Saturday, April 28, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 8

(Chapter VIII of Narrative of The Burmese War by Major John Snodgrass, British Army, the Military Secretary to the Commander of the British expeditionary force and the Assistant Political Agent in Ava.)

Siam-Burma Elephant Duel (1593).
The inveterate enmity and constant warfare existing between the Burmese and Siamese nations for some time encouraged an opinion, that the latter kingdom would not fail to assist in the attack upon the territories of their old enemy.

The landing of the British at Rangoon opened to the court of Siam a favourable, and long-sought, opportunity of revenging the many humiliating defeats they had sustained from their more powerful and war-like neighbour, and of recovering their lost possessions on the coast of Tenasserim.

Such an opportunity the Siamese government would no doubt have profited by, and not improbably may have contemplated the seizure of Mergui and Tavoy, when their reduction by the British not only deprived them of all hope of acquisition in that quarter, but probably alarmed their fears and jealousies at the approach of an European settlement putting a stop to their annual marauding excursions for the purpose of carrying off the unprotected peasantry of these provinces; and it may also be questioned, whether they did not regard the vicinity of a British force with greater alarm and jealousy than they would have felt at any success of the Burmese.

Certain it is, the King of Ava did not neglect to awaken their alarm, urging his Siamese Majesty, by every consideration for their mutual security, to join his forces to that of Ava, in repelling an invasion, represented as having, for its object, the ruin and destruction of both countries.

Friendly Assurances of the Siamese

The Siamese monarch, however, thought proper to pursue a safe course, endeavouring to persuade both parties of his friendly disposition, and determination of taking an early part in war, but cautiously abstaining from any decided hostility on either side.

That the Siamese were, till the very last, convinced that we should fail in conquering Ava, or in bringing its government to sue for terms, there is abundant testimony, drawn both from their conduct, and the concurring observation of their measures at Bangkok, by the resident at that city; and the situation of their capital upon the coast, exposed to an attack by sea, probably alone prevented them from making common cause against us, in so far, at least, as using their utmost efforts to prevent a British settlement from being formed on the coast of Tennaserim, as an event in every respect alarming, and fraught with danger to themselves.

The risk, however, of a rupture with a strong maritime power was not to be hastily incurred; and the King of Siam contented himself with making a display of preparations for immediate war, while, in reality, he intended to maintain a strict neutrality, hoping, by skilful management, to reap some advantage to himself, whoever might come off as conquerors.

From the British he might claim Tavoy, Martaban, or some other convenient portion of territory, as the reward of his pretended friendship and services, while he would not be displeased to see his old enemy somewhat humbled and curtailed in his possessions.

Should the Burmese, on the other hand, succeed in forcing us to abandon our conquests, the Siamese could readily step into the conquered towns of Tenasserim, either as a gift from the British, or upon their leaving them before the arrival of a Burmhan force; and which, under some pretence or other, they would find the means of permanently retaining.

Their Preparations for War

Siamese Army (1825).
But, whatever might be the view of his Siamese Majesty, to convince, or deceive either party, it was necessary to act; and a body of his troops soon accordingly appeared upon the Martaban frontier, ready to take the field, either to attack Rangoon, or act in concert with the British, at the opening of the campaign, as circumstances, and the situations of the belligerents, might point out to be the safest policy; a movement which, added to other considerations, determined the British general, early in October, to reduce and occupy the town of Martaban, from which a direct communication could be opened with the Siamese army, and their motions watched.

Probable Line of Policy

One chief cause of ancient feud and hatred between Burmese and Siamese nations seemed to have arisen from the latter having received and protected many families of Taliens (Talaings), or Peguers, at the time their country was subdued and incorporated with Ava, and who, from rank or situation, were doomed to be put to death by the conquerors.

These men, or their descendents, taking advantage of any favourable opportunity, might probably still have sufficient influence with their countrymen to induce them to revolt from their usurpers.

Some dread of this nature, or the most insatiable thirst for conquest, can alone account for the steady perseverance of the court of Ava in its attack upon Siam, carried on with an obstinacy and indifference to losses, that went far to prove, they would never rest until their enemy was subdued.

The existence of such a people as a distinct race of Taliens, or of any branch of the ancient dynasty of Pegu in Siam, was to us a question of great importance, as affording, at any time, a much more permanent and less troublesome method of reducing the overgrown power of Ava, by the dismemberment of the empire, emancipating the southern provinces, and establishing the ancient kingdom of Pegu, should the persevering obstinacy of the King of Ava render such a measure indispensable in providing for the future quiet of the eastern world.

Independent, however, of such considerations, having in our power an hereditary heir to the throne of Pegu might have some weight with his Burmhan Majesty in bringing him to terms.

Martaban Frontiers with Siam (Thailand)

The city of Martaban, situated at the bottom of the gulf of that name, and about a hundred miles to the eastward of Rangoon, had been long considered as a place of some note, both in a political and commercial point of view, as the capital and mart of an extensive province, but more especially as a frontier fortress, and depot of military stores; where the Burmese armies were usually assembled, in their frequent wars with Siamese, and from whence irruptions into the territories of the latter were annually made, under various pretences, for the sake of plunder, and in the hope of securing prisoners.

In a country thinly peopled, and whose inhabitants, from their military habits, are averse to work, the importance of such a prize as a long list of slaves may be conceived; and it appears to have been a chief desideratum with the Burmese in all their wars.

A great proportion of the most valuable part of the inhabitants of the conquered countries being carried into captivity, numbers of these unfortunate beings from Cassay, Arracan, and Assam, are to be found in Ava; and even villages are to be met with on the Irrawaddy, inhabited by mechanics, iron-smiths, and particular trades, whose features plainly indicate a foreign origin, although, in other respects, they are scarcely to be distinguished from the natives of the country.

The Muniporeans (the people of Manipur the small kingdom south of Assam), or people of Cassay, in particular, abound in great numbers, and they are much prized as clever workmen. Owing to their superior skill in the management of the horse, the Burmese cavalry is almost exclusively composed of them; and they are distinguished by the national appellation of “The Cassay Horse.”

On the frontiers of Martaban, a constant border-warfare seems to have been carried on by the Burmese; but they were now either too seriously occupied at home to molest or interfere with their neighbours, or, from some secret understanding, the Siamese troops were permitted to remain undisturbed within a few days’ march of the city.

Capture of Martaban and Yeh

Such was the state of affairs at Martaban, when, on the 18th of October, the small force consisting of part of His Majesty’s forty-first regiment, and the 3rd Madras Native Light Infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Godwin, sailed from Rangoon for that place.

Owing to light and contrary winds, the expedition did not reach its destination so soon as was expected; and instead of taking the enemy by surprise, they found him full aware of their approach, and that every preparation had been made for their reception.

The governor, Maha Oudnah, a bold and resolute chief, had fortified with skill and labour every commanding eminence about the town, and its distance from the coast nearly twenty miles, offered many serious obstacles to the approach of our troops.

By land, difficult forests, marshes, and extensive plains of rice-grounds, still covered with the inundations of the monsoon, prevented a movement from the coast in that way; while the intricate navigation of a shallow winding river presented many impediments to an approach by water.

The latter course, however, was at once resolved on, and by toil and perseverance, the vessels were finally anchored nearly abreast of the town; and the governor evincing no disposition to come to terms, an assault took place, when the enemy was driven with severe loss from every part of his defences.

The inhabitants of Martaban, who are chiefly Taliens, or Peguers, received the British troops with every appearance of joy and satisfaction; and for a year and half, that they were afterwards living under British protection, conducted themselves, on all occasions, to the satisfaction of the British authorities, and even offered to make common cause against their Burmese conquerors.

Martaban, indeed, is the only province in Pegu where a strong and marked national antipathy was found to exist against the Burmese government.

The disappearance of every trace of the royal family of Pegu, the cruel policy of the conquerors in exterminating or driving into perpetual banishment every chief and man of weight, and their subsequent judicious system of amalgamation with the conquered, had  well nigh obliterated all remembrance of ancient independence in most parts of the country; and if a feeling of regret has survived that crisis when the very name of Peguer was proscribed, it is only to be found among the Taliens of Martaban, or remembered as a dream by the descendants of the persecuted families who fled into Siam.

In Pegu itself no such feeling certainly exists; the invariably adopted system of the court of Ava, already alluded to, and its judicious treatment of the conquered, has long since removed every appearance of distinction between Burmese and Peguer.

No invidious preference is ever shown; all enjoy equal rights and privileges, and both are equally eligible to fill the highest posts under government.

That the people of the lower provinces, generally, after experiencing the mild and equitable sway of an enlightened government, should have been actuated by the strongest desire to be released from iron sceptre which had so long ruled them, cannot be wondered at; and that they were ready and anxious to go any length to gain so desirable an object, many proofs were given; the desire, except in few instances, cannot be ascribed to any distinct national feeling or wish to regain an independence, the very remembrance of which had passed away.

After arranging matters at Martaban, the Lieutenant-Colonel detached a party against Yeh, situated to the eastward between Martaban and Tavoy, which fell into our hands without resistance.

(The First Anglo-Burmese War (5 March 1824-24 February 1826) was the first of three wars fought between the British and Burmese Empires in the 19th century. The war, which began primarily over the control of north-eastern India, ended in a decisive British victory, giving the British total control of Assam, Manipur, Cachar and Jaintia as well as Arakan and Tenasserim. The Burmese were also forced to pay an indemnity of one million pounds sterling, and sign a commercial treaty. The war was the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history. Fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers died, together with an unknown number of Burmese army and civilian casualties.

The campaign, the most poorly managed one in British military history, cost the British five million pounds sterling (roughly 18.5 billion in 2006 US dollars) to 13 million pounds sterling (roughly 48.1 billion in 2006 US dollars) that led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833. For the Burmese, it was the beginning of the end of their independence. The Third Burmese Empire, for a brief moment the terror of British India, was crippled and no longer a threat to the eastern frontier of British India. The Burmese would be crushed for years to come by repaying the large indemnity of one million pounds (then US$5 million), a large sum even in Europe of that time. The British would make two more wars against a much more weakened Burma, and swallow up the entire country by 1885.)