With India “the finest jewel in the imperial crown”, in an increasingly firm grasp, The East India Company cast anxious glances, early in the 19th century, at India’s neighbours to the east and south, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Burma, truculent and expansionist, seemingly ready to devour Bengal, was the harder to subdue. After the initial invasion by THE EAST INDIA COMPANY in 1824, it took some 60 years and more wars before all Burma became British. Ceylon, to the south in 1796 became a pawn in the struggle between France and Britain for World Empires. But the intrigue and violence that marked Ceylon’s early years within the Empire gave way to peaceful prosperity.
Before Burma began to fall to the British early in the 19th century, it was a highly organised state, the most powerful monarchy in south east Asia. It had 2000 years of tradition behind it, a written language, rich in ancient literature and a firmly established Buddhist religion. Against this ancient country, the British deployed the technological wonders of 19th century warfare. When the smoke cleared, Burma’s independence had been destroyed; a process which took three wars and a little over 60 years, from 1824 to 1886. Before Britain crushed it, Burma was itself an expansionist nation. It was, in fact, Burma’s conquest of Arakan and Assam in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that brought Burma to the borders of India and thus face to face with the British Empire.
The first Englishman to visit Burma was Ralph Fitch, who arrived in Pegu (lower Burma) in 1587. Rangoon was then a mere fishing village. Fitches tales of the countries own riches and the caravans that brought from China “great store of mastic, gold, silver and many other things of China work” began to awake British commercial interest. It was not until 1619 that the East India Company established trading stations at Syriam, Prome, Ava, and Bahmo; and started to deal in Burmese oil, timber and ivory.
In 1755 a leader from Ava named Alaungpaya overthrew the Pergu dynasty. In his own country he was answerable to none. His justification for the outrage at Negrais was that he had discovered that the British were conspiring with Peguan rebels to overthrow him. The ongoing relationship between the British and the Burmese was a troubled one and war finally came when a king named Bagyidaw ascended the throne of Ava in 1819.
In May 1824, a Burmese commander Maha Bandula, crossed the border into British Bengal and almost annihilated a small British force. Dread and terror spread among the merchants of Calcutta. Bandula’s army soon turned round and marched back into Burma for the very good reason that the southern parts of that country had been invaded by the British.
During the course of this conflict between the British and the Burmese, it soon became evident the Burmese warriors and their lack of modern weaponry were no match for the fighters of the East India Company. The army of Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell who landed at the mouth of the Irrawaddy river on may 10th 1824 numbered eleven thousand against that of Maha Bandula with a force of 60,000. In the end, on April 1st 1825, Bandula whilst in conference with some officers was killed by a British mortar shell and his army too demoralised, fled. Campbell advanced up the Irrawaddy as far as Prome, but due to the rains could not continue to the capital Ava.
The seeds of war between Britain and Burma were sown during half a century of steadily deteriorating relations. Discord first arose in 1784 when Burma conquered neighbouring Arakan to the west, thus extending Burma’s frontiers to British Bengal. Oppressed Arakanese fled across the border into Bengal and from the sanctuary within East India Company territory launched retaliatory raids. Burmese forces responded by marching into Bengal in January 1824. The British thereupon launched a two-prong counter attack by land in the north and by river in the south.
In September 1823 the King of Ava claimed the island of Shapuree at the mouth of the river separating Burmese territory from that of the Company and was the subject of a dispute between the parties and on March 25th 1824, Lord Amherst Governor-General declared war on Burma.
The British invaded southern Burma first hoping thereby, to distract attention from their more important thrusts into Assam, Arakan and Manipur in the north, areas that threatened the security of Bengal. In 1824, 11,000 troops landed at Rangoon and took the city without a fight, an easy success that gave no hint of the appalling hardships that lay ahead. Defects in planning soon showed up. The commander, Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell, had brought neither fresh food nor transport, hoping to find
He did not. For the next six months the force was bogged down by the monsoon rains in the Irrawaddy delta, unable to break through a ring of enemy force. During the enforced wait, malaria and dysentery took a heavy toll of the British.
The capture of Rangoon accomplished its purpose for it halted the advance of the Burmese into Bengal in the north, much to the relief of company officials in Calcutta. The Burmese commander-in-chief Maha Bandula, abandoned the offensive and swung his 60,000 men south to meet the British forces. On their arrival in Rangoon after a gruelling forced march Bandula’s men immediately dug in, then doggedly extended their trenches towards the British lines . A British counter attack failed to stop them, and in an increasingly desperate situation, Campbell decided to outwit his opponents. In order to convince the Burmese commander-in-chief, that he had either pulled out or lost heart, Campbell ordered his men to keep out of sight and had the artillery reduce its rate of fire to a few desultory rounds a day. Bandula was completely taken in and was taken by surprise when 1500 British troops sprang out of their trenches on December 7th and swept forward. The Burmese were put to flight. With this decisive victory, Campbell opened the road to Ava and shattered the confidence of Bandula’s army. Thus ended the first Anglo-Burmese War, which resulted in the British occupation of the area known as Arakan on the west coast of Burma.
In 1850 Maung Ok, the Burmese governor of Rangoon compelled a British trader - Mr. Potter, to pay 16,000 rupees for permission to launch a ship. Potter complained to Lord Dalhousie, the new Governor-General of India, who had just finished fighting the Second Sikh War. The following summer the governor of Rangoon falsely charged the masters of two British vessels of murder, and made them pay £920 for their freedom. It was over this amount that the second Anglo-Burmese War began. With peace in India, Dalhousie had troops to spare and he decided that the Burmese must be brought to heel. The war, like most colonial wars aroused little interest in London.
Dalhousie mistakenly sent a Commodore Lambert to Rangoon to investigate the case of the two captains “It is to be distinctly understood that no act of hostility is to be committed at present”, Dalhousie told Lambert. Lambert did not waste time investigating the validity of the complaints. Within a day of arriving he sent an ultimatum to the King of Ava demanding that he recall his governor. Not surprisingly, with a British squadron in his major harbour, Pagan, the Burmese sovereign, acquiesced. But when Dalhousie heard that a new Burmese governor had been appointed, he thought the crisis was over.
He reckoned without Commodore Lambert, who engineered a further confrontation which resulted in the two vessels HMS Hermes and HMS Fox, firing with devastating effect upon the shoreline of Rangoon and precipitating the Second Anglo-Burmese War on the 1st of April 1852. After some one-sided fighting and much diplomacy Dalhousie, with his patience at an end annexed lower Burma on 20th December 1852, by simply proclaiming that “ it was henceforth it was part of the British Territories in the East”.
Around 1879, a new king took the throne of Burma, a 19-year-old by the name of Thibaw. Ruled by his power-crazy mother-in-law, he enacted a long-established Burmese tradition known as ”Massacre of the Kinsmen”, designed to ensure there was no challenge to his power and in January 1879 some 80 courtiers including 15 of Thibaw’s half-brothers and 4 half-sisters met grisly ends at the palace in Mandalay. The British were offended as much by his foreign policy as by the barbarism with which his rule was associated, and Thibaw now began granting monopoly concessions and not always to British companies. Relations deteriorated with a series of petty insults and confrontations and like his father, Thibaw tried to reduce the British threat by agreements with other European powers. At this time the Bombay-Burma Corporation was fined £230,000by Thibaw for defrauding the Burmese Government over the value of timber exported from the country.
Thibaw would not comply fully with the British ultimatum and on November 11th 1885, troops in Rangoon boarded a flotilla of steamers, bound for Mandalay. After a series of reverses Sir Harry Prendergast, the British commander received a message saying Thibaw would now comply with all points and requesting an armistice. Lord Randolph Churchill in London ordered Lord Dufferin, to proclaim annexation of northern Burma on January 1st 1886 as, “a New Year present to the Queen”. The Burmese army refused to surrender and melted into the jungle to carry on guerrilla warfare.
TAKEOVER IN CEYLON. The story of Britain’s acquisition of Ceylon one of the strangest in the history of imperial expansion, should be required reading for aspiring secret agents. It is a classic example of how intrigue can be at times more effective than force in achieving national objectives.
Ceylon in 1795 was in the hands of the Dutch, who had ruled it for 150 years, since throwing out the islands first European masters - the Portuguese. Britain, at war with the French who had seized Holland and might at any time seize Dutch overseas possessions, realised that the island - particularly its grand harbour at Trincomallee vital to protect the sea route to Bengal
To conquer Ceylon could be a long and bloody business. The Dutch governor at Colombo had a strong garrison of Swiss mercenary soldiers with which to defend it. The British decided to employ an agent, a 34 year-old Scotsman named Hugh Cleghorn, who posed as a professor from St. Andrews University.
The troops in Ceylon were only under contract to the Dutch; they actually constituted private army owned by a Swiss nobleman, Count Charles de Meuron of Neuchatel. Cleghorn made a secret journey to Switzerland and persuaded the Count to withdraw his troops from Dutch service by the expedient of offering him more money than the Dutch were paying.
There remained the problem of smuggling the Count’s instructions past the Dutch guards to his brother who commanded the mercenaries in Ceylon, this was accomplished by secreting them within a Dutch edam cheese and the message got through. The Swiss garrison deserted the Dutch Governor, who capitulated to a British force with scarcely a struggle in February 1796 The British paid Cleghorn £5000 for his work and added Ceylon to the Empire.
The East India Co. controlled Ceylon’s commerce while law and administration were in the hands of a Governor answerable to both the Company and the British Government. The first Governor was Frederick North, the brilliant but erratic son of Lord North who had been George III’s prime minister.
For the first quarter of the 19th century there was constant unrest and fighting between the Sinhalese and the British occupiers. Soon with the ending in 1815 of the Napoleonic Wars, troops were available. Sir Robert Brownrigg led an expedition to Kandy (the interior state) . Kandyen nobles and peasants alike welcomed the British troops as deliverers from their King’s despotism. Not a single British soldier was killed. Mainly under the direction of Sir Edward Barnes who was appointed governor in 1824, the British consolidated their hold on all of Ceylon. Barnes oversaw the building of roads which linked Kandy to Colombo, Trincomallee, Matele, and Kurunegala, instituted a regular island wide mail coach service and helped promote the cultivation of coffee as an export crop.
To make matters worse, hundreds of Burmese joined them and together they roamed the country as “dacoits” or bandits whose marauding disrupted every day life and prevented orderly administration. By 1891, Burma was largely pacified, although as late as 1900 more than 20,000 soldiers and military police were still needed in the country and at least one rebel leader Bo Cho eluded the conquerors until 1920.
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The fine was obviously excessive, although the charge may have been genuine. They were the issues Lord Dufferin, Viceroy of India needed. Simultaneously he moved 10,000 troops to Rangoon and sent an ultimatum to Thibaw to not only settle the matter of the fine, accept a British Agent in Ava, facilitate British trade with China, but also to “regulate” all of Burma’s foreign relations “in accordance with our advice”.
In 1759 British merchants on the island of Negrais were sitting down to breakfast with the local Burmese governor when he gave a signal that brought a band of his soldiers rushing into the room. They killed the eight Englishmen present and more than 100 of the Indian employees who manned the station.
A commission led by Sir William Colebrooke and Charles Cameron, after studying thoroughly Ceylon's problems, in 1832 published a report which, although it was many years being implemented, established a new pattern for governing the colony. Colebrooke called for an end to compulsory labour and government monopolies He recommended that the civil service be open to all, regardless of race or caste, and that education be improved for natives so they could attain “some of the higher appointments”.
He was a 32 year old bachelor who enjoyed living in style on his handsome salary and used to thunder around Trincomallee in a coach-and-six. He was instrumental in getting the government to declare Ceylon a Crown colony in 1802. North created a civil service, the first under the Crown in the east with postal, survey, audit, education and medical departments.