The Tragedy of Elephants
One of George Orwell’s most enduring essays is titled Shooting an Elephant. In the 1930s George Orwell served as a colonial official in Burma. He was a sub-divisional police officer. Young Orwell’s hatred of the idea of empire was only matched by his brutal contempt felt toward the unfortunate souls who were the subject of the imperial occupation of their homelands.
His iconic essay about an elephant goes to the heart of imperialism—the linkage of the despot with the expectations of those they exploited. The story begins when the narrator received a phone call about an elephant on the rampage into a bazaar. He takes out his old .44 Winchester, knowing it is too small a weapon to down an elephant, but as a means to frighten the beast. The elephant is in musth and the mahout has taken the wrong turn ending up twelve hours away.
All the weapons in the empire are with the authorities. The locals were without weapons and as a result ‘were quite helpless’ against the raging elephant. They could only stand to the side and observe destruction of a hut, fruit-stalls, the eating of produce, overturning a van, and killing a black Dravidian coolie who’d been stomped to death in the mud. And wait for the British colonial officials to handle the problem. The locals were victims. They were passive. Their alternative was to wait for those with guns to arrive and save the day.
Having laid eyes on the dead man, the narrator sent a servant to a friend’s house to borrow an elephant gun. Once he had the elephant gun, the mood of the crowd changed from indifference to an expectation of harvesting the elephant’s meat once it had been shot. A small army of locals followed on the heels of the official to the paddy field where elephant as found quietly eating bunches of grass.
The danger had gone out of the situation. The elephant was calmly feeding itself and no more dangerous than a cow. The official had no desire to kill the elephant. And saw no compelling reason to do so until he saw the crowd of 2,000 Burmese watching and waiting. It was not idle interest that drew them to the field. He represented authority. He had an elephant gun. They had only their hands. “A sahib has to act like a sahib…” He had no choice but to act out his role; it was impossible not to kill the elephant not because the elephant was a danger but because an armed man without resolution was no longer to be feared. He must never show fear to the natives. A fearful man without resolve no longer projected that he was the legitimate master of their destiny. He might be despised but he would be feared and that was the framework on which empire rested.
The killing of the elephant was a messy affair with multiple shots and great suffering by the beast, taking a good half an hour to die. Afterwards, opinion was divided as to whether the official had done the right thing by killing the elephant. What made him happy was that the coolie had been killed. It had been his death that gave justification to the death of an elephant that was no longer a danger to anyone. The shooting had been more of an execution of a murderer. No one could deny that murder had happened. While an elephant couldn’t form the intention to kill as a human being could nonetheless having stomped to death the coolie, no one could say that the shooting had been wrong.
Orwell’s parable about an elephant can’t be disconnected from the context of empire. A modern version of the story happened last week in Thailand. A Thai nurse and her husband visited Lae Paniad Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya. The nurse had offered an elephant named Plai Big some food. The elephant grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him, stomping on her with his foot. Her husband rushed to help his wife. Plai Big gored him. The nurse died from massive injuries to her internal organs. The husband was seriously injured.
Like Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, an elephant, a 27-year-old 3 tonne male, had killed a local. In this case, the dead woman was a nurse. She was hardly a member of the coolie class that featured in Orwell’s story. No one ran to the authorities and asked that a police official be dispatched to shoot the elephant. The Thai resolution had a different outcome. A ritual was performed at the elephant kraal. The ends of the elephant’s tusks were sawed off by 20 centimeters. The purpose of the ceremony was to free the elephant of the spirit of the dead woman. It was reported that Plai Big would never work with the public again. . Plai Big fate will be to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement.
In Orwell’s story there was a tragedy. In the contemporary Thai story there was a similar tragedy. When foreigners occupy another land, the need to maintain fear and authority ruled out any other option. It was never about the elephant; it had always been about monopoly to use violence as the means to show resolve. Nothing short of pulling the trigger to kill could establish such resolve was beyond question. To maintain order was to show that resolve even though it wasn’t necessary. And maybe that is the point of Orwell’s story. Indecisiveness in the exercise of force would have been a sign of weakness. One man in a crowd of 2,000, if weak, would not survive. He would be laughed at. And the last thing a man with a gun can allow is laughter at his expense.
In Thailand, the dynamic was different. By not shooting an elephant, no official would not expose to belittling laughter. The elephant didn’t have to die to maintain authority and the right to use force. Rather than violence as a response, a ritual as held to free the elephant from the spirit of the dead woman. A metaphysical resolution rather than physical violence ruled the day. Also in the Thai story, the elephant had a name, an age, and an identity. In the Orwell story, the elephant, like the locals and the dead coolie were nameless as was the elephant
The tragedy of elephants isn’t that they sometimes kill people but the aftermath of the survivors, what they expect to happen and who is in charge of the weapons. The elephant in both cases acted out of hormonal heat, a moment of rage. Compare that with the choice given the very human foreign armed policeman who when pressed by size of the crowd around him killed the elephant in cold blood. It is the premeditation, the thought process, the politics that are disturbing and haunting. The elephants shame us by showing how we calculate in our killings, and the rituals of healing is only available once a community draws upon its own traditions without interference from the outside.
From Syria to the West Bank to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, the expectation that killing the elephant is required has not changed from Orwell’s Burmese Days. The lesson is clear occupiers use terror and fear to maintain control over local populations. It is also clear that the lesson hasn’t been learned as the forces of imperialism are tested just as they were Orwell time, and those who are occupied welcome the raging elephant because he provides thousands to judge for the first signs of weakness to embolden themselves to take up weapons against the elephant killer who are not one of their own.