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Imperialism The Elephant Among Us History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The phrase “White man’s burden,” coined by Rudyard Kipling, accurately represents the viewpoint which Western society has towards imperialism; as it claims that it is the duty of the white man to essentially civilize other cultures by converting them to Western mannerisms. Although the practice of imperialism has been justified under the pretense of improving the society, the reality of imperialism is a developed nation extending their power over a foreign nation for the purpose of economic gain. George Orwell writes Shooting An Elephant after his service as an Indian Imperial Police officer in Burma to highlight the negative impact that imperialism has on both the oppressed and the oppressors. While in Burma, Orwell witnesses the unjust that is imperialism as he watches the British abuse their power by taking over the wealth of the nation and also, from the lack of respect shown to the inhabitants since they are treated inhumanely and their culture is in the process of being eradicated. By the British rejecting the Burmese culture and not respecting their practices, the Burmese were treated inhumanely because of their cultural differences, causing racial tensions to arise between the groups as they became more divided.


At the start of the essay, the narrator immediately makes his unhappiness in Burma known, reflecting back on football matches where he would be jeered at and taunted. However, his discontent wasn’t solely the fault of the Burmese, the narrator makes it explicitly clear that he does not agree with the practice of imperialism as he sees the effect it has on the natives. Although he claims to be on the side of the natives, he also harbors a hatred towards them. Later in the day the narrator hears news about an elephant that has gone must and is rampaging the town, so he brings his pistol with him though he has no intention of actually killing the elephant, and follows after it. The natives seeing the narrator with a gun, begin to crowd behind him and follow him to where the elephant is. While the narrator is following the trail of the elephant, he spots a victim of the rampage, an indian man whom had been killed, giving into the pressure of the crowd and an excuse to justify the killing, he decides to shoot the elephant, even though the elephant has now calmed down. Despite the fact that the elephant was no longer a threat, the narrator shoots the elephant, much to the natives’ pleasure as they will reap the benefits of the dead elephant. The narrator is aware that the situation could have been avoided and even considers the act to be similar to murder, however even after acknowledging those facts he states that his sole purpose for killing the elephant was not out of justice for the man it had killed, but rather for his pride, so he would not appear foolish to the Burmese.


At the beginning of the essay, the narrator makes it clear that he is constantly ridiculed and resented by the Burmese, along with the other British officers, despite the fact that he agrees with the natives that imperialism is wrong. However, because the Burmese openly resent the British, since they are aware that they are being treated inhumanely, this only fuels the British’s harsh treatment towards the Burmese, which creates a constant tension between the two groups. Orwell writes this essay for the general public of Britain to convey the detrimental effects that imperialism has not only on the countries brought under British rule, but also to the British. Throughout the essay the narrator states that the colonizers will lose their integrity and compromise their moral values when they are placed in a position of power of having authority over others, much like how his own were compromised. Orwell writes the British public in order to spread awareness of the harm that imperialism is causing in the sense that the natives are being treated inhumanely as their culture is slowly disappearing due to the British demand in becoming westernized. The audience only sees one side of imperialism, which are the profits made from the country and using the fact that they are becoming more civilized to justify their actions, rather than to acknowledge the injustices of having the cultural and religious practices infringed upon, and generally being disrespected.


When the narrator decides to shoot the elephant, he justifies his actions by explaining that he feels pressured, believing that he “…has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” ( Orwell 184). Despite the fact that the narrator makes it explicitly clear that he does not want to shoot the elephant, especially since it was calm, he feels pressured by the crowd to do what is expected of a British officer, which would be to uphold the law since the elephant has killed someone. Shooting the elephant demonstrates how imperialism has an effect on both the oppressors and the oppressed. The British police officers act corrupt in order to keep up with the appearance that they are justified to have power over the natives, essentially causing him to “…wear a mask,” (Orwell 181). The narrator comes to term that the British government is “an unbreakable tyranny” (Orwell 181) .On one side he is regarded as a wise ruler, however, he knows that his actions are wrong, though he must behave in such a way to disguise this. Furthermore, when the narrator decides to go against his moral integrity, he automatically feels guilty, “It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die,” (186). The narrator is aware that he is now forced to live with his actions of going against his moral ideals, however, he sees just how immense of a benefit the dead elephant was worth to the natives. Also, the elephants’ unwillingness to die is parallel of British colonialism, in the sense that the British were not willing to relinquish their power over the colonies they had ruled. The narrator lost his control by shooting the elephant similarly to the British losing its control on the colonies. Additionally, by drawing a parallel between the elephant and Britain, Orwell successfully establishes the true nature of imperialism. For example, through shooting the elephant, Orwell highlights the shift in power in the sense that after the elephant is shot, the Burmese, “…had stripped his body almost to the bones by afternoon,” meaning that the Burmese took charge and asserted their power over the British, and reaped the benefits of the destruction of imperialism (Orwell 186). The older officers believed that the narrator was right in shooting the elephant, while the younger officers disagreed stating that, “It was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie”, emphasizing the fact that the older officers had witnessed the atrocious effect that imperialism had and believed that it was necessary to eradicate it, while the younger officers were not even aware that what they were enforcing was wrong. The narrator was justified in shooting the elephant, due to the fact that imperialism was damaging to both the oppressed and the oppressors, however, he did not shoot the elephant for the right reasons, since he did not want to appear as foolish.

Annotated Bibliography

George Orwell demonstrates the negative impact that imperialism has on both the oppressed and the oppressors in his essay Shooting An Elephant, which was based on his experience as an Indian Imperial Police Officer. Orwell notes details as to how the Burmese were treated as a result of being colonized by the British, and also how the British were affected as well. The authors goal is to expose the true nature of imperialism and the detrimental effects that is had on the parties involved. Therefore, this essay is targeted towards the British public due to the fact that they were ignorant of the true nature of imperialism and had the ability to advocate against it once they understood the repercussions.

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