White men with guns and animal carcasses | Sunday Observer

White men with guns and animal carcasses

9 January, 2022

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, one of the annual rituals practised in my household was the family’s visit to my maternal grandfather’s house in a Southern village called Meegama.

This happened in April that coincided with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in the context of which visiting one’s elders was a necessary cultural and emotional prerequisite.

On some of those visits, my grandfather showed me what I now recall as old magazine prints or grainy sepia photographs of white men with guns displaying the carcasses of leopards and elephants they had ostensibly killed.

These were the pictorial records of colonial masters’ trophies from their encounters of ritualised manliness in either Ceylon, some other parts of colonial South Asia or Africa.


I still recall these images quite well along with some aspects of the stories I heard. Though by now what remains in my memory are residues and snippets of the stories my grandfather told me all those years ago, I assume they continue to remain in my memory because they must have disturbed me at the time.

After all, killing of any living being was looked down upon and thoroughly discouraged in Buddhist households like mine as a routine matter of growing up.

The basic argument in my grandfather’s stories – in so far as these images were concerned – was that the colonial rulers hunted animals for sport and pleasure while locals did so only for food.

Even the latter action based on need, did not however remove the native hunters from the karmic consequences of that essentially sinful act.

Obviously, there was a considerable gulf in the perception of killing of this kind between colonial rulers and their cultural make-up on one hand, and the prevalent local ethos of the time on the other. I think making this distinction clear was my grandfather’s intention.


However, at that early age when I first encountered those photographs and for a considerable time afterwards, the importance of these specific images or the kind of narratives photographs in general might tell us years after they were taken did not interest me in an intellectual sense. That interest is something more recent.

But what do the photographs of colonial hunting scenes, be that in colonial Ceylon or elsewhere in the world the imperialists held sway, tell us about that time? What are the politics embedded in these photos?

As we grew up, my grandfather’s stories about white hunters and his collection of grainy photos were not the only sources for the history that these photos represented.

Other elders also told us in family circles and schools that the sporty hunting undertaken by colonial rulers wiped out entire animal populations in some parts of the country as in the case of the famous heard of wild elephants that once roamed free in the Horton Plains.

It is precisely of this kind of devastating hunting practices that Samuel Baker’s well-known 1854 book, The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon still narrates to us.


Even though my grandfather’s photos referencing these colonial pleasure actions are now lost to the vagaries of time, I realised much later that they depicted a very specific and an important genre of colonial photography about which not much has been thought of or written about in our country.

This is despite the fact that such photographs are still available in both public and private archives in the country as well as in the almost limitless vistas of the internet. Obviously, these are ‘trophy photographs’ that have been very self-consciously framed by troops of colonial photographers. And those photos were taken for posterity.

But these photos are not cultural artefacts of innocence or maters of simple sports as that word might be generally understood. Instead, they are located within the colonial discourse of manly power and control.

This sense of power over nature was supposed to be typified by the efficient and large-scale killing of ferocious or fast-moving wild beasts, among others, and displaying the result. The photos were the final memorialisation of that process.

Exercising power and control over nature in this sense was an essential part of the colonial project. It was not merely played out in the realm of hunting and trophy photography, but also in the realms of literature.


Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, Robinson Crusoe first published in 1719 narrates the story of a solitary white male marooned in a seemingly uninhabited island, single handedly bringing order and control upon nature, the jungle, and through that process, also introducing vestiges of civilisation and Western hegemony to the local people too as typified by the transformation shown in the novel’s main ‘native character,’ Friday.

Similarly, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of stories, Tarzan initially published in 1912 narrates the story of a white child lost in the jungle in his infancy growing up to control the jungle itself.

It was he who could kill the meanest of beasts and it was he who could also summon more amenable of the animals to his aid when needed, and not the locals.

Both these stories are factionalised narratives of colonial control of colonised nature and people. By extension, these constitute literary excuses for the colonial project. Seen in this sense, the colonial hunting photos referred to earlier are an essential part of this same pictorial archive of imperial power over colonised nature and people. This is why I noted these are not images of innocence.


In the colonial period, these photographs – depicting white hunters or equally as often Maharajas in the Indian context –became crucial components of the interiors of elite colonial households along with furniture incorporating animal parts such as horns and tusks and stuffed animals in tune with colonial traditions of taxidermy.

All these – photos, furniture and the stuffed animals– were essentially conversation starters for narratives on power, control, heroism, manliness, and intelligence at the height of colonial rule.

Despite the ready availability of such resources in our midst, it is unfortunate that we have still not made concerted attempts to make these photos narrate more fully the stories of our past that are embed within them. It is truly unfortunate that colonial photos still by and large remain mostly mute in Sri Lanka’s broader academic and cultural context.