execution by elephant…12/13/2010
“no nation currently uses execution by elephant as a punishment; however, accidental deaths by elephant still occur…”
Execution by elephant was, for thousands of years, a common method of capital punishment in South and Southeast Asia, and particularly in India. Asian Elephants were used to crush, dismember, or torture captives in public executions. The animals were trained and versatile, both able to kill victims immediately or to torture them slowly over a prolonged period. Employed by royalty, the elephants were used to signify both the ruler’s absolute power and his ability to control wild animals.
The sight of elephants executing captives attracted the interest of usually horrified 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. While primarily confined to Asia, the practice was occasionally adopted by western powers, such as Rome and Carthage, particularly to deal with mutinous soldiers.
The intelligence, domestication, and versatility of elephants gave them considerable advantages over other wild animals such as lions and bears used as executioners by the Romans. Elephants are more tractable than horses: while a horse can be trained to charge into battle, it will not willingly trample an enemy soldier, and will instead step over him. Elephants will trample their enemies, hence the popularity of war elephants with generals such as Hannibal. Elephants can be trained to execute prisoners in a variety of ways, and can be taught to prolong the agony of the victim by inflicting a slow death by torture or quickly killing the condemned by stepping on the head.
Historically, the elephants were under the constant control of a driver or mahout, thus enabling a ruler to grant a last-minute reprieve and display merciful qualities. Several such exercises of mercy are recorded in various Asian kingdoms. The kings of Siam trained their elephants to roll the convicted person “about the ground rather slowly so that he is not badly hurt”. The Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great is said to have “used this technique to chastise ‘rebels’ and then in the end the prisoners, presumably much chastened, were given their lives”. On one occasion, Akbar was recorded to have had a man thrown to the elephants to suffer five days of such treatment before pardoning him. Elephants were even sometimes used in a kind of trial by ordeal in which the condemned prisoner was released if he managed to fend off the elephant.
The use of elephants in this fashion went beyond the common royal power to dispense life and death. Elephants have long been used as symbols of royal authority (and still are in some places, such as Thailand, where white elephants are held in reverence). Their use as instruments of state power sent the message that the ruler was able to preside over very powerful creatures who were under total command. The ruler was thus seen as maintaining a moral and spiritual domination over wild beasts, adding to their authority and mystique among subjects. Crushing by elephant has been done in many parts of the world, by both Western and Asian empires. The earliest records of such executions date back to the classical period. However, the practice was already well established by that time and continued well into the 19th century.