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George Orwell > Shooting an Elephant > Essay

Shooting an Elephant


In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the
only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen
to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an
aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one
had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the
bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As
a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it
seemed safe to do so. 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. In the end
the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the
insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my
nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were
several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have
anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. 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. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more
bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the
dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling
in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the
long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged
with bamboos--all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.
But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated
and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is
imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the
British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal
better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew
was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage
against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job
impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an
unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, IN SAECULA SAECULORUM,
upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the
greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist
priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of
imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It
was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had
had before of the real nature of imperialism--the real motives for which
despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police
station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that
an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something
about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was
happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an
old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought
the noise might be useful IN TERROREM. Various Burmans stopped me on the
way and told me about the elephant's doings. It was not, of course, a
elephant, but a tame one which had gone "must." It had been chained up,
as tame elephants always are when their attack of "must" is due, but on
the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the
only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in
pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours'
journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in
the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless
against it. It had already destroyed somebody's bamboo hut, killed a cow
and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the
municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his
heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me
in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor
quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf,
winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy,
stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the
people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any
definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story
always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the
scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the
elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in
another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had
almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we
heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of
"Go away, child! Go away this instant!" and an old woman with a switch in
her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd
of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and
exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to
have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man's dead body sprawling in the
mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he
could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant
had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with
its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This
was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a
trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly
with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was
coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an
expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the
dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The
friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as
neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an
orderly to a friend's house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had
already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and
throw me if it smelt the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges,
and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was
in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started
forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of
the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting
excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much
interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it
was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to
them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat.
It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant--I
had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary--and it is
always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill,
looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an
ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you
got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry
waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy
from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was
standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not
the slightest notice of the crowd's approach. He was tearing up bunches
of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them
into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with
perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter
to shoot a working elephant--it is comparable to destroying a huge and
costly piece of machinery--and obviously one ought not to do it if it can
possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the
elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think
now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he
would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and
caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided
that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not
turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It
was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute.
It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the
sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited
over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot.
They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a
trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was
momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to
shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got
to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward,
irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle
in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the
white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun,
standing in front of the unarmed native crowd--seemingly the leading
actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to
and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this
moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he
destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized
figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall
spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis
he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and
his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had
committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got
to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind
and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two
thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away,
having done nothing--no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at
me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long
struggle not to be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch
of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that
elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At
that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot
an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a
LARGE animal.) Besides, there was the beast's owner to be considered.
Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would
only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had
got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had
been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been
behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you
left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to
within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If
he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe
to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going
to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was
soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged
and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a
steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own
skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with
the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would
have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn't be frightened in front
of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought
in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans
would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning
corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite
probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine
and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still,
and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go
up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have
their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with
cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one
would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I
ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight
at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this,
thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick--one
never does when a shot goes home--but I heard the devilish roar of glee
that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one
would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious,
terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell,
but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken,
shrunken, immensely old, as though the frighfful impact of the bullet had
paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a
long time--it might have been five seconds, I dare say--he sagged
flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed
to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years
old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not
collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly
upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That
was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his
whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in
falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed
beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his
trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only
time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that
seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was
obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He
was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound
of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open--I could
see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for
him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two
remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The
thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die.
His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing
continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony,
but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him
further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It
seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and
yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back
for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his
throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued
as steadily as the ticking of a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later
that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and
baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body
almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

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