home there were two private soldiers on their way to M. Pasteur, at the
expense, of course, of the British Government.



We must wait for another month or two before we can think of the winter
in this country in the past tense, but in India the month of March is
the beginning of the hot season, and the tourists who have been enjoying
the pleasant side of Anglo-Indian life and assuring themselves that
their exiled countrymen have not much to grumble at will now be making
haste to flee.

During the month the various hotels of Bombay will be pretty familiar
with the grey sun-hat, fortified with _puggaree_ and pendent flap, which
is the sign of the globe-trotter in the East. And all the tribe of birds
of prey who look upon him as their lawful spoil will recognise the sign
from afar and gather about him as he sits in the balcony after
breakfast, taking his last view of the gorgeous East, and perhaps (it is
to be feared) seeking inspiration for a few matured reflections
wherewith to bring the forthcoming book to an impressive close. The
vendor of Delhi jewellery will be there and the Sind-work-box-walla,
with his small, compressed white turban and spotless robes, and the
Cashmere shawl merchant and many more, pressing on the gentleman's
notice for the last time their most tempting wares and preparing for the
long bout of fence which will decide at what point between "asking
price" and "selling price" each article shall change ownership. The
distance between these two points is wide and variable, depending upon
the indications of wealth about the purchaser's person and the
indications of innocence about his countenance.

And when the poor globe-trotter, who has long since spent more money
than he ever meant to spend, and loaded himself with things which he
could have got cheaper in London or New York, tries to shake off his
tormentors by getting up and leaning over the balcony rails, the shrill
voice of the snake-charmer will assail him from below, promising him, in
a torrent of sonorous Hindustanee, variegated with pigeon English and
illuminated with wild gesticulations, such a superfine _tamasha_ as it
never was the fortune of the _sahib_ to witness before.

_Tamasha_ is one of those Indian words, like _bundobust_, for which
there is no equivalent in the English language, and which are at once so
comprehensive and so expressive that, when once the use of them has been
acquired, they become indispensable, so that they have gained a
permanent place in the Anglo-Indian's vocabulary. It is not slang, but a
good word of ancient origin. Hobson-Jobson quotes a curious Latin writer
on the Empire of the Grand Mogul, who uses it with a definition
appended, "ut spectet Thamasham, id est pugnas elephantorum, leonum,
buffalorum et aliarura ferarum." "Show" comes nearest it in English, but
falls far short of it.

The _tamasha_ which the snake-charmer promises the _sahib_ will include
serpent dances, a fight between a cobra and a mungoose, the inevitable
mango tree, and other tricks of juggling. But to a stranger the
snake-charmer himself is a better _tamasha_ than anything he can show.
He is indeed a most extraordinary animal. His hair and beard are long
and unkempt, his general aspect wild, his clothing a mixture of savagery
and the wreckage of civilisation. He wears a turban, of course, and
generally a large one; but it is put on without art, just wound about
his head anyhow, and hanging lopsidedly over one ear. It and the loose
cloth wrapped about the middle of him are as dirty as may be and truly
Oriental, though erratic. But, besides these, he wears a jacket of
coloured calico, or any other material, with one button fastened,
probably on the wrong buttonhole, and under this, if the weather is
cold, he may have a shirt seemingly obtained from some Indian
representative of Moses & Co.

On his shoulder he carries a long bamboo, from the ends of which hang
villainously shabby baskets, some flat and round, occupied by snakes,
others large and oblong, filled with apparatus of jugglery. The members
of his family, down to an unclothed, precocious imp of ten, accompany
him, carrying similar baskets, or capacious wallets, or long,
cylindrical drums, on which they play with their fingers. The dramatic
effect of the whole is enhanced when one of them allows a huge python, a
snake of the _Boa constrictor_ tribe, which kills its prey by crushing
it, to wind its hideous, speckled coils round his body.

What the snake-charmer is by race or origin ethnologists may determine
when they have done with the gipsy. He is not a Hindu. No particular
part of the country acknowledges him as its native. He is to the great
races, castes, and creeds of India what the waif is to the billows of
the sea. His language, in public at least, is Hindustanee, but this is a
sort of _lingua franca_, the common property of all the inhabitants of
the country. His religion is probably one of the many forms of demon
worship which grow rank on the fringes of Hinduism. He must be classed,
no doubt, with the other wandering tribes which roam the country,
camping under umbrellas, or something little better, each consecrated to
some particular form of common crime, and each professing some not in
itself dishonest occupation, like the tinkering of gipsies.

But the snake-charmer is the best known and most widely spread of them
all. By occupation he is a professor of three occult sciences. First, he
is a juggler, and in this art he has some skill. His masterpiece is the
famous mango trick, which consists in making a miniature mango tree
grow up in a few minutes, and even blossom and bear fruit, out of some
bare spot which he has covered with his mysterious basket. It has been
written about by travellers in extravagant terms of astonishment and
admiration, but, as generally performed, is an extremely clumsy-looking
trick, though it is undoubtedly difficult to guess how it is done. A
more blood-curdling feat is to put the unclothed and precocious imp
aforementioned under a large basket, and then run a sword savagely
through and through every corner of it, and draw it out covered with
gore. When the sickened spectators are about to lynch the murderer, the
imp runs in smiling from the garden gate.

The connection between these performances and the man's second trade,
namely, snake-charming, is not obvious to a Western mind; but it must be
remembered that the snake-charmer is not a mere, vulgar juggler, amusing
people with sleight-of-hand. His feats are miracles, performed with the
assistance of superior powers. In short, he is a theosophist, only his
converse is not with excorporated Mahatmas from Thibet, but with spirits
of another grade, whose Superior has been known from very remote
antiquity as an Old Serpent. In deference to this respectable connection
the cobra holds a distinguished place even in orthodox Hinduism. So it
is altogether fit that a performer of wonders should be on intimate
terms with the serpent tribe. The snake-charmer keeps all sorts of
them, but chiefly cobras. These he professes to charm from their holes
by playing upon an instrument which may have some hereditary connection
with the bagpipe, for it has an air-reservoir consisting of a large
gourd, and it makes a most abominable noise. As soon as the cobra shows
itself the charmer catches it by the tail with one hand, and, running
the other swiftly along its body, grips it firmly just behind the jaws,
so that it cannot turn and bite. Practice and coolness make this an easy
feat. Then the poison fangs are pulled out with a pair of forceps and
the cobra is quite harmless. It is kept in a round, flat basket, out of
which, when the charmer removes the lid and begins to play, it raises
its graceful head, and, expanding its hood, sways gently in response to
the music.

Scientific men aver that a snake has no ears and cannot possibly hear
the strains of the pipe, but that sort of science simply spoils a
picturesque subject like the snake-charmer. So much is certain, that all
snakes cannot be played upon in this way: there are some species which
are utterly callous to the influences to which the cobra yields itself
so readily. No missionary will find any difficulty in getting a
snake-charmer to appreciate that Scripture text about the deaf adder
which will not listen to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so

To these two occupations the snake-charmer adds that of a medicine man,
for who should know the occult potencies of herbs and trees so well as
he? So, as he wanders from village to village, he is welcomed as well as
feared. But one wealthy tourist is worth more to him than a whole
village of ryots, so he keeps his eye on every town in which he is
likely to fall in with the travelling white man. And the travelling
white man would be sorry to miss him, for he is one of the few relics of
an ancient state of things which railways and telegraphs and the
Educational Department have left unchanged.

The itinerant jeweller and the Sind-work-box-walla are unmistakably
being left behind as the East hurries after the West, and we shall soon
know them no more. Showy shops, where the inexperienced traveller may
see all the products of Sind and Benares, and Cutch and Cashmere, spread
before him at fixed prices, are multiplying rapidly and taking the bread
from the mouth of the poor hawker. But the snake-charmer seems safe from
that kind of competition. It is difficult to forecast a time when a
broad signboard in Rampart Row will invite the passer-by to visit Mr.
Nagshett's world-renowned Serpent Tamasha, Mungoose and Cobra Fight,
Mango-tree Illusion, etc. Entrance, one rupee.



In a little book on the snakes of India, published many years ago by Dr.
Nicholson of the Madras Medical Service, the conviction was expressed
that the snake-charmers of Burmah knew of some antidote to the poison of
the cobra which gave them confidence in handling it. He said that
nothing would induce them to divulge it, but that he suspected it
consisted in gradual inoculation with the venom itself. Putting the
question to himself why he did not attempt to attest this by experiment,
he replied that there were two reasons, which, if I recollect rightly,
were, first, that he had a strong natural repugnance to anything like
cruelty to animals, and, secondly, that he had observed that as soon as
a man got the notion into his head that he had discovered a cure for
snake-bite, he began to show symptoms of insanity.

It is rather remarkable that, after so many years, another Scottish
doctor, not in Madras, but in Edinburgh, has proved, by just such
experiments as Dr. Nicholson shrank from, that an "aged and previously
sedate horse" may, by gradual inoculation with cobra poison, be
rendered so thoroughly proof against it that a dose which would suffice
to kill ten ordinary horses only imparts "increased vigour and
liveliness" to it. Further, Dr. Fraser has found that the serum of the
blood of an animal thus rendered proof against poison is itself an
antidote capable of combating that poison after it has been at work for
thirty minutes in the veins of a rabbit, and arresting its effects. And
all this has been achieved without apparent detriment to the
distinguished doctor's sanity.

This must be intensely interesting intelligence to Englishmen throughout
India, and joyful intelligence too, for, scoff as we may at the danger
of being bitten by a poisonous snake, nobody likes to think that, if
such a thing _should_ happen to him (and very narrow escapes sometimes
remind us that it may), there would be nothing for him to do but to lie
down and die. And so, ever since the Honourable East India Company was
chartered, the antidote to snake poison has been a sort of philosopher's
stone, sought after by doctors and men of science along many lines of
investigation. And every now and then somebody has risen up and
announced that he has found it, and has had disciples for a season.

But one remedy after another, though it might give startling results in
the laboratory, has proved to be useless in common life, and the
majority of Englishmen have long since resigned themselves to the
conclusion that there is no practical cure for the bite of a poisonous
snake. For what avails it to carry about in your travelling bag a phial
of strong ammonia and to live in more jeopardy of death by asphyxiation
than you ever were by snakes, unless you have some guarantee that, when
it is your fate to be bitten by a snake, the phial will be at hand? For
ammonia must act on the venom before the venom has had time to act upon
you, or it will only add another pain to your end; and that gives only a
few minutes to go upon. So with nitric acid and every agent that
operates by neutralising the poison and not by counteracting its
effects. And this has been the character of all the remedies hitherto
put forward. "They are," says Sir Joseph Fayrer, "absolutely without any

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryEdward Hamilton AitkenConcerning Animals and Other Matters → online text (page 7 of 12)