Learning About Elephants in Empire

The primary reason for my recent research trip to the London Metropolitan Archive was to learn about the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s employment of elephants. The largest file that I went through dealt with attempts to improve the health of these animal workers during the inter-war years. These were collaborative efforts between the colonial state and the Corporation. But they also involved agents from across the empire – a pharmaceutical company from New South Wales in Australia, several university departments in Scotland, vets from South Africa, and London Zoo. The biggest perceived threat to their elephants’ well-being was anthrax.

On Christmas Eve 1926 an elephant called Indiarani died suddenly in London Zoo at the age of 35. The cause of death was initially reported in The Times as the result of ‘hemorrghaic septicemia’ and by The Guardian as pneumonia. When her death was followed a week later by that of another elephant, the popular Sundermallah (who, apparently less truculent than Indiarani, would give children rides around the zoo), the media reported that a poisoned oil cake had resulted in the tragedies. Only when two zoo attendants were sent to hospital, was the cause of the outbreak publicly identified as anthrax – although the Zoo was eager to emphasise that there was no risk to the public. Whilst this was unfolding, the owners of the Corporation pulled strings and got one of their employees into the zoo to find out more about the deaths, and what could usefully be gleaned about combating anthrax. In the end, they concluded, pessimistically, that if it couldn’t be avoided in the Zoo, it couldn’t be avoided in Burma’s jungles and timber-yards. The best that could be done was to keep them in as good a condition as possible and hope.

Reading about this collaboration between the Corporation and the Zoo reminded me of an educational video produced by British Instructional Films Ltd for classrooms from the 1940s about elephants. The video begins with footage of an elephant in London Zoo, focusing on different parts of the animal’s body. The second half then shows them at work in Burma, demonstrating their strength and dexterity in the timber industry. The deaths of Indiarani and Sundermallah, and this video, reveal the importance of the Zoo and the timber trade in generating and sharing knowledge about elephants.

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