The Elephants that Struck, by Samuel White Baker

from Eight Years in Ceylon

I remember an occasion, many years ago, when in Ceylon, I, in connection with my brother, had organized a scheme for the development of a mountain sanitarium at Newera Ellia. We had a couple of tame elephants employed in various works; but it was necessary to obtain the assistance of the government stables for the transport of very heavy machinery, which could not be conveyed in the ordinary native carts. There were accordingly a large number of elephant wagons drawn by their colossal teams, some of which required four elephants.

It was the wet season upon the mountains. Our settlement was 6200 feet above the sea, and the zigzag pass from Rambodde, at the base of the steep ascent, was fifteen miles in length. The crest of the pass was 7000 feet in altitude, from which we descended 800 feet to the Newera Ellia plain.

The elephant wagons having arrived at Rambodde from Colombo, about 100 miles distant, commenced the heavy uphill journey. The rain was unceasing, the roads were soft, and the heavily laden wagons sunk deeply in the ruts; but the elephants were mighty beasts, and, laying their weight against the work, they slowly dragged the vehicles up the yielding and narrow way.

The abrupt zigzags bothered the long wagons, and their still longer teams. The bridges over dangerous chasms entailed the necessity of unloading the heavier carts, and caused great delay. Day after day passed away; but although the ascent was slow, the wagons still moved upwards, and the region of everlasting mist (at that season) was reached. Dense forests clothed the mountain sides; the roar of waterfalls resounded in the depths of black ravines; tangled bamboo grass crept upwards from the wet soil into the lower branches of the moss-covered trees, and formed a green curtain impenetrable to sight.

The thermometer fell daily as the altitude increased. The elephants began to sicken; two fine animals died. There was plenty of food, as the bamboo grass was the natural provender, and in the carts was a good supply of paddy; [Footnote: Paddy: unhusked rice.] but the elephants' intelligence was acting against them—they had reasoned, and had become despondent.

For nine or ten days they had been exposed to ceaseless wet and cold, dragging their unmanageable wagons up a road that even in dry weather was insufficient to sustain the weight. The wheels sank deep below the metal foundation, and became hopelessly imbedded. Again and again the wagons had to be emptied of their contents, and extra elephants were taken from the other carts and harnessed to the empty wagons, which were by sheer weight of animals dragged from the deep mire.

Thus the time had passed, and the elephants had evidently reasoned upon the situation, and had concluded that there was no summit to the mountain, and no end to the steep and horrible ascent; it would be, therefore, useless to persevere in unavailing efforts. They determined, under these heart-breaking circumstances, to strike work; … and they did strike.

One morning a couple of the elephant drivers appeared at my house in Newera Ellia, and described the situation. They declared that it was absolutely impossible to induce the elephants to work; they had given it up as a bad job!

I immediately mounted my horse and rode up to the pass, and descended the road upon the other side, timing the distance with my watch. Rather under two miles from the summit I found the road completely blocked with elephant carts and wagons; the animals were grazing upon bamboo grass in the thick forest; the rain was drizzling, and a thick mist increased the misery of the scene. I ordered four elephants to be harnessed to a cart intended for only one animal. This was quickly effected, and the drivers were soon astride the animals' necks, and prodded them with the persuasive iron hooks. Not an elephant would exert itself to draw. In vain the drivers, with relentless cruelty, drove the iron points deep into the poor brutes' necks and heads, and used every threat of their vocabulary; the only response was a kind of marking time on the part of the elephants, which simply moved their legs mechanically up and down, and swung their trunks to and fro; but none would pull or exert the slightest power, neither did they move forward a single inch.

I never saw such an instance of passive and determined obstinacy; the case was hopeless.

An idea struck me. I ordered the drivers to detach the four elephants from the harness, and to ride them thus unfettered up the pass, following behind my horse. It appeared to me that if the elephants were heart-broken, and in despair at the apparently interminable mountain pass, it would be advisable to let them know the actual truth, by showing them that they were hardly two miles from the summit, where they would exchange their uphill labor for a descent into Newera Ellia; they should then have an extra feed, with plenty of jaggery (a coarse brown sugar), and be introduced to the companionship of our two female elephants. If they passed an agreeable night, with the best of food and warm quarters, they would possibly return the following day to their work, and with lighter hearts put their shoulders to the wheel, instead of yielding to a dogged attitude of despair.

The success of this ruse was perfect. The elephants accompanied me to Newera Ellia, and were well fed and cared for. On the following day we returned to the heavy work, and I myself witnessed their start with the hitherto unyielding wagon. Not only did they exert their full powers, and drag the lumbering load straight up the fatiguing hill without the slightest hesitation, but their example, or some unaccountable communication between them, appeared to give general encouragement. I employed the most willing elephants as extras to each wagon, which they drew to the summit of the pass, and then returned to assist the others,—thus completing what had been pronounced by the drivers as utterly impossible. There can be no doubt that the elephants had at once perceived the situation, and in consequence recovered their lost courage.

—SAMUEL WHITE BAKER.

[Footnote: What part do you imagine the writer had in the expedition he describes? How would the natives have solved the problem? Have you ever heard other stories of elephants that seem to show the power of reasoning?]

Louise de la Ramee