Guarding India's Borders
With Britain's ever increasing power and influence in India, it was only a matter of time before she became concerned at protecting the Jewel in the Crown's borders and access routes. Burma provided one such area of concern for nervous British administrators in India. Additionally, the more powerful and confident the Burmese nation became, the more the British agonised over its power and capabilities. Burma became an example of mission creep for the British. They had conquered Bengal, but wanted to ensure its security and so felt compelled to deal with threats to their position there. Burma provided one such hypothetical threat and so was dealt with accordingly by the British East India Company.
The First Burmese War 1824 - 1826
First Burmese War
British attack Rangoon, 1824
In 1824, during the First Anglo-Burmese War, Maha Bandula, Burma's greatest general, wanted to see for himself one of the enemy's "shells" which were throwing his army into such a panic. The opportunity soon came when one fell, but did not explode, near where he stood. A party of Burmese soldiers - observing that the missile was obviously a dud by the way its long fuse sputtered and smoked - picked it up and started towards their chief, who eagerly waved them on. Fortunately for Bandula, they were still some distance away when the burning fuse reached its conclusion and brought the bomb-carriers to theirs. A man renowned for his courage, Bandula was said to have been unnerved for the rest of the day.

The story may be apocryphal, but it reflects some truths about the collision of British and Burmese civilizations. Before Burma began to fall to the British early in the 19th Century, it was a highly organized state, the most powerful monarchy in South-East Asia. It had 2,000 years of tradition behind it, a written language rich in ancient literature, and a firmly established Buddhist religion. Against this ancient country the British depioyed the technological wonders of 19th-Century warfare. When the smoke cleared, Burma's independence had been destroyed, a slow process which took three wars and a little over 60 years from 1824 to 1886.

Before Britain colonised it, Burma was itself an expansionist nation. It was, in fact, Burma's conquest of Arakan and Assam in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries that brought Burma to the borders of India and thus face to face with the British Empire.

Relations between the two powers had been brittle from the time of their initial 16th-Century contacts. The first Englishman to visit Burma was Ralph Fitch, who arrived in Pegu (Lower Burma) in 1587. Rangoon was then a mere fishing village, but the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the country's greatest Buddhist temple, "all gilded from the foote to the toppe," impressed him as "of a wonderful bignesse" and "the fairest place... that is in the world." Fitch's tales of the country's own riches and the caravans that brought from China "great store of mastic [the resin used for varnish], gold, silver and many other things of China work" began to awaken British commercial interest. However, it was not until 1619 that the East India Company established trading stations at Syriam, Prome, Ava, and Bhamo and started to deal in Burmese oil, timber and ivory. In the middle of the 17th Century all "European barbarians" - which included Portuguese and Dutch traders as well as the English were for a brief period thrown out of the country by the Burmese.

In 1755 a leader from Ava (Upper Burma) named Alaungpaya overthrew the Pegu dynasty in the south, which had long ruled the country, and laid the foundations of modern Burma. The King now considered himself "the Lord of Earth and Air."

In his own country, the King of Ava was answerable to none, free to make and break agreements at will - an attitude which made for a relationship of bewildering unpredictability.

A Captain Baker took Alaungpaya gifts of gunpowder, a few muskets, a gilt looking-glass and some lavender water, and offered him British support. It was refused.

Yet two years after this rebuff, in 1757, Alaungpaya reopened the discussion with a letter addressed to George II written on gold leaf studded with rubies, and containing an invitation to his court. To the English representative who came in response he gave 24 ears of maize, 18 oranges, five cucumbers and two grants of land for trading factories. Two years after that, in 1759, the British merchants at one of these stations, on the island of Negrais, were sitting down to breakfast with the local Burmese Governor when he gave a signal that brought a band of his soldiers rushing into the room. They killed the eight Englishmen present and more than 100 of the Indian employees, who manned the station.

Alaungpaya's justification for this outrage was that he had discovered the British were conspiring with Peguan rebels to overthrow him. When he died in 1760, his successor again invited British traders into Burma. Once more the traders came in, but they continued to complain of harassment as Burmese and British interests increasingly came into conflict through the remainder of the century.

In 1795, as Burma consolidated her hold on Arakan and Assam, 5,000 Burmese troops invaded British territory in pursuit of Arakanese rebels who had taken refuge there. The Governor-General, Sir John Shore, meekly surrendered the fugitives. In the years that followed, there were repeated crises over fugitives, smuggling and boundaries. War finally came when a King named Bagyidaw ascended to the throne of Ava in 1819.

A low, flat, almost worthless island called Shapuree, in the mouth of the river that separated Burmese territory from that of the Company, became the testing ground for conflicting claims. In September, 1823, the King of Ava, claiming that the island had been his property since time immemorial, sent 1,000 soldiers to evict the 12 Company sepoys who occupied it. The Burmese evacuated the island as soon as they had taken possession, and the British moved back in, only to leave again, this time driven away by sleeping sickness.

The fact that nobody actually wanted to stay on Shapuree made no difference. When Lord Amherst, the GovernorGeneral, made a conciliatory move, the Burmese threatened to invade Bengal. Later, when the Burmese were in a mood to make the island neutral ground, the British refused. Finally, on March 5, 1824, Amherst declared war on Burma.

At home, the news of so remote a conflict was barely noticed. In India, however, British soldiers were thrilled. "Never shall I forget the shouts of joy with which we welcomed the intelligence of a war with the Burmese," wrote Ensign F .B. Doveton. "Here would be glory for a young soldier, perhaps even an opportunity to sustain a flesh wound, in the easiest possible manner."

The Burmese were also out in their reckoning. Their commander, Maha Bandula, included in his expeditionary baggage a pair of golden fetters with which. to secure Lord Amherst, once he had captured the Governor-General.

Bandula at first seemed on the verge of making good his promise. His army of 60,000 crossed the border and at Ramu, in May, 1824, almost annihilated a smaller British force. Dread and terror spread among the merchants of Calcutta, who feared they were next.

Bandula's army soon turned round and marched back into Burma, however, and for a very good reason - the southern parts of Burma had been invaded by the British. Lord Amherst had wisely seen that the Company should not fight this war in the difficult hill-country of the border areas, but should strike at the heart of Burma, the Irrawaddy River Valley. On May 10, 1824, Sir Archibald Campbell with 11,OOO British and sepoy soldiers arrived off Rangoon in a fleet of warships. The next day 6,000 men went ashore, found the city abandoned, and went on the rampage.

First Burmese War
British attack Rangoon, 1824
"By night-time the greater part of the European force in the town were intoxicated," wrote an officer of the Madras Regiment, "and in this state they went rambling from house to house with lighted torches.... The conflagration was certainly a magnificent sight."

The British bivouacked in and around Burma's holiest shrine, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, raising their flag on its lofty, gilded spire. The Burmese, meanwhile, hastily threw up a ring of bamboo forts to hem in the invader. "Stockades sprang up like mushrooms in every direction," wrote Doveton, "so that, look which way we would, there was ever a pleasing variety from which to pick and choose whenever our general wished to relieve the monotony of the cantonment by the excitement of a sortie."

The first of these palisades which Sir Archibald attacked was called Zwegyon. The rains had begun and British gunpowder was wet, so the Company's soldiers used bayonets.

First Burmese War
Assaulting Stockade at Dalla
The British next moved on the biggest stockade, Kemmendine (the soldiers called it jocularly, "Come an' dine") , defended by 20,000 Burmese. On June 3, a combined naval and military attack collapsed rather ignominiously. The British reached the stockade's high walls only to discover they had left their scaling-ladders behind, and during their retreat suffered battering fire both from their own ships in the river and from their reserve units to the rear, who thought they were the enemy trying to break through. On June II they tried again this time remembering their ladders and were victorious.

With seasonal rains turning the delta into an impassable mire, Campbell could not advance. Most of his force went down to the coast where they spent the next three months conquering Burma's maritime provinces, capturing Yeh, Tavoy, Mergui and Tenasserim.

First Burmese War
British attack Syriam
While all this was happening, Maha Bandula, far to the north, undertook an epic march. Having heard of the landing at Rangoon, he turned his 60,000 soldiers from Bengal and drove them over the hills of Arakan, a difficult route at the best of times. He did it during the rains, when the flooding streams, leeches and malaria-bearing mosquito turned the jungle into a waterlogged nightmare.

By November, when the rainy season ended, Bandula and the Burmese were again threatening the British at Rangoon. The British soldiers may have genuinely welcomed action as an alternative to the punishment the climate was imposing on them. In six months, 1,200 Europeans and many Indians had already died, mainly from disease.

On the night of November 30 the British, now defending Kemmendine, saw the sky up-river begin to glow. Soon a vast fleet of Ioo-foot-Iong fire rafts appeared, floating towards the British ships. "The scene before us was a grand and imposing spectacle; the whole jungle was illuminated, the Golden Pagoda at Rangoon, and everything around us, was as clearly discernible as' at noonday," wrote a British Officer. Behind the fire rafts, which British sailors were busily fending off, swarmed boatloads of Burmese warriors. They were joined by others from the jungle in an attack on Kemmendine, but the outnumbered British repulsed them.

On December 3, Bandula failed to take Kemmendine again, and the following day he was repulsed once more. His troops now lay in a wide semicircle around Rangoon. On December 5, Campbell surprised him with a sudden sally against the Burmese left wing. It was so great a rout that some British found time for larking. At the height of the battle a sergeant grabbed a riderless, exotically caparisoned, Burmese pony and mounted it, shouting to his comrades, "Here comes Bandoolah!"

Campbell estimated that 5,000 Burmese were killed or wounded that day. Bandula managed to rally 20,000 men at Kokine, up the river, behind what Sir Archibald called "the most formidable, entrenched and stockaded works I ever saw," but they were soon dislodged by a British force of only 1,300 men who were assisted in equal parts by superior artillery and unquestionably magnificent courage.

First Burmese War
The Assault on Danubyu
Bandula fell back to Danubyu, 50 miles up-river. Campbell pursued him, marching with 2,500 men by land, and sending another 1,300 in all the riverboats available. This latter unit reached Danubyu first, and its commander, a Brigadier-General named Cotton, cheekily demanded the surrender of Bandula's army, about ten times as numerous as his own. "We are each fighting for his country," Bandula replied, "and you will find me as steady in defending mine as you in maintaining the honour of yours."

Campbell arrived and the attack began with an all-night artillery, mortar and rocket barrage on April I, 1825. The British were still in their trenches the next day when it was learned the enemy had evacuated the stockade. Bandula, while in conference with some of his officers, had been killed by that former object of his curiosity, a British mortar shell. Although his brother tried to assume command, the death of their great general was too demoralizing for the Burmese soldiers. They fled. Campbell advanced up the river to Prome, but could not continue to Ava because the rains came again. Meanwhile, British forces had been making progress elsewhere in the large country. They conquered Assam in January, 1825, and supported a local Prince, Gambhir Singh, who threw the Burmese out of Mampur. By the end of April, Arakan was under British control. The Burmese hastily accepted a one-month armistice to discuss a treaty, but rejected British terms. Fighting resumed when the rains ended.

At Prome the Burmese tried the same tactics they had used at Rangoon, building stockades round the British position. On December I, 1825, Campbell's men struck at one of these forts, Napadee. When the fighting ended, it was discovered that among the defenders were three beautiful and apparently highranking Burmese girls, two of whom were killed in the attack. The British went on, clearing out stockade after stockade, until the enemy again sued for peace on December 5.

They balked at the British terms, which required surrendering much of their territory. "The question is not how much you will cede to us," a general on Campbell's staff remarked gravely, "but how much we shall return to you." A draft treaty was signed on January 3, 1826, and the Burmese were given until January 18 to have it approved.

When that da:te passed with no ratification, Campbell resumed his march. He was 45 miles from Ava, at a town called Yandabo, when two European missionaries, who had been released from a Burmese prison for the purpose, arrived with a treaty and 250,000s pound in gold and silver as a down payment on the indemnity demanded by the British.

Under the Treaty of Yandabo, which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War on February 24, 1826, the English got the provinces of Assam, Arakan, Manipur and Tenasserim. In addition, Ava promised to accept a British Resident and pay an indemnity of 1,000,000 pounds. The war had cost Great Britain about 13,000,000 pounds. Forty thousand men had been employed in it, of whom 15,000 died, mainly from disease. The British left Rangoon when the second instalment of the indemnity was paid in 1827, a move that enabled King Bagyidaw to save face - he let it be known that the exhausted English had begged for peace, but since they did not have enough money to leave he had magnanimously paid their fares home.

An Uneasy Peace
The British Resident sent to the court of Ava in the aftermath of the First Burmese War was Henry Burney, brother of novelist Fanny Burney. He found Bagyidaw as proud and uncooperative as ever. When the King, who was steadily going insane, was overthrown by his hot-headed brother, Tharrawaddy Min, in 1837, Burney was even more frustrated in his attempts to increase trade and get special concessions. Tharrawaddy completely disavowed the 1826 Treaty (although he made it clear he would not try to recapture the lost territories) and, as a monarch, refused to deal with the representative of a mere Governor-General. Burney left Ava in disgust and urged his superiors to launch a new war.

The East India Company declined to do so - yet. In 1846, Tharrawaddy also began to show signs of insanity and was ousted by his son, Pagan Min. Pagan's favourite sport was cock-fighting, but he was not averse to a little Britishbaiting on the side. His Governor of Rangoon, Maung Ok, seemed to regard the English merchants now established in that port as a source of supplementary income to be extracted by any available means. In 1850, Maung Ok compelled a certain Mr. Potter to pay 16,000 rupees for permission to launch a ship. Pdtter complained to Lord Dalhousie, the new Governor-General of India who had just finished fighting the Second Sikh War. The following summer the Governor of Rangoon falsely charged the masters of two British vessels with murder and made them pay '920 for their freedom. They asked the government of India for compensation. It was over this amount that the Second Anglo-Burmese War began. With the Sikhs subdued Dalhousie had troops to spare and he decided that the Burmese must be brought to heel.

The war, like most colonial wars, aroused little interest in London. One of the few Englishmen who objected to it, the politician Richard Cobden, said later he could find no one, in or out of Parliament, who had read the two Parliamentary papers relating to the conflict. It would have made little difference. The reports suppressed critical evidence, even that of Lord Dalhousie, to justify the war.

Dalhousie sent a Commodore Lambert to Rangoon to investigate the case of the two captains. "It is to be distinctly understood," Dalhousie told Lambert, "that no act of hostility is to be committed at present." When Lambert reached Rangoon he was inundated with complaints from British businessmen. "Many of them," Dalhousie said later, in a statement not included in the Parliamentary papers on the war"are of old date, none are accompanied with proof, none were preferred at the time, not until the appearance of the squadron suggested an opportunity for deriving some profit from the occasion."

One notable complaint was from a Mr. Crisp, who, perceiving that a war between his own countrymen and the Burmese was in the wind, had imported a shipload of arms and sold them to tl1e Governor of Rangoon. As Maung Ok had not paid for the guns, Crisp was now asking the government of India for 41,490 rupees in compensation. The claim was rejected.

Commodore Lambert, whom Dalhousie later called "combustible," and of whom he wrote, "If I had the gift of prophecy I would not have employed Lambert to negotiated," did not waste time investigating the validity of the complaints. Within a day of arriving he sent an ultimatum to the King of Ava, demanding that he recall his Governor. Perhaps not surprisingly with a British squadron in his major harbour, Pagan acquiesced. When Dalhousie heard that a new Burmese Governor had been appointed, he thought the crisis was over.

He did not realize just how "combustible" Commodore Lambert was. On January 5, 1852, a deputation of senior British officers tried to call on the new Governor without a formally arranged appointment. They were told that he was asleep. Lambert immediately took several hundred British residents on board his ships, and, when night fell, seized a vessel belonging to the King of Ava. He informed the King that he was "obliged" to do so "in consequence of the insults offered by the Governor of Rangoon."

The Governor tried to reopen negotiations. Lambert said he would receive him on his frigate . The Governor suggested Lambert should come to him. Lambert refused. The Governor said that if the British attempted to take away the King's ship, he would have to fight. Lambert replied that if so much as a pistol was fired he would level the riverside forts of Rangoon to the ground.

And that, on January 10, was what happened. Two ships, H.M.S. Hermes and H.M.S. Fox, started down the river with the Burmese vessel in tow. Shots were fired from the shore, and the two ships answered with devastating effect. Lambert wrote to his headquarters the same day: "I am confident the Government of India will see it was unavoidable and necessary to vindicate the honour of the British flag."

When he got word the next day that the Governor was ready to comply with all British demands, Lambert did not bother answering him. It would be war. "So all that fat is in the fire," Dalhousie sighed when he heard the news. Dalhousie admitted that his emissary had acted "in disobedience of his orders," but once fighting had begun he fell back on the familiar need to assert the Company's authority. "We can't afford,". he said, "to be shown to the door apywhere in the East." Not ready for a full-scale campaign, he stalled by sending Pagan Min an insulting ultimatum in which the compensation demanded was raised from 920 pounds to 100,000 pounds. On April I, 1852, he declared war on Burma.

The Second Burmese War 1852
General Sir Henry Godwin, with about 8,000 men, easily took Martaban. after a furious cannonading ofthefort on April 12. When the British ships opened fire on Rangoon the next day, some Burmese soldiers tried to escape the bombardment by jumping into the river"as if resolved," wrote an English officer, "on becoming targets for practice."
First Burmese War
British attack Shwe Dagon Pagoda
On April 14, Godwin's men swept some 20,000 Burmese from their main redoubt, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, and the enemy continued to provide entertainment for the British. Recalling the scene, Colonel Williarn F.B. Laurie who took part in the action, wrote: "It was amusing to see them chevied through the bushes, across the plain where the artillery was drawn up, by the European soldiers. Crack! crack! crack! - away they ran, as if a legion of evil spirits were after them." Naval guns did "fearful " to Rangoon. That night the city once more blazed in the darkness, "observing which formed amusement for the weary who could not sleep."

In May, Godwin with Boo men - and his powerful guns - overcame 7,000 Burmese at Bassein, 60 miles up the river. By June almost the whole province of Pegu Lower Burma - was occupied. "But the beasts don't give in," groused Dalhousie. "There is no symptom of submission and I now give up all hope of it." Prome fell to the invaders in October but still, Dalhousie complained, the Burmese would not recognize"their actual inferiority to the British power."/I>The Burmese simply refused to answer the peace proposals, which entailed cession of Pegu.

Patience at an end, Dalhousie annexed Lower Burma on December 20, IB52, by simply proclaiming that it was "henceforth a portion of the British Territories in the East," and told its people to "submit to the authority of the British Government, whose power they had seen to be irresistible and whose rule was marked by justice and beneficence." Two days later he ' had white pillars erected six miles north of the town of Meeday and informed the King of Ava that, from now on, that was its boundary.

Early in IB53 Pagan was overthrown by his brother, Mindon Min, who then tried to negotiate with the British. He was told they would be happy to have a peace treaty, but would not return Pegu. Dalhousie's proclamation was "irrevocable." Mindon, in the light of the recent campaign, understandably desired peace with the British, and ordered his people not to challenge the new frontier, but he could not accept the proposed1treaty. The war ended without a formal document being signed.

The Times, which was wont to pass judgment on wars in those days the way a theatre critic might now review plays, pronounced it "generally inglorious." One report put British dead at about 3,000. It had cost 1,000,000 pounds more than 1,000 times the amount of the claim which began it. By cutting off Burma from the sea - "She could now reach the world only by the sufferance of the British," said a Burmese writer - the war markedly reduced that nation's ability to challenge British supremacy in South-East Asia, or even to sustain its own independence, which, economically speaking, was being rapidly eroded by the influx of British goods from India.

Another Uneasy Peace!
Despite some guerrilla resistance, Pegu was soon organized as a province of India. On the grounds that the Burmese were unreliable. uneducated, and lazy - though their patronizing critics never failed to credit them for being "good-humoured" - the new British overlords imported Sikhs for policemen. Bengali clerks for the lower ranks of the civil service, and Madras coolies for labourers. The Britishowned Irrawaddy Flotilla Cornpany began running steamers up the, river in 1864. The submarine telegraph cable reached Rangoon in 1870 and a railway to Prome .opened in 1877. Lower Burma was becoming British Burma.

Under King Mindon, a peaceful and popular monarch, Upper Burma was also undergoing changes. He built a new capital just east of Ava at Mandalay, brought in the telegraph, and encouraged education and religion. He even paid for the restoration of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda now in British territory, which had been damaged in the two wars.

Possession of Lower Burma tended to whet rather than satisfy the appetites of British businessmen. They kept glancing hungrily at Ava. An official report lamented the embargo on exporting opium to Upper Burma. "The use of the drug is more or less forbidden by the Ava Government to its subjects. The people of that kingdom. however, are probably quite as willing to consume opium as the people of China or India... "It appears possible that a considerable addition to the opium revenue might accrue were the present restrictions on the export to be removed."

The merchants were lured less by Upper Burma itself than by what lay beyond it - south-western China. The Nanking Treaty of 1842 had forcibly prized open China to trade, and British merchants were eager to press the products of Yorkshire and Lancashire into the hands of millions of new Chinese customers. Commercial circles in Britain saw Burma as a potential bridge between India and the Chinese province of Yunnan; as matters stood, it was an obstacle.

In 1862, Mindon agreed to British traders travelling to Bhamo, where they could meet caravans from China. The Indian government wanted a clause in this treaty which would exclude foreigners, other than the British from this route, but the British negotiators. knowing the King would refu se, did not propose it. By another treaty, in 1867, Mindon permitted the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company to run steamers to Bhamo and allowed a British party to explore possible railway routes leading to China.

Mindon became nervous as the British pressed for wqr-e and more concessions, especially when he learned British agents were dealing secretly with anti-Ava rebels from Burma's Shan states. To underline his position as monarch of a sovereign nation, he decided to send an embassy directly to Queen Victoria. The bypassed government of India was incensed, and Mindon was warned his envoys would not be allowed to talk business in London. but only make a ceremonial visit.

The British Press made every attempt to belittle the Burmese envoys during their tour of Europe. In Paris, the British Ambassador tried to jockey himself into the position of introducing them to the French, as if they were his proteges. The Burmese managed to avoid his unwel- . come embrace, and retained their dignity : commercial agreements were signed with Italy and France allowing for the exchange of diplomats and trade contacts.

The British government actually objected to Italy about the warmth of the welcome the Burmese received in Rome. When they were given the Italian Cross of Commander, The Times correspondent reported petulantly: "I am pretty sure they all went to bed last night with their crosses carefully stowed away under their pillows after the manner of good and deserving children with new playthings." In England the delegation was coolly received by the government, but its members were well fed by chambers of commerce in almost every leading city.

Mindon died in 1878. Since the throne of Ava usually changed hands in a coup, the natural death of a reigning monarch posed unusual problems of succession. Mindon had 53 queens, 48 sons and 62 daughters. One of his chief queens was Hsinbyumashin, the daughter of the late King Bagyidaw and his wife, Menu, reputed to be a sorceress. Hsinbyumashin was even more of a Lady Macbeth than her mother had been.

She had three daughters who were supayas, princesses held in reserve to marry whichever of their half-brothers should eventually reach the throne, a provision designed to keep the dynasty "pure." Hsinbyumashin picked I9-yearold Thibaw, one of Mindon's younger sons who happened to be in love with her eldest girl, as her choice for King. With the help of some powerful politicians, she locked up or drove from the country princes who might be rival claimants to the throne. Her oldest daughter took refuge in a nunnery rather than marry Thibaw, but he wed the other two supayas and was crowned.

By a practice repeated many times in Burmese history, but which had been ignored in recent years, a new King secured his position with a "massacre of the kinsmen. " Thibaw's power-crazy mother-in-law re-established the tradition and in January, 1879, some 80 courtiers, including IS of Thibaw's half-brothers and four of his half-sisters, met grisly ends in the palace at Mandalay. When word of the killings reached the outside world, indignation and threats of coercion induced Thibaw to promise that he would never repeat such a massacre.

Thibaw did not have a happy home life. After a baby son died of smallpox, his chief wife bore only daughters. He tried to satisfy his disappointed manhood by collecting a harem, but as often as not an executioner in the hire of his motherin- law would call on one of his new girls the morning after Thibaw did. The British were as offended by his foreign policy as by the barbarism with which his rule was associated. Thibaw began granting monopoly concessions, and not always to British companies. An old custom of the Court of Ava gave the British an opportunity to show their displeasure. They suddenly decided, after years of conforming to the rule, that it was "humiliating" to remove their shoes before approaching the King. Diplomatic relations virtually ended in October of 1879 when the British Charge d'Affaires stormed out of Mandalay with other British residents in tow. Thibaw, surprised, sent gifts to the Viceroy of India and asked him to continue the "grand friendship."

He followed this appeal with envoys, whom the British detained at the border for eight months. insisting that the Burmese accept the terms of a proposed new treaty before arriving in Calcutta to discuss it. The mission returned to Ava when, on their last attempt to communicate with the Viceroy, the local British officer rejected their letter as unacceptable and did not keep a copy. Like his father, Thibaw tried to reduce the English threat by agreements with other European powers. Although the commercial treaty he signed with the French in 1885 had no political or military clauses, his flirtation with France only hardened animosity in London. "We should now get any pretext to annex or make Burmah into a protected state," said Sir Owen Burne, assistant to Lord Randolph Churchill, who was then Secretary of State for India.

Certainly British merchants thought so. The chambers of commerce of many English cities joined that of Rangoon in clamouring for annexation. Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy, admitted that "an independent Burmese kingdom" was the "most serious obstacle to development of the Irrawaddy trade," but nevertheless he contended that annexation did "not appear to us to be justified."

The Chief Commissioner of British Burma was more specific: "If King Thibaw's Government transgressed British frontiers, invaded British allies, maltreated British subjects, broke treaties, continued to commit massacres, rejected British projects and refused redress, matters would be different. But things have not come to any such pass."

Such scruples were soon overcome. The Bombay-Burma Corporation was fined '230,000 by Thibaw for defrauding the Burmese government as to the value of timber exported from the country. The fine was obviously excessive, although the charge may have been genuine. Anyway, it was the issue Lord Dufferin needed. Simultaneously, he moved 10,000 troops to Rangoon and sent an ultimatum to Thibaw. It required the King not only to settle the matter of the fine, accept a British agent in Ava, and facilitate British trade with China, but also to "regulate" all of Burma's foreign relations "in accordance with our advice."

Thibaw said that he would take care of the company's complaint and accept an agent on the old terms, but would submit to Germany, France and Italy the question of whether Britain should control his foreign policy. That, obviously, was not good enough On November II, 1885, the troops in Rangoon boarded a flotilla of river steamers for Mandalay.

The Third Burmese War 1885
The Third Anglo-Burmese War was, according to one Briton, "not a war at all - merely a street row." The Burmese, thinking it would never happen, were not prepared for it. Thibaw's army was scattered all over the country. Some resistance was met and quickly put down at Myingyan. Shortly afterwards General Sir Harry Prendergast, the expedition's commander, received a message saying that Thibaw would now comply with all points of the ultimatum, and requesting an armistice.

Prendergast said it was "out of his power" to grant an armistice. He promised to spare the King's life if his troops were allowed to enter Mandalay unopposed. Thibaw agreed. A fortnight after leaving Rangoon, the British occupied the capital of Burma. There they were disappointed to find only '60,000 to confiscate from the King's fabled treasury.

The royal family was rounded up, the queens being detained overnight in the palace gardens in a summer-house which later became the bar of the Mandalay Gymkhana Club. The next day they were deported. Thibaw lived on well into the 20th Century, dying in exile during the First World War in a seaside villa to the south of Bombay.

Prendergast, bearing China trade in mind, pushed on to Bhamo, along the way terrifying Burmese villagers by flashing them with electric searchlights fixed to the roofs of the steamers. Lord Randolph Churchill ordered Lord Dufferin to proclaim annexation on January I, 1886, as "a New Year's present to the Queen."

There was talk about putting a puppet King on the throne of Ava, but when bufferin visited Mandalay in February the ruling nobles refused him an official welcome. Openly defiant, at first they would not attend his ceremonies. When compelled to do so they grabbed all the front seats for their low-ranking servants, forcing British notables to sit at the rear. Lady Dufferin was cross because Burmese women snubbed the nice little reception she had laid on as a gesture of reconciliation. Dufferin abolished .the council of ruling nobles and made Burma part of British India. But the Burmese Army refused to surrender and melted into the jungles to carry on guerrilla warfare. To make matters worse hundreds of Burmese joined them and together they roamed the country as "dacoits" or bandits, whose marauding disrupted everyday life and prevented orderly administration.

Pacification and Imperial Integration
Faced with a massive task of pacification the British tended to regard anybody who fought them as a dacoit. Included in this proscribed group were followers of royal princes, local chieftains who resisted foreign domination, and educated patriots who slipped out of Mandalay to fight in the mountains.

Dacoits twice set fire to occupied Mandalay in 1886, destroying a third of the city. There were enough of them in the hills and forests to require 32,000 British troops and 8,500 military policemen in Upper Burma within a year of occupation. One thousand dacoits were brought into Mandalay and branded with a mark that would "save the formality of a trial when arrested a second time."

The British could not understand the dacoits. A naval brigade captured 12 of them and decided to make the punishment "exemplary" by shooting them one at a time instead of altogether. The first shot took off the top half of a dacoit's skull "as one decapitates an eggshell with a breakfast knife." At this his comrades laughed uproariously, and continued laughing as they were similarly dispatched, one by one, thoroughly disconcerting their British executioners.

There was organized resistance in the remote Shan states and Chin hills, and new guerrilla activity broke out in Lower Burma. Large-scale operations against the insurgents were rejected in favour of a network of small British outposts, each one dealing quickly and effectively village burning was a common technique of reprisal- to put down the trouble in its area. By 1891, Burma was largely pacified, although as late as 1900 more than 20,000 soldiers and military policemen were still needed in the country, and at least one rebel leader, Bo Cho, eluded the conquerors until 1920.

Though many British civil administrators thought that Burmese culture, with its written literature, high literacy rate, and strong Buddhist clergy, should be preserved intact, Burma flourished only as a British-Indian country. Rangoon became known as "a SUburb of Madras." Home-produced Burmese textiles, famous for their exotic beauty, disappeared under an avalanche of cheap fabrics from Manchester. The British spent generously on education, but Buddhist literature was not taught and was largely forgotten.

Britain made better use of Burma's natural resources. By 1900 there were 141 factories in Lower Burma, most of them rice-mills. A ruby-mining concession in Upper Burma, granted soon after annexation, was by 1901 paying 17l per cent to its British shareholders. Rice became big business; just before the Second World War, two-fifths of the world's rice exports were produced in Burmese fields.

This was not entirely beneficial to the Burmese. In 1892 and 1893 a combine of millers and exporters managed to drive down the price paid for rice at the paddy by a third, which greatly increased their profits but did not help the peasants much. The government broke the cartel only when other businessmen angrily pointed out that, as Burmese farmers without money could not purchase British- made products, imports were falling off drastically.

Even after that the Burmese farmer did not fare well. Caught up in a sophisticated and unfamiliar economic system which required him to pay taxes and buy supplies before his crop came in, he fell into the hands of Indian moneylenders backed by British banks and rice-dealers. They took much of his profit, and, eventually, his land. By 1936 half the arable land in Burma was owned by banks, brokers and mortgagees.

Though imperial rule brought with it a general respite from the wars that had long plagued Burma, the period was marked by a tremendous increase in the number of violent crimes. Between 1900 and 1930, the number of murders doubled, while the incidents involving dacoits actually tripled. Some efforts were made to curb this frightening outbreak of disorder, but they had little effect. For the root causes of Burma's violence lay in the breakdown of the Burmese social and political system in the wake of annexation. Not until 1937, when Burma was separated administratively from India and given a certain measure of self-government, did the country recover its sense of nationhood.

Imperial Flag
map of Burma
Map of Northern Burma
Map of Southern Burma
1862 - 1948
Historical burma
Images of Burma
National Archive Burma Images
Burma Military Police

Burma Frontier Constabulary

Burma's Last Days
Jim Herlihy has written an account of the run up to Independence in 1948.

Further Reading
Changing of Kings: Memories of Burma, 1934-49
by Leslie Glass

Heaven-Born in Burma
by Maurice Maybury

A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain: 1941–45 by Lyman, Robert

Burmese Days
by George Orwell

Wild Life and Adventures in Indian Forests: From Diaries of B.B.Osmaston C.I.E. 1868-1961, Imperial Forest Service 1888-1923
by Bertram Beresford Osmaston

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe