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War Elephant As An Idea

Julie E. Hughes

By Thomas R. Trautmann
Permanent Black /Ashoka University, 2015, pp. 372, Rs. 995.00


Elephants and Kings is a thorough survey of where war elephants came from, where they went, and where they did not go. It clearly and competently addresses major reasons why war elephants were trained and why they were adopted by some kingdoms and not others. Given its topical coverage and wide chronological and geographical scope, it is a natural companion to Thomas T. Allsen’s Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Trautmann sums up his main argument as follows: ‘The specific desire of kings for elephants in their army creates an interest in protecting live wild elephants and their habitats. I am asking whether that interest may not have been effective enough to account, in part, for the India-China difference,’ that is, significant pockets of surviving wild elephants and elephant forests in India today, but very few in China. A subsidiary argument is that war elephants and associated technologies disseminated from South Asia and were adopted in South East Asia, Persia, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean world. China, too, received war elephants but despite repeated exposure rejected them because of their Chinese ‘land ethic’. Trautmann successfully keeps his narrative from becoming a ‘story of environmental degradation’ (p. 306), freeing his analysis from overreliance on ‘the story of economic progress’ as the overwhelming explanation for all kinds of environmental decay. In addition he wisely leaves space for ‘something deep and stubborn’, what he calls a ‘land ethic’ in homage to Aldo Leopold (p. 313). Trautmann’s land ethic is a ‘a sense of how land [and wildlife] should be used’ (p. 307; emphasis original). It is subject to historical change, it may relate to but is not determined by economic interests, and it helps explain (when understood in combination with climate change and, yes, economic interests) why more elephants and elephant forests were preserved in India than China. Notably, Trautmann cautions that his argument is ‘not a claim about ideas of non-violence, or nature reverence, or divinity . . . but about royal interest’ (p. 315). Indian kings, alas, did not preserve elephants because they were environmentally friendly rulers, but because these animals were useful to them. Nor did Chinese emperors fail because they were poor environmental stewards, but because they did not find elephants terribly useful. The explanation is simple: South Asia’s elephants were war elephants; in China they were ceremonial beasts or agricultural pests. The book has appealing transnational aspects. It puts ...

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