The Konbaung Dynasty was the last dynasty that ruled Burma (Myanmar), from 1752 to 1885. The dynasty created the second largest empire in Burmese history, and continued the administrative reforms begun by the Toungoo dynasty, laying the foundations of modern state of Burma. The reforms proved insufficient to stem the advance of the British, who defeated the Burmese in all three Anglo-Burmese wars over a six-decade span (1824–1885) and ended the millennium-old Burmese monarchy in 1885. An expansionist dynasty, the Konbaung kings waged campaigns against Manipur, Arakan, Assam, the Mon kingdom of Pegu and the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, thus establishing the Third Burmese Empire. Subject to later wars and treaties with the British, the modern state of Burma can trace its current borders to these events. [Source: Wikipedia]

It did not take long for a new dynasty to arise after the Taungoo Dynasty and bring Myanmar to its greates power yet. A popular Burmese leader named Alaungpaya drove the Bago forces out of northern Myanmar by 1753. and by 1759 he had once again conquered Bago and southern Myanmar while also regaining control of Manipur. He established his capital at Rangoon. In 1760, he briefly conquered Tenasserim and marched on Ayutthaya. but his invasion failed and he was killed. His son Hsinbyushin (ruled 1763-76) returned to Ayutthaya in 1766 and had conquered it before the end of the next year. Even China took notice of Myanmar now as Hsinbyushin successfully repulsed four Chinese invasions between 1766 and 1769. Another of Alaungpaya's sons, Bodawpaya (ruled 1781-1819), lost Ayutthaya, but added Arakan (1784) and Tenasserim (1793) to the kingdom as well. In Jaunary 1824. during the reign of King Bagyidaw (ruled 1819-37). a general named Maha Bandula succeeded in conquering Assam, bringing Myanmar face to face with British interests in India. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The Konbaung Dynasty was founded in 1752 by Alaungpaya who by successful conquest and skillful diplomacy united upper and lower Burma. When his heir, Bodawpaya, ascended the throne in 1782, he moved the royal capitol from Ava to Amarapura, a distance of about five miles. His grandson and successor, Bagyidaw, shifted the capitol back to Ava in 1823. Tharawaddy (1837-46) who succeeded Bagyidaw took the capitol back to Amarapura and it remained the seat of the Burmese kings until Mindon established the new capitol at Mandalay in 1853. Amarapura was laid out in the perfect form of a square mandala with brick walls and a moat encircling the city. A grid of streets can be traced within the walls. Each of the twelve city gates, three along each wall, were surmounted by a Burmese-style wooden pavilion known as a payatthat. Like many Burmese capitols, little remains of the splendors of Amarapura. The palace buildings were dismantled for re-erection in Mandalay and most of the bricks in the city walls and masonry buildings were removed to construct roads and railway tracks. Only two masonry structures still stand within the city, the Treasury and the Records office. Major stupas were built at each corner of the city. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

Founding of the Konbaung Dynasty

The Konbaung Dynasty was founded by a village chief, who later became known as Alaungpaya, in 1752 to challenge the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom which had just toppled the Toungoo dynasty. By 1759, Alaungpaya's forces had reunited all of Burma (and Manipur), and driven out the French and the British who had provided arms to Hanthawaddy. Alaungpaya's second son, Hsinbyushin, came to the throne after a short reign by his elder brother, Naungdawgyi (1760–1763). He continued his father's expansionist policy and finally took Ayutthaya in 1767, after seven years of fighting. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The traditional concept of kingship in southeast Asia which aspired to the Chakravartin Kings or 'Universal Monarchs' creating their own Mandala or field of power within the Jambudipa universe, along with the possession of the white elephant which allowed them to assume the title Hsinbyushin or Hsinbyumyashin (Lord of the White Elephant/s), played a significant role in their endeavours. Of more earthly import was the historical threat of periodic raids and aiding of internal rebellions as well as invasion and imposition of overlordship from the neighbouring kingdoms of the Mon, Tai Shans and Manipuris. +

Soon after the fall of Ava, a new dynasty rose in Shwebo to challenge the authority of Hanthawaddy. Over the next 70 years, the highly militaristic Konbaung dynasty went on to create the largest Burmese empire, second only to the empire of Bayinnaung. By 1759, King Alaungpaya's Konbaung forces had reunited all of Burma (and Manipur), extinguished the Mon-led Hanthawaddy dynasty once and for all, and driven out the European powers who provided arms to Hanthawaddy—the French from Thanlyin and the English from Negrais. +

Konbaung Dynasty Conquests and Their Costs

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “The founder of the line, Alaungpaya, emerged in 1752 as a national resistance leader against the Mons to the south. Within fifty years he and his successors had defeated and in many cases subjugated most of the adjacent peoples, creating in the process an expanded nation-state with frontiers resembling those of modern Burma but in the north-west more extensive. It was an extraordinary explosion of military effort, though it exhausted the country.[Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\]

“The Mons first, who in 1752 had occupied Ava itself, were expelled and smashed. Next to be defeated were the Shans in the east. In the south-east the Siamese were repeatedly invaded: Ayudhaya, their capital, was destroyed. In the north-west Assam, in the west Manipur, in the southwest Arakan, were devastated and annexed. Even China, in diplomatic theory suzerain of Burma, suffered some ignominious defeats and sued for terms. The Treaty of Kaungton in 1770, in Professor D.G.E. Hall's words, marked for the Burmese: Tthe most glorious moment in their history. . .the exploits of Alaungpaya had given the Burmese an entirely new estimation of themselves. They had become a conquering race and feared no one on earth. //\

“These triumphs however had a darker side. The empire won by ruthless violence could only be held down by oppression, enslavement, genocide. Endless rebellions shook it; massive deportations impoverished it; down in the Delta the fertile rice land of the Mons lay depopulated. Up in Ava, the world's center, amid the splendours of an introverted court, attitudes of blinkered arrogance characterised the rulers. Given the divine right of kings in south-east Asia, this was not surprising: wholesale cruelty too was a recognised instrument of policy. But it was an unpropitious basis on which to guide their medieval kingdom into safe relations with the emerging Europe- dominated world of the nineteenth century, that inexorable new dynamic of which the kings of Ava were pitifully ignorant.” //\

In 1784, when Ava annexed Arakan, the stage was set for a showdown with Britain. “Forty years later, when intermittent British attempts to establish a diplomatic relationship had foundered, did it take place—mainly owing to Arakanese refugees, who persistently raided Burmese Arakan from British Bengal. Ineffectual British handling of this nuisance, during years when the Calcutta government was heavily committed in urgent campaigns elsewhere, exasperated the Burmese and convinced them that in a showdown the British would prove no more formidable than any other neighbour had been. //\

Konbaung Relations with Siam and China

Burma went to war with Siam, which had occupied up the Tenasserim coast to Martaban during the Burmese civil war (1740–1757), and had provided shelter to the Mon refugees. In 1760, Burma began a series of wars with Siam that would last well into the middle of 19th century. By 1767, the Konbaung armies had subdued much of Laos and defeated Siam. But they could not finish off the remaining Siamese resistance as they were forced to defend against four invasions by Qing China (1765–1769). While the Burmese defenses held in "the most disastrous frontier war the Qing dynasty had ever waged", the Burmese were preoccupied with another impending invasion by the world's largest empire for years. The Qing kept a heavy military lineup in the border areas for about one decade in an attempt to wage another war while imposing a ban on inter-border trade for two decades.

By 1770, Alaungpaya's heirs had temporarily defeated Siam (1767), subdued much of Laos (1765) and defeated four invasions by Qing China (1765–1769). With the Burmese preoccupied for another two decades by another impending invasion by the Chinese, the Siamese recovered their territories by 1770, and went on to capture Lan Na by 1776, ending over two centuries of Burmese suzerainty over the region. Burma and Siam went to war again in 1785–1786, 1787, 1792, 1803–1808, 1809–1812 and 1849–1855 but all resulted in a stalemate. After decades of war, the two countries essentially exchanged Tenasserim (to Burma) and Lan Na (to Siam). [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the defence of its realm, the dynasty fought four wars successfully against the Qing Dynasty of China which saw the threat of the expansion of Burmese power in the East. In 1770, despite his victory over the Chinese armies, King Hsinbyushin sued for peace with China and concluded a treaty in order to maintain bilateral trade with the Middle Kingdom which was very important for the dynasty at that time. The Qing Dynasty then opened up its markets and restored trading with Burma in 1788 after reconciliation. Thenceforth peaceful and friendly relations prevailed between China and Burma for a long time. +

See Southeast Asia and Thailand

Konbaung Relations with the British and the Anglo-Burmese Wars

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. 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).

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, and the dynasty fought and lost three wars against the British Empire, culminating in total annexation of Burma by the British. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lasting 2 years and costing 13 million pounds,the first Anglo-Burmese War was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history, but ended in a decisive British victory. 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.

British Take Control of Burma

Burmese culture developed throughout capital cities in Northern Burma in rapid succession, while British colonial rule tightened its grip on the surrounding areas. The court culture of Burma achieved its present forms in Ava (1823–39), Amarapura (1837–59), and finally in Mandalay (1857–85). During this period the Burmese came into open conflict with the British, who ruled over large areas of India. This led to the Anglo-British wars of 1826, 1852, and 1885. The British first took Rangoon (now Yangon), which became a typically British colonial center with colossal government buildings made of stone, harbours, and parks.

In spite of his many attempts at reform, King Mindon (1853–78), one of the most illustrious rulers in the country’s history, was not able to resist the British. In 1866, during the reign of King Thibaw, Mindon’s son and a less capable ruler, the whole of Burma came under British rule. Eleven years later Burma became a province of British India. The colonial period was a difficult one for both the country’s economy and its culture. The British exploited Burma’s natural resources, and much of the court art with its splendid traditions of theater and dance disappeared entirely.

In 1852, the British unilaterally and easily seized the Pegu province in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. After the war, King Mindon tried to modernize the Burmese state and economy, and made trade and territorial concessions to stave off further British encroachments, including ceding the Karenni States to the British in 1875. Nonetheless, the British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indochina, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, and sent the last Burmese king Thibaw and his family to exile in India. +

End of the Konbaung Dynasty

Pagan, who became king in 1846, executed thousands – some sources say as many as 6,000 – of his wealthier and more influential subjects on trumped-up charges In 1852, the Second Anglo-Burmese War broke out. Pagan was succeeded by his younger brother, the progressive Mindon. Mindon attempted to bring Burma into greater contact with the outside world, and hosted the Fifth Great Buddhist Synod in 1872 at Mandalay, gaining the respect of the British and the admiration of his own people. +

Mindon avoided annexation in 1875 by ceding the Karenni States. He died before he could name a successor, and Thibaw, a lesser prince, was manoeuvred onto the throne by one of Mindon's queens and her daughter, Supayalat. (Rudyard Kipling mentions her as Thibaw's queen, and borrows her name, in his poem The Road to Mandalay) The new King Thibaw proceeded, under Supayalat's direction, to massacre all likely contenders to the throne. This massacre was conducted by the queen. +

The dynasty came to an end in 1885 with the forced abdication and exile of the king and the royal family to India. The British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indochina, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. The annexation was announced in the British parliament as a New Year gift to Queen Victoria on 1 January 1886. Although the dynasty had conquered vast tracts of territory, its direct power was limited to its capital and the fertile plains of the Irrawaddy valley. The Konbaung rulers enacted harsh levies and had a difficult time fighting internal rebellions. At various times, the Shan states paid tribute to the Konbaung Dynasty, but unlike the Mon lands, were never directly controlled by the Burmese. +

Konbaung Society and Culture

During Konbaung rule, society was centerd around the Konbaung king. The rulers of the Konbaung Dynasty took several wives and they were ranked, with half-sisters of the king holding the most powerful positions. The Konbaung kings fathered numerous children, creating a huge extended royal family which formed the power base of the dynasty and competed over influence at the royal court. It also posed problems of succession at the same time often resulting in royal massacres carried out in such a way that royal blood must not be shed. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Burmese society was highly stratified during Konbaung rule. Under the royal family, the nobility administered the government, led the armies, and governed large population centers. The Konbaung Dynasty kept a detailed lineage of Burmese nobility written on palm leaf manuscripts, peisa, that were later destroyed by British soldiers. At the local level, the myothugyi), hereditary local elites, administered the townships controlled by the kingdom. +

Konbaung society was divided into four general classes: 1) Royals (min myo), 2) Brahmins (ponna myo), 3) Merchants (thahtay myo), Commoners (sinyetha myo). Society also distinguished between the free and slaves (kyun myo), who were indebted persons or prisoners of war (including those brought back from military campaigns in Arakan, Ayuthaya, and Manipur), but could belong to one of the four classes. There was also distinction between taxpayers and non-taxpayers. Tax-paying commoners were called athi, whereas non-taxpaying individuals, usually affiliated to the royal court or under government service, were called ahmudan.+

Cultural integration continued under the Konbaung Dynasty. For the first time in history, the Burmese language and culture came to predominate the entire Irrawaddy valley, with the Mon language and ethnicity completely eclipsed by 1830. The nearer Shan principalities adopted more lowland norms. The evolution and growth of Burmese literature and theater continued, aided by an extremely high adult male literacy rate for the era (half of all males and 5 percent of females). Monastic and lay elites around the Konbaung kings, particularly from Bodawpaya's reign, also launched a major reformation of Burmese intellectual life and monastic organization and practice known as the Sudhamma Reformation. It led to amongst other things Burma's first proper state histories.

Konbaung Military Captives

Captives from various military campaigns in their hundreds and thousands were brought back to the kingdom and resettled as hereditary servants to royalty and nobility or dedicated to pagodas and temples; these captives added new knowledge and skills to Burmese society and enriched Burmese culture. They were encouraged to marry into the host community thus enriching the gene pool as well. Captives from Manipur formed the cavalry called Kathè myindat (Cassay Horse) and also Kathè a hmyauk that (Cassay Artillery) in the royal Burmese army. Even captured French soldiers, led by Chevalier Milard, were forced into the Burmese army. The incorporated French troops with their guns and muskets played a key role in the later battles between the Burmese and the Mons. They became an elite corps, which was to play a role in the Burmese battles against the Siamese (attacks and capture of Ayutthaya from 1760 to 1765) and the Manchus (battles against the Chinese armies of the Qian Long emperor from 1766 to 1769). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Outside of hereditary positions, there were two primary paths to influence: joining the military (min hmu-daan) and joining the Buddhist Sangha in the monasteries. A small community of foreign scholars, missionaries and merchants also lived in Konbaung society. Besides mercenaries and adventurers who had offered their services since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, a few Europeans served as ladies-in-waiting to the last queen Supayalat in Mandalay, a missionary established a school attended by Mindon's several sons including the last king Thibaw, and an Armenian had served as a king's minister at Amarapura. Sir Henry Yule saw many Muslims serving as eunuchs in the Konbaung Dynasty court while on a diplomatic mission there. These Muslim eunuchs came from Arakan. =

Konbaung Reforms

Realizing the need to modernize, the Konbaung rulers tried to enact various reforms with limited success. King Mindon with his able brother Crown Prince Kanaung established state-owned factories to produce modern weaponry and goods; in the end, these factories proved more costly than effective in staving off foreign invasion and conquest. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Mindon also tried to reduce the tax burden by lowering the heavy income tax and created a property tax, as well as duties on foreign exports. Ironically, these policies had the reverse effect of increasing the tax burden, as the local elites used the opportunity to enact new taxes without lowering the old ones; they were able to do so as control from the center was weak. In addition, the duties on foreign exports stifled the burgeoning trade and commerce. +

Konbaung kings extended administrative reforms begun in the Restored Toungoo Dynasty period (1599–1752), and achieved unprecedented levels of internal control and external expansion. They tightened control in the lowlands and reduced the hereditary privileges of Shan chiefs. They also instituted commercial reforms that increased government income and rendered it more predictable. Money economy continued to gained ground. In 1857, the crown inaugurated a full-fledged system of cash taxes and salaries, assisted by the country's first standardized silver coinage. Cultural integration continued. For the first time in history, the Burmese language and culture came to predominate the entire Irrawaddy valley, with the Mon language and ethnicity completely eclipsed by 1830. The nearer Shan principalities adopted more lowland norms. The evolution and growth of Burmese literature and theater continued, aided by an extremely high adult male literacy rate for the era (half of all males and 5 percent of females). From the late 18th century, mainly beginning with Bodawpaya, the state was guided in its cultural and literary projects, as well as religious reform, by the Sudhamma reformers, centerd on a core of monastic and lay elites from the Lower Chindwin area. The state thereafter attempted to exert its authority over various intellectual assets. Nonetheless, the extent and pace of reforms were uneven and ultimately proved insufficient to stem the advance of British colonialism. +

Konbaung Administration and Capitals

Before the British colonisation the ruling Konbaung Dynasty practised a tightly centralised form of government. The king was the chief executive with final say on all matters but he couldn’t make laws and could only issue administrative edicts. The country had two codes of law, the Rajathat and Dammathat, and the Hluttaw, the center of government, was divided into three branches—fiscal, executive, and judicial. In theory the king was in charge of all of the Hluttaw but none of his orders got put into place until the Hluttaw approved them, thus checking his power. Further dividing the country, provinces were ruled by governors who were all appointed by the Hluttaw, and villages were ruled by hereditary headmen who were approved by the king. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under the Konbaung Dynasty, the capital shifted several times for religious, political, and strategic reasons. During such a move, the entire palace complex was taken down and transported on elephants to the chosen site. These capitals were: Shwebo (1752–1760); Sagaing (1760–1765); Ava (Innwa) (1765–1783, 1821–1842); Amarapura (1783–1821, 1842–1859); Mandalay (1859–1885). [Source: Wikipedia +]

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.

Last updated May 2014

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