Monday, June 19, 2017

A libel story


A visit to the Biligirirangan Hills just as the monsoons were setting in led me to look up on the life of one of the local naturalists who wrote about this region, R.C. Morris. One of the little-known incidents in his life is a case of libel arising from a book review. I had not heard of such a case before but it seems that libel cases are a rising risk for anyone who publishes critical reviews. There is a nice guide to avoid trouble and there is a plea within academia to create a safe space for critical discourse.

This is a somewhat short note and if you are interested in learning more about the life of R.C. Morris - do look up the Wikipedia entry on him or this piece by Dr Subramanya. I recently added links to most of his papers in the Wikipedia entry and perhaps one that really had an impact on me was on the death of fourteen elephants from eating kodo millet - I suspect it is a case of aflatoxin poisoning! Another source to look for is the book Going Back by Morris' daughter and pioneer mountaineer Monica Jackson. I first came to know of the latter book in 2003 through the late Zafar Futehally who were family friends of the Morrises. He lent me this rather hard to find book when I had posted a note to an email group (a modified note was published in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers, 2003 43(5):66-67 - one point I did not mention and which people find rather hard to believe is that my friend Rajkumar actually got us to the top of Honnametti in a rather old Premier Padmini car!).

I came across the specific libel case against Morris in a couple of newspaper archives - this one in the Straits Times, 27 April 1937, can be readily found online:


LIBELLED HUNTER GETS £3,000 DAMAGES
Statements  Made In Book Review.

Major Leonard Mourant Handley, author of "Hunter's Moon," a book dealing with his experiences as a big game-hunter, was at the Middlesex Sheriff's Court awarded £3,000 damages for libel against Mr. Randolph Camroux Morris. Mr. Morris did not appear and was not represented. The libel appeared in a review of "Hunter's Moon" by Mr. Morris that appeared in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. Mr. Valentine Holmes said Major Handley wrote the book, his first, in 1933. and it met with amazing success.

Mr. Morris, in his review, declared that it did not give the personal experiences of Major Handley. Mr. Morris wrote :"There surely should be some limit to the inaccuracies which find their way into modern books, which purport to set forth observations of interest to natural  scientists  and  shikaris.


"The recent book. 'Hunters Moon.' by Leonard Handley, is so open to criticism in this respect, that one is led to the conclusion that the author has depended upon his imagination and trusted to the credulity of the public for the purpose of producing a 'bestseller' rather than a work of sporting or scientific value."

Then followed some 38 instances of alleged Inaccuracies.


Mr. Holmes said that at one time Mr. Morris was a close friend of Major Handley, but about 1927 some friction arose between Mrs. Morris and Mrs.  Handley. In evidence. Major Handley said that, following the libel, a man who had been a close friend of Ms refused to nominate him for membership of a club The Under-Sheriff. Mr. Stanley Ruston said there was no doubt that the motive of the libel lay in the fact that Major Handley had seized some of the thunder Mr. Morris was providing for his own book.

Naturally this forced me to read the specific book which is also readily available online



The last chapter deals with the hunter's exploits in the Biligirirangans which he translates as the "blue [sic] hills of Ranga"! It is also worth examining Morris' review of the book in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society which is merely marked under his initials. I wonder if anyone knows of the case history and whether it was appealed or followed up. I suspect Morris may have just quietly ignored it if the court notice was ever delivered in the far away estate of his up in Attikan or Honnameti.

The review is fun to read as well...

Meanwhile, here is a view of the Honnametti rock which lies just beside the estate where Morris lived.
Honnametti rock

Memorial to Randolph Camroux Morris
Grave of Mary Macdonald, wife of Leslie Coleman, who in a way
founded the University of Agricultural Sciences. Coleman was perhaps the first
to teach the German language in Bangalore to Indian students.

Sidlu kallu or lightning-split-rock, another local landmark.

No comments:

Post a Comment