The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 15, 2002

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How Burma fell to British machinations
Randeep Wadehra

Actors on the Burmese Stage: A Trilogy of the Anglo-Burmese Wars
by Terence R. Blackburn, APH, N. Delhi. Pages: Vol. 1 – 71; Vol. 2 – 109; Vol. 3 – 73. Rs 500 per volume.

THIS was the period when, in C.A. Bayly’s words, "The Pax Britannica had begun". The rise of British power in the subcontinent looked unstoppable. In the 19th century three Anglo-Burmese wars were fought, viz., 1824-26, 1852 and 1885. Maha Bandula was the Burmese hero of the first war. The Ava-based ruling Burmese dynasty seized the Irrawady delta, the Tenasserim coast, and the Arakan bordering the East India Company’s territory. Manipur was captured in 1813. In 1818 it installed a puppet Ahom prince as Assam’s ruler. The Burmese Commander-in-Chief, Maha Bandula, leading 8000 men stormed a 300-strong garrison near Chittagong in May 1824. Then he threatened to take over Chittagong itself. The British retaliated by launching a sea-borne attack comprising 2000 soldiers from the Madras Army and 2000 Europeans. The 60,000 strong Burmese contingent was routed, thanks to the monsoons, the outdated Burmese equipment and the more advanced British weaponry. In February 1826 Maha Bandula was killed in a rocket attack.


Blackburn calls it the worst managed war in British military history that cost 15 million pounds, which, according to Percival Spear, "nearly cost Lord Amherst his governor-generalship". The British forces, under the leadership of General Campbell, had imagined an easy victory but the badly planned operations and lack of provisions resulted in deaths of soldiers due to tropical diseases. Bandula could not take advantage of his force’s superior numbers as his men were armed with such outdated weapons as swords and spears while the British had deployed the most modern and destructive armaments. In 1826 the Treaty of Yandaboo was signed that gave the British irreversible ascendancy.

Blackburn dismisses the second war as a non-event of sorts (Vol. 2), "The enemy, from either cowardice or sheer stupidity, prepares to contest one arm of the stream (of the Irrawady river), and the Captain (Tarelton) steams up the other. He arrives at the city (Prome), and finds them all gone on a fool’s errand; so in their absence he occupies the city at his leisure." Lt. Gen. S. L. Menezes gives this version (Fidelity and Honour, OUP), "The expedition arrived off Rangoon in April 1852, and after the whole coastline of Burma had been seized by bombardment, an advance was made to Prome, still 400 miles from Ava. Rather than risk advancing further, Pegu was annexed in December 1852…" Pegu was known for its gold mines. Blackburn exposes the deceit practised by the British Indian Government vis a vis the Burmese King. The actions of Captain Thomas Latter, a junior officer with the East India Company, and interpreter to a mission headed by Commodore Lambert to investigate charges made by the British merchants against Maung Ok, the Governor of Rangoon, are examined. He was instrumental in creating discord between the Burmese and the British authorities that eventually provoked the second war. The author describes Latter as a sadist scholar.

Lord Dalhousie was reluctant to annex Burma for he considered it an unprofitable proposition. So it was left to Lord Dufferin to complete the job in 1886.

In the third volume, Blackburn depicts how the British continued with the East India Company’s policy of annexing slices of the subcontinent’s territory by provoking ‘war’ on flimsy grounds. In a minor dispute over payment to foresters for supply of teak the British intervened citing the Burmese King’s "contumacy". But it had also to do with the Big Power rivalry. Says Lt. Gen. Menezes, "The Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885-86 followed the alleged growing influence of the French in Upper Burma by King Thibaw granting them commercial privileges, including a railway concession and the right to manage the royal monopolies of teak and petroleum." This war resulted in the annexation of the whole of Burma. King Thibaw was exiled to India. But the operations against the guerillas continued for a long time, up to 1896.

However, the narrative in this volume is predominated by the rascality of Moylan the "ill conditioned cad". He began his career as a barrister in Ireland, got into trouble for his suspected association with the republican movement, fled to the Gold Coast and became a correspondent for The Times in an underhand sort of way. He disgraced himself there but managed to become Granada’s Attorney General but had to be removed from the post. Once again he became a correspondent for The Times – this time covering the third Anglo-Burmese War. Blackmailing, cheating and destroying reputations came easily to him. He died at the age of 51. Says Blackburn with his tongue firmly in cheek, "Had he lived longer, no doubt his final years would have brought about further excesses and would have resulted in his either being imprisoned or ennobled". Most probably the latter, given the British attitude towards the "slave races".

Worth a read.