An Animal History of Colonial Burma

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


The colonisation of Burma did not only affect humans, it had huge ramifications for the country's animal population. This aspect of colonial rule has been neglected by historians. Despite this, the centrality of animals to British rule in Burma was apparent in a host of different areas. Elephant labour was essential for imperial commercial interests, particularly to the lucrative timber trade. Elephants were also used extensively by the state for military transportation as well as for urban and railway construction. Dogs, rats and mosquitoes were vectors of diseases that posed risks to the health of both the ruling British population as well as to their colonised subjects. Snakes too were viewed by the British as a potent danger to life. As a result, colonial officials sought out ways of managing, and often destroying, these dangerous animals. Other animals were killed principally for sport, since big game hunting was central to imperial identity and Burma was a popular site for shooting. In contrast, the deaths of some animals were a cause for concern. The plight of the Irrawaddy dolphins and the sea-turtles that frequented the Burma delta was a marker of ecological deterioration resulting from the expansion of rice cultivation in the late-nineteenth century. Animals were also important in anti-colonial politics. Burmese nationalists used animals symbolically in their campaigns, and the ethical treatment of animals became a battleground upon which British imperialists and Burmese Buddhist nationalists each attempted to claim moral superiority. Burma makes a particularly important case study for the colonial history of human-animal relationships because of three distinctive features: the prominence of animals in anti-colonial politics; the scale of environmental change in the delta; and its role as a site for imperial studies of particular animal species, especially elephants, snakes and mosquitoes.

The wider implications of this project are significant. It is of increasing importance to learn more about the ecological impact of human societies, and research into the effect of colonisation on the animal populations of Burma will produce vital data on a crucial historical period marked by rapid modernisation. In addition, as Burma moves into a phase of more intensive global interaction and economic development, reflecting on the colonial period will aid our understanding of the current challenges of managing the effects of this transformation on Burma's wildlife. Through archival research, I will uncover both British and Burmese writings about animals. Reading across different genres (scientific texts, newspaper stories, bureaucratic government reports, novels, amongst others) the project will reassess the much contested impact of colonisation on Burma, examining how human-animal relations were re-figured in the colonial encounter. It will be one of the first research projects to bring the growing field of animal history into the history of Southeast Asia, and through this transform medical, cultural, environmental and socio-economic histories of the region.

The fellowship will develop my skills in leading and managing a pioneering research project into a new area of historical research. The published outputs resulting from the fellowship will enhance my status as a research leader in the field of Burmese history and imperial history. As a fellow I will forge new interdisciplinary connections between Southeast Asian history, animal studies and the environmental humanities. The fellowship will also enable me to make collaborative links with the Bristol Museum, and to develop a creative and interactive website to engage with the general public.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of this research will include the wider public and the Bristol Museum.

A major outcome of my research will be an on-line exhibition, entitled 'Buddhas and Bird-skins: Bringing Burma to Bristol in the Age of Empire', which I expect to launch at the end of the fellowship in Autumn 2015. I am currently in discussions with collections officers working with the natural history and the ethnographic collections at the Bristol Museum, both of which contain many artefacts that were acquired from Burma in the late-nineteenth century and the early-twentieth century. The exhibition will be hosted on a website supported by the University of Bristol, and it will display approximately 40 artefacts. These will be Burmese cultural artefacts depicting animals and animal remains, such as hunting trophies and specimens for the study of natural history, collected from British Burma (1824-1948). Images of the objects will be framed by short historical essays explaining the meanings attached to them by both the Burmese and the British, as well as providing the story of how the item was created and came to be in Bristol.

The Museum will benefit from this exhibition by being able to share artefacts currently unavailable to the public, without putting pressure on already scarce exhibition space. There will be further benefits to the Museum, as in the process of researching and curating the exhibition, I will be able to contribute to researching the provenance of the artefacts, as well as being able to aid the digital cataloguing of the Museum's collections.

The wider public will get the opportunity to access collections usually closed off to them. The exhibition will target museum-goers, particularly those interested in public history, in Asia, in wildlife and in the British Empire. The selected objects will be situated for this audience through brief, engaging essays.

The exhibition will complement some of the broader objectives behind the monograph, intended for publication with Reaktion Books. The working title is 'Colonising the Animal: British Imperialism and the Reshaping of Burma's Wildlife, c.1800-1940'. The monograph will make the argument that Burma's animal populations were profoundly affected by colonial rule in terms of both their ecology and their cultural meanings. As a result, many of the country's current ecological challenges, such as those facing its diminishing wild elephant population (the largest in Asia), have roots in the colonial period. It will also make the case for the value of understanding colonisation through the history of human-animal relationships. Both the book and the exhibition will help to popularise, as well as contribute to, debates about the impact of human societies on wildlife. The book and the exhibition will also raise public awareness of the historical role played by animals in imperial history. In addition, both outputs will draw attention to the historical ties between Britain and Burma, an issue particularly pertinent at a time of political re-engagement with the country.

The exhibition will be advertised through: the University's press office; faculty, departmental and personal social media outlets; society organisations interested in Burmese history (for example the Britain Burma Society); the city of Bristol's annual 'Festival of Ideas', and the history department's 'Past Matters' festival of history; the British Animal Studies Network; and through the Bristol Museum. The exhibition will coincide with the University's biannual 'Inside Arts' festival, and will be advertised as part of that programme of events. It will also be linked into the history department's already existing ties with Bristol's communities through the 'Know Your Bristol' project. I will monitor the on-line traffic to the exhibition and website statistics, and devise a feedback questionnaire for visitors to the website to enable me to assess its impact.
Description During my research into the history of animals in colonial Burma I have found a number of areas in which British imperialism transformed human-animal relationships. The most profound changes were between humans and elephants. During colonial rule there was a dramatic increase in the number of elephants held in semi-captivity and worked in the timber industry. By the time of the Japanese occupation there were between 7000 and 10000 employed by British imperial timber firms. This meant that the elephants population shifted from being predominantly wild to be mostly captive during British rule. This was also a time in which British scientific understandings of elephants developed dramatically. During the 1920s and 1930s a vaccine for anthrax was developed and successfully implemented through experiments in Burma's forests. Beyond elephants, during the fellowship I was able to uncover material on the decline in biodiversity in the Irrawaddy Delta. Colonial policies of offering rewards for killing animals that posed a threat to humans, cattle and cultivation contributed to the destruction of tiger, crocodile, elephant, boar and snake populations. In addition, the destruction of forests to make way for paddy fields led to the diminution of wild animal populations. For instance, between 1880 to 1920, Rhinos, once common to the area, had disappeared in the delta. I have also found that the history of veterinary medicine in the colony was distinctive within the wider history of British India. Whereas in India veterinary research focused primarily on horses and camels, in Burma it was cattle and elephants that attracted the most importance. Indeed, in the colony veterinary medicine seems to have been a more popular science among Burmese people than human medicine. Programmes for training local people in veterinary medicine were highly successful and attracted praise. However, concerns about the health of Burmese plough cattle led to Indian milking cattle being labeled as a danger. This played into wider anti-Indian sentiments and the development of colonial controls on immigrant populations. Overall, the research completed during the fellowship demonstrates the importance of the colonial period in the commodification of wildlife. Increasingly during British rule, interactions with animals were informed by considerations of the market and mediated by exchanges of money through rewards and licenses.
Exploitation Route My findings will provide a historical context for the current challenges facing environmentalists, businesses and the government in Myanmar regarding the preservation of the country's fauna. In particular, it offers an understanding of the emergence of the acutely precarious position that the country's wild and domestic elephant populations--the second largest in Asia. I have made contract with the Myanmar Timber Elephant Research Project at the University of Sheffield and the China Exploration and Research Society who are both involved in protecting Myanmar's elephants. I have shared information of historical routes of elephant migrations in the country, as well as information on the size of elephant populations historically, and will continue to provide this data to them as I collate the information in this post-award period.
Sectors Environment

Description As part of the fellowship I curated an online exhibition displaying artifacts held by the Bristol Museum that originated in colonial Burma. This exhibition was launched in September 2015. My research on the project enabled the Museum to get a better understanding of the provenance of their collections and understand the nature of the objects. Impacts are still emerging from this exhibition. A collector of Burmese silverware has been in contact with a view to hosting an exhibition of his collection with objects in the Bristol Museum. He is also sharing methods for preserving these artifacts. My findings on the history of Burmese elephants have had unanticipated impacts. I was able to share information, documents and images with an elephant sanctuary in Myanmar. These have been useful in the development of their educational resources. Since then I have won some AHRC Follow-on-Funding for Impact and Engagement to realize these impacts through organising an exhibition in Yangon and an educational display at the Myanmar elephant sanctuary.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Elephants and Empire in Colonial Burma: Exhibiting Historical Photographs in Myanmar and the UK
Amount £31,617 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/P005543/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2016 
End 02/2017
Description Elephants and Empire Photographic Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The central objective of the project was to reproduce historical photographs of working elephants taken in the 1920s and 1930s and to exhibit them in Myanmar. These photographs were uncovered during the fellowship and are currently held in the London Metropolitan Archives. The exhibition was funded through an AHRC Follow-on-Funding for Impact and Engagement Grant. The exhibition facilitated a wider understanding of the pivotal role that colonial rule had in bringing about the current precarious contemporary situation of Myanmar's elephant populations. The historical evidence that I uncovered during my fellowship demonstrates that British rule precipitated a marked rise in the numbers of working elephants at the expense of wild herds, whose numbers have declined as a result of operations to capture them for labour, habitat destruction and hunting.

The exhibition was held at Myanmar Deitta, the country's only not-for-profit gallery dedicated to photography. The exhibition ran for four weeks and was the first held in Myanmar to use materials held in UK archives. The visitors' book for the exhibition contains comments demonstrating some of the impact that the photographs had on the general audience that visited, with several visitors commenting on how they had learned about the plight of elephants. The exhibition was also covered in the online Southeast Asian newspaper Yangon Coconuts. The article drew attention not only to the exhibition, but the impact of British imperialism on Myanmar's elephant population. Myanmar Deitta have also written to me outlining how the exhibition expanded their usual audiences to those interested in historical photographs and helped to build ties with UK institutions. They indicate that they had some local Yangon school's visit the exhibition.

Following the exhibition's closure, the photographs have gone to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp where they form part of a permanent educational display. Green Hill Valley is a sanctuary for retired working elephants that works to replant teak forests in the Southern Shan States through sustainable ecotourism. The photographs add to their on-going programme educating visitors and local residents about the importance of elephant preservation as well as sustainable ecological management. Green Hill Valley have written to me to state how the photographs have enhanced their visitors' experiences. The new display was launched on World Elephant Day in 2017, an event attended by local politicians among others from the region.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
Description On-line Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The exhibition displays artifacts from Burma that are held in the Bristol Museum. The online exhibition has only just been launched, and we will gather information on how well used it is and its reach, and what further information it generates.

Since the exhibition has been running I have had a number of email requests from collectors of Burmese silverware to find further information about the history of colonial-era silver-work in the country.

It has enabled the Bristol Museum to catelogue and digitise images of objects from Burma that are held in the collections. As the site has only just been launched (9 Sept), further notable impacts will be added--but already we have had an increase in requests for further information from visitors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017