"Shooting an Elephant" describes an incident in George Orwell's early life, when he was working in Burma as a sub-divisional police officer--in other words, as a lower-ranking government official of the occupying white British government. Burma, which is modern-day Myanmar, is bordered by India, China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It was initially colonized by Britain in 1824, and following the Anglo-Burmese wars, was fully annexed in 1885. Thus, Burma became part of the British Empire in the East.
Orwell describes the incident with the elephant as revealing, although in a roundabout way:
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
Orwell's argument is that those who would rule and subjugate others do so at the price of their own liberty: absolute control of others is actually a constant struggle, not only to maintain control but also to maintain the appearance of control, which becomes of subjugation of the ruler himself. Though the tyrant may wear the crown, Orwell argues, it is a very hollow crown indeed. The ruler is no more free than the people he rules, and the barbarities rulers are enticed into committing ultimately cost the rulers their own humanity.
Orwell notes that he shot the elephant not because he wanted to, not because he felt the elephant deserved it, but because maintaining the appearance of control meant he had to do something personally distasteful:
I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
For young Orwell, the elephant becomes a symbol of the nations subjugated under British rule. He sees that killing the elephant does not make him greater or more in control or a better official. Crushing the imperial subjects does not, in Orwell's dawning understanding, make Britain greater than they. It removes the humanity of the British rulers, forcing them to do distasteful and barbaric things, much like shooting the elephant feels to Orwell.