|Shooting an Elephant|
|Source: First published in the literary magazine New Writing in late 1936 and broadcast by the BBC Home Service on 12 October 1948|
|Paper - Abstract|
- I’ve extracted those elements of the essay that are to do with the politics of the situation.
- I had this filed away already, but was reminded of it by a quotation at the top of Chapter 12 of "Paxman (Jeremy) - Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British", namely ‘I did not even know that the British Empire is dying’’.
- The central 3 pages dealing with the killing of the elephant I find unbearable to read. Which is interesting given the comments in the final paragraph. Isn’t a coolie of greater moral consideration than an elephant? Yet the Romans – often compared with the British as far as Empire goes – also (as I do1) felt elephants to be special and thought it a terrible shame when they were killed in the arena (see Jones - Pliny on the joy of elephants).
- From a quick Google, it looks like this essay is a popular English Lit (or Politics) piece – going by the “essay helps” on offer.
- There is a marked difference of stance towards the Empire in this essay to that displayed by the Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, where the Empire is seen as fairly benevolent, if paternalistic.
- In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people − the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. 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. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. 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.
- All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically − and secretly, of course − I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. 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 Bogged with bamboos − all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated2 and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. 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. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
- One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was 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. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it?
- 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 bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.
- Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, 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. And 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 the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
Footnote 1: Footnote 2:
- There’s some debate about whether this short story is autobiographical (see the Wikipedia link).
- Orwell was a King’s Scholar at Eton and – while he “neglected his studies” – stayed on until over 18 so is likely to have had as good an education as could be provided up to that age.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)