Fowl Play in Colonial Burma

I’ve been trying to find links between my last research project on the history of corruption and my developing interest in animals, and I think I’ve found one: chickens!

Chickens appear in investigations into corruption in late nineteenth-century colonial Burma as bribes. In a case from 1907, a Resident Excise Officer accepted chickens as a bribe for allowing people to illicitly sell opium, the sale of which was restricted but not illegal.

They also appear as evidence. A case in 1905 turned on poultry. The investigation was into a hospital assistant accused of falsifying medical evidence so that it exaggerated his friend’s injuries, which he claimed had been inflicted by the police. Although the hospital assistant denied knowing the man, witnesses stated that they had seen him looking after the hospital assistant’s chickens and ducks.

And chickens were also a problem for colonial attempts to prohibit gambling among the Burmese. Betting on cock-fighting in public places was illegal, and to aid prosecutions if someone was found in possession of instruments for gambling they could be arrested. However, it wasn’t clear if a cockerel was a instrument of gambling and it was difficult to prove that a person in possession of a cockerel intended to use for the purpose of gambling.

Putting chickens back in the picture. 'Entrance to the Village of Kyet-Thoung-Doung', Robert Talbot Kelly, Burma, Painted and Described (1905), p. 108
Putting chickens back in the picture. ‘Entrance to the Village of Kyet-Thoung-Doung’, in Robert Talbot Kelly, Burma, Painted and Described (New York, 1905), p. 108

My future research will have to think about cases like this in a different way. What happens if we treat the chickens in these situations as living creatures, and not just objects used by humans? What were the cultural associations attached to chickens? I don’t know yet what I’ll find, but from the cases above we can already see that chickens were a reoccurring presence in everyday life.

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