Monday 14 January 2019

The Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder - by Lesley Downer

Dawn over the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) at Mandalay
'What will our descendants think of us when they read that the British banished the King of Burma, annexed his country, and proceeded to govern it by officials of their own race? Historians will add that we saw no harm in this, though we always resisted such a fate to the death when it threatened our own land.' - Maurice Collis, The Journey Outward, 1952

King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat
and her sister Princess Supayalay
In 1885 King Thibaw of the Konbaung dynasty was governing Upper Burma from his palace in Mandalay. He was 26 years old and had succeeded to the throne after his father, King Mindon, died suddenly in 1878. Following Mindon’s death, seventy nine of the king’s relatives who were potentially Thibaw’s rivals were murdered in a plot hatched by Thibaw’s implacable mother-in-law to make sure that he took over the throne.

Thibaw was convinced that his father’s apartments in the palace were haunted by Mindon’s ghost. He had them moved out of the palace grounds and rebuilt as a monastery. It’s a gorgeous building made of teak and covered in intricate and delicate carvings depicting the Jatakas, the Buddhist scriptures. You can still see King Thibaw’s meditation couch there. As it transpired the vast palace complex which forms the heart of Mandalay was destroyed in World War II. King Mindon’s apartments were the only part of the palace to survive. 

Thibaw set about reforming the administrative structure of his kingdom, Upper Burma. His government was one of the best educated the country had ever seen, including many scholars who had returned from Europe and were fluent in the Burmese classics as well as English and French. 
King Mindon's palatial apartments,
now the Shwenandaw Kyaung, Mandalay

The British had annexed western Burma in the First Burmese War of 1824 and had ruled Lower Burma for thirty years, since the Second Burmese War of 1853. Jane Austen’s brother, in fact, Rear Admiral Charles Austen, commanded the British Expedition of 1853 and died in Burma of cholera. 

The king was determined to win back his kingdom and started making moves to align more closely with the French, signing a Franco-Burmese commercial treaty which both he and the French swore had no military or political clauses. But the British were not convinced. There was also the Great Shoe Question. Visiting British dignitaries refused to remove their shoes on entering Thibaw’s palace, causing deep offence. 

Old capital at Sagaing, outside Mandalay
In 1885 Thibaw issued a proclamation calling on his countrymen to liberate Lower Burma, thus providing the pretext the British were looking for. Declaring that the king was conspiring with France, they denounced him as a tyrant who reneged on his treaties and sent an invasion force of 11,000 men in a fleet of flat bottomed boats and elephant batteries. Great paddle steamers crowded with troops thrashed up the broad Ayeyarwady - the Irrawaddy, as the British called it.

Mandalay fell almost immediately. The next day the British escorted the king and his wife away on a bullock cart. It was said that Thibaw begged for his life but his proud queen refused to bow her head. They were exiled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, in India, where they lived out their days. Thibaw’s kingdom was officially annexed by Britain on January 1st 1886.

Stupa at Bagan
To crush any residual support for the monarchy, the British painted Thibaw as an ogre, despot and drunkard, uniquely weak, not up to the task of government, all of which was taken until recently as gospel.

British rule was hated. Resistance by fighters whom the British derided as dacoits or bandits continued for many years and for the colonialists Burma was a hardship posting.

Four years after Thibaw’s fall, in March 1889, a little-known 23-year-old journalist called Rudyard Kipling passed through Burma. He was there for just 3 days, in Rangoon and Moulmein. In his famous poem, Mandalay, he conjures up the magic of Burma and the siren call of the east:

‘ ... “If you’ve ’eard the East a callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.” ...’

When Boris Johnson quoted Mandalay when he visited the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in 2017, he was lambasted on the basis that Kipling was a racist and a colonialist. But when the poem was first published in 1890 what annoyed everyone was the line, ‘An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the Bay’, China of course being not across the Bay of Bengal at all but a long way north and east.

Sunset over the stupas of Bagan
Thirty years later, starting in 1922, another young Englishman called Eric Blair spent five years serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Moulmein. I spent much of our own trip along the road to Mandalay reading George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, published in 1934. It’s a savage indictment of colonialism. But it’s also a paean to the extraordinary spell the east can cast, evoking Burma’s maddening heat, drenching monsoon rains, dark tangled forests and mesmerising culture in glorious prose.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale based on a true story, set in nineteenth century Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration. It’s out now in paperback. 

For more see

The picture of King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and her sister Princess Supayalay in late November 1885 is made from a negative found in the Royal Palace, Mandalay, and is by an unknown photographer; in the collection of Willoughby Wallace Hooper, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

The other pictures are mine.


Unknown said...

I believe that the British forces during the Second Anglo-Burmese War were commanded by General Sir Henry Thomas Godwin (1784-1853). Admiral Austen died offshore before the British invasion began; he was replaced by Lambert, the 'combustible commodore'. General Godwin resented having to deal with a mere commodore, and assumed overall command. He moved to India in 1853 after the Proclamation of Annexation, King Pagan Min (r. 1846-52)having been overthrown by his half-brother, Mindon Min (r. 1853-78), who sued for peace. General Godwin died suddenly before the honours due to him could reach him.

Lesley Downer said...

Thanks. I'm sure you're right. I was tickled at the link with Jane Austen but didn't research thoroughly.

Sue Purkiss said...

Our colonial past has a lot to answer for. Thanks for this - informative and interesting!