An Elephant’s View of Empire

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about a travel book on Burma purporting to have been written by a dog. Yesterday, whilst I was researching in the British Library, I read a similar book written from the perspective of an elephant from Burma. It was published in 1930 as part of a whole series of books titled ‘The Life Stories of Animals’. It was called, somewhat predictably, The Life Story of an Elephant.

Unlike A Dog’s Life in Burma, the real human authors were named. They were Geraldine Mitton and Shway Yoe. I had come across both of them before in my research. Geraldine Mitton was the author of A Bachelor Girl in Burma, in which she recounted her experiences traveling the colony in the 1900s. Shway Yoe was the author of The Burman: His Life and Notions in the late nineteenth century, a book that in its time was considered to be the authoritative account of Burmese culture in the English language, going through numerous editions. As those familiar with Burmese history will know, Shway Yoe was the pen-name of James G. Scott, a British journalist and imperial official – credited with introducing football to the country. Although his pseudonym was well known in British Burma, the readership in Britain believed The Burman to have been written by a Burmese man. Mitton was Scott’s third wife. The true identity of Shway Yoe may well have been more common knowledge by the time they wrote The Life Story of an Elephant together, but nevertheless this was Scottish man writing under a Burmese pen-name and from the perspective of an elephant.

The elephant called Bandoola is living out the end of his implausibly long-life (he recalls events from the founding of the Konbaung Dynasty in the eighteenth century, as well as remembers seeing parading tanks in the early twentieth century) in London Zoo, and in the book he is wistfully reminiscing. But he is not a bitter or angry elephant. He is stoic. Happy with his lot in life, yet wise from his many adventures along the way.

A happy worker? Source: 'Elephants at Work', Philip Klier c.1907
‘Elephants at Work’, Philip Klier c.1907

The book is aimed at children, and is in a large part didactic. It points out the differences between Asian and African elephants, gives descriptions of elephants’ daily habits, and explains elephants’ sensory world – their great sense of smell but poor vision. Despite this it does contain a gruesome story of an elephant standing on a man’s chest whilst pulling off his arms, so I wouldn’t recommend it for all ages. However, as well as teaching children about elephants, Bandoola is giving them a lesson about empire. He has nothing but praise for the effect of ‘civilization’. Although being captured from the wild was initially traumatic for him, once trained he comes to love his human masters. He expounds upon his theory, that the more ‘civilized’ a people, the more clothes they wear. He is impressed by the technology brought by the British. This is a thoroughly imperial narrative written at a time when empire was being challenged in the colony.

And the name chosen for him is important here. Maha Bandoola was a much celebrated Burmese general who was killed fighting the British in the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-5. The British too remarked on his qualities as a strategist. This association between the general and elephants was also made by James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams, who worked in the timber trade in colonial Burma. In the 1950s he wrote a novel about his favourite elephant, also called Bandoola. Both the fictionalized elephants were stubborn and with their own strong personalities, but ultimately, once they have been taught and disciplined, they were happy to be subjects of human control; happier being ‘civilized’. The death of the general, for the British, was a sign of European superiority over the Burmese empire. Attempts by the Konbaung Dynasty to retain control of Burma was merely a sign of their supposed arrogance. They too would be happier being ‘civilized’ through British rule. Colonization was, through stories about the Bandoolas, elephant and human, ‘a conquest foretold’, as historian Ranajit Guha put it. It was rendered inevitable and inherently beneficial, despite stubborn resistance to it.

In animal studies attempts to understand the world through the eyes of animals have been praised as cross-species imaginative encounters. Certainly The Life Story of an Elephant attempts to make these empathetic leaps by imagining how elephants felt, saw, and smelled things. But this book also shows that writing from the perspective of an animal could make it possible for British authors to naturalize imperialism.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Emily says:

    The British reading public had figured out at the latest by 1886 that Yoe was really Scott, although ironically his British identity seems to have confirmed, rather than undermined, the authority of his articles and books on Burma. Say what you will about Yoe/Scott he did his best to counteract more racist works of his day. He’s a fascinating guy. Never been able to figure out *why* he originally tried to “pass” as Burmese. Have you ever figured this out?

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Thanks Emily. Agreed, really interesting guy. Not sure why he adopted a Burmese pseudonym. The Cambridge University Library have his archive of Southeast Asian manuscripts–not sure if they also have his personal papers, but the answer could be there? And on race—It is impossible to separate his writings from his role helping to establish and secure British imperialism in Burma’s border-worlds, and this was a project with racist structures of government at its centre. We musn’t lose sight of this context to the knowledge he acquired.

      1. Do you know of any secondary studies on Yoe/Scott? I thought for sure there would be at least an article on him, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m unfortunately in Germany so I guess I won’t be able to check out the archives. My dissertation is actually on representations of Buddhism in the British periodical press, so that’s how I stumbled across Scott, and I wish I had time to pursue him a bit further. It’s interesting that he is also still recommended as an authoritative source on Burmese life and culture in the 19th c – even by e.g. the Oxford Bibliography online – despite his colonial collusions.

      2. jonathansaha says:

        The fullest study of his career is: Andrew Marshall, ‘The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of Empire’

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