Colonial Slaughterhouse Rules

A couple of weeks ago I had an article published by the Journal of Historical Geography on the history of dairy cattle in colonial Burma. The article explored how oxen were bound up with colonial geographies; in this case through the state’s policing of the movement of Indian milch cattle into British Burma. Something that I didn’t write about was beef. The killing of cattle to sell their flesh as meat was also a process bound up with the colonial state’s attempts to regulate space.

During the 1880s and 1890s, various local British officials in Burma became concerned about the slaughter of cattle in the colony. They worried that the creatures were being killed in an unsanitary fashion. It was also thought that stolen cattle was being slaughtered for market, making a tidy profit for a cattle thief and eliminating any chance of the original owner recovering their beast. Licensing slaughterhouses came out as the preferred solution. Prospective licensees would bid in public auctions for permission to run these slaughterhouses.

In the first decade of the twentieth century municipal authorities began to order that beef sold in their markets should only be from cattle killed in licensed slaughterhouses. There they were subjected to medical oversight and held for a temporary period in a cattle pound where the animals’ identities and owners could be verified. But these rules only covered areas that had been ‘notified’ by the authorities. In effect, there were regulated slaughterhouses in designated areas and outside of these cattle could be killed without state oversight.

Image from M.L. Treston, Health Notes Medical and Sanitary (n.d. c.1941). For more details, see this blog post.
Image from M.L. Treston, Health Notes Medical and Sanitary (n.d. c.1941). For more details, see this blog post.

Records in the National Archives of Myanmar suggest that in Irrawaddy delta, at least, this policy was not particularly successful. Cattle was still slaughtered outside of notified areas and some official attempts to control these activities fell foul of the law. In response, gradually more and more areas were notified. However, proposals to allow Burmese headmen to issue slaughterhouse licenses, and thus expand the scope of regulations, descended into debates over whether as Buddhists they would be disposed to formally sanction the killing of cattle at all. In addition, the regulations on licensed slaughterhouses were not well enforced. British officials had little faith in the vigilance of low-ranking veterinary officials. Complicating matters further, competing licensees would attempt to discredit one another with petitions alleging poor practice.

In the 1920s and 1930s new concerns began to emerge about the way in which animals were killed. British officials and Burmese Buddhist politicians questioned whether halal slaughter was humane—a trend that Nurfadzilah Yahaya has identified in an excellent article looking at animal slaughter in colonial Malaya. Since most of the licensed slaughterhouses in colonial Burma were run by Indian and Chinese migrants, colonial regulations effectively reinforced a tense relationship through which Burmese cattle owners sent their livestock to be slaughtered by groups perceived by some to be foreign. As a result, this emerging concern over methods of slaughter might be part of a wider anti-Indian politics in Burma during the interwar years. Certainly in recent years, xenophobic Buddhists nationalists have targeted slaughterhouses run by local Muslims.

This post is just a short addendum to the article, but it further demonstrates how animals were entangled with the messy realities of colonial rule and its legacies.

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