King Thibaw’s Elephants

It’s been a nearly two months since my last post. Childcare, trade union activism, departmental admin and a lovely holiday have kept me away. To catch up with my research I spent today looking at a collection of fifty Anglo-Burmese paintings held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have digitized them and made them available online. They were painted in 1887, not long after the deposition of the King Thibaw by the British. The paintings were probably commissioned by a British colonial officer and painted by an unknown Burmese artist. They are a hybrid-style that is known as “Company painting”.

The first twenty paintings are of elephants. Of these elephant images, the first four are of generic elephants. They are instructional; providing details about how elephants are driven.

D.530-1901 Elephant
D.530-1901 “No title” ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you look closely at the elephant’s head, you’ll see Burmese letters painted in red. These letters correspond to key points that an elephant driver uses to manipulate the elephant. The accompanying English text explains:

No. 1 The first motion of stopping this elephant touched with a hook under the Eye. Second stop of more Power under the Shoulder of the Trunk. The third stronger stop on the top of the Head when an Elephant is difficult to stop must be touched on the point of the Shoulder of the Trunk. To gode[sic] an Elephant to fight easily is right under the Jaw. To make him fight more vigorously is to touch him in the Ear.

The informant who was providing this knowledge, like the artist, is unknown. It is a reminder that while these paintings are the hybrid products of an artistic encounter between Burmese and British styles, the audience for them and the ownership of them was more lopsidedly European.

The remaining sixteen paintings are of particular individual elephants. They are not listed by their given names, but by the dignitary who rode them.

D.536-1901 The King's Elephant - His Majesty's favourite
D.536-1901 “The King’s Elephant – His Majesty’s favourite” ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
d-535-1901-the-kings-girls-elephant.jpg
D.535-1901 “The King’s Girls Elephant” ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
d-534-1901-the-dam-of-the-palaces-elephant.jpg
D.534-1901 “The Dam of the Palace’s Elephant” ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The detail of the paintings suggest that these are attempting to capture each individual’s distinctive characteristics. This opens the possibility of cross referencing these images with other documents and paintings that could help us identify these animals. For instance, in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture from 1885, showing King Thibaw meeting Colonel Sladen, there is an elephant looking on.

119904
Image number: 119904 “King Thibaw talking with Colonel Sladen in the North Garden of his palace, Mandalay, 1885” ©National Army Museum

And, in a series of images depicting King Thibaw being deposed, there are these two elephants fighting a tiger.

canvas
Or 14963 “19th century, Scenes of British deposition of the last king of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma” ©The British Library Board

While we are not able to positively identify these elephants, we can rule out some individuals who were painted. Neither scene shows “The King’s elephant when he goes to take air”, or the elephant that Thibaw rode “to take pleasure in his Planet”, since both of these animals have small tusks. Nevertheless, further research, and analysis conducted by someone with a specialist eye, might enable us to positively identify certain individual elephants in other portrayals that have survived.

Finally, we might be able to find the names of these animals. A report drawn up by the British following the annexation of Upper Burma in 1886 documents 176 of the King’s former elephants that had been found in villages across the territory. The document gives their name, as well as when and where they were located.

elephant list
Snippet of National Archives of Myanmar 1/1(A) 1890, 1886 File No. 141 “White Elephant and List of State Elephants”

Further research could enable us work out whether any of the elephants that were painted were named in this list. Ultimately, because of the nature of colonial collecting and recording, it may be that we can find out more about the elephants that were painted than the humans who painted them.

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