Orwell’s Reflections on Imperialism

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Over more than 60 years in the 19th century, the British Empire, one of the great empires of the past, progressively colonized Burma, resulting in three Anglo-Burmese wars before eventually incorporating it into British India. It was ruled as a province of India until 1948 when it declared its independence as an independent, self-governing colony. George Orwell is regarded as a prominent anti-imperialist author. In his pieces “Shooting an Elephant” and “Hanging,” Orwell exposes the moral issues of imperialists, in addition to his best-known works “1984” and “Animal Farm.” Orwell, being born to a middle-class family but raised in Britain, served as an Assistant of the British Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927, with a great interest in working-class life. His service made him feel guilty about British colonialism, and he felt compelled to make certain atonements. Eventually, Orwell did it by reflecting on imperialism and his actions during service in “Shooting an Elephant” and “Hanging,” thus them being a leading source of his anti-imperialist stand.

For the last four or five decades, imperialism has been the most dominant force in world history. The imperialists modified their underpinnings and approach to imperialist rules over time. But the end purpose remained the same: to use their multifarious superiority – scientific, economic, and military – to govern and exploit the local population. They have generally succeeded in establishing racial and cultural domination by overpowering less developed societies. With the rise of the contemporary nation-state, imperialism was resurrected in the West. Territorial imperialism has fallen out of favor in the years after World War II. instead of being colonized directly, weaker countries were granted some degree of sovereignty while Western finance capital kept control of a major portion of their profitable resources.

Orwell’s moral dilemma derives from his status as a reviled imperialist in a conquered land. Ironically, during his time in the imperialist police, Orwell wrote that “I had already determined that imperialism was wicked, and the sooner I abandoned my position and got out of it, the better” (Orwell 23). He similarly expressed his dissatisfaction with the work he had to do, which “depressed me and filled me with an intolerable sense of guilt” (Orwell 23). Despite his sympathy for the Burmese, Orwell had to deal with their animosity and hatred of the British: “the laughing faces… the insults that followed after me… grated on my nerves” (Orwell 24). Orwell was torn between his loathing of the British Empire’s imperialism, which he was meant to serve, and his wrath towards the natives. Although he thought British control was harsh, he expressed open contempt for the locals, expressing a desire to “stab a Buddhist priest with a bayonet” (Orwell 24). In Orwell’s opinion, there was nothing good about the Burmese. Their acts are much more heinous: they spit on women and abuse police officers. This made the Burmese a particularly unlikeable group of people whom Orwell (and readers) despised despite sympathizing with their poverty and imperialism’s guilt.

Orwell seems to be aware of his dualism and rationalizes his rage. He appeared to believe that such attitudes were unavoidable consequences of imperialism. The insight that imperialism operates both against imperialists and against indigenous became his key conclusion based on his experiences. The elephant’s shooting was the essential manifestation of this view; it was an occurrence that demonstrated how imperialism is harmful to both parties in imperialist interactions. The elephant depicts imperialist empires that overran and occupied impacted nations, while the Burmese represent their defenseless people. The story shows how the once-mighty elephant is deteriorating, just as colonial powers with greater technology rule over nations like India. The once magnificent beast, which represents both the elephant and the countries under imperialist rule, becomes “impotent to move and at the same time powerless to die” (Orwell 5). His restricted freedom shatters the long-held picture of a man yearning for independence held by local cultures and civilizations.

Orwell’s repressed sentiments and opinions concerning the morality and ethics of the death sentence are forced to the fore by the British authorities’ decision to hang the Burmese prisoner in “The Hanging.” Bureaucracy, and its harsh implementation, became another pillar of the British imperialist machine that Orwell hated. In the British colonies, especially Burma, the narrator condemns the practice of hanging. The major metaphor in this narrative is the dog, which represents freedom. It takes a long time for someone to capture the dog and attach him to the collar. The dog, on the other hand, continues to bark and “tens up and whimper” (Orwell 20). This became the most common allusion to the prisoner and his screams during the execution. However, Orwell, as in “Shooting of an Elephant,” is equivocal. Although he fiercely opposed such abuses and the death penalty in general, his description of the local population as dogs say a lot. Orwell demonizes the locals for their indifference and lack of social progress, just as imperialists do. The issue is that Orwell’s freedom to express his anti-colonial ideas is constrained by his need to protect his reputation and legitimacy as a genuine authority. Furthermore, while Orwell frequently articulated anti-imperial sentiments, anti-patriotic sentiments are absent, demonstrating his dedication to British society and the “bloody brutes” (Orwell 21) as a whole. As a result, he appears to be more constrained by imperial authority than by his own free choice.

“Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are considered to highlight Orwell’s views on imperialism, pointing at its wrongs. However, different lenses might be used to examine Orwell’s erratic and sometimes conflicting stance toward imperialism. One may be explained in terms of existentialist dichotomies, in which Orwell himself is vital, while the other, such as imperialism and the processes that surround it, is irrelevant. Orwell portrays himself, whose plight under imperial control is accorded priority. And the other – imperialism – is undermined and marginalized in Orwell’s version of the story. Orwell’s contempt for Burmese reality is obvious, and his failure to represent Burma as a society of genuine people contradicts his anti-imperialist attitude. The imperialists represent the indigenous’ characteristics in their fashion in this way, with the locals’ point of view being sidelined or altogether ignored. Orwell was indeed ashamed of imperialism, its actions, and his role as a servant of it. However, essentially, he left being an imperialist himself, blaming the by-products of the dominant ideology. His reflections on imperialism through imagery and symbolism of “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are multifaceted and can be explained differently, demonstrating its ambivalence but also establishing the author’s grandeur and literary legacy.

Works Cited

Orwell, George. A hanging. Adelphi, 1931.

Orwell, George. Shooting an elephant. Renard Press Ltd, 2022.