Skip to main content  

Rafting elephants across the Irrawaddy River

​Rafting elephants across the Irrawaddy River on a raft. Ref: CLC/B/208/MS29564

Jonathan Saha, University of Bristol

If you were researching the history of Burmese elephants, Farringdon may not be the first place you’d think of to visit. And yet, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) holds a range of documents that reveal fascinating insights to the history of these most charismatic of creatures.

Over the last few months I have made a number trips to the Archives to learn about how British colonial rule transformed Burma’s wildlife, with a particular interest in the impact that it had on the country’s elephant population. I found plenty of relevant records in the papers of two British timber firms which operated in the colony: the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation (LMA CLC/B/207-09) and Steel Brothers (CLC/B/208).

During the nineteenth century, companies financed in London expanded their operations from India into the newly conquered adjoining colony of British Burma. Among them were timber firms, who had their eyes on Burma’s teak forests. As a result of this expansion, by the early twentieth century Burma was the world’s largest supplier of teak. Over half a million tons of teak were exported between 1919 and 1924 alone. The entire industry was dependent upon the labour of elephants. Elephants helped to take down the trees in the forests. They were vital in transporting the logs from the jungles to urban timber yards. And they were employed in those timber yards to stack the timber for shipping. Their essential role is reflected in their prominence in the records that I looked at, albeit in different ways. In the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation records elephants appear as important economic assets for the company, and as objects of medical investigation. The Steel Brothers’ records contain mostly photographs of everyday life in the forests.

In the documents outlining the accounts of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation we get a sense of how economically important elephants were. In the late nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth century, the purchase of elephants was the biggest capital cost for the timber firm. At the same time, their ownership of elephants was the primary security against which they could borrow and raise further capital. Elephants were not only essential workers, they were assets. As such, the illness or death of animal constituted a double loss for the Corporation. They lost the animal’s labour power, and they lost the monetary value embodied in the creature. This may explain why so much energy was spent trying to better understand the diseases that afflicted elephants.

The biggest threat was anthrax. In the documents from the 1920s and 1930s that detail how the company attempted to defeat the disease, we get a glimpse of some of the connections between veterinarians that spanned the breadth of the planet. A pharmaceutical company based in Australia attempted to develop a vaccine in the colony, but were largely unsuccessful. Information on anthrax outbreaks in cattle in Argentina was collected and circulated between timber firms operating in Burma. South Africans were recruited by the colonial government to develop a new vaccine on the basis of one produced to combat the disease in cows in the Cape. And the majority owners of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, the Wallace brothers, pulled strings and called in favours in order to solicit the help and support of veterinary experts based in Scotland. Part of the difficultly was that elephants were unusual semi-domesticated animals. In different parts of the British Empire, anthrax vaccinations had been developed for the ‘bovine strain’ of the disease in cattle, as well as for the ‘equine strain’ present in afflicted horses, but elephants did not fit comfortably in either category. As this brief example shows, because of the numbers employed in the colony’s timber trade (roughly 4000-5000 in the interwar years), Burma became an important site for the development of new medical knowledge about elephants.

The records in the Steel Brother’s archives reveal the cultural importance of elephants in colonial Burma. There are several volumes of photograph albums documenting life in the timber industry. The majority of the images captured in these albums are of elephants at work. Pictures of working elephants were very common during British rule. They were used in the marketing of Burma teak. The illustrated British press often carried drawings of working elephants from the colony. Photographers, amateur and professional, snapped these labouring animals. They were featured on many postcards from Burma. And tourists visiting Burma would visit timber yards to witness the animals working first-hand. Evidently, for the staff at the timber firms, working with the elephants was an emotional aspect of their careers that they wanted to capture and remember.

Elephants are represented quite differently in these two archives, and this shows the contradictory relationship between colonial rule and nature. On the one hand, the natural world was viewed as a resource to be exploited and adapted for benefit of the state and allied British commercial firms. On the other, nature was valued for its beauty. There to visually enjoyed. Elephants continued to have other meanings and significance in Burma, religious, political, etc., but in the colonial period it was these two contradictory understandings that became the most prominent.

More information on the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation (LMA CLC/B/207-09) and Steel Brothers (CLC/B/208) archives can be found by visiting LMA’s online catalogue.

14 January 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018