ANGLO-BURMESE WARS AND INROADS BY BRITAIN INTO BURMA

FIRST MUSLIMS AND EUROPEANS IN BURMA

In 10th century many traders from the sea were attracted to Syrium (Thanlyin). Sailing ships from Malacca and Sumatra and as far as the Middle East came to trade from the west. Today Thanlyin is a major port located across Bago River from of Yangon.

The first Muslims in Burma arrived in the Arakan coast and the area around Maungdaw. Exactly when they arrived there is not known. Muslims then arrived in Burma's Irrawaddy River delta, on the Tanintharyi coast and in Rakhine in the 9th century, prior to the establishment of the first Burmese empire in A.D. 1055 by King Anawrahta of Bagan. These early Muslim settlements were documented by Arab, Persian, European and Chinese travelers of the 9th century. Muslims arrived in Burma as traders or settlers, military personnel, and prisoners of war, refugees, and as victims of slavery. Many early Muslims also held positions of status as royal advisers, royal administrators, port authorities, mayors, and traditional medicine men. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Portuguese under Phillip Debrito set up the base in Syrium in 1581. Debrito was known to some as a pirate. He played of kingdoms of Burma against one another. He sided with the Pegu kings, who recognized him as the master of a lower province. Syrium is where Christainity made its' first inroads into Myanmar. The first Catholic mission, led by Father Bonabite, came to Syrium in 1721. It built a large brick church in 1750. This large Church still exist in Syrium as old brick building.

According to Geographia.com: “Nicoto di Conti, a Venetian, was the first known European to encounter Burma. He visited Bago in 1435 and stayed for four months. In 1498, the exployer Portugeuse Vasco de Gama found a sea route to India, opening wide the path to Asia. Soon the Portugeuse had a colony in India at Goa, which they used as a base for eastern trade. De Gama's countryman Anthony Correa made the first trade agreement in Burma with the viceroy of Martaban in 1519. The viceroy's king, Tabinshweti, disapproved of the agreement, which was settled without his consent. Tabinshweti attacked Martaban in 1541, and, surprisingly, 700 Portuguese fought on his side. The Loyalist Portuguese retreated to Rahkine, another of the region's kingdoms, and allied themselves with the monarch of Myohuang.” [Source: Geographia.com }{]

“In 1600, a Portuguese cabin-boy named Philip de Brito y Nicote came to Burma, beginning one of the most legendary tales in Burma's history. De Brito took a job with the king of Rahkine, who had by that time conquered Bago, and soon started constructing forts in the city. De Brito then took a trip to Goa, married the viceroy's daughter, and returned to Bago with men and weapons. As a wedding present to himself, he conquered Burma, declared himself king, and set about destroying Buddhist temples. De Brito ruled for 13 years, until the locals finally laid siege to his fortress. After 34 days the bastion fell, and the foreign tyrant was coolly impaled on a wooden stake, his grueling execution lasting three days.”

During the 17th century, Portuguese, Dutch and British traders set up small trading settlements in what is now Myanmar. Burma wasn't affected much by Portuguese or the Dutch, Burma got its first real taste of colonialism under British in the early 19th century. After having successfully taking over India, the British became more involved in Burma, which they initially called “Further India.” Trade and border disputes led to the Anglo-Burma Wars.

Anglo-Burmese Wars

In response to the continued conquests of Myanmar, the British and the Siamese joined forces against Myanmar in 1824. The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) ended in a British victory and Myanmar lost Assam, Manipur (both in present-day India), Arakan. and Tenasserim. As the century wore on. the British began to covet the natural resources of Myanmar and wanted to secure their supply route to Singapore. As a result they provoked the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 in which the British unilaterally and easily seized the Pegu (Bago) province and renamed it Lower Burma. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ]

The Second Anglo-Burmese War resulted in a revolution in Myanmar, with King Pagin Min (ruled 1846-52) being replaced by his half brother Mindon Min (ruled 1853-78). King Mindon tried to modernise the Burmese state and economy to resist British encroachments. He established a new capital at Mandalay, which he proceeded to fortify, and made trade and territorial concessions to stave off further British encroachments, including ceding the Karenni States to the British in 1875.

This was not enough to stop the British. They claimed that Mindon's son Thibaw Min (ruled 1878-85) was a tyrant intending to side with the French and declared war once again in 1885. conquering the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. The last Burmese king, Thibaw Min, and his family was sent to exile in India.

First Anglo-Burmese War

Faced with a powerful China in the northeast and a resurgent Siam in the southeast, King Bodawpaya turned westward for expansion. He conquered Arakan in 1785, annexed Manipur in 1814, and captured Assam in 1817–1819, leading to a long ill-defined border with British India. Europeans began to set up trading posts in the Irrawaddy delta region during this period. Konbaung tried to maintain its independence by balancing between the French and the British. In the end it failed, the British severed diplomatic relations in 1811.

Bodawpaya's successor King Bagyidaw was left to put down British instigated rebellions in Manipur in 1819 and Assam in 1821–1822. Cross-border raids by rebels from the British protected territories and counter-cross-border raids by the Burmese led to the First the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826).

The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. After Burma's defeat of the Kingdom of Arakan in 1784–1785, in 1823, Burmese forces again crossed the frontier and the British responded with a large seaborne expedition that took Rangoon without a fight in 1824. In Danuphyu, south of Ava, the Burmese general Maha Bandula was killed and his armies routed.

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “Bandula, advanced into Bengal from Arakan in 1824. He planned to march on Calcutta, on England if need be. He took with him golden manacles with which to confine Lord Amherst, the Governor-General, and fetch him captive to Ava. But the invader had picked a bad moment for what we call the First Burmese War. The Company now had resources spare to mount a crushing response. The Burmese, with no concept of naval operations, could not anticipate a counter-plan which relegated Arakan to the strategic fringe and concentrated on a powerful invasion of Lower Burma from the Andamans by sea. Total surprise was thus achieved. [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“Rangoon fell without a blow. If only subsequent British handling of commissariat and transport had been other than disgracefully inefficient, the war could have been quickly ended, but it dragged on for two years, cost thirteen million pounds, and involved terrible losses from fever and dysentery. Of 40,000 British and Indian troops altogether sent in, 45 percent never came out. Of the deaths, 96 percent were not from battle but from disease. //\\

“After Bandula's death in action, the Burmese army's showing, at least against European troops, was only mediocre, though their musketry was accurate and their stockades were formidable. The British performance, handicapped by appalling logistic shortcomings, was yet enough to beat the enemy. The main advance to Ava was almost there when the king capitulated. Earlier, down at the coast, combined operations under the future novelist Captain Marryat were effective, though Marryat formed a high opinion of the Burmese—intelligent, brave, cheerful, the finest race in Asia. Incidentally, this remote naval theater provided the scene for something new, an augury had men realised it. Among the ships involved was a small steamer, the Diana. 1824 was early for a practical display of the potential of steam in war at sea. “ //\\

Cost of the First Anglo-Burmese War

Lasting two years and costing millions of pounds, the first Anglo-Burmese War was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history. The British scored a decisive victory bu 15,000 European and Indian soldiers died, together with an unknown number of Burmese army and civilian casualties. The campaign cost the British five million pounds sterling to 13 million pounds sterling (roughly 18.5 billion to 48 billion in 2006 US dollars) that led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833.

The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. Burma ceded all of Bodawpaya's western acquisitions (Arakan, Manipur and Assam) plus Tenasserim. Burma was crushed for years by repaying a large indemnity of one million pounds (then US$5 million). In 1837, King Bagyidaw's brother, Tharrawaddy, seized the throne and had the chief queen Me Nu, her brother, executed. Tharrawaddy made no attempt to improve relations with Britain. During his reign, relations with the British became increasingly strained. The historian D.G.E. Hall wrote: “The course of Burmese history had now been radically altered. The British had gained possession of two large provinces ... and must either ultimately relinquish them or go on till they occupied the whole country. “

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “British attitudes too were formed by the experience. For Calcutta and London, Burma was inaccessible, economically dubious, misgoverned by an anachronistic tyranny—a head-in-the-sand regime, recalcitrant in diplomacy, obsessive in applying humiliating protocol, hopelessly obstructive to trade. For the soldiers, Burma meant: dense forest, heavy rain, deadly disease, and a dangerous enemy who would torture and mutilate his prisoners. [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“Arakan and Tenasserim, though they could be seen as pre-emptive extensions towards our crucially-sited port of Singapore, were at first in economic terms worth little. Arakan would soon develop into a rice granary, but Tenasserim failed for some time even to meet the expense of its administration—a criterion of those days—and Moulmein was a village of fishing huts. In 1831 the restoration of Tenasserim to Ava was considered, but rejected since the local people would be exposed to calculated retribution, as had been terribly demonstrated in the Delta when we pulled out in 1826. //\\

“In the next twenty years the state of the monarchy in Ava was hardly reassuring. King Bagyidaw went melancholy-mad; Tharawaddy became a sadistic maniac who had to be restrained; Pagan indulged in a horrific bloodbath. It all underlined Burma's incongruousness as a mid-nineteenth century neighbour. The British Residency, established by treaty, could seldom curb the excesses of the regimes or even protect itself from repeated and calculated gestures of contempt, and it was eventually withdrawn. Only one incumbent, Fanny Burney's nephew Colonel Burney, had managed for a time to exert a useful influence. //\\

“Burma's chronically uncomfortable relations with (in particular) one powerful neighbour, British India, had twice led to war (1824 and 1852) before the unacceptable excesses of hopeless King Theebaw provoked, in 1885, the decisive Third Burmese War. That campaign, initially a dash by a flotilla of great paddle steamers up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay, degenerated into endless, exacting, hazardous counter-insurgency work on the ground. However, seemingly interminable guerrilla operations to 'mop up' the lightly armed but highly mobile dacoits did eventually bring the whole country under the effective governance of India. //\\

Second Anglo-Burmese War

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “The Second Burmese War in 1852 was sparked by trivial incidents in Rangoon, specifically complaints by two British sea captains of extortions by the Burmese authorities. War might have been avoided, but the Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, believed the security of Britain's position in India made it essential to react unequivocally to conspicuous affronts. His firm reaction was to despatch warships to Rangoon to demand reparations. This was open to the criticism of being too peremptory, particularly when Commodore Lambert exceeded his instructions: his acts of blockade and bombardment, whether provoked or not, brought about the war. In England, Cobden wrote a scathing pamphlet: "How Wars are Got Up in India". However Dalhousie's view, approved by London and probably realistic, was that war with Ava, albeit unsought, had become so inevitable that the eventual casus belli hardly mattered. [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“1852 was a little too early for "Burma telegrams". The first successful submarine cable, linking Dover and Calais, had only just been laid. Professor Wilson, bringing out a classic history of the First Burmese War in May, did not know that the Second had broken out a few weeks earlier. He had ended his book with a sober reference to a probable further war with Ava, but expressed confidence in 'the application of the powers of steam', and 'reasonable certainty that, should a contest be unavoidable, it will be brought to a speedy and honourable termination without any disproportionate sacrifice of life or treasure'. [Professor H.H. Wilson, The Narrative of the Burmese War in 1824-26, W.H. Allen, London 1852.] //\\

“He was right. This time the logistics were well handled. In an expeditionary force of 8,000, confronting 30,000 Burmese troops, battle casualties were under 400, and mortality from disease—though this included the naval commander, Jane Austen's brother—was below the Indian peacetime average. Against mainly slight opposition the occupation of Pegu went steadily ahead; but after annexation it took three more years to mop up a proliferation of dacoits, ranging from a few real resistance leaders to gangs of bandits whose brutality antagonised the countryside they battened on. This foreshadowed the aftermath of the next conflict. However in 1852 a third war did not seem necessary, and Dalhousie, though authorised to occupy all Burma, forbore to do so, trusting that by the loss of Pegu Ava would be boxed in and neutralised. //\\

Period Between the Second Anglo-Burmese War and the Third Anglo-Burmese War

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “To some extent he was right. The next war was thirty-three years away, and for twenty-five the omens were not bad. Pegu, administered on Indian lines with imported sepoys, police, clerks and manual laborers, developed into a great exporter of rice. Rangoon grew into a world-class port, especially after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. The telegraph cable arrived in 1870; British India Line steamers called regularly from 1871; by 1877 a railway ran up to Prome. From this infrastructure for prosperity Upper Burma also benefited. British firms had concessions there, and by the 1870s the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was plying from Rangoon to Mandalay. (Kipling's "old Flotilla", which never recovered from the Second World War, deserves a word of requiem. It became one of the world's greatest fleets, with six hundred vessels. The sight of a 300-foot leviathan, with lighters lashed alongside, ploughing at speed along the great rivers was one of the unforgettable spectacles of Asia.) [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“That the kings of Ava would permit such economic penetration was not to be assumed, but a fortunate coup in 1853 replaced Pagan by his brother. Mindon, who moved his capital from inauspicious Ava to Mandalay, was a great king, the wisest of his line, a moderate and peace-loving statesman who like his Siamese contemporary Mongkut though with less eventual luck, did much to awaken his country to the modern age. But though he maintained magnanimous relations with Britain, causes of friction grew in step with British influence, and even Mindon could not always remove them. He could not bring himself to acknowledge by treaty the loss of Pegu. He could not abolish the system of royal monopolies which vitiated free trade with India. He could not relax the rigid etiquette under which even the British Resident had to kneel shoeless in his presence—from which stemmed the emotive "Shoe-Question" which soured our diplomatic relations. //\\

The British too cherished their illusions. One was that a route through Burma to China waited to be opened up, and that since the French were consolidating in Tongking haste was essential, to beat them to the markets of China – haste too, to forestall the Americans, whose transcontinental railway, completed in the same year as the Suez Canal, would surely facilitate their trade across the Pacific. British fears of French designs on Burma itself had some foundation. After France's defeat in 1870 a vocal imperialist lobby was pressing for compensating glories in any vacuum overseas. In Britain there was therefore some support for pre-emptive annexation of Upper Burma, which could then, it was supposed, conveniently enough be made into another Indian province. The distinctiveness and tenacity of traditional institutions in the Burmese heartland was just not recognised. //\\

Mindon died in 1878, with no clear successor. Court intrigue now propelled to the throne a minor prince, the nonentity Theebaw, a shallow-brained alcoholic youth, dominated by his ignorant, greedy and vicious wife Soopaya-Lat, already his evil genius and soon to be a byword. In 1879, invoking historical precedents for eliminating rivals, he had eighty members of the royal family massacred: to avoid the shedding of royal blood, these were clubbed or strangled, and thrown dead and alive into a trench which was then covered over and trampled by elephants. Theebaw and his court were surprised and resentful at the horror this aroused abroad, in the day of the electric telegraph. The atrocities went on, and as Upper Burma slid into anarchy and brigandage, powerful appeals came from commercial interests, humanitarians and missionaries, for urgent British intervention.

Third Anglo-Burmese War

King Mindon tried to readjust to the thrust of imperialism. He enacted administrative reforms and made Burma more receptive to foreign interests In the late 19th century, after 25 years of peace, the British and Burmese fighting started again in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which lasted less than two weeks during November 1885. British troops entered Mandalay on 28 November 1885 and Burma was attached to the British Empire on 1 January 1886.

Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times, “In 1885, Burmese officials imposed a fine on a Scottish timber company. This was the casus belli Britain had been waiting for. In contrast to the usual technique of ruling through a chosen puppet, London opted for wholesale regime change. A British general with the impeccably imperialist name of Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast marched in with his troops to oust King Thibaw. (Conveniently, Thibaw, a decent enough cricketer, could be portrayed as a brutal despot: soon after succeeding to the throne, in accordance with Burmese tradition he ordered the murder of 83 members of the royal household, who were strangled or tied in sacks and beaten to death with paddles or trampled by elephants.) Burma was annexed to the Raj; British and Indian businessmen started making serious money. [Source: Ben Macintyre, The Times, April 10, 2012]

The British were not looking for a fight. George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “The British Government, however, heavily committed in 1879 in Afghanistan and Zululand, was extremely reluctant to take on Upper Burma as well, and only did so in 1885 after French greed and duplicity had forced the pace. Jules Ferry, France's actively imperialist Prime Minister, had entered upon an injudicious intrigue with the Burmese. In January 1885 he gave a misleading assurance to Salisbury that a new Franco-Burmese commercial treaty contained no military or political clauses, while he was actually promoting secret agreements on sensitive issues including armament supplies. Such a blatant threat to British interests in Burma would have provided adequate grounds for an Anglo-French war, but by the time the facts leaked out in July, Ferry's forward policy had gone wrong in China and Madagascar and brought about his fall. The new French government was challenged by Britain and backed down. Theebaw was left exposed and vulnerable. [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“He chose this unsuitable moment to display intransigence in a legal dispute with a major British firm. The time was ripe. Dufferin despatched an ultimatum. Meanwhile he prepared an expeditionary force in Lower Burma: 9000 fighting men, 3000 followers, 67 guns, 24 machine-guns. The ultimatum was offensively rejected. War followed. The great paddle-steamers, crowded with troops, thrashed up-river. Before they could reach Mandalay it surrendered. Burmese resistance had crumbled. It might have been true of Theebaw's ill-led soldiery, as Lady Dufferin unfeelingly confided to her diary, that 'they cannot stand fixed bayonets for a second' [Cited by Harold Nicolson in Helen's Tower, Constable 1937, chapter IX], but they now melted away with their small-arms to infest the country as dacoits. Theebaw had left no acceptable princes of the blood alive, so he was quietly exiled. His kingdom was annexed, on 1 January 1886. //\\

In 1886 when the kingdom’s ex-King Theebaw was “settling into sulky exile near Bombay...In far Peking, an obscure Anglo-Chinese Convention was signed in July. Britain acknowledged Chinese interests in Tibet. China withdrew all claims to the still partly unmapped and unexplored country which the Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin, had annexed in January as Upper Burma. On its absorption, the Indian Empire had grown to about its maximum extent, but the victorious troops, after a swift formal conquest, now faced an unending prospect of irregular warfare and police-work over difficult terrain, to suppress an epidemic of banditry. To keep a semblance of order since January had required an average strength of 14,000 troops.” //\\

Burmese armed resistance continued sporadically for several years, and the British commander had to coerce the High Court of Justice to continue to function. The British decided to annexe all of Upper Burma as a colony, and to make the whole country a province of the Indian Empire. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on 26 February 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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