Orwell had already used his experiences as a police officer in Burma for five years from 1922 to create not only his superb Burmese Days, but also his essay A Hanging. In September 1936 he published his essay Shooting an Elephant in New Writing magazine; several years later in 1948 it was broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Once more he would call on his time as an imperialist authoritarian figure in Burma to write this short piece that he himself describes in it as “a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”
In Moulmein (present day Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city in Myanmar), the un-named narrator (but Orwell doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s him) is notified that an elephant is on the rampage in one of the city’s poorer quarters. It’s not a wild elephant, but a tame, privately owned elephant, who’s in must; Wikipedia tells us more about that state: “a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be on average 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times (in specific individuals these testosterone levels can even reach as much as 140 times the normal). However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown. Scientific investigation of musth is problematic because even the most placid elephants become highly violent toward humans and other elephants during musth.”
Orwell/Blair takes his rifle, even though it is too small to kill an elephant. Nor is he willing to kill the animal; he takes it more as an automatic self-defence strategy. But he becomes aware that his actions are creating attention from the locals; they are watching his every move and clearly expect him to kill the elephant. This will be spectacle for the people; and also, the promise of elephant meat is very attractive to them. If he fails to deliver the three outcomes of spectacle, death and meat, he will lose face; and nothing would be worse for him than for the assembled crowd to laugh at him. This is his biggest fear.
The elephant has caused some havoc in the marketplace, but, worst of all, has killed a man. “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth.” He realises he has no choice but to kill the elephant, but because of his inexperience, he does not know that the best way is to shoot it in the ear. Instead, he imagines where the animal’s brain and heart would be, aims there, and shoots several times, which causes the animal to die a slow, painful, lingering death. “It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.”
He’s satisfied that he was right to kill the elephant as it had taken a human life, although “the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” The elephant’s owner was furious “but he was only an Indian and could do nothing.” “Afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
It’s fascinating to see the opposing motivations at work in this little story. For a piece that was written 85 years ago, and describes an event that had taken maybe 100 years ago, Orwell has quite a complex view on the whole event. For him it is primarily a horrific act to kill a noble beast like the elephant who, although dangerous, is only following his own instinct. But Orwell’s own self-preservation kicks in too, and, unsurprisingly, he values his own safety and authority above that of the elephant. But he realises that, long term, this is a symptom of the evil that is imperialism. “I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.”
For the locals, they have a much less romantic image of their own local animal life. The elephant is owned by an Indian, so they don’t worry about its death. The locals have a natural cynicism and distrust of their colonial invader, and have no qualms about betraying those feelings to individual foreigners. “As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter […] The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” Young Orwell is only human; his own reaction to that is also a matter of balance: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”
He doesn’t shy away from describing the grim excesses of life in Burma, whether it be the imperialist influence or nature’s own. “As for the job I was doing, I hate it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear […] the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” His description of the dead Dravidian is both gruesome and gripping with its attention to detail: “He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony […] the friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.”
And the death of the elephant is a mixture of the surreal and tragic: “A mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down […] he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him […] the thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause […] in the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were arriving with dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.”
It’s a powerful piece of writing, constructed with the detailed sincerity and insight you would expect from Orwell. Next in my George Orwell Challenge is a continuation with the essay format, and Bookshop Memories, first published in the Fortnightly Review for November 1936. Once again Orwell writes about what he knows about – his experiences working in a second-hand bookshop that he had already explored in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!