During the East India Company's rule of India, Britons observed the pervasiveness of elephants in local modes of warfare, hunting, trade, and religious symbolism. The colonizers appropriated this knowledge about elephants: for instance, in the taking-over of Mughal trade routes or Tipu Sultan's stables. What Indians knew about the elephant also fed into a metropolitan culture of anthropomorphism, exemplified in the celebrated shooting of the elephant Chuny in 1826. Anthropomorphic approaches to the elephant held by Britons worked alongside Sanskrit texts and Mughal paintings. These hybrid understandings gave way by the mid-century to an allegedly objective and Christian science of animals, which could not be tainted by what was called pagan superstition. By using the elephant as a point of focus, this article urges the importance of popular traditions of colonial exchange in the emergence of science, and cautions against the reification of indigenous knowledge. The argument aims to show the strengths of a history of knowledge-making that is not focused on elites, the metropolis, or the periphery. A study of the uses of the elephant in colonialism also suggests the multiple and easily interchangeable meanings that animals could carry.
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