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Elephants & kings: an environmental history

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In Elephants & Kings, Thomas Trautmaan challenges the existing scholarship on elephants in world history through pointing out major lacunae in standing research on the subject. Deep within the study (p. 250) the author reveals that he believes this lacunae is due to a long standing rejection of the ‘seriousness’ of the elephant that has existed since Roman times, explaining why just two substantial studies, one by Pier Damanio Armandi (1843) and the other by H.H. Scullard (1974), have been completed on the subject before the authors work.

The largest challenge to existing scholarship in Elephants & Kings regards the relationship between the elephant and humans. Trautmann contests a third major ‘history of elephants’ that has appeared recently –  Mark Elvins’ (2004) The Retreat of the Elephants – which essentially posits that the decline of the elephants in the longue durée of history is a result of ‘environmental degradation’ (p. 9). Instead Trautmann’s replies that the particular decline of the ‘war elephant’ is not a purely environmental question, so much as it was an overall decline of the use of the elephant to human societies after a particular form of royal authority declined (p. 339). Furthermore, Trautmann’s argues that the combination of religion and reverence, in the case of the war elephant, did not always result in conservation (p. 9).
Many scholars have paralleled the question of elephant extinction to the extinctions of similar large mammals, such as mastodons and mammoths. In this debate, Trautmann highlights two hypotheses that he believes to be important. The first is Paul Martin’s famous hypothesis that large mammals in many forms became extinct as a result of overhunting and human (Homo) expansions. The other important study, from Trautmann’s perspective, stems from a study headed by Daniel Fisher, which suggested, based upon the dating of tusks, that extinction of large relatives of the elephant took place over a two to three thousand year period (pp. 29-30). The picture that the author presents, therefore, further troubles the notion that there is a purely human caused environmental degradation, hunting for ivory and over use that is behind the relative long term decline in elephant populations. Instead he points to Armandi’s study to suggest that since the initial domestication of elephants was a direct result of the formation of a certain kind of kingship (pp. 44-45) and that this form of kingship, based upon the ideal of the ‘god-king’ (S.: devaraja), which spread from South Asia through the Middle East to between the lands around the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia (p. 51).
A part of Trautmann’s fascination with the elephant no doubt stems from the issue of their utility. For example, elephants were used for clearing forests in China (p. 87). He also credits elephant warfare as the advantage that allowed Magadha its great fame (p. 189). The caturanga-bala ‘four classed’ Indian army was then influential for the armies of Seleucus, general Greek strategy and for the armies of Carthage during the Punic Wars (Chapter 6). Regardless, it is the authors’ rich analysis of Sanskrit language material, particularly the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Arthasastras that the author delineates the great detailed classical knowledge of “elephant sciences” in pre-colonial South Asia that includes studies of the types, varieties and qualities of elephants, complete with gestation notes and age classes (p. 174).[i] The purpose of this work is to demonstrate that the very rich knowledge of care, management and development of use of the elephant developed over the course of centuries (p. 145; chapter 4). However, the cornerstone of the argument rests upon the analysis of the classical Hindu army as a whole, the conveyance of the raja (king) and the battle arrays of the army, which are delineated in chapter three. As the center keystone of the army is the conveyance – or the steed of the royalty – it is also the central trope that brings the argument of the book together.
Elephants & Kings is filled with fascinating discussions of material that are not, per se, hallmarks of an Environmental History, but are valuable nonetheless. Examples of these discussions include notes on the alcoholic mixes to prepare them for battle across the classical world (pp. 62-63) and an analysis of the localization of Chess from South Asia to Europe (p. 115). In addition to these discussions there are also a handful of places where the author has not quite made complete analysis of where the interpretations at hand seem counterintuitive. For example, he takes the visual representation of the ‘four classed’ army on the wall of Angkor as an indication that there would have been a ‘four classed’ army in Angkor, despite conceding that the chariots would have certainly been mythical (p. 281). Another theoretical problem, and perhaps the greatest for the work, is that there is not a redress of the issue of the multiple meanings of ‘forest’ at the environmental level that is better situated in history, when the author clearly has the capability to do so. For example, in chapter four there are ‘two kinds’ of forest that are delineated in classical South Asian texts: ‘material’ forests and ‘elephant’ forests (p. 164-165). However, there is not much consideration of the multiple meanings of different types of land in relation to elephants beyond this point. A blaring example is a lack of discussion of the social behavior of elephants themselves and the ways in which they use land, assign watering holes and the famed process of delineating ‘the elephant graveyard’. Similarly, there is a lack of enriched discussion regarding the various forms of land use (for mass agriculture, grazing etc.) and ‘elephant forests,’ that one would expect in an environmental history. In short, the elephants in Trautmann’s study are domesticated, relatively social and, still, objects. Objects of trade, training and warfare. To put it pointedly: they are weapons not warriors.
The implication of Trautmann’s study is unfortunate for elephants. The author fittingly closes his study with regional discussions of the spread of the use of war elephants (chapters 5-7). In the end, however, the study closes with Southeast Asia, where there is ample evidence for the decline of the use of the war elephant. The last known war elephants in Cambodia, for example, were recorded in Cambodian sources in 1833, describing a Siamese (Thai) attack against the Nguyen Vietnamese armies (p. 296). The example is too fitting, perhaps, for scholars of Southeast Asian studies who have consistently faced the question of the future of the Thai monarchy. Will the Thai monarchs go the way of Trautmann’s war elephant? In the end, Trautmann makes a strong argument for the particular relationship between elephants and kingship, even if the relationship is not particularly one-to-one. As such, this book will be a valuable contribution to the study of history, warfare, political relations, and, quite arguably the environment, as it shows the way that elite perception, and therefore policy, toward elephants was shaped across epochs. It challenges existing scholarly paradigms in the study of elephants and the environment and therefore will provide rich material for classroom discussion.  

William B Noseworthy, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Noseworthy, W. 2016. A review of Trautmann, T.R. 2015. Elephants & Kings: An Environmental History, posted online on 8 June 2016:

[i] There are also good readings of the Mahavamsa and the Akbarnama as part of this study, in conjunction with the use of Chinese language material. 

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