Shooting An Elephant

Source Analysis Assignment


An overview of the context in which the source was produced

Classify the source (primary or secondary source)

An explanation about what we can learn about imperialism from the source

George Orwell's essay Shooting an Elephant was first published in 1936 and tells of a British policeman's (possibly Orwell's) experience working in Burma. At the time of writing the essay, Burma was ruled by the British and part of their Indian Empire. This resulted in many changes such as the exile of their leader, King Thibaw, and brutal treatment to any Burmese found to be disloyal to the British with consequences of their villages being burnt forcing them to move south. Most of the British did not live in Burma but instead resided in the Indian colony. Many of the native Indians did however move to Burma, where they competed with the Burmese over potential employment positions.

It is unclear as to whether Orwell's essay is a primary or secondary source. It most likely could be a primary source as Orwell was stationed as a police officer in Burma therefore had a first hand account of life under British rule. As to the authenticity of the elephant shooting, there is no supportive evidence to confirm that a police officer actually shot an elephant, although the strong, descriptive way in which the narrator describes the account makes the incident appear very real and convincing to the reader.

From the source, we can learn that imperialism is, as in many other colonised countries, disliked by the natives due to the dominating and oppressive ideals enforced upon them, requiring the oppressed to conform or suffer the consequences. Orwell writes that as a European police officer, he was “hated by large numbers of people”. It is clear from the first paragraph that the Burmese disrespected the European colonisers referencing that "no one had the guts to raise a riot", but "if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress". The essay also infers that not all of the English were into the idea of taking over Burma as the narrator expresses his sympathy for the Burmese people, although at times he would gladly "drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priests guts". With imperialism came poverty and desperate hunger for the Burmese people. This is highlighted in the text explaining the natives' eagerness to follow the narrator all the way to the paddy fields where there was to be the shooting of the elephant, thus providing them with a rare opportunity to scavenge the animal's flesh for food.

The police officer was reluctant to kill the elephant as he felt to do so would be a crime, but the native's desire was ever present in his mind, increasing the pressure on him to satisfy their expectations and thus avoid being laughed at. In their eyes, he was their oppressor and in control but, in his mind, he knew "a white man mustn't be frightened in front of natives", and so he made the decision to proceed with the killing. This is compounded in the final sentence of the text where he admits to himself the sole reason for killing the elephant was "to avoid looking a fool". It can be said that the police officer became a puppet to both the British oppressor, to whom he had a duty to serve, and the oppressed natives, to whom he had to impress and save face.

Above is a photograph of George Orwell, the author of "Shooting an Elephant", in Burma.


Identify from whose perspective the source comes from (explain whose point of view the source is from)

SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT: Source Analysis Assignment - Whose perspective was the source from

Synthesise the purpose and objective of the source (summarise why you think the source was created and for what reason it was created)

I believe that the essay was created to inform readers of the often cruel, tyrannical and controlling aspects of imperialism. I also believe this text highlights the by-product of imperialism where many Europeans became emotionally torn between their hatred of the empire because of their treatment of the Burmese, and rage against the natives who taunted them because of their invasion. This is reflected in the passages where the police officer explains his torment over the mounting pressure on him to shoot the elephant, which in his own mind stemmed from his need to impress the natives so as not be laughed at. He has no clear and controlled idea of what he is going to do to the elephant, which is similar to what the British were doing towards the end of their reign over the nation. The essay is very political and paints the Burmese people as disrespectful towards the British but, at the same time, expecting them to act like a ruler in charge. This view held by the natives is why the police officer may have felt so much pressure. Although he was British and charged with the task of having to shoot the elephant, he ultimately went against his logic, to wait for the elephant's owner, and instead was overtaken by his own pride and buckled to the expectations of the natives.

Explain the prevailing sentiments about imperialism and locate specific passages in the text where this is communicated (find the parts in the text which express views on imperialism and explain what these views are)

In the essay, the passage “I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British" identifies to the reader Orwell's stance on imperialism. He wished for the Burmese people to be free as he felt British rule to be cruel and unfair. He "bitterly" hated his job as police officer and referred to it as "the dirty work of Empire at close quarters". The passages outlining his feelings and thoughts in the lead up to the elephant shooting are also very telling of how imperialism affected or influenced his actions and decision-making. Ultimately, the police officer shot the elephant, not because he felt it logically necessary, but because of his own torment of feeling he had to behave in a way the natives expected.

Orwell also writes that as a European police officer, he was “hated by large numbers of people”. It is clear from the first paragraph that the Burmese disrespected the European colonisers referencing that "no one had the guts to raise a riot", but "if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress". This sentiment felt by the natives would understandable as they are being forced to conform to a foreign way of life and are being punished if they go against the ways of the Empire.

Identify the bias within the source and evaluate its reliability – explain any of its limitations (tell us what we need to keep in mind about the source's creator and what things might be left out by this person and then decide whether you think it is a source we should listen to, and if we do listen to it, what we should keep in mind when we do)

George Orwell's essay can be considered a reliable source based on the fact that actually lived and worked in Moulmein, Burma as a police officer where the essay was set. From his experiences there, he formed the opinion that the British were wrong to take hold of Burma and the Burmese people suffered because of this. This leads to the essay portraying the oppressors in a harsh light and also critiquing what they have done. Orwell's writing mainly highlights the British Empire's harsh treatment of the Burmese people but he does not outline any potential good that came from their invasion, therefore, it is important to refer to other sources for further clarification on the subject. But, what we can take from this source is one man's understanding of his experience, and perhaps that of others who he came to know during his time in Burma, about the impact of imperialism, the loss of freedom that the British inflicted not only on the natives but also on many of their country-men serving their duty.

Offer your own assessment/judgement of the source - in what way do you find it useful, what are you wary about?, what did you learn from studying it? (offer your own personal view of the source)

I find this source extremely interesting and informative about Burma under colonial rule which is not a part of history that many people study, with the focus on the colonisation of countries like America and Australia being more readily taught. I also found it disturbing as I learnt that essentially many people lose freedom as they know it as a result of imperialism. From studying the source I learnt about Burma and its struggles to become free, George Orwell's life as a police officer in Burma and that many of those who served there were against their country's take-over. I am also wary about the bias against the British in this essay as Orwell's focus points do not provide readers with details of all accounts that would have happened during the entire period of British rule over Burma.

The above map shows British India which includes the Burmese territory.
The above QR code is a link to an article written by Orwell for a French publication in 1929. It provides further details about Burma and examines the methods the British Empire uses to keep the people ignorant and milk its rich resources with no profit to the Burmese.


Author unknown, Shooting an Elephant, Wikipedia, last edited April 7, 2013, website, viewed May 1, 2013,

Author unknown, George Orwell, Wikipedia, last edited May 3, 2013, website, viewed May 1, 2013,

Noise, The, Why Orwell wrote "Shooting an Elephant", Tumblr, 2010, website/blogs, viewed May 1, 2013,

Orwell, G, 1936, "Shooting an Elephant", Shooting an Elephant and other essays, Place of publication unknown, page number unknown