The baby screamed in protest. She crawled as far as the rope tied around her waist allowed. Her screams rose above the gentle murmurs of the river. A large scaly beast emerged quietly from the water and lumbered towards the child.
A loud explosion rent the air, stopping the crocodile in its tracks and silencing the baby’s cries. The crocodile thrashed for a few seconds before dying. A white hunter emerged from behind a bush and walked over to the dead crocodile. His assistant untied the toddler and she started bawling her head off.
Back in the village, the hunter, a former officer of the British army, paid the child’s mother the equivalent of 6 cents. The baby proved to be his most successful crocodile bait, getting him more than 100 crocodiles in this manner.
“She was a real siren in luring the big reptiles to their fate, and I was sorry to see her grow and get too big for bait and have to give her up,” wrote the hunter. This account of hunting crocodiles in India is based on his letter published on 1 July 1894 in the New York-based newspaper The Sun.
He claimed all a hunter had to do was announce his intention to go hunting for crocodiles and mothers flocked to him, offering their babies as bait.
“Some mothers required a guarantee that their offspring should be returned safe and sound, but the most of them exacted no such agreement. The babies were brought back alright as a rule, but once in a while some sportsman was a trifle slow with his rifle, or made a bad shot, and the crocodile got away with the bait, but that didn’t happen often.”
Babies that cried loudly were the best bait. “I’ve seen half a dozen crocodiles come hurrying from as many different parts of the river toward a baby five minutes after it was set,” he wrote. A rifle shot would kill one and send the rest diving into the water. But these hunters were apparently not heartless. “A considerate sportsman, though, would not work his baby more than fifteen minutes at a time. Then he will have his native servant soothe it and refresh it from a nursing bottle, which is part of a crocodile hunter’s equipment.”
India was not an exception. If such news reports are to be believed, hunters’ use of human babies appears to have been prevalent in Sri Lanka and the United States.
Sri Lankan herpetologists Anslem de Silva and Ruchira Somaweera dug up a set of three illustrations published on 21 January 1888 in a newspaper in London, The Graphic. The first shows a European hunter measuring the spoor of a crocodile to estimate its size. The second illustrates the man negotiating with a native family for a baby. In the third, he shoots a croc that approached the tethered baby.
From 1888 to 1890, many American newspapers quoted a wanted ad from the Ceylon Catholic Messenger. It said: “Wanted fat babies for crocodile bait” and promised the toddlers would be returned alive. The article accompanying the ad went on to say, “When a dark brown infant with curling toes sits on a bank and blinks at them, they [the crocodiles] throw off their cloak of laziness and make their preparations for a delicate morsel of Ceylonese humanity.”
In the early 1900s, a sailor bragged about killing four crocodiles by using babies as bait in Ceylon, and these babies were available for as little as $2 a week.
Slaves who escaped South from plantations had to brave the alligator swamps of Florida. In the late 19th and early 20th century, white folks in America used a racial slur: “’gator bait”. This gave rise to a whole industry of picture postcards, posters, and souvenirs in Florida. Images depicted open-mouthed crocodiles pasted close to a black baby while figurines were more graphic. Florida wasn’t the only state to cash in on this cultural meme. A popular American song in 1899 was Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait.
One bath soap manufacturer, unimaginatively called “Stainilgo”, featured a black infant crawling away from a crocodile. Its catch phrase: “For the removal of discolourations”.
At least three movies were made on the subject: Alligator Bait, The Gator and the Pickaninny, and Untamed Fury.
On 28 January 1900, the Washington Times published an article: “Phenomenal success of a photograph styled ‘Alligator Bait’”. It describes the popularity of a photograph of an African-American baby being used to lure alligators and reported that “sales from this one negative have reached nearly $5,000”.
Reporter TW Villiers described how to procure a baby for $2 in an article “Pickaninny bait lures voracious ’gator to death” for a 1923 issue of the Oakland Tribune. The original appears to be unavailable. That same year, Time wrote “coloured babies were being used for alligator bait” in Chipley, Florida. But the town’s Chamber of Commerce denied it ever happened.
However, it is not clear if these accounts are true because other reports contradict them. When American newspapers such as the Omaha Daily Bee reproduced the article about the wanted ad from Ceylon in the 1890s, they added that American mothers would object to such a manner of dispatching crocodiles.
The British army officer who carried a feeding bottle in his kit wrote he had no luck finding a baby in Florida. In his hunt for alligators, he was forced to use a dog as bait. Although he was successful, he wrote, “the sport was a good deal tamer than it would have been if I had only a baby for bait”.
Some suggest African-American mothers didn’t volunteer their toddlers for this horrendous exercise. The babies were stolen from them. Unlike India and Sri Lanka, American hunters apparently didn’t shoot alligators until the reptiles had swallowed the babies.
The earliest reference to the use of children to lure alligators dates from 1878.
On a visit to Lee County, southwest Florida, an anonymous fisherman heard “large hooks baited with pickaninnies” were used to lure alligators. Contrary to the claims of returning babies to their mothers unharmed, this is by far the most sickening report on the subject.
In 1919, Richmond Times-Dispatch announced in a tongue- in-cheek manner that authorities in Florida planned to ban the use of children “to check the rapid disappearance of the alligator through indigestion”.
Did white hunters take the racial slur a step further and actually put it into practice? Opinion is divided. Critics argue there is no evidence of an actual event. However, many take these reports at face value.
With so many cultural references and numerous reports, and the abominable treatment of slaves, there’s a possibility that babies were actually used to lure alligators. The website of the Jim Crow Museum, Michigan, says, “It isn’t really a question of whether African American babies were used as alligator bait, but the question is how frequent was the practice?”
A 1908 issue of the Washington Times wrote of a keeper at the New York Zoological Garden sending two African-American children into the reptile enclosure to rouse the creatures out of their winter quarters. The kids were chased by alligators much to the entertainment of the viewing public. The report pins the location and the keeper, lending it some credibility.
Although these reports overwhelmingly focus on coloured babies, hunters appear to have used white ones, too. In 1899, a report in the Kansas-based Topeka State Journal claimed that babies rented for “half a dollar” from “cracker” mothers were commonly used to lure alligators in Florida, US. “Cracker” is a derogatory word for poor rural whites.
On 29 May 1891, the Toronto Daily Mail published an account from a different part of the world. An English traveller in Tsarist Russia wrote of the abominable persecution of Jews in that country. “For a year or so hundreds of babes have been stolen and shipped to various ports on the Nile to be used as bait by the crocodile hunters. [...] The little babes serve as a bait to bring the animals on the banks, and by this means it is possible to get many animals that could not be reached in any other way.” Why didn’t the kidnapping of hundreds of babies make the news? The writer said newspapers were censored and could only print news approved by the government.
How common was this horrific practice among crocodile hunters in India?
In 1894, the same year the British officer’s report from India appeared in the American press, The Evening Dispatch of Utah published another letter from a British hunter. This man claimed the best way to kill crocs was to hook a bird or small animal and let the reptile swallow hook and bait. No mention of babies.
On 21 January 1904, Oliver Bartlett wrote of his experiences hunting a man-eating crocodile in Bargar, Orissa. In the South Carolina-based The Bamberg Herald, he wrote he used a puppy as bait, not a baby. He shot the crocodile but only injured it. The enraged beast knocked him down by whipping with its tail. So powerful was the blow that the man thought he might have suffered a fracture. Eventually, he killed it with another shot.
In reality, a croc would have to reach monstrous proportions to fell a man with its tail alone. Newsrooms of that time had no fact-checkers and a lot of bunkum found its way to print.
Interestingly, no hunter claimed to have used this technique in Southeast Asia. There, more prosaic baits were in vogue: a hook buried in a rotten carcass was attached to a log buoy.
A keyword search in the archives of Library of Congress throws up numerous records. But they are all of the same feeding bottle-carrying officer’s letter, reproduced in other American newspapers over the following months, such as the Record-Union, on 1 September 1894.
Books by renowned hunters, such as Two Years in the Jungle by William Hornaday, published in 1885, make no mention of the use of human babies. Hornaday went hunting in the Yamuna, Chambal, Bengal, and Sri Lanka. He reports using dogs, chicken, livestock, and rotting carcasses as crocodile bait. According to a one-page profile of the man, he claimed to have used stingrays to bait the reptiles in Southeast Asia. Neither does GP Sanderson refer to the tactic in Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India, published in 1878.
Mahesh Rangarajan, an environmental historian, who has extensively researched the forestry policies and hunting in British India, has not come across any reference to this practice.
The 1894 report claimed baiting with babies was a common sport, but it is the only record from India that mentions this horrendous practice. It mentions neither the name of the feeding bottle-carrying British hunter nor the area where he claims to have shot crocodiles using his favourite bait. Similarly, reports from Sri Lanka say with certainty that toddlers were the best bait and every hunter used them. The authors are anonymous and the localities where they hunted in this manner, a mystery.
A lot of sensationalist nonsense was published in the pages of newspapers of that time. Hunters tended to brag of their exploits, especially with those who didn’t know any better.
Unless there is more credible evidence, the sole Indian report of this ghastly practice has to be taken with a ladle of salt.
Excerpted with permission from My Husband and Other Animals 2: The Wildlife Adventure Continues, Janaki Lenin, Westland.