Theories of Evolution in Colonial Burma

Historians of natural history have long explored the emergence of evolutionary theory. Most of the studies that I have read on the subject tend to discuss its development and influence within an Imperial framework. The colonized world appears in these histories as a site in which key figures, such as Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles…

Monkey Business in Yangon Zoo

I’ve spent most of today trying to read a gossip column from 1928 that appeared in the Burmese language newspaper Thuriya. The column was a regular feature in the paper which ran from at least as early as 1915 and was written by a man going by the pseudonym ‘Town Mouse’. In this particular episode,…

The Elephant in the Strike

The memoirs of British employees in the timber industry and the archives of British-owned timber firms both document  some small-scale and seemingly-spontaneous strikes that occurred in the Burmese jungle during the 1920s. Elephant drivers—called oozies in Burmese—refused to work unless their conditions and pay improved. But striking in a jungle timber camp was not an…

Exploding Mosquito Larvae and Jumping Lab Rats

I’m often tempted, when researching the history of science, to focus on experiments that seem, today, to have been odd or unusual. This is not a helpful approach. It can belittle the scientific understandings of the past and reinforce the simplistic story that ideas inexorably improve over time. Despite this, recently I found myself giving…

Reading Burmese Animal Tattoos

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about Captain Constantine, an Albanian man whose entire body was covered with Burmese tattoos. When he left Southeast Asia for Europe and then north America in the 1870s he became the object of considerable scientific, medical and anthropological curiosity. Later he toured with the circus of…

Counting the Dead

It is near impossible to give accurate figures for the numbers of wild animals killed by imperial hunters in colonial Burma. It is harder still to tell what effect that hunting might have had on the wildlife populations. It is, however, possible to get a sense of how many animals were killed by some individual…

Teak and Photography in Colonial Burma

A few days ago the great grandson of Percival Marshall—an employee of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation during the interwar years—made contact with me to share his relavtive’s photographs of working in colonial Burma’s forests. The images document the labour that went into felling trees and transporting them across the country for export. They show…

Getting the Wasp into the Cyanide Jar

In his address to the Bombay Natural History Society in 1893, Colonel Charles Thomas Bingham regaled the audience with stories from his recent trip along the Myawaddy Road that ran between British Burma and Siam collecting rare specimens of bird, butterfly and wasp. Using cliched imagery, he wrote of the region’s “unbroken forests” where “no…

The Call of the Tame

In the introduction to their edited collection, the  geographers Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert drew a distinction between ‘animal spaces’ and ‘beastly places’.  Animal spaces were the material and imaginative geographies that nonhuman species were put by humans. So, dogs belong in a kennel, monkeys in a zoo or the wild, goldfish in a goldfish…

Paratextual Pachyderms

This week I read Sainthill Eardley-Wilmot’s 1912 book The Life of an Elephant. It was one of a number of fictional accounts of animal lives written in the early-twentieth century that attempted to capture what it might be like to be another species. Eardley-Wilmot himself had previously published a popular volume on the life of…

Where’s the Cow in the Condensed Milk?

I’ve recently been doing some research into milk production in colonial Burma and going through the pages of the anti-colonial daily newspaper Thuriya for the interwar years. Despite trying to encourage domestic production of commodities through articulating a form of economic nationalism, the paper was mostly full of adverts for foreign products—including both powdered and…

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….