I have just finished reading the brilliant The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton. If you haven’t read it, the book argues persuasively that despite the widespread celebration of new technologies, old technologies have become increasingly important in the twentieth century. Edgerton provides many, occasionally surprising, examples demonstrating this. They range from the continued importance of rifles, the weapon responsible for the majority of deaths during the century’s all too numerous wars; to the increasing use of the condom in the last three decades; to the expansion in the production of wood furniture, illustrated by the success of Ikea. The continued significance of these older technologies has been overlooked because of a focus on high-tech bombs, the pill and the digital economy. Another example, coming out of the history of colonial Burma, might be the use of elephant labour.
This picture juxtaposing an elephant with a tank plays on the apparently curious mixing of old and new technologies in the Second World War. It was a tension picked up by James ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams, an employee of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation who used his experience working with elephants to help the war effort on the India-Burma border. He noticed that his elephants found the bulldozers they had to work alongside upsetting, prompting him to ask whether these mechanical vehicles haunted the animals’ nightmares.
However, this mixing of old and new was not so curious. Although elephants had been used to extract timber from the jungles and in the construction of buildings since at least the tenth century, British imperialism brought about a huge increase in their employment. The timber trade, particularly in teak, rapidly expanded during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This industry was entirely dependent on elephants captured from the wild populations and trained. There was no alternative technology as effective as elephants for removing the trees from the jungle. British imperial writers associated trained elephants with the fallen Konbaung dynasty of Burma, but really elephants were used most extensively in imperial timber companies. As a result, there were more working elephants in Burma by the 1930s than ever before.