Proliferating Elephants

One of the things that I was not sure of when helping to set up the recent Elephants and Empire exhibition at Myanmar Deitta gallery in Yangon, was the intended purpose of these photographs. Originally taken by staff of the Steel Brothers company documenting the teak industry, there were no accompanying written documents explaining what they were for. Recently, however, I had an email from someone who owns a photograph taken under the auspices of Steel Brothers.

© Debi Horton

The photograph is very similar to those in the collection, showing a group of elephants with their riders arranged so that they can all be seen by the camera, just like the picture below. Like this and others in the collection, there are elephant calves visible in among the full-grown adults. The image above is perhaps a little more artist than some of those in the collection, neatly capturing the animals’ reflections in the water.



© London Metropolitan Archives

Not only does the picture fit with those of held in the Steel Brothers’ archival collection, it provides us with clues about their provenance. On the back of the mounted photograph is a message.

© Debi Horton

The top cation reads “With Compliments of Steel Brothers & Company Limited”, and the one beneath reads:

A Prolific Elephant

The dam (on right) is 43 years old, and the other five elephants are her offspring–all born in captivity. From left to right their ages are 26, 19, 13, 8 and 3.


Messrs. Steel Brothers’ Burma Teak Forests –1934–

There are several things that this suggests. Firstly, it shows that photographs of working elephants were used by the timber firm as gifts. The owner, who bought this photograph second-hand, thought that it might have been given to a shareholder. Perhaps some of the images in the collection that we have been exhibiting were also taken to be sent to Steel Brothers’ contacts. They may have been photographs intended to help cement imperial commercial networks.

Secondly, the photograph suggests dates when some of the photographs might have been taken. We know that some were taken just before the Japanese occupation of Myanmar during the Second World War. But the date on this image suggests that some may have been taken earlier. A comparison of the style and type of film might enable us to identify others in the collection taken at around the same time as this one.

Thirdly, the explanation of the content of the image might indicate how other photographs were arranged. Photographs with elephant calves were, perhaps, more desirable. The group shots of elephants may also be of families.

The five calves born of the “prolific elephant” that was photographed was a rare example of a high reproductive rate for a female working elephant, since elephants’ fertility is often foreshortened because of the stresses of the labour regime. Nevertheless, while working elephant populations may not have proliferated in the herds of the timber industry as much as this photograph suggests, photographs of working elephants certainly did proliferate widely.


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