George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, first published in New Writing in 1936, is a recollection in first person of an experience that George Orwell had while serving as a policemanin Burma, British India (present day Myanmar), as a 19-year-old British solider. The British gained control of Burma in the nineteenth century and made it a province of British India.
As when most countries that fall under imperialist rule, there was a mutual distrust between colonizers and colonized; many of the Burmese resented the British whom many of the Burmese held responsible for poverty, and a lack of political and religious freedom.
‘Shooting an Elephant’ highlights the stereotypes and ethnocentrism present in British imperialism through his referencing of the indigenous people, the British rule over the Burmese, and the repressed ethnocentrism enkindled as a protector of the native people.
Yet the story also demonstrates the mental turmoil that soldiers such as Orwell experienced such as the fear of humiliation and feeling forced to fill his role as a colonizer.
Orwell begins the essay by recounting his feelings towards imperialism and his own role in the occupation of Burma. When Orwell was writing, many Indian nationalists were leading the campaign for India to achieve either dominion status—that is, to become a self-governing territory within the British Empire—or calling for outright independence for India. Although Orwell was a British officer he did support British rule and in fact supported the Burmese:
For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.
Orwell expressed similar sentiments against British imperialism in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), although neither of these works’ main focus was imperialism, unlike ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), and, of course, his first novel, Burmese Days (1934).
Although Orwell claimed to be all for the Burmese there was some implicit racial prejudice in his remarks. Orwell refers to the indigenous Burmese as ‘evil-spirited little beasts’ and refers to them as ‘yellow faces’ twice in the essay. These racist names display Orwell’s prejudice in what Edward Said would call classic ‘Orientalist’ terms; although Orwell sympathized with the Burmese, he still viewed them as ‘dangerous’ and inferred moral characteristics about them based upon their skin color.
Orwell received a call at the police station to tell him that the body of a Burmese man who had been trampled by an elephant was lying in a bazaar. By the time Orwell arrived, the elephant was chained up. Orwell showed little regard for the fact that this human had met a brutal end. Orwell would have to shoot the elephant to ‘make an example’ of it among the Burmese, and make a good show of British imperial power, even though he did not want to:
I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him … with that pre-occupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him.
The term ‘grandmotherly’ demonstrates Orwell’s affection towards the gracious beast that he had to kill. Orwell was therefore glad that the elephant killed a coolie (an unskilled native laborer) because it gave him the opportunity to move forward with the shooting of the elephant, which he did.
The shooting of the elephant portrays Orwell’s internal conflict as he tries to uphold the image of the impenetrable empire while going against his personal inclination; the underlying theme of the episode is that Orwell had to ignore his instincts so he could perform his role as ‘a protector’ to the ‘natives’ and avoid humiliation for himself and also the British Empire.
Orwell’s fear of ridicule and how this fear controls his actions is an ongoing theme in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ such as earlier in the narrative, when British officers were playing football against the Burmese:
When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once … The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.
Orwell’s humiliation made him feel like driving a bayonet through the chest of the Buddhist priests. Yet even though Orwell held a position of power over the Burmese, they made him feel unworthy and weak, and humiliated—the need to establish his dominance as a colonizer drove Orwell to shoot the elephant.
The football match between the British and the Burmese may have been the ‘immediate’ factor in Orwell’s decision to shoot the elephant but more generally Orwell had to do so because he was under pressure to visibly maintain the power of the British Raj in Burma. If he did not shoot the elephant, it would result in the Burmese jeering and humiliating not only him but the entire British Raj—such was the job of a policeman in British-controlled Burma.
Ferguson, Niall, 2003. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin.
James, Lawrence, 1997. Raj: The Making of British India. London: Abacus.
Orwell, George, 1934: 2009. Burmese Days. London: Penguin.
————, 1933: 2008. Down and Out in Paris and London. London: Penguin.
————, 1937: 2001. The Road to Wigan Pier. London: Penguin.
————, 1936. ‘Shooting an Elephant’. The Orwell Foundation. [Online]. Available at: https://www.orwellfoundation.com/ [Accessed 6 February 2020].
Said, Edward, 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin.