The Genius of the Elephant in Overcoming Difficulties
Watercolor paintings by Baden-Powell

from Memories of India, 1915


Sentiment About the Elephant—His Mathematical Mind—"Dandelion’s" Idiosyncrasies—Her Courage in the Face of an Enemy—The Elephant Who Died—A Problem in Sanitation—The Jungle Ship—Sea Legs— The Genius of the Elephant—His Timidity—Jock’s Victory—The Duchess of Connaught’s Adventure— The Elephant’s Caution—He Utilises Human Material— A Malefactor Flogged by Elephants—The Elephant in War—An Elephant Fight

OF all the animals in India none exceed the elephant in personality, and therefore he must have a chapter to himself.

I could never bring myself to shoot an elephant. I have been among them in the wilds and have had to do with them tamed; I love to watch them, and I like to use them, but my respect for them is far too great to allow me to shoot them. It strikes me as an impertinence to put an end to a wise old creature a hundred and fifty years old and of such massive proportions. He is a link with prehistoric times, and I would as soon blow up the Tower of London as shoot him. I have been glad to find myself supported in this idea by that splendid young sportsman and explorer, the late Boyd Alexander. He, too, confessed his dislike for shooting an elephant, and when he had actually done so his remorse for bringing about death on so large a scale forbade him from ever repeating the experiment.

There is something uncannily human about the mind and doings of an elephant, and no one recognises this more fully than the mahouts, the men who look after them, whose influence over the great beasts is remarkable. If any have doubts on this subject they need only go to Burmah and watch the elephants piling teak, to see that they have a mathematical mind and an idea of arranging the logs with absolute symmetry and of applying their strength in the best way for balancing and levering the heavy timber.

The elephant which I used in Nepaul had a name which resembled "Dandelion," and therefore I always called her by that name. She was a delightful beast to ride, and seemed to enjoy raising you on her trunk to put you on her back, and would then carry you with the greatest care, yet with speed and ease, through the jungle. When standing at the jungle side it seemed impossible for her to be still for a single moment. She was perpetually dancing a kind of shifty jig from one foot to the other. When she was not blowing sniffs of dust over her shoulders, she kept swishing the flies off with the branch of a tree. Quick and restless, she was never still; but the moment game was afoot she "froze," and stood like a rock.

It did not matter what the nature of the game might be, peacock or jackal, partridge or tiger, all were alike to her; and pushing through the jungle she feared none of them. A wounded tiger might charge, roaring and clawing, and spring at her head, but she stood it like a rock. One animal alone she did fear, and that was a boar. It was enough for her to scent him or to hear him rushing through the underwood, and she would turn tail in the neatest way and shuffle off in the greatest haste for safety.

The elephant is a noble animal for transport, since he can carry such enormous weights and can drag what would break the hearts of many horses. But he has his drawbacks when on service. He takes a great deal of feeding with expensive fodder. When he gets a sore back it is an enormous thing to deal with; and when he dies he is an awful clog on the sanitary arrangements. One died at Kandahar in 1881, and I have not got the remembrance of him out of my nostrils yet. He was too big to move, so they tried to burn him, but only succeeded in roasting portions of him; the remainder they tried to bury by piling pyramids of earth over him, but, as the days passed, the earth was found not to conceal all that was underneath it. When a change of wind came and blew in the direction of Kandahar, it became a question whether or not the city should be evacuated. In the end adventurous spirits were sent with slabs of guncotton on the end of poles; these they inserted in strategical spots within the carcase and blew it to bits. The different portions were then harnessed on to camels and towed away to places where they could be buried separately.

I have often thought, when out pigsticking in the Kadir, how like to a ship an elephant is, from a spectator’s point of view. The great sea of long grass, with the distant belts of trees on either bank of the Jumna, might well be the Thames at the Nore, with a fresh breeze blowing across it. Then comes an elephant "reaching" across, only the upper part of him showing above the grass, heaving along and passing my horse exactly like a sailing-vessel passing a fishing-boat. When you are on the elephant he is even more like a vessel, as he rolls along surging through the grass and from time to time swishing water from his trunk over his chest. Even when he is halted he keeps rolling and heaving about like a ship at anchor in a breeze. When you change from your pad elephant to the one with a howdah, he is run alongside, and as the two roll together you step on board just as from a tender to a ship. When the elephant is moving about the jungle, as you stand in your howdah you feel just as if you were standing on the bridge of a steamer. At first it is difficult to keep your balance, but having got your "sealegs," you feel it when you get on terra firma again at the end of the day. The ground seems to be heaving and rocking and you walk as if filled with new wine.

Elephants are very clever at getting over bad ground. They push their way through impenetrable looking thorn jungle. In places where young trees are growing close together they just shove their foreheads against them or twist them with their trunks and send them crashing down with a snap like a pistol-shot in order to make a path for themselves.

When they come to a deep nullah they gently slide down into it with their forelegs, kneeling with their hind legs until sure of their balance. In climbing out they reverse the process, kneeling with their forelegs and helping themselves with their trunk, and it often feels to the man in the howdah that the whole show is going over backwards. They use their trunk as a fifth leg, especially in boggy ground. When an elephant gets bogged, a pole is thrown down before him and he walks out on it as if on a tight-rope.

Once when we were pigsticking one of our men fell with his horse in the very thick, high tiger-grass. On recovering himself he could not find his spear. An elephant was brought up and was told to search for the missing weapon, and, after fumbling about with his trunk in the jungle of grass, he presently lifted out the bamboo and handed it up to his mahout. But the head of the spear had broken off and was missing. Again he was told to search and for a long time he searched without effect, but at last to our surprise up came his trunk with the missing spear-head. I do not know how the mahout conveyed to the beast the idea of what he wanted him to find, for neither he nor the elephant could see the article; he could only feel for it.

Clever and astute as they are, elephants are at the same time strangely timid. I remember once, when strolling down a road in the neighbourhood of Lucknow with my little fox terrier, we met a very highly-bedecked rajah riding on a huge elephant covered with gold trappings and coloured cloths. He was coming along with great majesty, the native wearing a highly supercilious air as he looked down on the white man. But he reckoned without the little dog. The moment Jack saw this huge monster approaching me, he ran out barking and snarling at it. The elephant stopped in his tracks, shied violently, nearly upsetting the whole paraphernalia, then, whisking round with incredible quickness, he scuttled off at a great pace down the road, kicking up a mighty dust, absolutely regardless of all the kicking and hitting and swearing on the part of his mahout.

Elephants are not entirely respecters of persons, nor are they always on their best behaviour. Occasionally they go "mast," that is half-mad, for a day or two, and then there is no holding them. The worst of it is that the fit often comes on quite suddenly. The Duchess of Connaught had an unpleasant experience of this in India. Her Royal Highness, with Lady Baker Russell, was mounted on an elephant to look on at some pigsticking, and all was going very well when their mount suddenly took it into his head that he had had enough of that fun and was going to look for something more exciting on his own account. An elephant has a large head, and when he gets a notion into it it takes a deal of banging to knock it out again. His mahout tried that course with the iron hook which the driver uses for pulling up his animal. But on this occasion it had no effect, and the elephant began to shamble off in a new direction. In response to the outcry of the mahout another elephant was quickly rushed in pursuit and he was fortunately ranged up alongside of the runaway before he got up speed, and thus the ladies were safely transhipped from one to the other.

It was not a pleasant experience, because, although a ride on a runaway elephant on an open plain might be an exciting if not an alarming adventure, it meant every probability of a catastrophe in a wooded country where he might run among trees. And that was the case here. Luckily the ladies got off with nothing worse than a few minutes’ excitement. The elephant went on and was absent without leave for several hours before he was recaptured and brought back.

An elephant will never go on to dangerous ground without first very carefully testing it. Thus if you try to ride him over a small bridge, he will stop and tap it very carefully with his trunk to see that it is sound enough to bear his weight, and even then he will put one foot very carefully forward to test it before he will allow his full weight to go on to it. Similarly in crossing a river he is most careful not to get into a quicksand.

When my regiment were on the march near Delhi and were fording a river, it happened that one of the baggage elephants felt himself sinking in the mud. Seized with panic, he made a grab at the nearest coolie, who was wading near him, and with his trunk shoved him down under his feet. As quick as lightning he grasped another and yet another and jammed them down in order to give himself a more secure foothold. He killed the coolies and saved himself. But, as is the case when an elephant disgraces himself, he was tried by a sort of jury of mahouts and they condemned him to wear a heavy chain bracelet round each of his fore-legs for the rest of his natural life, a hundred years or so.

I once saw an elephant flogged. We were resting in the midday heat in camp, and this elephant was standing lazily munching some sugar-cane while his mahout lay on the ground alongside him asleep. For some reason the elephant did not like this man and, seeing his chance, he suddenly pounded his great foot down on to him, meaning to crush him. Fortunately for the man he was lying a few inches beyond the reach of the elephant’s foot, so, instead of catching him fully, it merely tore the flesh off one thigh. There was immediately a hullabaloo in camp, and the elephant was seized and marched off between two other elephants and tied up to a tree some distance from the rest. Then the other nineteen elephants were formed in a long string, and each one was armed with a short length of chain which he carried in his trunk; they then marched past the culprit, and each one, as he went by, slung his trunk round and gave the victim a tremendous wallop with the piece of chain. Some of them seemed to do it with a peculiar kind of vicious pleasure which made him squirm.

Elephants are used for dragging the heavy siege guns while on the march along the road, but, as I have said, they cannot be trusted in action as, owing to their timid disposition, they are quite apt to turn tail and bolt with the guns just at the time they would be wanted to advance.

There is something stupendous about a fight between elephants. It is not a thing that any human being has been privileged to see in the jungle, but it is a very usual form of entertainment offered by rajahs for the amusement of their guests on great occasions. Picture to yourself a deep courtyard among the outlying walls of a native palace. The tops of the walls all round are lined with a crowd of onlookers in the brightest of garments, which gleam in the sunlight in brilliant contrast to the sombre shadows of the blank walls and of the empty arena below them. This last is simply an earth-floored courtyard with a small mound at one end. The mound is a kind of pedestal, just large enough for an elephant to take his stand upon it. It is the "sanctuary." The animals seem to understand that when one of them takes refuge there he is no longer to be attacked; he has given in and has acknowledged himself defeated.

Many elephants require to be dosed with raw arrak (rum) shortly before they are brought into the arena, in order to develop a sufficient fighting spirit for the encounter. The amount of the nip has to be nicely adjusted according to the temperament of the subject, just as is the case with the human being. I knew a No. 1 at polo who played a dashing game if he had a glass and a half of port inside him; one glass was too little to rouse him, two glasses made him sleepy. So it is with the elephant—substituting the word "bottle" for "glass."

Presently the great doors are opened and a dirty grey monster comes shambling in, flapping his ears and moving in an undecided, leisurely way across the court, stopping every now and then to look around in an irritated sort of way to see if there is no way out of the place. Meanwhile a second combatant has come shuffling into the " ring," looking for trouble and seeing insult in the other’s presence. Wagging and nodding their heavy heads, both of them come towards each other at a shambling run till they collide in the middle of the ring, forehead against forehead with a mighty thud.

For a minute or so they push and heave, each trying to shove the other backwards, their respective trunks feeling around all the time to get a grip on the other’s neck or foreleg. Then they draw back a pace and hurl themselves forward again in a dull and heavy shock amid the cloud of dust which now surrounds them. They both have great tusks which have been cut off at a length of about two feet and ferruled with ornamental metal-work. This is to prevent their goring each other. However, in the crash of the collision a great chunk of ivory flies off one of the tusks, and in a few moments it is evident that the elephant who has suffered the loss recognises its benefit to him. He has now a sharp, jagged end to his tusk, and he proceeds to do all he can to take advantage of it, and, beating down with his trunk any attempt to "clinch" on the part of the other, he directs all his energies to stabbing him in the eye with this new weapon of offence.

His opponent quickly appreciates the danger and tucks his head down and round and does all he can to grip the aggressor in order to save himself. In a few minutes dark little streaks glisten wetly in the sun as they run down his face, his head is gashed and bleeding from the assault: but he presently gets a firm hold on the opponent’s neck with his trunk, and, lowering himself on to his knees, by sheer weight he forcibly drags the other down also. The fight then becomes a wrestling match between the two monsters, locked tightly in each other’s trunks, on their front knees, pushing and heaving with their enormously powerful hindquarters, each endeavouring to twist the other off his balance. The swaying and jerking and pushing goes on interminably. One wonders how many tons of energy are being used between them.

For ten minutes the mighty straining goes on between the titans, now on their feet and now on their knees, till gradually their efforts slacken. They break away for a minute with lowered heads; "sharp-tusk" again lunges forward, and "blunt-tusk," turning his head to avoid more gashing, receives the charge rather sideways and gets swung partly round. His attacker is quick to see this and presses home on his ribs in a final attempt to push him over. The other gives ground, staggering, but just saves himself from falling; but he feels that he has had enough, for the spirit, in both senses of the word, is dying down. He shambles off towards the sanctuary and clambers wearily on to it, while the other stands stupidly watching him.

The fight over, the gates are opened and a crowd of men armed with flaming torches on poles and with long spears come in and drive both elephants close against the wall of the arena. From the top of the wall the two mahouts step lightly down on to the backs of their respective animals. The moment they have got astride their elephants’ necks all possibility of trouble is over, their mounts are at once amenable to reason and shuffle demurely off to their stables.

It is difficult to say what the elephant thinks of the whole thing. His face and eye give very little indication of what is going on in that great brain of his, but one cannot help feeling that after all an indignity has been put upon him and that the whole show, though interesting to watch, is a cruel one. Especially if one can imagine what enormous headaches the combatants must have the next day!

  Memories of India.The Genius of the Elephant in Overcoming Difficulties
Watercolor paintings by Baden-Powell

From: Baden-Powell, Memories of India, 1915.

  Forward by Sir Robert Baden-Powell
  From Chapter III. The Sport of Kings and the King of Sports. B-P tells an amusing story of Young Winston Churchill, his devotion to the sport of polo, and early evidence of his talent for public speaking.
  Chapter VIII. When the Tribes are Out. The Afghan War—The Great March—Ordered up to Kandahar—A Warlike Atmosphere—The Expedition of I842—The Camel and His Ways—Kandahar—A Dangerous City—Theatricals Under Difficulties—A Serious Mistake—Afghan Nerve—Attacked by Ghazis —The Crack of Doom—The Field of Maiwand—A Broken Square—A Heroic Chaplain—A Narrow Escape
  Chapter IX. The Aftermath of War. The Image of War—Patrols and Picnics A Curious Superstition—Jock Fights a Wild Cat—Afghan Depredations—Relics of Alexander the Great—Camp Rumours —Abdurrahman Waits—The Horses Stampede—A Subaltern’s Opinion of the Government—A Study in Contrasts—Rifle Stealing—An Ingenious Plan—Further Losses—I Shoot Myself—I Hear my Death Announced —Digging for the Bullet—Convalescence—Stalked by a Leopard—A Rough and Tumble
  Chapter XI. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright. A Possible Interrogation—I Go in Pursuit of Tigers— Smith-Dorrien at Work—The Party Meets—The Old Hands—A Native Weakness—How to Beat for Tigers— A Dead Enemy—A Native Village—Nearly a Fatality— Camp Literature—I Become Doctor—I Get a Bear— Camp Life—A Tiger’s Wings—The Mahout—The Tables Turned—Table Delicacies—Jungle Yachts— The End of the Ghost
  Chapter XII. A Frontier Row. The Value of the North-West Frontier—Village Warfare —Readiness and Efficiency—How an Irishman Got a Dog and a Breakfast for Nothing—Trouble in the Buner Country—The Subaltern in War-time—The Pessimistic Afridi—A Terrified Jehu—Sniping—The Morning of the Fight—Sir Bindon’s Dispositions—The Artillery Triumphs—Touching the Button—Rock-rolling—An Exciting Race—The Bravest Man I Ever Saw—The Enemy in Retreat—An Exhausting Climb—The Tribute of a Foe—The Trophies of War—Our Casualties

  The Baden-Powell Library
A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career.
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