Elephant Steeplechase

So, on 25 May 1858, this apparently happened in Yangon.

Source: The London Illustrated New, 25 September 1858. Found: New York Public Library Digital Collections. Copyrighted for commercial use.
Source: The London Illustrated News, 25 September 1858. Found: New York Public Library Digital Collections. Copyrighted for commercial use.

This chaotic scene is an elephant steeplechase. According to the newspaper report that accompanied this engraving, the officers of the garrison posted in Yangon organised this event as part of their celebrations marking Queen Victoria’s birthday. They dressed as jockeys and raced the elephants, which were ‘steered’ by their mahouts. The local British population bet on which elephant they thought would win—the excitement of gambling apparently meant that the artist ‘allowed his pencil to be carried away, a little, by his feelings when he was portraying them.’ The favourite was called ‘Grainbags’. On the right hand side of the picture is a three ft. deep, seven ft. long ditch that was used as the third jump, except that none of the elephants jumped it. Predictably, they clambered in and out of it, the author noted with mirth, ‘like elephants!’

I was a little surprised that this event happened at all. A year earlier the East India Company had made a request that as many elephants as possible be sent from newly colonised Lower Burma to help quell the Indian rebellion against imperial rule that had engulfed the north of the subcontinent. However, it does demonstrate a particular moment in imperial-elephant relations. At this time, elephants were still a novelty to most British people and in India they were mostly used by the military for transport. Interest in them was often about their physicality; how big, fast and strong they were. This image captures this interest. But by the end of the century, this event would probably have been viewed as indecorous. As military uses of elephants declined (although it didn’t end), increasing numbers of trained elephants in the colony were employed by timber firms. They were essential to the teak industry. And, whilst still a novelty to the British tourists who would come to see them at work in Yangon’s timber yards, now the interest was in their displays of intelligence and dexterity as much as their physical presence. Since elephants had come to be seen as stately creatures, with almost-human internal worlds, showing them racing inelegantly over a series of obstacles for the enjoyment of a betting public was no longer in-keeping with imperial sensibilities. But, then, there were other animals to race.

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