Hunting Humans

The British did not only hunt animals in Burma, they hunted humans too. At times of widespread rebellion, colonial counter-insurgency strategies involved identifying, tracking and killing particular rebels. Although the ends were different, the methods were similar. So were their narratives about these different chases. Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Ballad of Boh Da Thone’, about a particularly elusive rebel being hunted by the British in the 1880s, makes this overlap between human and nonhuman prey explicit.

In the poem, Boh Da Thone is a pretender to the throne that is pursued through the jungle by Captain O’Neil, in charge of a company of Irish soldiers. Distinguishable by his large jade earring, Boh Da Thone always manages to evade capture.

There were lads from Galway and Louth and Meath
Who went to their death with a joke in their teeth,
And worshipped with fluency, fervour, and zeal
The mud on the boot-heels of “Crook” O’Neil.
But ever a blight on their labours lay,
And ever their quarry would vanish away,
Till the sun-dried boys of the Black Tyrone
Took a brotherly interest in Boh Da Thone:
And, sooth, if pursuit in possession ends,
The Boh and his trackers were best of friends.
The word of a scout – a march by night –
A rush through the mist – a scattering fight –
A volley from cover – a corpse in the clearing –
The glimpse of a loin-cloth and heavy jade earring –
The flare of a village – the tally of slain –
And. . .the Boh was abroad on the raid again!
They cursed their luck, as the Irish will,
They gave him credit for cunning and skill,
They buried their dead, they bolted their beef,
And started anew on the track of the thief

This passage echoes hunting stories. The glimpses of the prey in the jungle. The begrudging respect that O’Neil and his men bestow on Boh Da Thone as a worthy enemy. Kipling even refers to the rebel prince using the hunting term, ‘quarry’.

In one skirmish, O’Neil is shot by Boh Da Thone and in his anguish pledges that he would give a hundred rupees to see the rebel’s head. This is overheard by one Babu Harendra, an employee of the Government Bullock Train. Eventually, O’Neil leaves Burma and settles down to married life in India. But just as his painful memories are beginning to recede, he receives a gruesome parcel in the post: the head of Boh Da Thone with a note attached to his forehead, written by Harendra, requesting his reward.

Kipling continues to use allusions to hunting throughout the poem. In describing how Harendra killed the rebel, he writes that Boh Da Thone ‘dropped like a bullock’. In addition, his decapitated head becomes a trophy. But the unfortunate rebel is not only represented as an animal. Kipling also relies on colonial beliefs about the weakness of Asian bodies to explain his death, attributing the ease at which Boh Da Thone was killed to his ‘enlarged spleen’—a common explanation for the death of colonised subjects, particularly in cases when they had been murdered by Europeans.

Source: F.W.T. Pollok and W.H. Thom, 'Wild Sports of Burma and Assam' (1900), p. 151
Source: F. W. T. Pollok and W. T. Thom, Wild Sports of Burma and Assam (1900), p. 151

Kipling was not the only imperial writer to include human prey within hunting narratives set in colonial Burma. W. T. Thom—a colonial policeman, co-author of the successful Wild Sports of Burma and Assam (1900), and avid, unrepentant, and proud sportsman—was even more candid in drawing connections between hunting animals and hunting humans. He titled his unpublished memoirs on his over fifty years in the colony, ‘The Life Reminiscenses[sic], and thrilling adventures of a retired officer of the Imperial Police Service, Burma, Hunting Big Game, Fish and Men in Burma. (1887 to 1948)’. Chapter three of the manuscript was dedicated to his experiences in the police force hunting ‘dacoits’ (a term used for anti-colonial rebels, social bandits and gang-robbers alike), although in most of his stories its seems that the police were the hunted, rather than the hunters.

Animal historians are often keen to expose the blurred boundary between the human and the nonhuman that existed in the past. In this vein, Thom and Kipling’s writings are a reminder that in colonial contexts hunting animals for sport was never far removed from hunting humans for the state.

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