Apparently, some animals in Burma had a particular loathing for White people. According to the Fitz William Pollok and W. S. Thom’s 1900 guide to wild sports, buffaloes were especially ill-disposed to White skin. Informing would-be imperial hunters of the animal’s general ferocity, they warned that, ‘Even the tame cow, that will allow itself to be driven about and thrashed by a little native urchin, will go for a European.’ The point was re-iterated later in the book: they might seem placid around Burmese children and elephants, but they will attack a European simply for being White. It couldn’t be that the authors were more scared of buffalo than the Burmese children who tended to them, it had to be that anti-White buffalo posed a greater threat.
And it was not only buffalo who took a dislike to pasty imperialists. Allegedly some individual elephants also showed signs of racially targeted animosity. Quoting extensively from the Oriental Sporting Magazine, the authors recounted a story of a female elephant that could not abide White people. To test that this was based on race, and not merely on dress, they introduced her to ‘a native, calling himself a Portuguese’. However, even though he was dressed as a European, she was happy to be caressed by him. The Europeans then covered their faces with pieces of black material, and found that she would respond peacefully to them.
These stories persisted beyond the end of colonial rule. In his account of his life working in Burma’s forests, first published in 1950 , James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams wrote about being unceremoniously chased by a female elephant called Taw Sin Ma. He ended up being laughed at by his Burmese Oozies. She, Williams claimed, hated White people. If she saw one, even from a distance of one hundred yards, she would try to attack them. Williams believed that she could identify them from both sight and smell, since Burmese people wearing European clothes did not anger her. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, other imperial writers attributed elephants’ dislike of White people to their unfamiliar smell.
I don’t for a moment believe that these animals had an innate hatred of White people, not least because such a claim would treat race as a biological fact rather than a social construct. Even if the animals did discern differences in skin tone, it is fanciful to suggest that they would attribute meaning to that. So, what do these imperial claims tell us about Whiteness as a marker of identity?
Well, I think that they are early expressions of what today is identified as White fragility; defensive responses rooted in racial privilege. Imperial sportsmen and timber traders had privileged positions of authority, and relative security, in colonial Burma. Buffaloes and elephants were in far greater danger from White imperialists than the other way around. Yet, in spite of this racially-marked power, colonizers were still able to make their Whiteness appear to be a form of vulnerability. Quite the contrary to anti-Whiteness being the last acceptable prejudice, the capacity to evoke Whiteness to claim a special kind of victim status has a long history entangled with imperial rule.