On the essays shelf:
A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell
‘Shooting an Elephant’, from 1936, is one of George Orwell’s most famous essays. It remains one of the best descriptions of how Empire operates, at its ugliest, and Orwell does this by staying wholly personal. It’s still hard to believe how well the essay works, as a political statement, as an indictment of the role of Empire, its cruelty and savagery. It’s not long. ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is the story of Orwell’s days as a police officer, stationed in Burma. One day, he hears that an elephant has gotten loose and has rampaged through the town, killing a man. He doesn’t know what to do. He has no training in such matters, but there is panic and fear, so he grabs his rifle and sets out to find the elephant. Orwell writes that he had no intention of shooting the elephant. Elephants are normally peaceful creatures, and when they go apeshit, it usually passes quickly. He was sure that once the elephant was returned to its owner, all would be fine, and everything would blow over. But the expectation of the crowd is such that they want to see an elephant die. They need that catharsis. So Orwell, young at the time, and fearful of looking foolish or inadequate, shoots the elephant. It is a terrible scene. Orwell assures us he is not squeamish about killing animals, but he felt that what he did to that elephant (who was, by that point, calmly eating a bush) was murder. In one of the most horrible lines in this horrible tragic piece, Orwell says, “I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.”
What all this has to do with Empire I leave to Orwell’s genius. He opens the essay, which operates as a memoir-type piece but, in point of fact, is a political statement, with a description of the anti-European feeling in Burma among the natives. Europeans were spit at. There was hostility in the air, and the English were losing control of the situation. Orwell absorbed that anxiety into his duties as a police officer, and it all sounds very schoolboy-ish, doing what you can to avoid being teased and bullied by your classmates. The British Empire was, famously, better than most (they built roads, schools, railways, and preserved the art of the region), but the hostility was toxic. Orwell felt the hostility of the Burmese, and, in turn, he hated them back.
And THIS, THIS, is Empire.
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 duty.
What is so brilliant about this essay is that Orwell stays with his own experience, his feeling of uncertainty (“should I kill the elephant? I don’t think I should, but …”), and his sense that the natives who had made fun of him and jeered at him and spit at him during his tenure there, were racing after him, expecting a show. There was no way on earth, under that peer pressure, could young Orwell say, “Okay, the crisis is over – no need to shoot the elephant now – time to go home.”
He has to shoot the elephant multiple times before it even goes down, and even then, it won’t die. Orwell is forced to shoot directly into the elephant’s heart, and still, it lies there, gasping. The crowd jeers around it. Orwell ends the essay with:
I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
Brilliant, brutal. Orwell at his best.
A Collection of Essays, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, by George Orwell
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.