The (Im)Morality of Imperialism in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” Essay

The morality of imperialism is its immorality too. Imperialism begins with the thought that the colonizers are superior to the colonized, and they are doing the latter a moral favor by ruling over them. In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell explores the moral consequences of imperialism in Burma, wherein because of imperialism several moralities emerged, which turned out to be ironic cause of immoralities too. The protagonist of his story, a nameless English police officer, says that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (Orwell). His argument must be analyzed for its causes and implications to further understand the positive and negative cultural outcomes of imperialism for the colonizer and the colonized. By connecting imperialism’s tyranny to freedom, the story argues that the protagonist sacrifices his moral autonomy, in order to reinforce the white man’s leadership through violent-centered superiority.

Before the argument is discussed, it will be useful to understand the positive effects, or at least the well-meaning intentions, of the British imperialists. First, as the British colonize other countries, such as Burma, they are able to bring in their technology and morality to the people. Technology transfer, for the whites, is an important effect of imperialism. As the police officer of “Shooting an Elephant” notes, “[t]he Burmese population had no weapons” (Orwell). The English have brought weapons with them that can help improve the defense system o f the locals. In this case, the English serve as the defenders of their colonies. Second, when the British work closely with the locals, the former learn more about Burmese culture, including their struggles. Because the police officer lives among the Burmese, he has come to understand why the latter hate the English so much. His job allows him to “see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters” (Orwell). As a result, he realizes the wrongdoings of the English and he forms a secret hatred toward his own people. Apparently, these positive cultural effects pave the way for some grim analyses of the consequences of imperialism in the eyes of the protagonist.

Because of his official duties, the protagonist understands upfront the difference between real and fictional moralities of the British colonization history. The British believe that they colonized Burma because they are racially and culturally superior to the latter. They argue that imperialism is moral because they have saved the locals from their moral and cultural ignorance. Racial prejudice is clear from how the British see the locals, for instance, after the protagonist kills the elephant, the “younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie” (Orwell). These people place a higher value on an elephant than a local, which means that they see the locals as inferior, even to beasts. They justify imperialism because of strong racial prejudice against the locals. Furthermore, the British insist that they are culturally superior, where their moral norms make their culture higher than local moral norms. The protagonist has this sense of cultural superiority too, although he has moral conflicts: “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” (Orwell). In his mind, imperialism is immoral, but he cannot stop his anger toward the locals, whom he sees as beasts. In the course of his duties, however, the protagonist opens his eyes to the difference between real and fictional morality of the British. British mortality is a fake one because the whites are not truly superior if they have only worsened the lives of the people. How the locals treat British officers reveals their anger against the latter. The protagonists note that even Buddhist priests hate the whites: “The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” (Orwell). The only way they can hate someone so much is if they feel unjust treatment. The protagonist affirms that the British are wrong to enforce their rule on Burma. He says: “For at that time 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” (Orwell). The morality of imperialism is a sham because the British oppress people through their prejudice and economic and political controls, and he finds it natural then to be the subject of the locals’ anger and disgust. Thus, the negative effects of imperialism are clear: the loss of freedoms of the colonized and the rise of bad treatment against the white oppressors.

The protagonist realizes firsthand that to be an oppressor is a dehumanizing process, where he is forced to sacrifice his moral autonomy in order to reinforce the white man’s leadership through violent-centered superiority. The British are in Burma because they are superior and they have weapons and violence to ensure their leadership. The protagonist does not believe that he should shoot the elephant, however. He understands that a living elephant is better than dead one, but most of all, he: “did not in the least want to shoot him” (Orwell). His conscience is not up to the killing of an elephant, especially a calm one. Nevertheless, he fully understands that as a “white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (Orwell). Because of his status as the oppressor, he loses his ability to follow his conscience. He says: “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy , the conventionalized figure of a sahib…A sahib…has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things” (Orwell). If the British colonized Burma because of their superiority and they enforce it through violence, the protagonist must do the exact same thing. He thinks: “And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (Orwell). This is not about the simple idea of being shamed, but of the long-term continuation of the British role in Burma- to be perceived by the locals as people of superior violence, so they will be feared and followed. Because of his loss of moral autonomy, he is filled with bitterness for seeing “real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act” (Orwell). To colonize people, the colonizer must be brutal and tyrannical. They must break them down by repeatedly shooting at their integrity. The protagonist shoots the elephant because it is the right thing that a colonizer must do to reinforce his ruling.

Aside from the loss of moral autonomy, the protagonist understands that the worse impact of colonization on people is the dehumanization of the colonized. The colonized are dehumanized because the elephant is a metaphor for their conditions. The protagonist describes the life of the elephant: “It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of ‘must’ is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped” (Orwell). The colonized are always chained so that they may be tamed. The “must” presents something that they should do but cannot. An elephant that goes “must” is wild, but it is only right because of the oppression it experiences. The “must” is part of its natural tendency, in this case, the people must also fight for their freedom but they cannot, because like the elephant, they are already conditioned to be slaves of the colonizer and they are afraid of the colonizers’ weapons. Control through fear has lasting negative effects on the people, however. Like the colonizers, they have become hungry for violence. The protagonist narrates the elephant’s violence: “[The elephant] had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow…also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it” (Orwell). There is so much violence in the elephant, which is also present in the people. The locals no longer see the elephant as a reflection of their lives. They are excited to see it shot, as the protagonist says: “They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot… besides they wanted the meat” (Orwell). Because of imperialism, they have lost compassion for the elephant. They only see it as a means for survival. Their moralities are changed in as much as the morality of the colonizer has been changed because of imperialism.

Orwell’s experience in Burma shows that, the white man, by being an oppressor, must live up to their superiority complex, or else their existence in the colonies will not be justified. They must become ruthless rulers because if they show any sign of emotional weakness, they will meet riots from locals who will realize that they have weak leaders whom they can overthrow. The protagonist shoots the elephant, but he does so, not only because he does not want to be laughed, but because of the underlying fear of the rebellion of the colonized. It is his way of asserting power, an immoral action to justify what the British assert as the morality of their imperialism. The situational irony is that as he shoots the elephant, he shoots his moral autonomy dead too. He is hollow because he is a colonizer. He is as empty and as dead as the elephant, helpless in creating a monster in him and even more helpless for creating the monsters of colonized people around him.

Work Cited

Orwell, George. “Shooting An Elephant.” 1936. Web. 11 May 2016.

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The (Im)Morality of Imperialism in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”. (October 7, 2020).
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