A Dog’s Life in Colonial Burma

I have just finished reading a traveller’s account of Burma published in 1909 and purportedly written by a dog. The dog, called ‘John’, travelled the northern-most reaches of the colony with his master, ‘the Colonel’, the Colonel’s wife, the ‘Mem Sahib’, their female friend, referred to only as ‘Missy Sahib’, and their entourage of Indian servants and heavily-loaded ponies. John himself was a Burmese dog who found these unusual white people intriguing, although as a Buddhist he disapproved of their hunting. Throughout the book he provides a wry commentary on the foibles of these colonials, who make eager travellers but are ultimately ill-at-ease in Burma. Although an independent and somewhat sarcastic animal, John makes his home with the Colonel and the Mem Sahib and settles into a comfortable, cosy life.

John observes some Burmese villagers
John observes some Burmese villagers

Writing from the perspective of a dog, naive in the ways of human society, enabled the real author to poke light-hearted and inoffensive fun at the British in Burma. But it probably isn’t a representative portrayal of the lives of domesticated dogs in John’s circumstances. Unfortunately, the sorry fates of the dogs owned by James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams (who worked for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation) might be more accurate. Bilu, a ‘black ball of fluff’, died of pneumonia. Sally, a bull-terrier, Williams had drowned after she had become lame from hook-worm. Karl died after severing his jugular vein on an iron stake whist chasing another dog. Molly Mia was shot by Williams when he suspected that she had rabies. Jabo was killed either by a Burmese water spirit or by having his skull cracked by a paddle wielded by one of Williams’s staff. And there were many others who died in their own uniquely tragic circumstances (on more than one occasion, being eaten by a leopard). The passages in Williams’s books in which he reminisces about his pets consist of a litany of grim and grizzly deaths. John was lucky. For most dogs, being a colonizer’s companion did not end well.

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