Do Elephants Dream of Bulldozers?

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.

The British commander and Indian crew of a Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, 255th Indian Tank Brigade, encounter a newly liberated elephant on the road to Meiktila, 29 March 1945
The British commander and Indian crew of a Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, 255th Indian Tank Brigade, encounter a newly liberated elephant on the road to Meiktila, 29 March 1945

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.

One of Philip Klier fantastic photographs of elephants working in one of Rangoon's timber yards taken in 1907.
One of Philip Klier fantastic photographs of elephants working in one of Rangoon’s timber yards taken in 1907.

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.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. patsy evans says:

    hello johnathan
    where could I find a photo of elephant and Sherman tank like you have in this article that I could use in the book I am currently writing of my parents life pre war, trek out to India and return to Burma ater the war. My father worked for Bombay Burmah Timber Corp. Limited. All my dads photos were buried with their personal possessions prior to them trekking out, so they were all damaged and lost.
    thanking you Patsy Evans

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Hi Patsy,
      The image is by Stubbs, A. (Sgt) of No. 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. It is photograph SE 3641 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-64) and is in public domain because it was produced the UK government prior to 1957. It can be found on the Wikipedia page for the British Indian Army, and can be accessed via this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Indian_Army#/media/File:British_commander_and_Indian_crew_encounter_elephant_near_Meiktila_2.jpg
      Hope this helps! All the best, Jonathan

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