Real History, Elephants

Ian Hunter N. Thorpe

Elephants: A deep social impact on life and war

The Buddhist faith spread from India to Southeast Asia where it had a lasting impact onthe culture of the entire region. The relationship consisted a great deal of trade, not just goods but culture, religious, and animals were also exchanged. There is no country in Southeast Asia that has been more greatly impacted by the introduction of the Elephant than Thailand. The impact and use of elephants in Southeast Asia can be credited to its long relationship with India.
Buddhist tales like that of the white elephant had a long lasting impact on the social make up of Thailand. The White elephant was symbol of the rebirth of the Buddha and good fortune for a kingdom. The kings of Siam became known as Phra Chao Chang Phuk which meant King of the White Elephant. The Elephant and the state of Thailand became intertwined. The symbol of the elephant was used to legitimize the ruler of the state through the use of Buddhism. The utility of the animal and its religious symbolism became forever linked with the people and governments that controlled Thailand. The White elephant is a symbol of the monarchs and that they rule with justice and power. When Siamese leaders met with European rulers, it was said that massive respect was given by the Siamese. In one account of a Siamese diplomat’s visit with the Queen of England; the diplomat was awestruck by her beauty. The beauty being that the queen’s skin was very white which reminded the diplomat of the holy white elephants.
The White elephants in Southeast Asia were extremely rare because the elephants had to be albino in order for the elephant to have the white color that was so prized. As a result of the genetic scarcity of the Albino elephants they were considered to be creatures only fit for kings. The white color of the elephant explains a lot of the beliefs associated with them. The mountains peaks that shown white with fallen snow were considered to be the places where gods lived and that had a quality that linked the elephants with the divine. There was also a belief that the elephants were mixed with the clouds with gave them the ability to bring rain to drought effected areas.
Even in areas outside of Thailand white elephants were considered to be great holy symbols. In Burma the white elephants had to be given to the lord or king. The king or lord was not allowed to ride the animal because it was considered to be at the same level as the lord. It was thought that the elephants contained the souls of the previous lords. The white elephants continue even today to be an important symbol in Thailand as well as Burma. The royal stables are said to contain multiple White elephants noting that even modern day royal leaders consider the elephants to be important. However in Burma elephants have lost some of their mythical standing and have become associated as simple beasts of burden that do heavy labor. The White elephants are not used in any form of labor and as such they are creatures that have to be taken care of. Their fair skin also requires that the animal be treated with considerably greater care because of its vulnerability to sunlight. The task of taking care of an elephant regularly is no cheap affair and the act of maintaining a white elephant that can not serve as a worker is an even more expensive endeavor. The act of maintaining one of these creatures was one of pure prestige that would elevate any lord that was lucky enough to have one born in their realm.
The acceptance of Buddhism in 600 A.D brought about a greater symbolic meaning for elephants. The creature’s usefulness as a worker and warrior brought it boarder acceptance among many people. The far reaching influence of Indian culture had an impact on Indonesia as well. The archipelago has embraced the images of elephants on many structures. The Shrivijava Empire had embraced the religious symbol of the elephant which decorated countless walls in their cities. One of the most impressive feats of elephants is their ability to swim. They are perhaps the best land dwelling mammal at swimming. The elephant has the ability to swim incredibly long distances which allowed them to reach the islands of Indonesia. Other elephants were brought to Sumatra later when Islam came to the islands.
Outside of religious symbolism associated with elephants the elephants severed an important role as laborers. Elephants in Southeast Asia were used to great effect as beasts of burden. In the west elephants were used predominantly for war and remembered in that manner. Stories about Hannibal and his war elephants are the most commonly remembered role that elephants took in the Western world.
The elephants in the Western later would become scare. The Roman Empire once it had reached its peak began to use the war elephants less and less. The reason was that Romans commanders did not see the elephants as entirely useful weapons. There was too much uncertainty with how the animal might act. It was a useful terror weapon on the battle field but it was almost just as likely to trample friendly troops as the enemy’s. The elephants were exhausted in exhibition fights to the death and animals for the most part disappeared from the western world and entered the realm of myth. It was not until the Renaissance were the grey giants rediscovered. The animals became great state gifts of the period.
The use of war elephants actually spread to China where the animals were used to fight in several battles. It was the Southeast Asians that taught the Chinese how to use the war elephants as effective weapons. The knowledge of how to train and effectively use the elephants led to a wide spread application of them across East Asia. It was not until the end of the warring states period in China did war elephants fade out of use.
Elephants in Southeast Asia were used for many different tasks namely construction, transportation, and war. To many in the western world it was thought that African elephants could not be domesticated in the same fashion as the Asiatic. That was not true the African elephant were domesticated and used by ancient North African city states around the same time of Alexander the great. The Asiatic elephant is a more docile offshoot of the two groups. It has been said that the domestication of elephants in the west came back with Alexander the Great after having encountered the great beasts in his conquests in India. The domestication of elephants in India dates back considerably earlier, to around 2000 B.C. which spread from India into Southeast Asia.
Elephants in the Western world were never integrated into the work of man outside of war. In Southeast Asia the elephant became more than just a weapon of war. The elephant represented a great tool that could serve many functions. For some villages it served as transportation through difficult terrain and clearing fields. The elephants in nations like Burma and Thailand represented a massive labor pool that could be tapped to clear entire forests for timber. The elephant became like any other beast of burden only its abilities were greater than any oxen could deliver. The elephants of Southeast Asia set themselves apart from their African brothers in a few ways the first being that both breeds were hunted but the Asiatic was also a hunter. The Asiatic elephant is more than just man’s slave he is also his aid; willing serving commands.
In the Western world elephant training went on as long as elephants lived in North Africa. As time passed those elephants disappeared and the tradition of training them along with it. In Southeast Asia the tradition of training elephants never stopped it went on continuously for thousands of years. The regularity of domesticated elephants in Southeast Asia did make the wild elephants of the region more docile and receptive to prospect of domestication. So trainable is the Asiatic that Thailand took the use of elephants beyond their normal work. The elephants in some cases were so well trained that they could be sent on tasks miles away without a rider for directions. The Thais had figured out that through the use of sound generating shells they could give directions to elephants trained to respond to the noise. The Thais used this to great affect against the Khmer states for the task smuggling. The elephants would have mounted leather pouches filled with contraband items. Khmer boarder guards were at a complete loss as to how items were getting into their country. The elephants appeared to be just wild wonders that crossed the boarder. It was not until much later that they learned the elephants were in fact collaborators with the smugglers.
Southeast Asian elephants are extremely skilled at harvesting trees for timber. The elephants when used in groups have the ability to push over trees. Elephants only have the ability to carry around 600 pounds before they start having problems. The elephants do however have a very useful ability to haul up to five tons in a harness. The elephants will also at times move single logs by holding them in their mouths. They will often perform the operation of falling trees without direction from an operator. The elephants demonstrate that they have the ability for rational thought considering they will perform the task of falling trees rather skillfully.
Outside of being a beast of burden elephants have had the rather unusually job of state executions. The elephants would be trained to crush criminals. The animals had to be trained to kill imaginary criminals at first before actually performing the task. So they elephant would grab the criminal and then place them on the ground where they would slowly crush the abdomen taking away the criminals ability to pull air into their lungs. There are other cases where two elephants would push two trees together and then a convict would be lashed to both trees so that when the elephants would let go the criminal would be ripped apart.
Elephants were considered to be the military strength of a kingdom in Southeast Asia. The same standard applied to Indian kingdoms was also applied to Southeast Asian in regards to that a nation’s strength was dependent upon how many war elephants they could field against an opponent. The Nation of Siam especially was link with its war elephants. Burma as a state with its close proximity to India was very influenced by Indian military tactics and their use of war elephants. The manner in which elephants were equipped for battle changed over the centuries. Some aspects of their equipment never really changed but the introduction of newer more deadly technology did change the way it which elephants were used in the field.
The earliest accounts of war elephants in Southeast Asia state that the animals were equipped with a harness that wrapped around the animals chest and allowed for a platform to be placed squarely on its back. From that position on the animals back one man could throw javelins or use a long spear to stab downward at enemies. Another man would be position on the elephant’s neck allowing him to direct the animal in the field.
Later the platform was turned into more of a wooden fort from which the man who threw the javelins would be granted greater protection. The elephants were also to be heavily armored granting considerably more protection. The use of heavy armor on elephants was not as common because of the extreme cost of maintaining so much armor. The added weight was also departmental to the elephant’s movement through parts of Southeast Asia; namely Thailand and Burma where war elephants were primarily used. The rough and under developed roads made it difficult for elephants to ware a great deal of armor. The armor was often lengths of armor wrapped in leather that was woven into large pieces that would cover sections of the elephant. To top off the formidable defense the elephant would have their tusks wrapped with poison covered knifes. The platforms that men fought from became a staple in Southeast Asian warfare. No other nation used war elephants as predominantly as the Kingdom of Siam.
In the early 18th century the Siamese had become an imperial power in Southeast Asia after they had expelled the Burmese from their country. Siamese forces were able to gain independence from Burma after a number of years under Burmese military control. The Siamese were able to accomplish that task after some effective military reforms that gave them a serious edge on their Burmese enemies. The Siamese started to integrate modern weapons into their army. The elephants were trained to haul artillery. The elephant’s ability to haul great amounts was used to considerable advantage by the Siamese. The Siamese victory over Burma also has a great deal with the British invasion of Burma. The Siamese aided the British in their conquest. The British noted that the Siamese troops demonstrated great skill in the field. The Siamese war elephants were also mentioned a great deal. The British also noted that the Siamese had developed smaller bronze cannons that could be mounted on the elephants back for transport as well as repeated fire from the elephants back.
The cannon equipped elephants made up the main assault force of the Siamese army. The elephants would be used in tandem with musket armed infantry. The elephants would be lined up and fire a volley off the platforms on the back of the elephants at enemy positions. The war elephants of Siam were very much an older form of shock and awe. The Siamese army was used to great effect on the Malay Peninsula when Siam was aiding the British in quelling rebel positions. The Siamese war elephants proved to be a very powerful weapon against other Southeast Asian powers. The elephants proved very useful in the Siamese invasion of Laos and the following occupation of the country. The elephants were used very well in the war against Vietnam which was a Siamese victory. The powerful use of elephants in the Siamese army was giving them a powerful edge over other regional powers.
The elephants of Siam did however fail to stop French encroachment into Laos. The Siamese elephants proved to be vulnerable to French arterially and rifles. The elephants of Siam were ripped apart by the French field weapons. The elephants just could not compete against the superior range and fire power of the French weapons. The Siamese decided after their defeat to give concessions to England and France so that they could get access to more modern weapons. Siam did want to make contact with other non European powers so that Siam as a state could maintain its independence. The nation of Siam did extend its hand to the United States about exporting elephants.
The use of war elephants in Southeast Asia spans over a long period. There was a case in 1863 where the King of Siam sent a letter to the American President Abraham Lincoln. In the letter the King of Siam offered to send war elephants to aid Lincoln in Civil War against the Southern states in rebellion. It was also mentioned that the elephants could be used in rural areas as labors. The use of war elephants in Siam was still very popular around the 1860s. The rough terrain of Thailand was still better suited for the large animals more than any steam locomotive.
The United States on the other hand was not a country that really needed the large elephants. The letter correspondence between the King of Siam and President Lincoln demonstrated that elephants were still a popular weapon in Southeast Asia. The letter from Siam was an attempt by Siam to harbor stronger ties to a non European power to strengthen its position in Southeast Asia. The animals were still effective in that part of the world. Though President Lincoln respectfully declined the Kings offer citing that steam power was a more efficient form of transportation.
The last recorded use of elephants in war came in 1945. The elephants in Southeast Asia were used by both the Japanese and British. The British had to use the Elephants in their retreat through Burma were the animals were indispensable to their escape from Japanese forces. The elephants were used to construct bridges and help carry heavy equipment that other wise would have been lost to the difficult terrain.
The elephants of Southeast Asia have a considerably long history in the region. The elephants have had a long and deep impact on the people of the region. The history of the elephant goes hand and hand with the founding of civilization in the region. The history of elephants is a part of their civilization and leaves a lasting impact that will not soon disappear especially in the country of Thailand.

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Categories: Real History