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Shooting an Elephant - George Orwell

‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a 1936 essay by George Orwell (1903-50), about his time as a young policeman in Burma, which was then part of the British empire. The essay explores an apparent paradox about the behaviour of Europeans, who supposedly have power over their colonial subjects.

Orwell begins by relating some of his memories from his time as a young police officer working in Burma. He, like other British and European people in imperial Burma, was held in contempt by the native populace, with Burmese men tripping (losing balance) him up during football matches between the Europeans and Burmans, and the local Buddhist priests loudly insulting their European colonisers on the streets.

Orwell tells us that these experiences instilled in him two things: it confirmed his view, which he had already formed, that imperialism was evil, but it also inspired hatred of the enmity between the European imperialists and their native subjects. Of course, these two things are related, and Orwell understands why the Buddhist priests hate living under European rule.

He finds himself caught in the middle between ‘hatred of the empire’ he served and his ‘rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible’.

The main story which Orwell relates takes place in Moulmein, in Lower Burma. An elephant, one of the tame elephants which the locals own and use, has given its rider or mahout the slip and has been wreaking havoc (devastation) throughout the bazaar. It has destroyed a hut, killed a cow, and raided some fruit stalls for food. Orwell picks up his rifle and gets on his pony to go and see what he can do.

He knows the rifle won’t be good enough to kill the elephant, but he hopes that firing the gun might scare the animal. Orwell discovers that the elephant has just trampled (walked over/stepped) a man, a coolie or native labourer, to the ground, killing him. Orwell sends his pony away and calls for an elephant rifle which would be more effective against such a big animal. Going in search of the elephant, Orwell finds it calmly eating some grass, looking as harmless as a cow.

I It has calmed down, but by this point, a crowd of thousands of local Burmese people has gathered and is watching Orwell intently. Even though he sees no need to kill the animal now it no longer poses a threat to anyone, he realises that the locals expect him to dispatch it, and he will lose ‘face’ – both personally and as an imperial representative – if he does not do what the crowd expects.

So he shoots the elephant from a safe distance, marvelling at how long the animal takes to die. He later learns that it took half an hour for the elephant to die and that the civilians eagerly harvested its body for meat. He recounts, ''I often wondered whether any of the others gasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.’’

In the essay, Orwell explores themes of imperialism, captivity, and authority. The officer struggles with the choice to kill the elephant. His moral compass tells him to observe and report, but he must maintain an atmosphere of authority, holding the rifle among the crowd of Burmese natives. 


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