I recently gave a paper about elephants in colonial Burma at a fantastic conference on ‘Animals and Empire’ here in Bristol. Throughout the day the question of whether animals had ‘agency’ in history was raised and much debated. Of course, there is one species of animal that historians have had little issue granting agency to, and that is the human animal. But not all humans have had this privilege. It is only due to changes brought about through political battles in the discipline that women, the working classes, slaves and colonized populations have come to be written as agents in history. However, the merits of these changes notwithstanding, I remain doubtful about the utility of the term for historians, and have always been skeptical of histories that claim to be ‘giving agency’ to historically disenfranchised groups. The case of Bandoola the elephant, the favorite elephant of James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams who worked with elephants in the 1920s with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, can illustrate why.
The elephants used by the Corporation were subjected to discipline. Once wild elephants were captured, they had to be trained. This was done in a wooden cage called a ‘crush’. In the crush violence and starvation were precisely administered, alongside rewards, in order to break the animal’s spirit. Overtime, the elephant was then made accustomed to human riders and eventually easily controlled. They were made, to borrow Foucault’s handy phrase, ‘docile bodies’. Once trained, elephants were put in fetters that inhibited their movement. They could move enough to eat a varied diet, but they were restricted from moving too far from the jungle camps to stop them escaping. To help the riders relocate their elephants at the start of the working day, the animals were also attached with bells. If an elephant did escape, then it could be later identified as a Corporation elephant by the ‘C’ branded on its rear in phosphorescent paint. In addition to all this, the careers of elephants were recorded and documented. All the misdemeanors and achievements of an elephant in the Corporation were recorded in individual case files. This meant that individual quirks and the personalities of elephants could be made known to their riders and, further up the chain, to their European superior officers.
In his published accounts of his career in Burma, Williams often reflected on the career of Bandoola, a very large elephant apparently born and raised in captivity. His fondness for Bandoola was partly due to the elephant’s heroics in the retreat from Burma during the Second World War, and partly because they were roughly the same age. He evidently identified with him and was distraught at the elephant’s death at the end of the War. But a major blemish on Bandoola’s otherwise spotless record was the killing of one of his riders during the interwar years. Williams was deeply concerned about the death, it seemed to him out of character for Bandoola, the most disciplined of his elephants. Could Bandoola have willfully murdered his rider? In response Williams instigated an investigation which found that Bandoola’s rider had neglected to provide him with food for a number of days. Overworked and half-starved, Williams concluded, Bandoola had understandably lashed out. Bandoola was exonerated from further punishment because it was judged that his violent attack had been the result of extreme provocation. For Williams, this was not a case of cold-blooded murder.
We might be tempted to read this episode as an example of the agency of an elephant. Denied food, Bandoola not unreasonably attacked his rider. But this is a questionable conclusion. All the information on Bandoola and his behavior that is available to us now was generated by the mechanisms of control he was subjected to. In addition, Bandoola’s ‘normal’ docile nature was the product of the discipline he had been subjected to throughout his working life. The ‘character’ of Bandoola was, in this sense, an external invention of the human animals who disciplined him. It may or (more likely) may not have born any relation to Bandoola’s internal world. And this is the crux of the point. Historians’ claims to be writing the agency of animals (or, indeed, other subaltern groups) are essentially claims to be able to access their internal worlds: their desires, intentions and motivations. But access to this internal world is always mediated by the power of dominant groups. The danger is that the laudable attempt to write their agency, in effect only re-inscribes the view of the powerful in society. Williams did not know what was going on in Bandoola’s head, and nor do we.