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 Post subject: Executions by Elephants
 Post Posted: Fri Nov 17, 2006 3:17 am 
Executions by Elephants

RH /Nov 2006

Crushing by elephant was for thousands of years a common method of execution for those condemned to death in ancient ceylon. Elephants employed in this manner were used to crush, dismember, or torture captives in public executions. The use of elephants to execute captives often attracted the horrified interest of European travellers, and was recorded in numerous contemporary journals and accounts of life in Asia. The practice was eventually suppressed by the European empires that colonised the region in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Cultural aspects

The use of elephants as executioners was inextricably bound up with the use of the animals as symbols of royal power. The intelligence, domestication and versatility of elephants gave them considerable advantages over the wild animals such as lions and bears often used by the Romans as executioners. Elephants could be trained to execute prisoners in a variety of ways, prolonging the agony by subjecting captives to a slow death by torture or killing the victim quickly by stepping on his head. Most importantly, they were under the constant control of a driver or mahout, enabling a ruler to grant a last-minute reprieve and thus display his merciful qualities.[1]

The English sailor Robert Knox, writing in 1681, described a method of execution by elephant which he had seen while being held captive in Sri Lanka:

"The King makes use of them for Executioners; they will run their Teeth [tusks] through the body, and then taer [sic] it in pieces, and throw it limb from limb. They have sharp Iron with a socket with three edges, which they put on their Teeth at such times..." [2]

The 19th century traveller James Emerson Tennent comments that "a Kandyan [Sri Lankan] chief, who was witness to such scenes, has assured us that the elephant never once applied his tusks, but, placing his foot on the prostrate victim, plucked off his limbs in succession by a sudden movement of his trunk."[3] Knox's book depicts exactly this method of execution in a famous drawing, "An Execution by an Eliphant."

Writing in 1850, the British diplomat Sir Henry Charles Sirr described a visit to one of the elephants that had been used by Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last king of Kandy, to execute criminals. Crushing by elephant had been abolished by the British after they overthrew the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 but the king's execution elephant was still alive and, evidently, well remembered his former duties. Sirr comments:

"During the native dynasty it was the practice to train elephants to put criminals to death by trampling upon them, the creatures being taught to prolong the agony of the wretched sufferers by crushing the limbs, avoiding the vital parts. With the last tyrant king of Candy, this was a favourite mode of execution and as one of the elephant executioners was at the former capital during our sojourn there we were particularly anxious to test the creature's sagacity and memory. The animal was mottled and of enormous size, and was quietly standing there with his keeper seated upon his neck; the noble who accompanied us desired the man to dismount and stand on one side".

"The chief then gave the word of command, ordering the creature to 'slay the wretch!' The elephant raised his trunk, and twined it, as if around a human being; the creature then made motions as if he were depositing the man on the earth before him, then slowly raised his fore-foot, placing it alternately upon the spots where the limbs of the sufferer would have been. This he continued to do for some minutes; then, as if satisfied that the bones must be crushed, the elephant raised his trunk high upon his head and stood motionless; the chief then ordered him to 'complete his work,' and the creature immediately placed one foot, as if upon the man's abdomen, and the other upon his head, apparently using his entire strength to crush and terminate the wretch's misery."


1. Thomas T. Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History, p. 156. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

2. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon [1], Robert Knox, London, 1681

3. James Emerson Tennent, Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical, p. 281. (Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860)

4. Sir Charles Henry Sirr, quoted in George Barrow, Ceylon: Past and Present, pp. 135-6. (John Murray, 1857)

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