What are the dehumanizing effects of British imperialsm on both the British oppressors and the oppressed Burmese people in "The Hanging" by George Orwell.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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It has been pointed out at times how administering rule over an occupied and oppressed people gradually but surely degrades the humanity in the occupier.  In his 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell was led to make the following observation about the psychological transformation that occurs when soldiers and civil servants, specifically, those fighting in the service of European imperialism, are sent to forcibly occupy a foreign nation:

“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.”

Orwell’s observations were the product of a legacy of viewing the day-to-day responsibilities of those dispatched to administer the British Empire.  Among the places he made these observations was the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (or Myanmar) – one of a series of linkss in the empire’s chain coalescing in India, the “jewel in the crown.”  His 1931 dispatch from Burma, “A Hanging,” provides the essential background information on how Orwell’s thoughts regarding the British Empire developed over time.  “A Hanging” is Orwell’s straightforward description of the British Army – with the dirty work carried out by Indian soldiers serving the British and occupied Burmese suborned into duty at the service of the Crown – carrying out the routine execution of a Burmese prisoner.  Orwell’s article provides a glaring portrait of the dehumanizing nature of the business of administering a colony.  Struck by the nonchalance of the English superintendent of the prison where the execution by hanging will take place (“For God's sake hurry up, Francis [the head jailer],’ he said irritably. ‘The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren't you ready yet?”), Orwell reflects for the first time on the morality of the undertaking:

“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life shortwhen it is in full tide.”

When the prisoner, who has stoically allowed himself to be led by the Indian guards to the gallow, suddenly begins chanting “Ram! Ram! Ram!” the assembled colonizers and colonized alike are suddenly discomfited by the expression of humanity emanating from the condemned man (“Ram” to a Hindu, is the 7th incarnation of the God Vishnu).  While the Hindu Indian guards and culturally-sensitive journalists like Orwell watch with growing reservations regarding the immorality of the action they have now witnessed, i.e., the hanging of the prisoner, the British superintendent displays no sign at all of possessing any humanity:

“The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body; it oscillated, slightly. ‘He's all right,’ said the superintendent. He backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his wrist-watch. ‘Eight minutes past eight.  Well, that's all for this morning, thank God.’”

Occupation has a dehumanizing effect on the occupier at the same time it breeds resentment in the occupied. 

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