George Orwell wrote a shocking account of a colonial policeman who kills an elephant and is filled with self-loathing. But was this fiction or a confession? An Orwell expert introduces the original story
British imperialism being a largely commercial concern, when Burma became a part of the empire in 1886 the exploitation of its forests accelerated. Since motorised transport was useless in such hilly terrain, the timber companies used elephants. These docile, intelligent creatures were worth their weight in gold, hauling logs, stacking them near streams, launching them on their way and sometimes even clearing log jams that the foresters could not shift.
In the 1920s a young would-be poet, an ex-Etonian named Eric Blair, arrived as a Burma Police recruit and was posted to several places, culminating in Moulmein. Here he was accused of killing a timber company elephant, the chief of police saying he was a disgrace to Eton. Blair resigned while back in England on leave, and published several books under his assumed name, George Orwell.
In 1936 these were followed by what he called a sketch describing how, and more importantly why, he had killed a runaway elephant during his time in Moulmein, today known as Mawlamyine. By this time Orwell was highly regarded, and many were reluctant to accept that he had indeed killed an elephant. Six years later, however, a cashiered Burma Police captain named Herbert Robinson published a memoir in which he reported young Eric Blair (whom he called the poet) as saying back in the 1920s that he wanted to kill an elephant.