Sun, Skin and Colonial Sensibilities

July has been a busy month. I spent the first week at two conferences at which I gave two entirely different papers. The first was on animals in colonial Burma. The second was on the history of sunstroke. But as different as these two topics may appear, there is some overlap.

In the late-nineteenth century a small but vocal number of doctors argued in the British Medical Journal that many cases labelled as sunstroke were actually an epidemic disease caused by an as-yet undiscovered microbe. One prominent advocate of such as view, Louis Sambon, attempted to discredit animal experimentation that showed the effect of extreme heat on the mortality of dogs. An imperial veterinarian responded to Sambon’s argument to say that in his experience animals did experience sunstroke. But not all animals, only those he deemed ‘higher’ animals. These included dogs, horses and elephants.

The idea that elephants experienced sunstroke was one that I had already come across in imperial writings on Burma. The tourist Alice Hart observed some measures to protect elephants from the sun in 1897.

In the heat of the day they rest, as elephants may suffer from sunstroke, to protect them from which they wear in hot weather huge solar topes made of straw.

‘Solar topes’ were the emblematic plinth helmets warn by British officials, and I have found no further evidence for the existence of these mammoth versions. But the image of elephants being dressed like British colonizers reveals the way the latter identified with elephants. This was expressed through the idea that elephants had sensitive skins. Not only did the sun’s rays effect them, the presence of flies and mosquitoes annoyed them.


I have not found many references to the Burmese people suffering from sunstroke, only the British and elephants. By writing about the sensitivity of their skins (as well as elephants’ skins) the British were establishing what historian of the senses Alain Corbin calls a ‘hierarchy of sensibility’. By this he meant the belief that people higher in the hierarchy thought they were able to feel more things and to be more affected by sensory experiences than those at the lower runs of society. In the colonial context, this was a hierarchy structured by supposed racial differences between the Burmese and the British. Racial superiority was not only defined by the colour of the skin, but also by its sensitivity.

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