Elephants at Work


…Early the next day, while yet cool, we visited one of the decided ‘lions’ of the city—the working elephants. Formerly these were very numerous, being the heavy workers in the timber yards and great saw mills. Machinery has now supplanted them in all establishments run by foreigners. In each of the native mills, where small orders are filled, two of the noble beasts yet perform the heavy labor which human hands unassisted could scarcely manage.

We visited some of these the second time on our return from up country, and were greatly interested. They draw the logs, many of them three feet in diameter and thirty to forty feet long, from the river, pile them up in systematic order, and when they are needed roll them to the ways and assist in adjusting them for the saw.

Lumber is not here sawed into boards, but the slab is taken off and the good stuff left in square timber to be ripped up into boards where consumed. This is done both for home consumption and for exportation. After the log is thus cut the elephant goes among the machinery, takes the slabs away, and then carries the good timber and piles it up or lays it gently upon the ox carts to be hauled.

A carpenter we saw wanted lumber from a particular log which was under several others. One of the monsters rolled the upper logs off and pushed the chosen stick to the mill. The way was not clear—the log butted against others. He pushed these aside, and guided his piece through them with a sagacity almost human. His stick became wedged.

He pushed and tugged; it would not budge, but at a whispered word from the mahout and the promise of a bit of nice food he bent to it. Still it stuck. With a whistle audible for a quarter of a mile he got on his knees, straightened out his hind legs, and put his whole force to it. He was successful. We could almost read his satisfaction in the gentle flap of his huge ears and the graceful curve of his proboscis as he put it up to the mounted mahout, asking his reward.

Sticks over two feet thick and ten to fifteen feet long are lifted up bodily upon the great ivories, and are then carried off and laid upon the gangways so gently as not to make a jar. One stick 22 inches thick and 22 feet long we saw carried in this way.

In carrying, the beast had a path not three feet wide among the masses of loose logs. He had to plant his fore feet upon these and thus walk a considerable distance. He looked as if he were walking upon his hind legs. The corner of a bamboo hut stood in his way. He lifted the log over its roof, and bent his body so that his sides gently scraped the corner of the house and did not shake it. A hundredth part of his weight would have caused it to topple from its pile foundation.

He was ordered to carry off a pile of 4×6 pieces 10 to 15 feet long. He ran his tusks under a few. The mahout told him that was not enough. He tried again and probably doubled his load. His driver gave him a fierce prod with his iron hook over the forehead. With a shriek of rage he sent his ivories under the pile and threw his snout over the top. He had to get on his knees to get the load up. It was a decent dray-load.

As he passed us, perched on a pile of logs, I moved away, for I thought there was blood in his eye, and thought he might dump the load on the foreigners. But when he came back he stopped before us, got on his knees, bowed three times, and held out his snout to us for a gratuity. I pitched a coin to the mahout. He whispered to the beast that his elephantship would get a part of it.

This seemed satisfactory, for he snuffed up a pint of dust, blew it over his rump, and marched off for a bath in a mud hole not far away. Each mill has a pair. They work only short spells, and take their rest when feeding in grass grown mud ponds.

A mahout (elephant keeper) was addicted to the use of opium. Orders were given that when the elephants came into town for supplies this man should remain at our station some miles away. The wily fellow had a long talk with his elephant—they seem to understand Burmese—and told him to go to town and get him some opium. Off he went and, reaching the village, tore around like mad. The villagers went to the trees.

The elephant nosed around, smelt where opium was stored, took a ball, and trotted to his keeper. This was done a second time, when the master gave orders that a small piece of the drug should be given the beast whenever he came to town. In this way the mahout was kept on very short allowance, for the elephant did not seem to comprehend the necessity of getting a ball, but was satisfied with a small bit.

At another time an elephant camp got out of sugar. It was near a trail along which a pony train from China passed. The mahouts knew a train was near at hand—one of them explained to his brute what he wanted, and sent him to intercept the train. He did so, and scared the men to the trees and scattered the loads of the ponies. The elephant found some sugar baskets, ate his own fill—they are fond of sweets—and carried off the basket to his keeper.

Each elephant has his individual keeper, but when they go into camp at close of day they are sent off alone to the jungles for dry wood, and never fail to bring the proper kind. From many things told me I am almost persuaded they have decided reasoning qualities and are simply taught tricks by rote. We watched the performance of several at Rangoon for two or three hours, and saw evidences of sagacity far surpassing the little tricks done in the menageries.

The mahout sits on a houdah on the back of the huge animal. He rarely speaks loud enough for one to hear him a few feet off. Mr. Lacey believes they understand Burmese. One day he praised one of the elephants in this language. The animal showed great pleasure. He then spoke disparingly of him. The vain monster gave such unmistakable signs of being angry that the mahout asked Lacey to desist to prevent danger.

Excerpt from Carter Harrison’s letter to the Chicago Mail

The Pittsburgh Press – Feb 21, 1888

—Jeff Burks

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4 Responses to Elephants at Work

  1. I would love to have witnessed this. I hope they treated the pachyderms well.

  2. Eric R says:

    Great story.
    I sure wish I could have seen some of that.
    Thanks Jeff.

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