Blue Tiger by Harry R. Caldwell


Missionary Harry Caldwell didn’t go to China to hunt tigers. But people were being eaten by them in the Fujian province. He could hardly refuse to help.

Harry Caldwell was originally from eastern Tennessee. He loved the outdoors, observing the wildlife around him closely, and became an enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He was also an avid hunter, which was not considered a contradictory pursuit at that time. After college and a stint in the insurance business, he felt a call to spread the gospel of Christianity. He became a Methodist Missionary in Fujian Province, southern China, arriving there in 1899 where he continued for 50 years. He seems like a dedicated individual who applied himself completely to whatever he did. His son John Caldwell wrote, “He gave up hunting, fishing, baseball, bird study — all the pleasures and hobbies of his boyhood.” But before long Harry’s health began to decline; he was burning himself out.

A wise superior in the organization urged him to spend more time on relaxation and hobbies, so a shotgun (and later rifles), books on natural history, and various paraphernalia followed Caldwell across the Pacific. His son John condenses many years into three sentences:

His gun, used first for an afternoon’s sport, came to be used as a passport to mountain villages which had denied entrance to missionaries for fifty years. His nature study, beginning with the collecting of birds’ eggs around Foochow, developed into scientific work of great importance. Father’s exploits in time led to exciting work with the bandits and pirates of the China Coast, for all men on the coast respected the American who dared brave the tiger in its sword grass lair.

There was an abundance of game in the Chinese countryside, and Caldwell enjoyed supplementing the family larder with wildfowl, deer, and wild boar. The wildlife also supported a population of leopards and tigers, who supplemented their diet with domestic goats and cattle. They were not exactly a casual sporting proposition, and Caldwell’s mission work came first. But it was not long before tiger attacks on the local people motivated Caldwell to action. And killing a man-eater brought him not only recognition as a skillful hunter but also more requests to deal with tigers in neighboring areas. He relates several successful hunts, close calls, and the ones that got away.

Caldwell titles the first chapter of his book “A Rifle as Calling Card.” The populace was overwhelmingly distrustful of foreigners when he arrived. His missionary outreach had little success at first but he found a unique way of opening doors. Whenever a group of hunters (or sometimes, a group of the hunted) assemble, the talk often turns to weapons. The local hunters had never seen anything like Caldwell’s Savage model 99 lever action rifle. The Chinese were no strangers to firearms but Caldwell describes their weapons as “primitive,” which I infer to mean black powder muzzleloaders.

The Savage 99, sleek, slim, and one of the most modern firearms available at that time could be depended upon to open a conversation. After collecting an admiring audience, Caldwell would further impress them by quickly working the lever to demonstrate how rapidly the gun could fire multiple times. The magazine held 5 rounds plus 1 in the chamber. More impressive to his audience were the small caliber bullets capable of penetrating a steel plate, much less a big cat. It was a great icebreaker and could eventually open the conversation to more spiritual matters. As his reputation as a tiger hunter grew, the people grew more receptive to the gospel message.

In 1910 Caldwell first heard of a “blue tiger.” More and more reports reached him so he decided to hunt the animal for himself. He staked out a goat where a tiger would have to cross immediately in front of his blind and waited. That day he only had a shotgun so he depended upon the cat to approach closely. After a while he realized the tiger was lying right in the open, 20 yards away, too far away for the shotgun, immobile except for the nervous whipping of the end of its tail. Instead of approaching the goat, the big cat got up and bounded away, leaving the goat unmolested. Caldwell had seen his first blue tiger.

A year later Caldwell was traveling through the same area and was told the blue tiger had rushed into a home the evening before and attacked a child. The child had fallen asleep under the table, reclining against a table leg, while the men were sitting, smoking, and conversing. The tiger rushed in the open door to attack the child but mistakenly seized the table leg in its jaws, and bolted out the door with the table. The child was unharmed.

Caldwell again staked out a goat in a likely spot. The vegetation was so dense he took his stand only 10 feet away, but once again the tiger did the unexpected, and approached from the rear. Also in the blind was Caldwell’s Chinese assistant, cook, and aide-de-camp. I’ll let Caldwell explain:

Again my cook saw him first, calling my attention to what he declared was an animal. I glanced at the object, which appeared to me to be a man dressed in the conventional light blue garment and crouching as if picking herbs from beside the trail. I simply whispered to the cook “Man,” and again turned my attention to watching the goat.

Again the cook tugged at my elbow, saying “Tiger, surely a tiger,” and I once more looked at the object, this time to see what I thought was a man still upon his knees in the trail. I was about to turn again toward the goat when my cook excitedly said, “Look, look, it is a tiger,” and, turning, saw the great beast lengthen out and move cautiously along the trail… Now focusing upon what I had altogether overlooked in my previous hurried glances I saw the huge head of the tiger above the blue which had appeared to me to be the clothes of a man.

Just as he was about to pull the trigger the tiger shifted its attention away from the goat. Down the slope were a couple of young boys. Not willing to chance sending a wounded tiger in their direction, Caldwell stood and startled the animal back into cover until the boys moved away, and never got a shot.

Caldwell described the animal thusly:

The ground color seemed to be a deep shade of maltese, changing into almost deep blue on the under parts. The stripes were well defined, and so far as I was able to make out similar [black] to those on a tiger of the regular type.

Maltese? A medium-light shade of cyan-blue.

Was Caldwell believable?   One person who did believe him was his friend and fellow outdoorsman Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews was a zoologist, prolific author, and became Director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He is believed by some to be the inspiration for the character Indiana Jones.  He is most famous for first discovering a nest of fossilized dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He wrote the introduction for his friend Caldwell’s book: Blue Tiger. He had enough confidence in Caldwell’s sightings that he had built and sent over a tiger cage in the hope that the animal could be captured alive.

Caldwell never succeeded in killing or capturing a blue tiger. He sighted it again, more than once, but his is the last published, first-hand account of sighting one. Did the blue tiger actually exist?

A common theory is that the blue tiger’s coloring was caused by melanism. The opposite of albinism, melanism is the result of a gene that causes a surplus of pigment in the skin or hair of an animal so that it appears black. There has never been a verified example of melanism in tigers, in China, or anywhere else, but it’s been known to occur in other big cats. Despite its prevalence in popular culture, there is no species of black panther. It’s simply the name given to leopards or jaguars in which melanism occurs. It is considered rare, but many examples are known.

For a time there were hundreds of blue tiger sightings by the locals, and at one time 60 people were killed in the community within a few weeks. Eventually, the sightings stopped, and, in later years, the total tiger population declined. Caldwell published Blue Tiger in 1924, and since then the South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) population has become critically endangered. There are few, if any, in the wild, with the last confirmed sighting over two decades ago. There are currently about 100 in captivity.

Harry Caldwell continued his mission work until he and his family were driven out by the Communists in 1949.

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  1. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald

    Harry Caldwell also records many events leading to the eventual takeover by the Communists.  He describes a famine, leading to greedy people trying to seize any opportunity for profit.  There was fighting over food, people driven to banditry, which led to military crackdowns.  Some used the unrest to denounce their enemies as bandits, and the military was gauging it’s success in suppressing unrest by casualty counts.  Corruption was prevalent and Caldwell was called upon to mediate ceasefires and pardons.  He and the other missionaries were the only ones the public trusted, but they were sometimes under-mined by both sides.  I have heard that the Communists succeeded in China because they offered stability in contrast to the corruption of the government and the warlords – I believe it. Caldwell spends three chapters detailing the widespread corruption he observed.  It is an object lesson of greed and a breakdown of the rule of law that everyone should heed.

    The quotes by John Caldwell are from his book: China Coast Family (1953).  It is an autobiography of growing up in a missionary family in China.  He devotes one chapter to tigers.  It is highly recommended.

    • #1
  2. Globalitarian Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Misanthropist

    File:The American Museum journal (c1900-(1918)) (17973692960).jpg400-pound tiger taken by Reverend H. R. Caldwell using a Savage 99 chambered for .22 Savage Hi-Power

    • #2
  3. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald

    Globalitarian Misanthropist (View Comment):
    400-pound tiger taken by Reverend H. R. Caldwell using a Savage 99 chambered for .22 Savage Hi-Power

    Caldwell started out with the .303 Savage, which I think was the only caliber available for the Savage 99 rifle when he first went to China.

    In the book he stated that the .250-3000 was his favorite cartridge at a time he was hunting serow, wapiti (elk), and big horned sheep.  He took the world record big horn in 1919.

    Later, he used the .22 Hi-Power for tiger and was convinced it was ideal.  It is similar to the .223/5.56 of today, except two hundred feet per second slower.  Not impressive nowadays.  But when you are a skilled marksman, the ballistics become somewhat less critical.

    I have read elsewhere that Arthur Savage, founder of Savage Firearms, was a sponsor of the mission and supplied Caldwell with the latest rifles as they were available.  The picture of Caldwell and the tiger graces several wikipedia pages about the Savage cartridges.

    As it happens, Caldwell doesn’t rate a wikipedia page.

    • #3
  4. John Stanley Coolidge
    John Stanley


    The .250-3000 Savage is a lovely and well balanced cartridge.  It can deal with both varmits-predators and deer size game. It is a shame it is chambered in so few new rifles.

    • #4
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