What is meant by, "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"
In the beginning of Orwell's essay “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator makes clear that he is opposed to the British rule of Burma. The narrator—a white policeman who is presumably Orwell himself—reveals that “I hated [the job] more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.” It is not, however, until the narrator is called to handle a supposedly crazed elephant that he feels he truly understands the horrors of imperialism.
While handling this “tiny incident,” the narrator has an epiphany about the nature of imperialism. The narrator realizes that it is not simply the colonizer that exerts power on the colonized but that the reverse is also true. The narrator does not want to shoot the elephant, but when he realizes that he has an audience, he decides that he must. The decision is not personal but purely political:
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.
The narrator suddenly recognizes that the colonizer-colonized dynamic is mutually constitutive, and he feels that he is forced to kill the elephant:
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 it. I had got to shoot the elephant.
This “tiny incident” reveals to the narrator that he is, as he puts it, a “puppet,” and as such, he is also a victim of imperialism.
What the narrator is referring to is the incident in which he actually shot the so-called "crazed" elephant. He never wanted to shoot it, but he felt the pressure from the natives to do so. He writes a story about this event to show how the imperialists were not free, but actually very bound by their beliefs and system. He felt like a prisoner rather than a person in a position of power in this village that he was made to police. He knew he should not have shot the elephant, it had calmed down and wasn't hurting anyone, but he had the villagers behind him silently urging him to do it. Even though he was supposed to be a powerful man among this territory, he wasn't, he was at the mercy of the villagers in every move that he made and so he shows us the true nature of imperialism. When trying to rule a territory far removed from the ruling power, a person feels powerless because the government is a more abstract body.
"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 . . .That would never do."
Even though he knows it's wrong, he still does it (at the suffering of the elephant because he had the wrong kind of gun) to avoid being disliked by the Burmans.