”Shooting An Elephant” by George Orwell is a seemingly biographical account of Orwell (real name Eric Blair) and his experience as a Burmese police officer in the British Indian colony. While there have been debates as to whether or not Orwell was actually the officer depicted in the story, or if it was a colleague, the focus of the story is on the narrator’s internal struggle to complete his duty as an officer of the British Empire in order to avoid looking like a fool in front of the Burmese people. While the narrator knows that he needs to carry out certain duties because of his position, he does not necessarily feel that the British oppression of the Burmese people is the right thing. However, the Burmese people do not make his job easy because they resent his position as an oppressor, and this creates an ugly cycle of escalating ill-treatment on both sides. Thus, British Imperialism as a whole comes under fire in the narrative, a common theme of Orwell’s writings. In this short story, Orwell explores important themes such as the evils of imperialism, the crisis of conscience, and the struggle with pride.
The East India Company was established in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I to share in the spice trade. Eventually, the company became a foothold for the British Empire’s spread into the Indian subcontinent. The British Empire, at its height, became the largest empire in the world; however, its exploitation of native peoples in its territories led to disastrous consequences. In India, famine became a regular occurrence, and the economic policies of Britain led to severe poverty. Students can read more about impact of the East India Company and the British Raj at the following sites:
The Telegraph has great photos for students to view of life in the British Raj. The obvious class differences between the British and native Indians is startling.