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  • Elizabeth Alexander

Death by Elephant

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

The Siamese General is extirpating Pattang—all the men, children, and old women he orders to be tied and thrown upon the ground and then trampled to death by elephants.

~ Letter from Francis Light to the Fort William Council, dated 12 September 1786.

Consider that opening sentence. Why only old women were killed is self-evident; the young ones would be kept as slaves or mistresses. But why were elephants used so extensively in the torture and capital punishment that took place across south east Asia before, during, and for many years after Light’s tenure in Penang?

If you’ve read any books or watched films that include public slaughters in ancient Roman amphitheatres, where lions and tigers were used to savage prisoners and gladiators alike, you might wonder why elephants were the animal of choice in places like Siam (Thailand), CochinChina (Vietnam), and Malaya (Malaysia).

Here are three reasons.

1. Elephants in the region were considered symbols of royal authority and power. What better way for a raja to demonstrate his dominance over all that he surveyed than to have these magnificent beasts—through their trainers and drivers—obey his commands?

2. According to this National Geographic article, these creatures are reputed to be some of the most highly evolved in the animal kingdom, with a “highly evolved neocortex similar to humans, great apes, and some dolphin species.” Their high intelligence made them more easily trainable than other, vicious jungle beasts.

3. Asian elephants are nimbler on their feet than their bigger African counterparts. You'll see why that's important in a moment.

Human ingenuity, not least when it comes to creative ways to maim, dismember, torture, and kill our fellow beings, has always fascinated me. But I was not prepared—until I began researching my novel—for the sheer horror of subjecting men, women and children to death by elephant.

Now, you might think that being stomped on by an elephant would not be so bad…at least your death would be over quickly. But think again.

Here’s the story that Tuan Nakhoda Ismail tells Jim, and his sons, in Chapter 24 of Lies That Blind, about how the Siamese liked to dispose of people:

Execution by elephant does not always end quickly. I have seen a man tied to an elephant's leg and dragged along the ground until one by one his bones tear from their sockets and he suffers the greatest agony. People to be punished are tied to poles and elephants brought to look at them.
On command the creature pulls the pole from the ground into the air with the prisoner unable to escape. Sometimes a man lands and is stamped upon. Other times, the suffering lingers as the elephant forces him onto its ivory, then soars him into the air repeatedly until the guard directs it to squeeze the man’s body to death.”

Although popular throughout the region, it appears that each country had its own preferred way of using elephants to dispose of unwanted captives and criminals. And most of these executions took place in public, similar to the way beheadings were a spectator sport during Tudor times in England.

In India, head crushing under the enormous weight of an elephant (think 5 or 6 tons) appeared to be popular, and at least was quick - although I can't imagine what it must have been like, waiting for that enormous creature to stomp on you! Sometimes the creatures’ hooves or tusks were fitted with sharp knives, all the better to slice the poor prisoner to bits before they finally died. Whereas in Vietnam the preferred method appeared to be securing the prisoner to a wooden stake and commanding the elephant to charge, crushing them to death.

While we may be shocked by the barbarity of these executions, or mass killings, think too of the poor pachyderm. I’ve had occasion to visit a couple of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, the last salvation for creatures that have been worked almost to death and mistreated by their “owners.” If elephants are indeed as intelligent and evolved as we are led to believe, then wouldn’t being trained to dislocate limbs, and slice up humans—with all the attendant screaming by the tortured individual—not be distressing to them?

Me in Phuket, feeding a retired elephant
Me in Phuket, feeding a retired elephant at a sanctuary

Thankfully this form of execution was outlawed as Western influences prevailed in the region. Sadly, our seemingly endless creativity, in discovering new ways to abuse, torment, and punish other human beings, continues.


A brief history of "killer elephants" :

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