Tuesday, March 20, 2012

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 2

(Chapter II 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.)

We had been so much accustomed to hear Rangoon spoken of as a place of great trade and commercial importance, that we could not fail to feel disappointed at its mean and poor appearance.

We had talked of its custom-house, its dockyards, and its harbour, until our imaginations led us to anticipate, if not splendour, at least some visible signs of a flourishing commercial city; but, however humble our expectations might have been, they must have still fallen short of the miserable and desolate picture which the place presented when first occupied by the British troops.

Description of Rangoon

The town, if a vast assemblage of wooden huts may be dignified with that name, is surrounded by a wooden stockade, from sixteen to eighteen feet in height, which effectually shuts out all view of the fine river which runs past it, and gives it a confined and insalubrious appearance.

There are a few brick houses, chiefly belonging to Europeans, within the stockade, upon which a heavy tax is levied; and they are only permitted to be built by special authority from the government, which is but seldom granted – indeed, it has ever been the policy of the court of Ava to prevent, as much as possible, both foreigners and natives from having houses of permanent materials, from an idea that they are capable of being converted into places of defence, in which refractory subjects might withstand the arbitrary, unjust, and often cruel measures of their rulers.

The custom-house, the principal building in the place, seemed fast tottering into ruins. One solitary hull upon the stocks marked the dockyard, and a few coating-vessels and country canoes were the only craft found in this commercial mart of India beyond the Ganges.

One object alone remained to attract universal admiration: the lofty Shwedagon or Golden Dagon Pagoda, rising in splendour and magnificence above the town, presenting a striking contrast to the scene below.

The house in Rangoon and Ava, generally, are built of wood, or bamboo; those of the former material usually belong to the officers of the government, or the wealthier description of inhabitants: the floors are raised some feet above the ground, which would contribute much to their dryness, healthiness, and comfort, were not the space beneath almost invariably a receptacle for dirt and stagnant water, from which, during the heat of the day, pestilential vapours constantly ascend, to the annoyance of every one except a Burmhan.

Herds of meagre swine, the disgusting scavengers of the town, infest the streets by day; and at night they are relieved by packs of hungry dogs, which effectually deprive the stranger of his sleep by their incessant howling, and midnight quarrels.

Rangoon contains an Armenian and Portuguese church; a strong proof of liberality of sentiment in the government, and of freedom from intolerance and religious prejudice in the people.

There are two roads from town to the Shwedagon, which on either side are crowded with numerous pagodas, varying in size and richness according to the wealth or zeal of the pious architects.

These pagodas are all private property, every Burmhan, who can afford it, building one as an offering to Ghaudma; but, when once erected, little care or attention is afterwards paid to them, it being considered much more meritorious to build a new one, even of inferior size, than to repair the old; and numerous ruined towers and pagodas are, in consequence, found in every corner of the kingdom.

The Shwedagon stands at the summit of an abruptly rising eminence, at the bottom of which, and at the distance of about two miles and a half, Rangoon is situated.

The conical hill upon which the pagoda stands is seventy-five feet above the road; the area on its top contains upwards of two acres, and in the centre of this space the pagoda is erected – in shape resembling an inverted speaking-trumpet, three hundred and thirty feet in height, and surmounted by a cap made of brass, forty-five feet height; the whole is richly gilded.

The Situation of the Army after Landing Here

Colonial Rangoon City Map.
For many days after the disembarkation of the troops, a hope was entertained that the inhabitants, confiding in the invitations and promises of protection that were circulated about the country, would return to their homes, and afford some prospect of local supplies during the time we were obviously doomed to remain stationary; but the removal of the people from their houses was only the preliminary to a concerted plan of laying waste the country in our front, in the hope that starvation would speedily force the army to leave their shores – a system long steadily preserved in, with a skill and unrelenting indifference to the sufferings of the inhabitants, that too clearly marked to what extremes a Burmese government and its chiefs were capable of proceeding, in defence of their country.

Every day’s experience only increased our disappointment, and proved how little was known of the character of the nation we had to deal with.

The enemy’s troops and new-raised levies were gradually collecting in our front from all parts of the kingdom; a cordon was speedily formed around our cantonments, capable, indeed, of being forced at every point, but possessing, in a remarkable degree, all the qualities requisite for harassing and wearing out in fruitless exertions the strength and energies of European or Indian troops.

Hid from over view on every side in the darkness of a deep, and, to regular bodies, impenetrable forests,  far beyond which the inhabitants and all the cattle of the Rangoon district had been driven, the Burmese chiefs carried on their operations, and matured their future schemes with vigilance, secrecy, and activity.

Neither rumour nor intelligence of what was passing within his posts never reached us. Beyond the invisible line which circumscribed our position, all was mystery or vague conjecture.

Ancient Mon Royals (15th century).
It has already been observed, that the army came unprovided with the necessary equipment for advancing either by land or water; indeed it was anticipated, that the capture of Rangoon alone, or at least with that of the enemy’s maritime possessions, would induce the king of Ava to make overtures for peace, and accede to the moderate demands of the Indian government, or, at all events, the country would afford sufficient water-transport to enable a considerable corps to proceed up the Irrawaddy towards the capital, when little doubt was entertained of a speedy submissions to the terms required; nor were the reasons upon which these expectations of aid and assistance from the natives were founded  without some weight.

It was urged, that they were not Burmese, but Peguers (Mons), and a conquered people, living under the tyrannical sway of a government with which they had for centuries, and often successfully, waged war; deprived of their court, and governed by despotic and mercenary chiefs, whom they obeyed from fear alone; they were represented as discontented with their present situation, and ever longing for their former independence; and finally, that they would easily be induced to join the invading force, and to aid it, by every means in their power, in humbling the tyrant, under whose arbitrary rule, they had so long suffered every species of degradation.

But in these calculations, the well-consolidated power and judicious policy of the government towards its conquered provinces were overlooked, and the warlike and haughty character of the nation was so imperfectly known, that no correct judgement could be formed of our probable reception.

A typical Burmese couple (1824).
With an overgrown opinion of their own prowess and military genius – fostered by frequent victories over all their neighbours, and numerous unchecked conquests during half a century, was to be wondered at that they should consider the disembarkation of six or seven thousand men upon their coast as a hopeless business, in a country, too, where every man was by profession a soldier, liable at all times to be called upon for military service at the pleasure of the sovereign.

The expectation of deriving resources or assistance of any kind, from a nation so constituted, and living under such a form of government, could no longer be indulged; indeed, from the days the troops first landed, it was obvious that we had been deceived by erroneous accounts of the character and sentiments of the people, and that decided hostility from both Burmese and Peguers (Mons) was all we had to expect.

Could a hope be entertained, after the decided measures that were adopted at Rangoon, that we would yet find native boats and boatmen to carry us six hundred miles up the Irrawaddy, to assail that capital which no Burmhan ever names but with reverence and awe? to overturn that throne which he from infancy has considered as the pinnacle of human power and grandeur? And to confront in hostile array, that prince whose slightest order is received with dread in the most distant parts of his dominions?

It is besides well known, that the boatmen of the Irrawaddy are more particularly attached to, and dependant on, the crown than other class of men in Ava; and they proved their devotion to their king by removing every boat that was likely to useful to us.

(Every town on the river, according to its size, is obliged to furnish a gilt, or common war-boat, and to man and keep it in constant readiness: of these, his majesty can muster from two to three hundred; they carry from forty to fifty men each, and are, I think, the most respectable part of his force. As they live chiefly by rapine, and are in a state of constant hostility, with the rest of the people, they are audacious and prompt to execute any orders, however cruel or violent – from Captain Cox’s journal.)

Such were the situation and prospects of the army at the commencement of the rainy season, the longest perhaps that is experienced in any part of India, and during which no troops could keep the field for twenty-four hours together; kept in constant employment by the nightly irruption of  the enemy into our lines, without the means of transporting a gun to assist in driving them from the numerous stockades they had constructed in the immediate vicinity of our posts,  for the purpose of rushing in upon the sleeping soldier during the darkness of the night, and without a hope of inducing the inhabitants to break through the cruel thraldom in which they were held.   

To form a correct idea of the difficulties which opposed the progress of the invading army, even had it been provided with land-carriage, and landed at the fine season of the year, it is necessary to make some allusion to the natural obstacles which the country presented, and to the mode of warfare generally practised by the Burmese.

Geography of Rangoon Province and Carian Tribes

A Karen Village Hut (1824).
Henzawaddy, or the province of Rangoon, is a delta formed by the mouths of the Irrawaddy, and with the exception of some considerable plains of rice-ground, is covered by a thick and tenacious jungle, intersected by numerous creeks and rivers, from whose wooded banks an enemy may, unseen or unexposed, render their passage difficult and destructive.

Roads, or anything deserving that name, are wholly unknown in the lower provinces. Footpaths, indeed, lead through the woods in every direction, but requiring great toil and labour to render them applicable to military purposes: they are impassable during the rains, and are only known and frequented by the Carian (Kayin) tribes, who cultivate the lands,  are exempt from the military service, and may be considered as the slaves of the soil, living in wretched hamlets by themselves, heavily taxed and oppressed by the Burmese authorities, by whom they are treated as altogether inferior race of beings from their countrymen of Pegu.

Karen Girls (1824).
Those Carians (Kayins) generally residing in the interior, at a distance from the large rivers, in their intercourse with one another, and in their occasional visits to the provincial towns, travel by the footpath of the jungle, but, except by these scattered tribes, the trade and communication between the different parts of the lower provinces are almost wholly carried on by water.

Burmese Generals (1852).
The Burmese, in their usual mode of warfare, rarely meet their enemy in the open field. Instructed and trained from their youth in the formation and defence of stockades, in which they display great skill and judgement, their wars have been for many years a series of conquests: every late attempt of the neighbouring nations to check their victorious career had failed, and the Burmese government, at the time of our landing in Rangoon, had subdued and incorporated into their overgrown empire all the petty states by which it was surrounded, and stood confessedly  feared and respected even by the Chinese,  as a powerful and warlike nation.

When opposed to our small, but disciplined body of men, it may easily be conceived with how much more care and caution the system to which they owed their fame and reputation as soldiers was pursued – constructing their defences in the most difficult and inaccessible recesses of the jungle, from which, by constant predatory inroads and nightly attacks, they vainly imagined they would ultimately drive us from their country.

(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.) 

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) – Part 1