The Marvelous (but Reassuring) Spectacle of Elephants at Work in Colonial Burma

Dr. Jonathan Saha, Lecturer in Modern History, University of Bristol

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Fig. 1  ‘Elephants at Work‘, Philip Klier, Rangoon, c.1907

Elephants were of great use to British imperialists in Burma. Their labour was used to construct buildings, to lay railway tracks, and to transport people and goods. Whilst generally useful for furthering British interests, they were essential to the lucrative timber trade, which between 1919 and 1924 produced over half a million tons of teak.[1] Elephants were employed at most stages of the trade. They were used in the foresting of teak, and they were used to transport that valuable commodity from the forests to timber yards. Once at the timber yards located in the towns and cities of the colony, they worked to haul and stack the cut beams.

To meet these demands for elephant labour, the colonial state and British timber companies either captured wild elephants or, more often, bought captive ones from elephant traders. As a result, the numbers of working elephants increased at the expense of the population that remained in the wild. Alongside the rise in capturing elephants, veterinary knowledge of elephants and their diseases expanded to help employers maintain their animal workers’ health and, through this, their productivity. To the British, elephants were resources that made possible the exploitation of Burma’s economic resources.


But although elephants undoubtedly had practical uses for the British in Burma, they were also culturally important. Elephants were not viewed solely according to cold hard pragmatism as useful beasts of burden. According to imperial writings, the Burmese worshipped white elephants as extensions of divine royal authority. This was an oversimplified reading of Burmese beliefs in which white elephants were symbols of power and good fortune, and elephants in general were associated with the Buddha.  In fact, the idea that the whiteness of the elephant was a holy manifestation was more a projection of British beliefs in the superior qualities of pale skin tones. The thought that the Burmese worshipped white elephants served to reinforce ideas of racial superiority.

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In 1884, two years before Burma was fully colonised, a white elephant was brought to England to the eager anticipation of the zoo-going public, although audiences were ultimately rather disappointed by its patchy and pinkish colouring.[2] Despite this poor reception, white elephants from Burma continued to be sent to England for various exhibitions and attracted interested crowds.

In this way, a Burmese symbol of power was adopted by the new imperial rulers (incidentally, following British conquest and the subsequent dissolution of the Burmese monarchy, the erstwhile king’s white elephant in Mandalay died: although if this was an inauspicious sign of the decline of the Konbaung dynasty, it came rather too late). The visits of these white elephants contributed to imperial visual culture at the turn of the twentieth century. The events were recorded in the illustrated newspapers The Graphic and The Illustrated London News, and the animals could be witnessed in real life at imperial exhibitions. These displays were demonstrations of the global reach of imperial power. Seeing elephants was as much a part of British imperialism as using elephants.

Fig. 3  William Dalton, The White Elephant; or, the Hunters of Ava and the King of the Golden Foot (London: Griffith and Farran, 1888)

Fig. 4 Elephant at Work‘, Philip Klier, Rangoon, c.1907


It was not just white Burmese elephants who were part of this emerging imperial visual culture in the late-nineteenth century. Working elephants also had a role to play. Most imperial observers did not view these labouring animals as commodities, but as curiosities. As such, timber yards were not only work-sites but sites for sight-seeing. British officials and tourists who wrote about their encounters with elephants employed in the timber yards without fail expressed marvel at the animals’ strength, dexterity and intelligence. G. J. Younghusband, a traveller in Burma during the late-nineteenth century, recalled how he ‘sat like a knot on a log for hours and watched them’. He believed that he ‘had never seen anything so wonderful.’ After witnessing one tusker manoeuvre a large piece of timber into position on top of an especially tall pile by carefully resting one end of it on the pile’s edge and, with a precisely administered kick to the other end, sending the log sliding into place, he wrote ‘the wonderful became marvellous.’[3] His experience of being rapt at the spectacle of elephants performing deft feats of strength with what he described as ‘almost human intelligence’, was a common one. What Younghusband failed to note, however, was the Burmese or Indian elephant-driver directing these acts from the creature’s back. His admiration did not extend from elephant to driver; the skill of these riders was evidently not deemed worthy of comment.


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The photographs of the German photographer Philip Klier reflect this fascination. A resident of Rangoon in the early twentieth century, Klier took many pictures of Burma. His collection is representative of typical photographic portrayals of the colony, consisting largely of images of Burmese women, Buddhist monks, pagodas, and paddy boats. As with many imperial depictions of colonial Burma, his photographs created the impression of a peaceful and picturesque exotic location.[4]

His fabulous images of elephants at work in a Rangoon timber yard were part of, what was by the time they were taken in 1907, a standard repertoire of Burmese scenes. As with written descriptions, the principal focus of his photographs were the animals, particularly displays of their dexterity and strength. With still photography the intelligence of the animals was harder to capture. This changed when the technology became available for imperial amateurs to film the colony, and working elephants were again a popular subject.

Screenshot for filmReginald Teague-Jones’ captivating footage of Burmese elephants working at a timber yard, filmed in 1930, manages to portray the subtlety of the elephants’ labour; the precise combined use of trunk and tusk to lift and manoeuvre great pieces of wood. As with Younghusband’s written depictions and Klier’s photographs, the focus is on the animal. The elephant-riders were unavoidably part of these images, but it was not intended that they draw the eye of the viewer. When British observers wrote about the riders themselves, they were described as being so in-sync with their animals that they were almost an inseparable part of them.[5]

But why was watching elephants at work such an engrossing scene for imperial subjects? Certainly seeing these animals perform their tasks would have been entertaining, and tourists to Burma today enjoy visiting retired elephants in their sanctuaries doing similar but smaller scale feats. Alongside this there was the intrinsic novelty of seeing this most foreign of animals, hugely different to British wildlife.

However, watching elephants at work had an additional and particular appeal for imperial observers. The timber yard was a bounded, orderly world. A miniature version of an ideal social order. The elephants did their jobs with minimal objections and demonstrable skill. In these depictions, they were pliant to the point of seeming to actively enjoy their labours. In colonial Burma, things were rarely this peaceable. Riots and robberies were routine, and the colony had a reputation as the most criminal and violent in the Indian empire. According to British stereotypes, the Burmese themselves were lazy and docile, but prone to bouts of unpredictable aggression. If only the whole of Burma could have been like a timber yard! This might explain why the elephant-riders were overlooked, their presence spoiled the fantasy.

Fig. 7 ‘Scene at Timber Yard‘, Philip Klier, Rangoon, c.1907

Elephants were part of the visual culture of empire, representing the spread of imperial power. They were also useful, even essential, sources of labour for the colonial state and allied commercial interests. These two roles came together in the timber yards of Rangoon, where watching elephants at work was a reassuring spectacle of harmony.

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Philip Klier’s photographs have been made available by the National Archive via their flickr account.

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[1] Raymond L. Bryant, The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), 103.

[2] Sarah Amato, “The White Elephant in London: An Episode of Trickery, Racism and Advertising,” Journal of Social History 43, no. 1 (2009): 31–66.

[3] G. J. Younghusband, Eighteen Hundred Miles on a Burmese Tat: Through Burmah, Siam, and the Eastern Shan States (London: Allen & Co., 1888), 15.

[4] Stephen L. Keck, “Picturesque Burma: British Travel Writing 1890–1914,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 35, no. 3 (2004): 387–414.

[5] J.H. Williams, Elephant Bill (London: Hart-Davis, 1950).

Saha pic

Dr. Jonathan Saha

Dr. Jonathan Saha, “The Marvelous (but Reassuring) Spectacle of Elephants at Work in Colonial Burma”

Dr Jonathan Saha is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol.  He specialises in the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century colonialism in South and Southeast Asia, focusing particularly on British Burma. Dr. Saha’s research to-date has been into the history of corruption within the colonial state, exploring how the state was experienced and imagined in everyday life. This has recently been published as a monograph titled Law, Disorder and the Colonial State: Corruption in Burma c.1900 with Palgrave Macmillan. He has also published on the topics of crime, medicine and ‘madness’ in colonial Burma. Increasingly, his interests include the history of animals, particularly the ways in which they shaped, and were shaped by, the colonisation of Burma.

If you would like to learn more:

Visit Jonathan’s blog:

http://jonathansaha.wordpress.com/

Check out Jonathan’s journal articles about Burma:

Colonization, Criminalization and Complicity: Policing Gambling in Burma, c.1880-1920‘, South East Asia Research, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2013), 655-672.

Madness and the Making of a Colonial Order in Burma‘, Modern Asian Studies , Vol. 47, No. 2 (2013), 406-435.

A Mockery of Justice? Colonial Law, the Everyday State, and Village Politics in the Burma Delta, c.1890-1910‘, Past & Present , No. 217 (2012), 187-212

“Unicivilized Practitioners”: Medical Subordinates, Medico-Legal Evidence and Misconduct in Colonial Burma, 1875-1907‘, South East Asia Research, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2012), 423-443.

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