Snorer (Rogue) Elephants

The term ‘rogue elephant’ seems to have arisen among British colonists based in Sri Lanka – then called Ceylon – in the early to mid 18 century. H.J. Suckling (1876) stated that rogue elephant is a “literal translation” of the Sinhalese term “hora-alia”which means thieving elephant (hora = thief). Despite Sucklings claim, the meaning of “rogue” and “thief” are not necessarily equivalent (see Rothfels, 2014).  I have come across little information describing what kind of elephant “hora” might have been referring to, although I assume that the elephant’s status as “thief” refers to animals who demonstrate a persistent taste for farmer’s crops. A discussion of “rogues” often focuses on the elephant’s status as solitary figures and “outcasts [from the herd].. changing their otherwise naturally harmless character into one of extreme viciousness… spending their whole time cunningly waylaying people and killing them” (Suckling, 1876, p. 126). Suckling’s suggestion that the causes of their extreme behaviour was not sufficiently understood “even by the natives”, does appear to mark a differentiation between local and colonist observations of troublesome elephants. The concept of lone, violent elephants was continuously revisited by British writers and hunters throughout the 19th century, the rogue becoming a powerful figure in the western imagination (Rothfels, 2014).

In Ceylon, there were corresponding terms that preceded the notion of “rogue”, apart from “hora”. The British took control of Ceylon from the Dutch circa 1800s, who in turn had wrested it from the Portuguese in the mid 1600s. In the early 1700s, the Dutch used to refer to a kind of elephant called ronkedoors or “mischief-makers”: elephants that roamed alone or in twos, separated from the herd and were “ill-tempered beasts” (trans. de Vos, 1898). Ronkedoor seems to be an adaptation of the Portuguese word roncador which translates as “snorer”. Although a 19th century Portuguese dictionary translates roncador as “snoring fellow” also “fierce bully, noisy fellow” which does seem to correspond to a troublesome elephant (see also Yule & Bernell, 1886). How the Dutch inherited this term from the Portuguese is unclear.

The principal secretary of state during Dutch rule in the early 1700s, J.C. Wolf (1713, p. 142), referred to ronkedoors as males who were prevented from mating or having the company of a female, possibly through a battle with another male, and consequently became highly destructive “killing every living creature that comes in his way”. It strikes me that ronkedoor here could sometimes refer to an elephant in musth,[1] but this is not explicitly stated. Wolf notes that such an animal is a cause of significant terror for the traveler. Dutch company man, writer, and adventurer Jacob Haafner (1810) explored at length the ronkedoor or “afgeslagene elefant”. Afgeslagen translates as “cast away” or “rejected”. Haafner’s ronkedoor was also enraged by his loneliness, and for losing a battle with another male for the attention of a female. The elephant would then terrorise the landscape. I must admit I am google translating a text written in Dutch, which was written very flamboyantly, doubling the difficulty in interpreting what Haafner said; but, Haafner was adamant that these elephants were infinitely more dangerous than regular ones.

How the concept of ronkedoor emerged and whether they were influenced by local Sinhalese understandings is unclear. What does seem to be clear is that the notion of outcast and extreme violence attached to ronkedoor does bare a strong resemblance to and arguably did shape the British idea of rogue elephants. Tennant (1867) suggests that “rogue” is a modification  of the Portuguese / Dutch term. Interestingly, the term ronkedoors also traveled to South Africa along with the Dutch, and is an Africaans word used to describe the existence of a violent, lone African elephant.

Paul Keil

(just to note: I have not referenced the term goonda/goondahs which originated in North and Northeast India, and which is also said to correspond with the concept of rogue. Although, the connection between these terms likely has a different set of histories and meanings worth exploring in another post)

[1] This is not to say that wild elephants in musth display destructive and violent tendencies.

[this post has been reposted from from a post dated 2017]