Book Reviews

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The British Humiliation of Burma

Terence Blackburn

2000. 166 pp., 5 maps, 27 col. pl, 4 b & w plates and 45 illustrations, bibliography, index. 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softbound

ISBN-10: 974-8304-66-3 $23.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-66-3

Well-packaged chronicle of Burma’s subjugation

Book review by Michael Smithies.

(The Nation, Bangkok, April 1, 2001)

The gradual occupation of Burmese territory in three wars waged by the British in the 19th century is a well-known historical phenomenon, and Terence Blackburn neatly summarises this in the present volume. Like China, but unlike Siam, Burma was so isolated from the outer world that its kings, with the exception of Mindon, were unable to realise that they were not the omphalos of the world, and all-powerful throughout it. Blackburn, in his introduction, gives a summary of Burma’s history before the appearance of the British, and then details their early relations with the Burmese court. Conflict became inevitable when the borders of British India came up against the Burmese spheres of influence in Arakan, Bengal and Manipur. More might have been made of the alien concept of frontiers to people in the East; the West, fixated by maps and precision, was unable to grasp the more fluid notion of traditional spheres of influence and was certainly not friendly towards the territorial expansionism of Burmese rulers. The First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, “the worst-managed war in British history” according to Hall, cost the lives of some 15,000 British and Indian troops, and soon ended in the Treaty of Yandabo, by which the Burmese were required to accept a British resident at the court (then in Ava), and the loss of the provinces of Arakan, Tenasserim and Assam. Burma was also required to pay one million pounds in indemnity (which hardly offset the estimated cost to the British of the war, put at 15 million pounds). One wonders, too, if much was learned from the war on the British side. The officers led from the front, and were the first to be mown down; Blackburn rightly comments that the bright-red uniformed soldiers, marching with noisy bands, were hardly inconspicuous, and to attack teakwood stockade with rifles was a rather pointless pastime.The Second Anglo-Burmese War, 1852, was soon in coming. Again the Burmese found it difficult to grasp the concept of fixed frontiers, and Palmerston’s adoption of the “civis Britannicus sum” policy [see editor’s note below] was bound to lead to further conflict. Blackburn maintains that the war was provoked by the British and Armenian merchant community in Rangoon, which objected to paying Burmese taxes. The war lasted barely nine months, and Pegu and Rangoon were acquired, making Burma a land-locked kingdom.
    With the death of the relatively open-minded Mindon in 1878, and the ascent to the throne of the weak Thibaw and his scheming queen Suphayarlat, things took a turn for the worse. Thibaw celebrated his coronation with a bloodbath of horrendous proportions, eliminating all possible contestants to the throne, some 80 in all. The protests of the British Resident, Shaw, were ignored. Royal trading monopolies conflicted with agreements concerning the free movement of trade. The appearance of the French in Mandalay sent shivers down British spines in Burma, and the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885-86 became inevitable.
    Mandalay was reached in November 1885. Thibaw surrendered his palace and so his country, the palace was looted by local women, listed items were set aside and the remaining treasures auctioned off to British officers. Thibaw and two of his queens, including Suphayarlat, were sent off in bullock carts (covered ones, if contemporary illustrations are accurate) to a steamer and exile in India. The humiliation and occupation of Burma were complete.
and civilian administrators during these momentous events, giving potted biographies which do not always seem to appear at the right moment, towards the end of the story. He makes much of the missing treasures of the royal family; without thinking of how these were acquired (many pieces of the regalia were held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which does not make the index, and returned to Burma in 1964). Inevitably in the confusion many things disappeared, though whether they were taken by British or Burmese citizens or soldiery will never be known for certain.
    The illustrations, many in colour and taken from Burmese chronicles, make the book particularly attractive, and though the tale has been told before, it makes none the less interesting reading to see it again in print. The title is clearly meant to be provocative: whether the British set out to “humiliate” Burma is a moot point. Certainly their actions had that effect, but conflict between an inward-looking court bent on territorial expansion and a likewise expanding and well-armed Western power was inevitable from the beginning.
    Reading this story again makes one realise how lucky Siam was in its dealings with the West at the same period; its considerably more enlightened monarchs were able to make timely concessions and keep the country intact and independent. Whereas Burma can always be seen as an enclosed society, the same is far from true of Siam.

Editor’s note
Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount of Palmerston (1784-1865), was secretary of state for foreign affairs in the British Cabinet at the time.

The term “civis Britannicus sum” (“I am a British citizen”;) was imitated from the declaration “civis Romanus sum”, whereby a Roman citizen claimed legal privileges over the common rabble of the empire. The right to Roman citizenship was progressively widened; hence the idea of a common citizenship across boundaries within an empire.

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