Race and the White Elephant War of 1884
November 28, 2017 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Of course we have all learned by this time,” Barnum told his retinue, “that there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant. This is a sacred animal, a technical white elephant, and as white as God makes ’em. A man can paint them white, but this is not one of that kind.” Although readers who had followed the coverage of Toung Taloung’s reception in London would indeed have learned that white elephants are not literally white, Barnum’s matter-of-fact statement belied the controversy that the color of white elephants had already engendered in the popular imagination. In 1884, Toung Taloung was the catalyst for a broader public debate about race and authenticity.
Ross Bullen on how a bizarre episode in circus history became an unlikely forum for discussing 19th-century theories of race.
posted by Rumple (2 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
That's really interesting! Obviously, this part was right up my alley:
Further complicating the relationship between human whiteness and white elephants is the fact that the English term “white elephant” is an inadequate and misleading translation of the Thai phrase for these animals. The Thai word for elephant is chang, and a white elephant is a chang pheuak. According to Rita Ringis, “chang pheuak . . . literally means ‘albino (or strange-coloured) elephant’, the usual word for the colour ‘white’ being different entirely.” Like virtually every other American or European who wrote about Siam and white elephants in the nineteenth century, Vincent was open about the fact that “white elephant” was a poor translation of chang pheuak. And yet he still describes these animals as “so-called ‘white’ elephant[s]”, glossing over what he admits is a semantic problem in order to cast creatures like Toung Taloung as racial imposters who — like a light-skinned African American — might try to pass as white in order to access the closely guarded privileges of white identity.

If the white elephant is viewed as an imposter because of its improper claim on whiteness, this conception of the animal as a kind of fraud is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “white elephant” as both “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”, and “A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

Although this story of the Siamese king and his ruined courtier does provide a compelling explanation for why “white elephant” can mean “an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”, it is nevertheless a complete fabrication. Indeed, if read together, the OED’s two definitions for “white elephant” present a paradox: If white elephants are “rare” and “highly venerated”, why would the king of Siam give one away to punish a subordinate? Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded instance of this practice in Thai history. Nevertheless, this figurative definition of “white elephant” as a kind of fatal gift has had a lasting influence on the English language. It can be detected today in phenomena like “white elephant sales” or “white elephant gift exchanges”, but in the 1880s, “white elephant” was a common expression for any kind of useless or burdensome object.
Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 8:37 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]

Really enjoyed this article, and whoa, why haven't I been reading Public Domain Review for all these years?!
posted by desuetude at 9:13 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]

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