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Colonizing elephants: animal agency, undead capital and imperial science in British Burma


Elephants were vital agents of empire. In British Burma their unique abilities made them essential workers in the colony’s booming teak industry. Their labour was integral to the commercial exploitation of the country’s vast forests. They helped to fell the trees, transport the logs and load the timber onto ships. As a result of their utility, capturing and caring for them was of utmost importance to timber firms. Elephants became a peculiar form of capital that required particular expertise. To address this need for knowledge, imperial researchers deepened their scientific understanding of the Asian elephant by studying working elephants in Burma’s jungle camps and timber yards. The resulting knowledge was contingent upon the conscripted and constrained agency of working elephants, and was conditioned by the asymmetrical power relationships of colonial rule.

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15 London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), Standard Chartered Bank Collection, CLC/207/MS40279, ‘Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited: annual statistics relating to teak production, use of elephants and shipping from Burmah to Siam’, n.d.

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17 Macaulay, B.H., History of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Ltd., 1864–1910, London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co., 1934, p. 41 .

18 Pointon, A.C., The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited 1863–1963, Southampton: Millbrook Press, 1964, p. 45 .

19 Haraway, Donna, When Species Meet, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 4568 ; Collard, Rosemary-Claire and Dempsey, Jessica, ‘Life for sale? The politics of lively commodities’, Environment and Planning A (2013) 45, pp. 26822699 ; Barua, Maan, ‘Lively commodities and encounter value’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2016) 34, pp. 725744 .

20 Shukin, Nicole, Animal Capital, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009 .

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24 For an overview of current understandings of elephants’ biology and ecology see Sukumar, Raman, ‘A brief review of the status, distribution and biology of wild Asian elephants Elephas maximus ’, International Zoo Yearbook (2006) 40, pp. 18 .

25 Johnson, Elizabeth R., ‘Of lobsters, laboratories, and war: animal studies and the temporality of more-than-human encounters’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2015) 33, pp. 296313 .

26 British Library, London, India Office Records (hereafter IOR), MSS EUR/F575, ‘Ever your loving Mully: letters from Burma of Muriel Bowden to her mother Alice Britten in England 1922–24’ (ed. Ann Bowden and Ian Adams), 2008, 16 February 1922; 23 March 1922; 14 January 1923; 22 January 1923; 28 January 1924; IOR, MSS EUR/D1223/1, P.A.W. Howe, ‘Account of career with Steel Brothers, Burma 1929–42’, ‘2nd tour. Myintkyina. 1935’; Evans, George H., Elephants and Their Diseases, Rangoon: Superintendent Government Printing, Burma, 1910, pp. 148 ; Williams, J.H., Elephant Bill, London: Hart-Davis, 1950, pp. 127, 133–5, 144–6; Williams, S.M., Footprints of Elephant Bill, London: W. Kimber, 1962, p. 32 .

27 Ferrier, A.J., Care and Management of Elephants, London: Messrs. Steel Brothers and Co. Ltd, 1947, pp. 4749 ; for a fuller outline of kheddah operations that were most influential on state practices in British India see Sanderson, G.P., Thirteen Years among the Wild Beasts of India, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1912, pp. 7074 .

28 Ferrier, op. cit. (27), p. 47; and for an example of this arrangement see LMA, Standard Chartered Bank Collection, CLC/207/MS40474, ‘Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited: correspondence between Rangoon, Bombay and Mg Bah Oh regarding his elephant buying business in Burma’.

29 National Archives of India (hereafter NAI), Department of Revenue and Agriculture, Forests, Dec. 1909, Part A Proceedings, Nos. 48–70: ‘Arrangements for the elephant catching operations in Burma and for the future working of the Kheddah Department’.

30 Bradshaw, G.A., ‘Not by bread alone: Symbolic loss, trauma, and recovery in elephant communities’, Society & Animals (2004) 12, pp. 143158 ; Bradshaw, G.A., Schore, Allan N., Brown, Janine L., Poole, Joyce H. and Moss, Cynthia J., ‘Elephant breakdown’, Nature (2005) 433, p. 807 .

31 Eardley-Wilmot, Sainthill, The Life of an Elephant, London: E. Arnold, 1912 ; Scott, J.G. and Mitton, Geraldine, The Life Story of an Elephant, London: A. & C. Black, 1930 ; Campbell, Reginald, Elephant King, New York: Richard R. Smith, 1930 .

32 Pollok, Fitzwilliam Thomas and Thom, W.S., Wild Sports of Burma and Assam, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1900, p. 128 ; Evans, op. cit. (26), p. 11.

33 Evans, op. cit. (26), pp. 1–10.

34 For some key documents in the voluminous correspondence on this matter see National Archives of Myanmar (hereafter NAM), 1/1(B) 6541, 1908 File No 3S-2 Part I, ‘Proposed adoption of measures for the prevention of elephant stealing on the borders of Burma and Siam’; NAM, 1/1(A) 4647, 1927 File No 176 B26, ‘Forms of passes in respect of elephants taken across the frontier into Siam’.

35 For more on branding see Bryant, op. cit. (12), pp. 517–530.

36 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish (tr. Sheridan, Alan), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979 .

37 For anthropological studies that recognize the mutually interactive aspects of elephant training see Locke, Piers, ‘The ethnography of captive elephant management in Nepal: a synopsis’, Gajah (2011) 34, pp. 3240 ; Ursula Münster, ‘Working for the forest: the ambivalent intimacies of human–elephant collaboration in South Indian wildlife conservation’, Ethnos (2014), Online First, pp. 1–23.

38 Dooren, Van, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, New York: Colombia University Press, 2014, pp. 86124 .

39 Howe, op. cit. (26), ‘Tales of elephant calves, their training etc. Bhamo 1932/3’; Williams, op. cit. (26), pp. 56–60.

40 A scheme of breeding was suggested based on accounts of breeding in Burma and Siam, but rejected by the government of India. See NAM, 1/1(A) 1400, 1868, File No 508, ‘Legislative interference to prevent the destruction of wild elephants in British Burma’.

41 Male elephants’ testicles are internal, making castration a difficult and invasive surgical intervention and selective breeding highly impractical. In addition, current evidence suggests that the labour regimes had a detrimental impact on elephant fertility. See Mumby, Hannah S., Mar, Khyne U., Thitaram, Chatchote, Courtiol, Alexandre, Towiboon, Patcharapa, Min-Oo, Zaw, Htut-Aung, Ye, Brown, Janine L. and Lummaa, Virpi, ‘Stress and body condition are associated with climate and demography in Asian elephants’, Conservation Physiology (2015) 3, pp. 114 .

42 LMA, Standard Chartered Bank Collection, CLC/207/MS40475, ‘Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited: correspondence between branches and director for veterinary research relating to anthrax in elephants’, ‘H.F. Burke to Lely, 23 Aug. 1933’.

43 Campbell, op. cit. (31); Pfaff, G., Diseases of Elephants, Rangoon: Superintendent Government Printing, Burma, 1940, pp. 45 ; Howe, op. cit. (39); Williams, op. cit. (26), pp. 74–80.

44 Howe, op. cit. (26), ‘The Story of Ngwe Maung, Bhamo 1933’.

45 Pfaff, op. cit. (43), pp. 4–8.

46 For more on this perception see Saha, op. cit. (14), pp. 933–955.

47 Gale, U Toke, Burmese Timber Elephant, Rangoon: Trade Corporation 9, 1974 ; Locke, Piers, ‘Explorations in ethnoelephantology: social, historical, and ecological intersections between Asian elephants and humans’, Environment and Society: Advances in Research (2013) 4, pp. 7997 .

48 Pollok and Thom, op. cit. (32), pp. 115–116; Evans, op. cit. (26), pp. 49–51.

49 Williams, op. cit. (26), p. 86.

50 NAM, 1/15(E) 3626, 1912, File No 6E-20, ‘Opium: issue of opium licences for the treatment of sick elephants’; 1/15(E) 16402, 1913, File No 6E-7, ‘Opium: issue of opium licences for the treatment of sick elephants’; Pollok and Thom, op. cit. (32), p. 128. Cannabis was also used; see Pfaff, op. cit. (43), p. 21.

51 Wright, Ashley, Opium and Empire in Southeast Asia, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 .

52 Williams, op. cit. (26), pp. 162–165.

53 Williams, op. cit. (26), pp. 32, 164. Some of these records, which continued through Japanese occupation and into independence, in the postcolonial period have been of use to evolutionary biologists attempting to study the Asiatic elephant population across several generations. see Mumby, Hannah S., Mar, Khyne U., Hayward, Adam D., Htut, Win, Htut-Aung, Ye and Virpi, Lummaa, ‘Elephants born in the high stress season have faster reproductive ageing’, Nature Scientific Reports 5, Article number 13946 (2015).

54 The trope is apparent from Evans, George H., Report on Burmese Elephants, Simla: G.C. Press, 1894 ; to Williams, op. cit. (26), p. 320.

55 Campbell, op. cit. (31); Nisbet, op. cit. (1), pp. 19–24; Williams, op. cit. (26), p. 155; Williams, J.H., Bandoola, London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1953 ; Howe, op. cit. (39).

56 See Williams's description of the case of the elephant Bandoola in Williams, op. cit. (26), passim.

57 Howe, op. cit. (39).

58 Eardley-Wilmot, op. cit. (31).

59 Williams, op. cit. (26); Williams, op. cit. (55).

60 Saha, Jonathan, ‘Madness and the making of a colonial order in Burma’, Modern Asian Studies (2013) 47, pp. 406435 .

61 Pollok and Thom, op. cit. (32), p. 42.

62 Williams, op. cit. (26).

63 Howe, op. cit. (39).

64 Schiebinger, Londa, ‘Why mammals are called mammals: gender politics in eighteenth-century natural history’, American Historical Review (1993) 98, pp. 382411 .

65 See Nisbet, op. cit. (1).

66 Evans, op. cit. (26); Bor, N.L., ‘Musth in elephant’, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (1928) 32, pp. 594596 .

67 Ignatieff, Michael, A Just Measure of Pain, London: Macmillan, 1978 .

68 For some discussion of embodied and local knowledges and how they interacted with detached forms of scientific writing see Sivasundaram, Sujit, ‘Trading knowledge: the East India Company's elephants in India and Britain’, Historical Journal (2005) 48, pp. 2763 ; Lorimer and Whatmore, op. cit. (13); Chakrabarti, Pratik, ‘Beasts of burden: animals and laboratory research in colonial India’, History of Science (2010) 48, pp. 125152 ; for a more general discussion of the place of ‘native informants’ in the colonial archive see Dirks, Nicholas B., ‘Colonial histories and native informants: biography of an archive’, in van der Veer, Peter and Breckenridge, Carol Appadurai (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 279312 .

69 U Toke Gale, op. cit. (47), pp. xi–xiii, 3–21; Sivasundaram, op. cit. (68).

70 Charney, Michael W., Powerful Learning, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2006 .

71 British Library, London, OR13915, ‘Burmese elephant manuscript, c.1850’.

72 Evans, op. cit. (26).

73 Pfaff, op. cit. (43), pp. 20–21; Williams, op. cit. (26), pp. 97–98.

74 LMA, Standard Chartered Collection, CLC/B/207/MS40476/001, ‘Letters relating to diseases in elephants’, 15 Jan. 1927.

75 Evans, op. cit. (26), p. 35.

76 San, U Ba (tr.), Manual of Elephant Diseases, Rangoon: Sun Press, 1913 .

77 Pfaff, op. cit. (43); Ferrier, op. cit. (27).

78 Evans, op. cit. (26), pp. 16–19, 30, 36; Saha, op. cit. (14).

79 Scott, James George, The Burman, London: Macmillan, 1910 ; Keck, Stephen L., British Burma in the New Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 .

80 Scott and Mitton, op. cit. (31), pp. 7–8, 12, 17–18, 33.

81 For a wider discussion of these issues see Driver, Felix, ‘Imagining the tropics: views and visions of the tropical world’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography (2004) 25, pp. 117 ; Smith, Mark M., ‘Producing sense, consuming sense, making sense: perils and prospects for sensory history’, Journal of Social History (2007) 40, pp. 841858 ; Miller, John, Empire and the Animal Body: Violence, Identity and Ecology in Victorian Adventure Fiction, London: Anthem Press, 2012 .

82 Evans, op. cit. (26), pp. 20–22.

83 Barad, op. cit. (9).

84 Casserly, Gordon, ‘Where do wild elephants die?’, Journal of Mammalogy (1924) 5, pp. 113116 ; Flower, Major Stanley S. and Matthews, L. Harrison, ‘Further notes on the duration of life in mammals: V. The alleged and actual ages to which elephants live’, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1948) 117, pp. 680688 .

85 Scott and Mitton, op. cit. (31).

86 Pollok and Thom, op. cit. (32), pp. 127–128.

87 Evans, op. cit. (26), p. 9.

88 Mumby et al., op. cit. (53); Mumby et al., op. cit. (41); Mumby, Hannah S., Chapman, Simon N., Crawley, Jennie A.H., Mar, Khyne U., Htut, Win, Soe, Thura Aung, Aung, Htoo H and Virpi, Lummaa, ‘Distinguishing between determinate and indeterminate growth in a long-lived mammal’, BMC Evolutionary Biology (2015) 15, pp. 214222 .

89 Wiese, Robert J. and Willis, Kevin, ‘Calculation of longevity and life expectancy in captive elephants’, Zoo Biology (2004) 23, pp. 365373 ; Mumby, Hannah S., Courtiol, Alexandre, Mar, Khyne U., and Lummaa, Virpi, ‘Climatic variation and age-specific survival in Asian Elephants from Myanmar’, Ecology (2013) 94, pp. 11311141 .

90 Naono, Atsuko, State of Vaccination, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009 .

91 NAI, Office of Inspect General of Forests, Apr. 1902, Part B Proceedings, Nos 86–94, ‘Inoculations of elephants in Burma for anthrax’.

92 LMA, Standard Chartered Collection, CLC/B/207/MS40476/001, ‘Letters relating to diseases in elephants’, 27 January 1927.

93 In some ways this is surprising given the long history of exchange and interaction between Britain and Australia in developing vaccines for combating anthrax in domesticated animals and humans working with animal hides. Stark, James F., ‘Anthrax and Australia in a global context: the international exchange of theories and practices with Britain and France, c.1850–1920’, Health and History (2012) 14, pp. 125 .

94 Brown, Karen, ‘Tropical medicine and animal diseases: Onderstepoort and the development of veterinary science in South Africa 1908–1950’, Journal of Southern African Studies (2005) 31, pp. 513529 ; Gilfoyle, Daniel, ‘Anthrax in South Africa: economics, experiment and the mass vaccination of animals, c.1910–1945’, Medical History (2006) 50, pp. 465490 .

95 LMA, Standard Chartered Collection, CLC/B/207/MS40476/001, ‘Letters relating to diseases in elephants’.

96 Ferrier, op. cit. (27), pp. 36–37; Pfaff, op. cit. (43).

97 Roy, Rohan Deb, ‘Nonhuman empires’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2015) 35, pp. 6675 .

98 Rashkow, Ezra D., ‘Making subaltern shikaris: histories of the hunted in colonial central India’, South Asian History and Culture (2014) 5, pp. 292313 ; Powell, Miles Alexander, ‘People in peril, environments at risk: coolies, tigers, and colonial Singapore's ecology of poverty’, Environment and History (2016) 22, pp. 455482 .

99 Mikhail, Alan, ‘Unleashing the beast: animals, energy, and the economy of labor in Ottoman Egypt’, American Historical Review (2013) 118, pp. 317348 ; Beattie, James, Melillo, Edward and O'Gorman, Emily, ‘Rethinking the British Empire through eco-cultural networks: materialist–cultural environmental history, relational connections and agency’, Environment and History (2014) 20, pp. 561575 .

100 For some species-specific books covering European empires in Asia and Africa see Bankoff, Greg and Swart, Sandra (eds.), Breeds of Empire: The ‘Invention’ of the Horse in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa, 1500–1950, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2007 ; Van Sittert, Lance and Swart, Sandra Scott (eds.), Canis Africanis: A Dog History of Southern Africa, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007 ; Boomgaard, Peter, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600–1950, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008 ; Skabelund, Aaron Herald, Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011 ; Cribb, Robert, Gilbert, Helen and Tiffin, Helen, Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014 .

101 Hussain, Shafqat, ‘Forms of predation: tiger and markhor hunting in colonial governance’, Modern Asian Studies (2012) 46, pp. 12121238 ; Sharma, Varun and Agnimitra, Neera, ‘Making and unmaking the endangered in India (1880–present): understanding animal–criminal processes’, Conservation and Society (2015) 13, pp. 105118 ; Mandala, Vijaya Ramadas, ‘The Raj and the paradoxes of wildlife conservation: British attitudes and expediencies’, Historical Journal (2015) 58, pp. 75110 .

102 Sivasundaram, op. cit. (68), pp. 27–63.

I am grateful to the editors Amanda Rees, Jon Agar and Trish Hatton for their advice and guidance in writing and revising the manuscript, and to Rachel Johnson, Rohan Deb Roy and to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. The research for this article was made possible by generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/L014939/1).

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