Som artikel 326 i The Complete Works of George Orwell kommer hans mest kända essä: ’Shooting an Elephant’. Den beskriver en incident under Orwells (Eric Blairs) tid som polis i Brittiska imperiets tjänst i Burma.
En elefant i området hade fått ett raseriutbrott och dödat några bybor. Orwell gav sig av för att leta upp den och om nödvändigt oskadliggöra den — i släptåg följde en stor mängd ”infödingar”. Väl funnen tycktes elefanten vara fredlig och Orwell insåg att det bästa vore att invänta djurets skötare. Men imperiets män har även annat att ta hänsyn till:
I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes — faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.
Detta stycke innehåller essäns hela politiska poäng. En variant av samma resonemang ges i en recension (art. 328) som Orwell skriver vid samma tid (oktober 1936). Boken är skriven av en (dansk) tjänsteman i de holländska kolonierna och beskriver bland annat en incident från Hollands kolonialkrig 1900–1912, en berättelse som Orwell utmärker till ”by far the best thing in the book”:
It describes the torture of a villager who knew, or was supposed to know, where a rebel chieftain was hiding. Apart from the depth of imagination with which the scene is pictured, it brings home as a thousand political pamphlets could not do the inherent evil of imperialism. For the dreadful thing about the kind of brutalities here described, is that they are quite unavoidable. When a subject population rises in revolt you have got to suppress it, and you can only do so by methods which make nonsense of any claim for the superiority of Western civilization. In order to rule over barbarians, you have got to become a barbarian yourself.