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Economic and Social History Blog

33. The VOC and the Elephant (26-4-2020)

The VOC and the Elephant (26-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Why do we like elephants? Simply because they are so big, and because they look friendly? This blog is about one important part of their appearance, their tusks. When you visit the historic temples of Sri Lanka (and I assume of India and Thailand as well), you see many statues of elephants with huge tusks, but when you then observe the Asian elephants in the wild, they are almost all without tusks, or with very small ones. So the problem is, how and why did the Asian elephant loose its tusks?

The VOC archives and sources help to solve the puzzle. The company traded both in elephants (mainly from Sri Lanka) and in ivory (from the Cape Colony, Thailand and Malacca), a trade which has hardly been studied (this blog is based on a paper Deborah and I wrote about this in 2019). In Sri Lanka the VOC inherited, as the new ruler of a large part of the island, a system for ‘harvesting’ elephants. In the forests in the southern part of the island, large flocks of elephants lived in the wild. Twice a year, the local population was recruited for a drive to chase the elephants out of the forests by basically making a lot of noise, driving them into a ‘kraal’  – an area encircled by strong fences. Here they were fed, settled, until they were further processed with the help of ‘zielzorgers’ (locally known as koonkies), tame elephants who were used to appease the wild animals. This was a highly successful system; each hunt produced a few dozen animals – sometimes more than could be handled, and less valuable animals were released again. VOC servants enjoyed the sight of the drive from an elevated accommodation, and sometimes artists were hired to memorialize the event.

This technique of harvesting elephants had been developed many hundreds years before in Northern India. Thomas Trautmann has in a brilliant book documented the invention of the ‘war elephant’ in about 1000 BC, and the great impact it had on warfare in large parts of EurAsia and Northern Africa. Hannibal’s elephants were no exotic exceptions, but part of a system of warfare that stretched from China and Indonesia in the east to Northern Africa in the west. Moreover elephants were also used in religious ceremonies and other public events where kings tried to impress their subjects. The domestication of the elephant was however, as the Sri Lanka case demonstrates, never complete. Elephants were very expensive to maintain, and in particular to feed and to guard. The cheaper alternative was to preserve certain forest areas where they could live in the wild, reproduce themselves, and harvest the surplus of mature elephants annually.

This system of semi-domestication had unintended consequences, however. Elephants with large tusks were much more valuable than those with small or without tusks. They looked more ferocious and impressive, and were supposed to be much better warriors. So during the hunt those with tusks were captured, and those without tusks stayed behind in the forest. The latter reproduced, the former did not get the opportunity – semi-domestication resulted in a survival of the tuskless, in a way the un-fittest, instead of the fittest. Real domestication would had led to a breeding strategy which had strengthened the features people preferred – to big elephants and with huge tusks. Semi-domestication had the opposite effect: small, tuskless elephants dominated reproduction. During the 17th and 18th century the VOC still exported a lot of elephants to mainland India, where, in the north, the main markets were. At the same time there were constant complaints about the declining quality of the animals, which were not as valuable – big, ferocious, with huge tusks – as they once had been. This lead to various measures to stop overexploitation, such as the intention to release the ‘mooyste wijfkens’, the most beautiful females, to enhance the quality of the remaining stock. Today, Sri Lanka elephants are almost all (93%) tuskless, which is certainly not caused by natural processes only.

In South-Africa the VOC employees were from the start confronted with African elephants, which were much more difficult to tame – the culture to tame them had simply not been developed there. Almost of them had tusks, and the ivory became the main item that interested the VOC. Initially it was quite a challenge to shoot the animals (guns were not deadly enough), but after further changes in gun technology, elephant killers were developed that were up to the job. Elephant hunting exploded (the VOC tried to regulate it), ivory trade expanded, and first in the Cape itself, and after 1800 much beyond its borders, elephant populations were simply wiped out. The only elephants that survived were the few individuals without tusks, especially when they could retreat to forests where they were more difficult to locate. So if you visit Addo Elephant nature reserve today, you will find such a ‘left over’ population of tuskless elephants.

Continue reading: De vrijmarkt en de opmars van het neo-liberalisme (27-4-2020)


Thomas R. Trautmann, Elephants and Kings, an environmental history. University of Chicago Press, 2015.