Burma, History 1908

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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.


Burmese history, as recorded by indigenous chroniclers, goes back to an exceedingly remote period, and its earlier chapters deal with events that are for the most part obviously legendary, but of interest in so far as they afford a clue to the distri- bution over the country of the various races that claim Burma as their home. It is impossible to place a finger on the precise point at which fact begins to emerge from fable. Our present knowledge of the people of the country enables us to dismiss as wholly fabulous the story that the first princes of Burma came from Benares. It is clear, however, that the Burmans, in their progress down from their northern prehistoric home in Central Asia, first established themselves as a political entity in the country round the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy. Their earliest-known capital was Tagaung, a town on the left bank of the river, in what is now the Ruby Mines District of Upper Burma. It may be necessary to accept with some reserve the statement, put forward by the early Burmese historians, that a dynasty was founded here at the beginning of the tenth century n.c. ; but that this settlement took place at a very early era is clearly indicated by the story of a branch which, after the foundation of Tagaung, spread westward, first into the Chindwin valley and next into the vicinity of the Kaladan river in Northern Arakan, This migration can have been nothing more or less than the diversion to the western coast lands of the peoples who subsequently became the Arakanese, and who in all probability separated from the Burmans during the early centuries of the Christian era. Sub- sequent movements of parties into the Shan States and down the Irrawaddy, alluded to in these early annals, point to a possible solution of the problems connected with the origin of the Taungyos and Inthas, and conceivably of other Tibeto-Burman hill tribes now resident on the confines of the Province. It was during this early legendary period that a section of the primitive Burmese community, forsaking the main body, pressed southward and founded, in the borderland between the dry and wet zones of the country, the dynasty of the Pyus at Prome, which for many years was the centre of Burmese tradition.

From very early days the southern portion of what is now Burma was in the hands of the Talaings or Peguans. The Talaings are represen- tatives of an even earlier immigration wave than the Burmans, namely, the Mon-Anam ; and it seems possible that their political beginnings, which had Thaton as their earliest centre, were almost as early as those of the Burmans, though their chronicles do not profess to go back so far. War between the different races of the country was a common feature of their history. In 104 b. e. (a.d, 742) Prome was destroyed by the Talaings, and a new Burmese kingdom was established at Pagan, which for five hundred years was the head-quarters of Burmese rule. From the eleventh to the thirteenth century the old Burmese empire was at the height of its power, and to this period belongs the greater part of the architecture which still survives in the shape of picturesque ruins on the site of the ancient capital, Pagan. The most famous of its rulers was Anawrata, who invaded and con- quered the Talaing kingdom in the south, brought from Thaton a copy of the Buddhist Scriptures, and revived (if he did not first establish) Buddhism in what is now Upper Burma. One of his successors, Narathu or Kalakyamin ('the king overthrown by the kalas or foreigners), is said to have been slain by assassins. The Pagan dynasty came to an end at the close of the thirteenth century, after the country had been devastated by a Chinese-Shan invasion, Narathihapade, the monarch reigning at the time, being still known as Tayokpyemin, ' the king who fled from the Chinese \' The Burmese hold over Pegu and Arakan (which appears to have acknowledged the suzerainty of Pagan) was lost, a succession of Shans and quasi-Shans obtained the upper hand, a number of independent principalities with capitals at Pinya, Sagaing, and elsewhere came into existence, and no conspicuous Bur- mese house held sway till the early part of the sixteenth century, when the rulers of the dynasty of Toungoo in the south began to assert themselves. The Toungoo kings, of whom Tabinshweti and Bayinnaung are the most famous, made themselves masters of the Talaing kingdom, took Pegu as their capital, obtained temporary possession of Arakan, and subjugated the Burmese country of Av.a. It was in the days of the Toungoo dynasty that European countries first entered into com- mercial relations with Burma. In 1619 the Portuguese signed a treaty with the Burmese king of Pegu, and established factories at Syriam and Martaban (practically the present-day Rangoon and Moulmein). The close of the sixteenth century found the Dutch in possession of the island of Negrais, off the coast of the present Bassein District ; and early in the seventeenth century the English East India Company established agencies and factories at Syriam and Prome as well as at Ava, which had been founded in 1364 by Thadominpaya, and had by that time become the political centre of the Burmese (Toungoo) kingdom. During the rest of the seventeenth century the British were strengthening their commercial position in the country. Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the Takings of the south revolted, shook off the Burmese yoke, and turned the tables on their late conquerors by laying siege to and burning Ava. The supremacy thus passed into the hands of the Peguans, and it was from the dominion of this Mon dynasty that the Burmans were rescued by their great king Alaungpaya.

The opening years of the second half of the eighteenth century saw two reigning houses established in what is now Burma proper, the Arakanese to the west of the Arakan Yoma and the Peguan to the east. The various states that had gone to make up the Burmese empire had been amalgamated into one and had been recently brought under the Talaing yoke. Born in Shwebo, and originally the headman of a small town in that District, Alaungpaya, or, as he was originally called, Aung Zeya, commenced, in 1752, his career of revolt against the foreign conquerors; and between this date and 1760, when he died on his return from an inroad into Siam, he had succeeded in driving the Talaings out of Ava, and, carrying the war into the enemy's country, had re-established the Burmese power in the whole of the southern as well as the northern portion of the Province, and had invaded both Manipur and Siam. The town of Rangoon may be said to have had Sec MviNGVAN District.

its real beginning in Alaungpaya's reign. It was founded in 1755 to commemorate the conquest of the Takings, and, as a token of the termination of hostiHties, received its existing name, which means, 'the finish of the war.' Trade was not immediately attracted to the new city of peace. Commercial interests centred round Syriam, a town close to Rangoon but separated from it by the Pegu river ; and during the struggle between the Burmans and the Talaings the British and French merchants at this station found considerable difficulty in adjusting their policy to the varying fortunes of war. ^^'hen victory had finally declared for the Burmans, Alaungpaya emphasized his position by putting to the sword the French traders, who had on the whole been better disposed towards the Peguans than towards their opponents. The British, on the other hand, obtained increased facilities for commerce, but their evil day was deferred for a while only, for, in 1759, they in their turn were massacred at Negrais ; the factories they had established were demolished ; and it was not till the reign of Alaungpaya's successor that trading rights were restored to the foreigners by the Burmese king.

This monarch was Naungdawgyi, Alaungpaya's eldest son, who reigned from 1760 to 1764, and was succeeded by his brother Sin- byushin (1764-76). The latter invaded Siam and Manipur, added a portion of the Shan States to the Burmese kingdom, and successfully repelled two Chinese invasions. On his death the throne was occupied by his son, Singu Min, during whose reign Siam passed finally out of the hands of the Burmans. Singu Min died a violent death and was succeeded in 1781 by his cousin, Maung Maung, a son of Naungdawgyi ; but this prince reigned for a few days only and was then put to death by his uncle, Bodawpaya, fifth son of the great Alaungpaya. Under the new ruler Burma was extended to what are practically its existing limits by the final subjugation of the Arakanese kingdom (1784), the cession of the Kubo valley, as the result of an invasion of Manipur, and a peace concluded with Siam in 1793, which left the Burmans in possession of the coast of Tenasserim and the ports of Tavoy and Mergui. In 1783 the capital was moved from Ava to Amarapura.

By the conquest of Arakan the Burmans were brought into direct political contact with the British Government. Disputes arose with Calcutta regarding the extradition of Arakanese fugitives. They were, however, temporarily settled in 1794. In 1795 the Government of India dispatched an envoy (Captain Symes) to Burma, to strengthen commercial and political relations with the court of Amarapura. Little came, however, of this and of subsequent missions, and a representative who was sent to Amarapura in 1796 was forced by a succession of indignities to withdraw two years later. In 18 19 Bodawpaya died and his grandson, Bagyidav,-, succeeded. In 1822 Assam was overrun and declared a Burmese province, but this annexation added the last of its jewels to the Burmese crown. Aggressions from the newly acquired provinces of Arakanand Assam into British territory provoked hostilities with the Indian authorities, and in 1824 the British Government formally declared war against Burma. Operations were conducted on a limited scale on the Assam border ; but the main advance on Ava (to which the seat of the government had been retransferred in 1822) was up the Irrawaddy, the invading body being under the command of General Sir Archibald Campbell. The river was entered May 10, 1824.

No serious resistance was offered at Rangoon. The town was invested and the troops were landed there, but no further progress was made towards Ava for several months. The rains, which were then at their height, rendered active operations exceedingly difficult, the troops suffered heavily from sickness, and during the monsoon Sir Archibald Campbell had to satisfy himself with obtaining control of Pegu, Marta- ban, Tavoy, Mergui, and the Tenasserim coast, and maintaining his position in Rangoon. At the beginning of the cold season active operations recommenced. The redoubtable Burmese Maha Bandula, or ' commander-in-chief,' a general who had covered himself with glory in the operations against Assam, was recalled from Arakan and sent to the front ; and by the end of November an army of 60,000 men under this leader was surrounding the British position at Rangoon and Kemmendine, for the defence of which only 5,000 efficient troops were available. Despite the heavy odds against them the invaders were able to hold their own. A succession of attacks was directed against Kemmendine by a strong body of Burmans ; but they were inefifectual, and on December 7 the Burmese general's numerically superior force was completely routed.

Early in 1825 operations in Assam had resulted in the capture of all the enemy's posts there and the granting to them of terms which involved their evacuation of the country. Simultaneously with these operations, an expedition was dispatched from Chittagong into Arakan under General Morrison, Myohaung, the capital, was occupied on April I, and the subjugation of the rest of the province was easy. By the beginning of 1825, practically all the outlying portions of what is now Lower Burma, including Bassein, were in the hands of the British, and the ground had been prepared for the advance up the Irrawaddy to the Burmese capital. Two columns proceeded from Rangoon northwards in February, 1825, one by land and one by river.

The opposing force was entrenched at Danubyu, a town on the western bank of the Irrawaddy, which was attacked on April i by the land and river forces and taken after two days' assault, the Maha Bandula having been previously killed. Prome was occupied by the British three days later, and after an abortive attempt to settle terms had been made at Nyaungbinzeik, offensive operations were resumed. Several skirmishes followed in the neighbourhood of Prome and a Burmese force of 60,000 men invested the town ; but on December i they were completely routed and retired to Myede, a town close to what subsequently became the frontier between Upper and Lower Burma. Driven out of Myede, they made another stand at Malun, and here they were allowed to stop while a further attempt was made to come to terms. Meanwhile a British force had moved from Pegu into the valley of the Sittang, and by the middle of January, 1826, had reduced the most important posts in that region. The Malun negotiations proved ineffectual ; the Burmans were pressed back on Pagan, whence they were driven on February 9 ; and the British advanced to Yandabo, four marches south-west of Ava. Here at length the Burmans accepted the terms already offered to them, which involved the cession of the provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim, the abandonment of claims upon Assam and the small States in its vicinity, and the payment of a war indemnity, and also provided for the appointment of Political Agents and other matters. This concluded what is known as the first Burmese War.

The removal of the British troops from Pegu on the cessation of hostilities encouraged the Peguans to make a final effort to shake off the Burmese yoke. At the beginning of 1827 they revolted under the Taking governor of Syriam, but were defeated and have never since attempted to regain their independence. There was considerable delay before the Burmans could be prevailed upon to comply with all the con- ditions of the Treaty of Yandabo, notably in connexion with the pay- ment of the war indemnity, and the patience of the Residents sent to the court of Ava in the years immediately following the war was tried to the utmost. The first Resident was accredited in 1830, but it was not till two years later that the final instalment of the indemnity was paid.

In 1837 the king of Ava (Bagyidaw), who had for several years been insane, was deposed by his brother Tharrawaddy, who look Amarapura for his capital. This monarch's attitude towards the British was even less conciliatory than that of his predecessor ; the relations between the two Governments became more and more strained; and in 1839 the British Resident was withdrawn and no further attempt was made to maintain friendly political intercourse with the Burmese court. 'J'harra- waddy's reign lasted till 1846. Towards the end of his life he, like his brother, became gradually insane and his last years were spent in confinement. On his death his son. Pagan Min, was proclaimed king, but the new ruler did nothing to bridge over the differences between the British Government and Independent Burma : in fact he widened the breach, and in 1851 matters were brought to a head by the illegal arrest and punishment in Rangoon of the masters of two British merchant vessels. The steps taken to redress the grievances complained of by the British Government were an empty show, and the warlike preparations made by the court of Amarapura left no course open to the Governor-General but to take severe measures.

Hostilities commenced with the bombardment of the Rangoon stock- ades by a British man-of-war ; and as this operation had no effect on the Burmans, a land force was dispatched under General Godwin. The capture of Martaban on April 5, 1852, was the first incident of note in this second Burmese A\'ar, and was followed a week later by the occupa- tion of Rangoon and the seizure of Bassein. Pegu was taken in June after some sharp fighting. In July operations were conducted on the Irrawaddy by a small squadron of steamers, and the enemy suffered a series of reverses off Prome and elsewhere on the river. On September 27 an advance was made on Prome in force, and the town was captured on October 12, after a feeble resistance. Shortly after this it was found necessary to retake Pegu, which, after its capture earlier in the year, had been left in charge of the Talaings and had been lost by them to the Burmans. The town was regained ; but the little garrison left behind when the main body of troops returned to Rangoon was before long beleaguered by the enemy, and its relief was not effected till a consider- able force had been sent. Towards the end of 1852 the hold of the British over the province of Pegu was so complete that a proclamation annexing it was issued and a treaty providing for its cession was pre- pared. This latter document was, however, never ratified. King Pagan Min was dethroned at the beginning of 1853 by his half-brother, Mindon Min ; and as the new ruler would have nothing to do with the treaty, measures were taken for the occupation of the whole Pegu province, which passed to the British without formal cession.

The pacification of the new province and its reduction to order was a long and troublesome undertaking; but eventually, in 1862, the British possessions in Burma, Arakan, Pegu, Martaban, and Tenasserim were amalgamated and formed into the Province of British Burma under a Chief Commissioner, the first ruler of the combined Province being Lieutenant-Colonel (afterwards Sir Arthur) Phayre.

In 1857 the Burmese capital was moved from Amarapura to IVIandalay. The history of the succeeding few years is mainly a record of diplomatic moves and countermoves made in connexion with the attempt to establish fair commercial relations between British and Independent Burma. In 1862 a treaty was signed which opened the Irrawaddy to trade ; and, to encourage commercial relations, the British agreed to forgo lucrative customs duties levied in the past on the frontier. The Burmans, however, failed to fulfil adequately their share of the stipulations, and in 1867 a second treaty was found necessary.

This reaffirmed the previous agreement, and, among other matters, put a limit on the creation by the Burmese king of some objectionable monopolies, which severely handicapped trade in his dominions. But Mindon Alin found means for eluding the provisions (jf this treaty also ; and, what with the evasion of their obligations and their treatment of British subjects, the Burmans had succeeded by 1878 in making the relations between Mandalay and Rangoon very strained. I'his was the last year of Mindon Min's reign, a period which, but for a revolt in 1866 involving the murder of the heir-apparent by two princes of the blood royal, was one of comparative internal tranquillity. In 1868 and 1874 expeditions were sent by the British into south-west China with a view to improving the trade between China and Burma. One of the members of the second expedition, Mr. Margary, was murdered by the Chinese, and the party was forced to return without having effected its object.

A\'hen Mindon Min died and his son Thibaw succeeded him, it was hoped that the new ruler's reign would inaugurate happier relations with the British Government, but a very short time sufficed to show that this hope was vain. A few months after his accession Thibaw displayed his character by a general massacre of the numerous direct descendants of his predecessor, and made it clear that there was to be no change for the better. The Resident at Mandalay protested strongly against the murder of the princes and princesses, and tried to obtain the release of the few survivors who were in custody ; but his good offices were rejected, and in October, 1879, political relations with the Burmese court were broken off. The second edition of the Imperial Gazetteer sums up the situation, as it existed when the volume dealing with Burma went to the press, in the following words : —

' In spite of various disquieting rumours, no breach of peaceful rela- tions between the British and Burmese Governments has yet occurred ; and although no British Resident is stationed at Mandalay, direct com- munication has been maintained with the Ava court.'

The storm did not burst till 1885. That the blow did not fall earlier was due in a great measure to the foreign complications which were engaging the attention of the British Government during the first half of the six years of Thibaw's reign, and which rendered expedient an atti- tude of extreme forbearance towards that ill-advised monarch. In 1880 and 1882 pretences to enter into negotiations with the British were made by the Burmese court; and in 1883 Thibaw sent a mission to Europe which visited a number of the important countries and cities of the Continent, ostensibly with a view to studying Western industrial methods, but in reality to establish with France precisely those friendly relations which his action had rendered impossible with Great Britain.

From 1882 to 1884 there was considerable friction in connexion with the demarcation of the Manipur-Burma frontier, and later on other causes for complaint arose. These culminated in the imposition by the Hlutdaw, or High Court of Mandalay, of a fine of 23 lakhs, on an alleged charge of fraud, upon the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, a British company which had obtained the right of extracting timber from the forests of Upper Burma. A request made by the Chief Com- missioner of British Burma that the questions at issue between the corporation and the Burmese officials should be fairly and exhaustively investigated by an impartial tribunal was flatly rejected, and there was nothing left for the British Government but to send Thibaw an ulti- matum which aimed at a settlement, once and for all, of all the main matters in dispute between the two Governments. The reply to this ultimatum, which was eminently evasive and unsatisfactory, was followed by a proclamation issued by Thibaw to his subjects, intimating that armed force was to be opposed to any attempt made by the British to enforce their demands. On November ii, 1885, instructions to advance on Mandalay were telegraphed from England, and hostilities commenced without further delay.

An advance was made up the river by a fleet of river steamers under General Prendergast ; and the brick fort at Minhla, the first station of importance north of the frontier, was attacked and taken after a sharp action, the fort on the opposite bank of the river being evacuated with- out resistance. Nyaungu (Pagan) and Myingyan farther up the river were occupied without serious opposition, and some little way above the latter town envoys met the expeditionary force with offers of terms.

They were informed that a complete surrender of the capital and troops was a condition precedent to further negotiations ; and, pending the receipt of an intimation that this stipulation was accepted, the fleet pushed on towards Mandalay. A reply to the British demands was not obtained till a point on the river between Ava and Sagaing had been reached and the troops were on the eve of attacking the former post ; but when received it was found that it amounted to an unconditional surrender, and after the Burmese troops at Ava and Sagaing had laid down their arms, a move was made on Mandalay, which was reached on November 28, 1885. No opposition was ofi'ered to the landing of the troops, the palace was reached and surrounded, and on the follow- ing morning king Thibaw surrendered to General Prendergast. He was immediately conveyed to Rangoon, and from thence to India ; and he now resides as a state prisoner at Ratnagiri on the Bombay coast, receiving an allowance from the British Government.

After the occupation of Mandalay a provisional administration was constituted ; and before the close of the year Mr. (the late Sir Charles) Bernard, Chief Commissioner of Lower Burma, arrived from Rangoon and assumed charge of the civil administration in Upper Burma also.

On January i, 1886, a proclamation was issued declaring Upper Burma to be part of Her Majesty's dominions. From that date the energies of its responsible rulers were concentrated on the task of pacifying the new territory, which was administratively attached to Lower Uurma. For the first five years this work was excessively laborious. 71ie resistance offered was nowhere organized and formidable ; the majority of the people acquiesced without a murmur in the new order of things ; but everywhere, in Lower as well as in Upper Burma, rebels swarmed in small bands over the face of the country, rarely venturing into the open, and trusting for success to the unhealthiness of their jungle refuges not less than to their mobility and intimate local knowledge of the ground. Against guerrillas of this type regular troops were of little avail, and special measures had to be taken for coping with the special conditions of resistance. A stringent disarmament policy, and the supersession of regulars by military police, stationed thickly in small posts over the dis- affected areas, gradually wore down the undisciplined opposition ; the political ends that for a time made heroes of the outlaws dropped out of sight by degrees ; and long before the last of the original gangs had been hunted down or broken up, it had been recognized by all that each fresh success of the police meant so many men of bad character accounted for and so many pests to society removed.

The most serious rising in Burma proper between the beginning of 1886 and the end of 1 89 1 was a rebellion in \\'untho, a Shan State lying to the west of the Irrawaddy between the Upper Chindvvin and Katha Districts. It broke out early in 1891, but was promptly suppressed with consider- able loss to the insurgents ; the Sawbwa (chief) took to flight and his territory became part of Katha District. The crushing of this rising may be looked upcin as having dealt the deathblow to organized rebel- lion in Upper Burma. From time to time since annexation the hill tribes on the frontiers of the Province, notably the Chins on the north- west and the Kachins and Was on the north and north-east, have given trouble, sometimes serious enough to justify the dispatch of expeditions against them ; and it would be unsafe to affirm that cause for anxiety no longer exists in the north-eastern regions, and that armed force will never again be necessary. So far, however, as Burma proper is con- cerned, the establishment of order may be said to have been fully achieved, and the acceptance by the people of the British as their undisputed rulers is now full and unhesitating. The annexation of Upper Burma made the Chief Commissioner at Rangoon Chief Com- missioner for Burma as a whole, and in 1897 the growing importance of the enlarged Province led to its development into a Lieutenant- Governorship.

The relations of the Province with Siam and China since the annexa- tion of Upper Burma have been friendly. In 1883 a treaty concerning Chiengmai and the adjacent provinces was concluded with Siam, and in 1892-3 a joint Commission of English and Siamese officers demar- cated the frontier between Siam and the trans-Salween Shan States.

VOL. IX. K Mr. Margary's murder, referred to in an earlier paragraph, was made the subject of negotiations with the Chinese, which ended in an agree- ment signed at Chefu in 1876. A convention signed at Peking in 1886 provided for the recognition by China of British rule in Burma, and for the delimitation of the frontier between Burma and China. The boun- dary as far north as latitude 25° 35" N. was subsequently defined, first by a convention in 1894, and later by a supplementary agreement in 1897 ; and the demarcation of the greater part of the frontier was effected by a joint Boundary Commission between 1897 and 1900. The demarcation of a portion of the boundary has not yet been finally completed, and in the extreme north the frontier to the east of the N'maikha has not been settled. In 1894-5 negotiations were opened with France for the creation of a buffer state between the British and the French territory; but these fell through, and in 1896 the Mekong was fixed as the boundary line between British and French territory to the east of Kengtung.

Before his death in April, 1890, Dr. Forchhammer, late Government Archaeologist, completed a detailed archaeological survey of Akyab, Myohaung, Launggyet, Minbya, Urittaung, and Sandoway in Arakan, and of the Kyaukku temple at Pagan. Since 1890 archaeological work in Burma has been carried on somewhat spasmodically. No detailed survey of any locality in Burma proper has been executed ; but a close study of the inscriptions and native histories has revealed the fact that, as the religion, letters, and civilization of Upper Burma were influenced by Magadha, Nepal, Tibet, and China, so those of the Takings of Lower Burma were affected by Ceylon, Southern India, and Cambodia, and that these two streams of influences finally coalesced at Pagan in the eleventh century, when the Burmese king, Anawrata, subverted the Talaing kingdom of Thaton, and led its monarch, Manuha, captive to Pagan together with the learned monks and literary treasures of the conquered race.

Archaeological exploration of the following sites may be expected to yield interesting results : Yazagyo and Myeyin in the Chindwin valley, Tagaung, Prome, Pagan, Ava, Pegu, Toungoo, Thaton, and Taikkala.

Shwebo, Sagaing, Amarapura, and Mandalay are modern sites dating from the middle of the eighteenth century. At these places the wooden architecture, especially that of the Mandalay palace and the royal monasteries, deserves minute study.

See also

For a large number of articles about Burma, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Burma) please either click the 'Myanmar' link (below, left) and go to Burma(under B) or enter 'Burma' in the 'Search' box (top, right).

Burma, Physical Aspects 1908

Burma, History 1908

Burma, Administration 1908

Burma, Commerce and Trade 1908

Burma, Communication 1908

Burma, Agriculture 1908

Burma, Population 1908

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