Orwell and Colonialism

Debbie Herz '92, English 32, 1990

"I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool." So ends George Orwell's poignant reminiscence of an incident representing the imperialist British in Burma. Unlike Soyinka, who wrote about colonialism from the African's point of view, Orwell, like Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, presents the moral dilemmas of the imperialist. Orwell served with the Imperialist Police in Burma while it was still part of the British Commonwealth and Empire. His service from 1922 to 1927 burdened himwith a sense of guilt about British colonialism as well a need to make some personal expiation for it (Norton 2259). "Shooting an Elephant" chronicles an incident in which Orwell confronts a moral dilemma and abandons his morals to escape the mockery of the native Burmans. He repeatedly shoots and kills an elephant which had ravaged a bazaar and scared many Burmans even though "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him" (6).

Orwell's moral conflict stems from his position as the despised Imperialist in a colonized country. Ironically, however, Orwell claims that during his tenure with the Imperialist Police, "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British" (p.3). Seeing the "dirty work" of the British Imperialists "oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt" (3).

Despite his support for the Burmese, Orwell endured their overwhelming bitterness and hatred because of his British heritage: "the sneering faces . . . of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me . . got badly on my nerves" (p.3). Orwell sums up his feelings of guilt, coupled with his reaction against being hated: "All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible" (4). Although part of him saw the British Raj as tyrannical, "with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts" (4). Orwell rationalizes his rage saying, "Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism" (4). Orwell realizes that tyrannical imperialism works against both the imperialists and the natives.

Orwell abandons his morals and kills the elephant to garner the approval of the Burmans. He feels compelled to shoot the animal because the Burmans "did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching" (6). Orwell speaks of himself when he says "it is the condition of [the imperialist's] rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it" (7). Orwell's story portrays him as suffocating under a mask which he loathes.

Orwell presents the pathetic quality of his whole life, and "every white man's life in the East," which "was one long struggle not to be laughed at" (7). Orwell's fears of mockery represent the fears of imperialists of a loss of control. While the British could control the economics and politics of their colonies, they could not control the mockery and disdain of the natives. Of the moment when he faced the elephant, Orwell says, "The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on, and reduced to a grinning corpse." He fears "And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do" (8). Orwell dreads the mockery of the natives more than losing his own life.

In "Shooting an Elephant," as Orwell "stood there with the rifle in my hands," he "first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East" (7). Orwell tells a story of moral suffering. He sadly reflects on his ironical realizaiton that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys" (7). Orwell's story evokes pathos for the politically powerful imperialist who suffers from his own tyranny.

Some Questions

  1. What would Soyinka say in response to Orwell's assertion that "Feelings like these [wanting to kill the Burmans] are the normal by-products of imperialism"?
  2. Orwell claims: "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." Would Soyinka sympathize with this perspective? Would Conrad?

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