Smells Like Empire (to an Elephant)

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about British colonizers’ sense of smell in Burma. I suggested that what they thought smelt bad revealed their prejudices about Burmese society. In addition, I wrote that they believed their nasal experience of Empire led them to have more refined sensibilities than their compatriots back home. When I shared the blog post on social media, a friend responded with “Needs more elephants”—a reaction to the fact that I’d just written a spate of posts about elephants. Well, here’s my belated response.

One of the more bizarre claims about elephants’ senses that I have come across during my research was that they didn’t like the smell of Europeans. P.A.W. Howe made this claim in his unpublished memoirs about his time working with elephants during the 1920s to 1942 for a timber company in the colony. He wrote that one female elephant nearly threw him off her back because of her dislike of his smell. He also went further and suggested that this was a general trait for Burmese elephants, writing: “Their main sense is that of smell and Europeans smelt very different from their Burmese riders. Thus Europeans were not liked by elephants.”

Hugh Nesbit, Experiences of a Jungle-Wallah (1910), opposite p.16
Hugh Nesbit, Experiences of a Jungle-Wallah (1910), opposite p.16

Many imperial writers who saw elephants at work were amazed by their cleverness and skill. Some of these writers remarked on the special, mysterious connection between the animal and its driver. It was seen as a close bond coming out of tactile intimacy, one that could not be learned—certainly not by the British—only acquired through experience. The unfamiliar smell of a European was part of Howe’s explanation for why they could not get this knowledge. For the colonizers’ part, Howe claimed that the hairs on an elephant’s back were especially irritating to white skin. All this naturalized and romanticized the relationship between elephant and driver through ideas of racial difference. But at the same time, it suggests some concern over white bodies in the “tropics”. Their skins were sensitive and they smelt funny. This wider anxiety about their bodies might have meant that when Howe attempted to imagine how he might have seemed to an elephant, the result was not very complimentary.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Luke says:

    Not to mention that humans routinely extinguish, subjugate, enslave and consume individual and entire species of animals as part of our daily routine. If animals were to become aware of the scale of our destruction, then indeed their evaluations of our species would hardly be “complimentary”. Looking into the eyes of a working elephant, one of the most intelligent of animals, reflects this simple power relationship and can result in humans experiencing not only anxiety, but shame and guilt as well.

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Very well put, and very true. Guilt may have played a part in this. Certainly the romantic portrayal of working elephants’ relationships with their riders served to mask the violence of ‘training’. As for Howe’s memoirs, when he did discuss the violence of ‘training’ an elephant—often shocking and brutal—he showed little sign of much shame and guilt.

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