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Why didn't mahouts have armor?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: September 11, 2012 
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In all ancient illustrations of war elephants in combat I have seen, the mahout (the elephant handler that sits cross-legged across the elepant's head) do not appear to be armoured. (I have seen mahout armour for much more recent times, such as 17th century India.)??This seems really strange. He must have been a very inviting target—taking out him must have been the easiest way to disable this weapon platform. I suppose he would have been out of range for melee weapons except long pikes but a very visible and exposed target to any missile or thrown weapon. So why didn't mahouts have armour?


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Dear D:

Your question comes in—and from—an era in which armies make a consistent practice of outfitting their soldiers with the equipment to carry out the mission. Ancient armies did not necessarily share that mentality. While the use of war elephants was widespread from China to Carthage, generally speaking the mahouts, however valuable their skills, were contracted civilians, usually from countries where labor was not a scarce commodity and armor—and trained elephants—more expensive and more highly valued than human life. To put it bluntly, they were usually not issued armor and usually not paid enough to afford to purchase their own. The mahout was afforded a measure of shelter by the very bulk and height of his elephant—which in some armies was provided with the armor that its handler was denied. Other than that, he was on his own.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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