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Shooting an Elephant

"Shooting an Elephant" is an essay by George Orwell written during the autumn of 1936. A narrative, Orwell retells his account of shooting an elephant in British-controlled Burma as an Imperial Policeman in the early 1920s.


Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824 - 1886), during which three Anglo-Burmese Wars took place, and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence was attained as a result of the Aung San–Attlee agreement which guaranteed Burmese independence. Aung San was assassinated before Burma attained its independence on January 4, 1948.

A strong proponent for the poor, Orwell, born into a middle-class family, developed an affinity for the destitute as a member of the British Imperial Police; obligated to enforce strict laws for an imperial power, Orwell's distaste for severe regimes deepened. After quitting his position, Orwell traveled back to England, where his sympathy and liking for the poor grew, and lived among other impoverished residents, as detailed in Down and Out in Paris and London.


In Moulmein, Orwell was a policeman during a period of intense anti-European sentiment, feelings which wore on Orwell especially those administered by Buddhist monks whom he called the "worst of all". After receiving a phone call relating a tame elephant's escape, Orwell, armed with two firearms, mounted a pony and headed to the bazaar where the elephant had been seen. Traveling to the poor quarter of the village, Orwell received conflicting reports; almost to the point of leaving, thinking the incident was a hoax, Orwell heard an older village woman chasing away children who attempted to look at the body of a dead Indian. After sending an orderly to retrieve an elephant rifle, a crowd attractor, two thousand he approximated, he headed toward the paddy field where the elephant had stopped to eat.

Not planning to shoot the elephant, Orwell had originally retrieved the gun for protection. Weighing his options, he decided against getting closer in an attempt to gauge the "must" of the elephant; his poor rifle skills and a charging elephant would've assuredly resulted in death, perhaps to the delight of the crowd. After deliberation, Orwell realized he had to shoot the elephant, there was simply no other option. Aiming at his perceived location of the elephant's brain, Orwell fired a shot which brought the elephant to its knees. After another shot, the elephant gained his footing only to be brought collapsing down with another rifle round. Still alive, Orwell fired two more elephant rifle rounds and then a clip of regular rifle rounds into the beast to no avail. Unable to stand the elephant's agony any longer, Orwell went away only to learn later that the elephant remained in that state for another thirty minutes. Afterward, the elephant carcass was swiftly stripped of its meat by many Burmans.


An anti-imperialist essay, Orwell frequently and clearly states his displeasure with colonial Britain, "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing ... I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." Enslaved, Orwell adds, "all I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served ... I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." Reflective, Orwell realizes being forced to impose strict laws and to shoot the elephant -- he states his feelings against the act, but submits after comprehending he "had got to shoot the elephant" -- illustrates an inherent problem of hegemony, "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." By enforcing the strict British rule, he was forfeiting his freedom while concurrently oppressing the Burmans. A call to end imperialism, "Shooting an Elephant", ironically, appeals Britons to cease colonialism to maintain their freedom, a point buttressed by his "crucified" reference, hardly a motif in Buddhist Burma.

See also: Burmese Days

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