Hunting White Elephants Across Archives

It’s a miserably wet day in Delhi, so I’m using this as an opportunity to catch up on my blog, which has been neglected for the past few weeks. I’m in Delhi, instead of Yangon, in order to use the National Archive of India. This is the first time that I have used this archive. Because colonial Burma was ruled as part of British India until 1937, many relevant records are held here. And because of the geographies of imperial governance, they compliment the collections held at the National Archive of Myanmar. This can be illustrated by my on-going attempts to find out what became of the royal white elephant following the annexation of Upper Burma in December 1885.

I had been a little unsure about what had happened to the white elephant because I had read two conflicting accounts. The first was that the white elephant had died in Mandalay immediately after King Thibaw was exiled to India by the British. This was widely reported in British newspapers. The second was that the white elephant was taken to Rangoon Zoological Gardens; an institution which was not built for another twenty years. I think now, based on recent research, that there were in fact two white elephants. But in the National Archives of Myanmar a few weeks ago, I thought that I had found a third account.

Two young elephants—including a white elephant—were discovered at the palace and acquired by the transport department. But they were too young to for work, and British officials felt that the white elephant shouldn’t be used for such undignified manual labour. Instead, it was suggested that the white elephant should be offered to the king of Siam as a gift. This idea was approved by the Chief Commissioner, and here the correspondence ended. It stopped because the archive in Yangon contains correspondence that happened at the level of the Government of Burma and below (its particular strength is its collection of documents from the Irrawaddy division). The matter had moved up the echelons of government.

This is the closest that I have got to a real white elephant. Some white towels creatively folded into the shape of an elephant by staff at my hotel in Yangon.
This is the closest that I have got to a real white elephant. Some white towels creatively folded into the shape of an elephant by staff at my hotel in Yangon.

When I began searching the catalogue at the National Archive of India, I found further letters that followed on from those that I had read in Yangon. The white elephant was not sent to Siam. The British Minister in Bangkok discouraged offering it as a gift because he felt that it might be received as an insult—the Burmese having bettered them in wars that the British believed had been waged over these rare animals. Instead, the animal was offered to London Zoo. This plan also fell through, in part because of disputes over who would cover the costs of its travel. An American visiting Mandalay encouraged the Government of Burma to offer it instead to the New York Zoo. But in the end the Secretary State for India intervened and advised that the elephant should remain in Burma. This was because of his fear that its removal from the country could worsen the already widespread resistance to the imposition of colonial rule that had broken out during 1886. Any plans to sell the elephant within the country were deemed impossible because of the Chief Commissioner of Burma’s fear that it would be acquired by a pretender to the throne. And the representatives of the Burmese Sangha (the Buddhist monastic community) whom officials approached wanted nothing to do with the animal, arguing that it had no religious significance—something that ran against British portrayals of white elephants as animals worshiped by the Burmese. So, in the end it was decided to keep the elephant in Phayre Gardens in Rangoon for public viewing. The keeping of the white elephant was a forerunner of the eventual zoo. What happened to the young white elephant’s companion is not mentioned.

The material in the National Archive of India was filed under ‘Secret Proceedings E’ in the Foreign Department records. As the correspondence in British Burma moved up the administrative hierarchy, it physically moved to Calcutta (the then capital of British India). The location of this material today is a sign of the growing importance attached the fate of the white elephant at the time, as the so-called ‘pacification’ campaign intensified. When I return to England, it’ll be interesting to find out whether the creature’s significance brought it into the India Office Records held at the British Library in London—and if it did, for what reasons.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. patsy says:

    Hello Jonathan, I am in midst of writing a book of my parents life pre war in Rangoon and beyond here in Australia– they were both Ango-Burmese and treked out during the war to India. I remember my father telling me the most wonderful stories of elephants in Burma. My Dad was Assist. General Manager working for Bombay Burmah Timber Co.Ltd. (BBTCL) at their main mill in Dundeedaw, Rangoon. He did tell us stories of the white elephants the King and Queen (sent into exile to India) had. I always thought the elephants stayed in Mandalay so your searching for them is just wonderful. am desperately seeking where i can obtain photos of elephants Sawmill yard or working in the jungle to use in my book – unfortunately, most of the photos are all tied up with copywrites and very expensive to buy/use. Please deep up the good work you are doing and i will look forward to hearing from you again. With every good wish – Patsy Evans (Australia) p.s. I was born in Bangalore during the war.

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Thanks for your comment Patsy–it’s always great to hear about people’s connections to Burma’s past! If you ever visit London, you should stop by the London Metropolitan Archives. They have the records of the BBTC, and they’re pretty extensive. You might be able to find some documents about your Dad’s work. When I am there next, I will see if I stumble across anything that might be useful to you. As for photographs, I think that the UK National Archive’s flickr account has the photographer Philip Klier’s photos on an open copyright license. They include some stunning shots of working elephants in Rangoon in 1907. Here’s the link:

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