What did George Orwell mean by the following sentence in his essay "Shooting an Elephant": “It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”?

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George Orwell wrote "Shooting an Elephant" as, what some have said, is an autobiographical essay, or at least semi-autobiographical. George Orwell spent time in Burma (Myanmar) as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, which is the same situation that the unnamed narrator of "Shooting an Elephant"...

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George Orwell wrote "Shooting an Elephant" as, what some have said, is an autobiographical essay, or at least semi-autobiographical. George Orwell spent time in Burma (Myanmar) as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, which is the same situation that the unnamed narrator of "Shooting an Elephant" is in. 

This passage is found toward the start of the story, and frames the plot. The "tiny incident" is that a bull elephant has "gone must" and is rampaging through town. The narrator goes to investigate the situation, and the elephant has killed a man (though a man at the bottom of the social hierarchy), but by the time the narrator catches up with the elephant, it is calm again. However, while following the elephant, the narrator attracts a crowd of interested local people.

The crowd is excited because they believe that the narrator is going to shoot the elephant, though he originally has no intention of doing so, as elephants are very expensive (its death would be a huge loss to its owner) and the elephant has calmed down anyway. However, the crowd's expectations pressure the narrator into shooting the elephant, primarily because he is afraid they will laugh at him, that he will look impotent:

For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

Through this experience of shooting the elephant, which was no longer a danger, and which was a huge part of its owner's livelihood, the narrator shows a critique of imperialism that imperialist governments assert their dominance for the pure sake of it, to demonstrate their power.

The narrator does not shoot the elephant for any good reason (although he says he is glad the man was killed, because it justifies the shooting), but simply because he is afraid of being laughed at. His role as an agent of an imperialist government places him in a tenuous position in Myanmar, and by shooting the elephant, the narrator showed, on an individual scale, the fears imperial powers have of powerlessness over their subjects.

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