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Colonizing Elephants: Animal Agency, Undead Capital and Imperial Science in British Burma

Saha, Jonathan (2017) 'Colonizing Elephants: Animal Agency, Undead Capital and Imperial Science in British Burma.', BJHS Themes, 2017 (2). pp. 169-189.


Elephants were vital agents of empire. In British Burma their unique abilities made them essential workers in the colony’s booming teak industry. Their labour was integral to the commercial exploitation of the country’s vast forests. They helped to fell the trees, transport the logs and load the timber onto ships. As a result of their utility, capturing and caring for them was of utmost importance to timber firms. Elephants became a peculiar form of capital that required particular expertise. To address this need for knowledge, imperial researchers deepened their scientific understanding of the Asian elephant by studying working elephants in Burma’s jungle camps and timber yards. The resulting knowledge was contingent upon the conscripted and constrained agency of working elephants, and was conditioned by the asymmetrical power relationships of colonial rule.

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Publisher statement:This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:25 October 2021
Date of first online publication:24 April 2017
Date first made open access:25 October 2021

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