First Anglo-Burmese War

(Chapter I 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.)

British Empire's Conquest of Burma.
The unprovoked aggressions of the Burmese Governors of Arracan upon the south-east frontier of Bengal, and the contemptuous silence of the court of Ava to every remonstrance upon the subject, in the beginning of 1824, compelled the Indian government to resort to other measures for obtaining redress, and preventing the future encroachments of a warlike and ambitious neighbour, whose arrogant pretensions and restless character had so frequently interrupted the relations of peace subsisting between the two countries, keeping the frontier provinces in constant dread and danger of invasion.

Early in that year orders were given for the equipment of a force of from five to six thousand men at the presidencies of Fort William and Fort St. George: the two divisions were directed to assemble at Port Cornwallis, in the Great Andaman Island, from which the combined forces, under the command of Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell, were to proceed for the capture of Rangoon, the principal sea-port of the Burmhan empire.

Junction of the combined forces from Bengal and Madras at Port Cornwallis

Between the 12th and 17th of April, the Bengal division, consisting of his majesty’s thirteenth and thirty-eighth regiments and two companies of artillery, were embarked at Calcutta, and the transports immediately proceeded to the place of general rendezvous, which they reached about the end of the month, where a detention of some days took place in consequence of the troops from Madras not having arrived.

Andaman Islands.
During our stay in this romantic bay, frequent excursions were made by parties of officers to different parts of the island, but all their efforts to communicate with the few wretched beings who inhabit these sequestered regions were unattended with success; savages, in the fullest sense of word, they shun the approach of civilised man; and if at any time they are accidentally discovered in the thick-set jungle, which reaches the very margin of the sea, never fail to evince the hostile feelings with which they regard a stranger’s visit to their shores, by shooting flights of arrows at the boats, and flying to the interior as soon as a landing is effected.

The Andamaners are very short in stature, and their features bear some resemblance to the inhabitants of the opposite coast of Pegu; their dwellings are huts of the most miserable description, and they appear to be in constant motion in quest of shell-fish, upon which they principally subsist, and in which the bays and creeks of the islands abound.

The number of these miserable islanders is very limited, but the impenetrable nature of the woody region they inhabit has hitherto prevented any correct opinion being formed of their habits and condition, every endeavour to hold the slightest intercourse with them, or to ameliorate their wretched situation, having invariably failed.

They have been accused of some of the worst propensities of savage man, and have long been considered as cannibals, but probably without sufficient reason; at least the skulls and bones, with which we found their huts plentifully adorned, afforded no ground for such an accusation, which their appearance has sometimes given rise to; but were clearly recognised to have belonged to a species of small island hog, which is frequently caught and used as food by the natives.

Andaman Islanders.
The origin of these people still remains a subject of conjecture, some supposing, from their woolly hair, that they are of African descent; while others, with equal reason, judging from their countenances, believe them to have come originally from the opposite coast of Pegu, or Arracan.

On the 4th of May, the greater part of the troops from Madras, consisting of his majesty’s forty-first regiment, a company’s European regiment, and several battalions of native infantry, having arrived at Port Cornwallis, orders were given for the sailing of the fleet on the following morning; a small force being at same time detached under Brigadier M’Creagh, for the capture of the island of Cheduba, and another detachment proceeding under Major Wahab, of the Madras army, for the reduction of the island of Nigrais.

On the morning of the 5th, at a signal from his majesty’s ship Liffy, Commodore Grant, the fleet accordingly weighed, and put to sea, and on the 10th instant anchored within the bar of the Rangoon River.  

British Fleet’s Arrival at Rangoon

British Fleet in Rangoon River (1824).

The arrival of a British fleet at Rangoon seems to have been wholly unexpected by the court of Ava; the town was unprepared for its reception, and the civil and military authorities thrown into alarm and consternation.

Our arrival was, however, announced by numerous beacons, quickly prepared at the different guard and custom-houses at the mouth of the river, and in the course of the night repeated, by blazing fires, in every part of the surrounding country: it was, therefore, most desirable that no time should be lost in appearing before the town, which we sanguinely hoped would, by accepting of protection, at one place at our disposal  the resources of the country in cattle, boats, drivers, and boatmen, with which we were wholly unprovided.

In boats especially, Rangoon was known to be well supplied; and it was by many anticipated, that should the king of Ava, upon the capture of his chief commercial city, still refuse to make atonement for his wanton and unprovoked aggressions, that city would afford the means of pushing up the river a force sufficient to subdue the capital, and bring the war at once to a conclusion.

Every necessary arrangement having expeditiously been made, the fleet, next morning, with a fair wind, and led by his majesty’s ship Liffy, sailed up the river.

A few harmless shots from the Chokies, or guard-houses on its banks, were the only impediments offered to our progress to the town, although, from the intricate navigation and narrow channels through which we had to steer, every ship successively passed within a few feet of a thickly-wooded shore, where a few expert marksmen might with perfect safety have committed the greatest havoc upon our crowded decks.

At twelve o’clock the Liffy anchored close to the principal battery at the king’s wharf in Rangoon, the transports anchoring in succession in her rear.

Capture of Rangoon

British Fleet in Rangoon River (1824).
Having furled sails and beat to quarters, a pause of some minutes ensued, during which not a shot was fired; on our side humanity forbade that we should be the first aggressors upon an almost defenceless town, containing, as we supposed, a large population of unarmed and inoffensive people; besides, the proclamations and assurances of protection which had been sent on shore the preceding day, led us to hope that an offer of capitulation would still be made.

The Burmese, on their part, stood for some time inactive at their guns, apparently unwilling to begin the unequal contest; until urged by the threats and orders of their chiefs, they at opened their feeble battery on the shipping.

The frigate’s fire soon silenced every gun on the shore; the enemy unable to withstand her broadsides, fled in confusion from their works, and troops being landed, took possession of a deserted town.

No sooner had the news of our arrival in the river reached Rangoon, than the governor, aware the place could not be defended, directed the whole of the inhabitants to be assembled, and, under the officers and slaves of government, to be driven in a mass to the inmost recesses of the jungle.

This is the invariably-adopted system of the Burmhan government: the men in such cases are organized into levies and corps, and the unfortunate women and children strictly guarded, as pledges for the good conduct of their fathers, husbands, and brothers, whose desertion or misconduct in the field is punished by the barbarous sacrifice of their nearest female relatives.

Old Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
The appearance of a town recently taken by storm is, at all times, painful to every man whose feelings have not been blunted by too frequently witnessing the misery such scenes produce among those who, from age or sex, should be exempt from the horrors and calamities of war; and even in the present instance enough remained to awaken pity and regret at the barbarous policy which had driven so many wretched people from their homes, to experience want and ill-treatment from their cruel chiefs, exposed to the inclemency of weather during the rainy season of the year; but our own situation was such as could not be viewed without uneasiness, rendering us in some measure callous and indifferent to the sufferings of others.

Deserted, as we found ourselves, by the people of the country, from whom alone we could expect supplies, unprovided with the means of moving either by land or water, and the rainy season just setting in – no prospect remained to us but that of a long residence in the miserable and dirty hovels of Rangoon, trusting to the transports for provisions, with such partial supplies as our foraging parties might procure, from time to time, by distant and fatiguing marches into the interior of the country.

In the neighbourhood of Rangoon itself, nothing beyond some paddy, or rice in the husk, was found: the careful policy of the Burmese authorities had removed far beyond our reach everything that was likely to be of use to an invading army; and it will appear hereafter with how much vigilance and care they followed up the only system which could have rendered the situation and prospects of the invaders seriously embarrassing, or have afforded to themselves a hope of ultimate success.

Release of the British and Americans taken as prisoners by the Burmese

Another cause of interest and anxiety also claimed our notice; the few British merchants and American missionaries, who were known to be residing at Rangoon, had disappeared, and their too probable fate excited general commiseration throughout the army.

Dr. Adoniram Judson (1788-1850).
It appeared, from the testimony of the few remaining inhabitants of the place, that, at the instant the alarm of our approach was given, all foreigners were immediately seized, strongly fettered, and confined in the king’s godown, or custom-house, from which they were repeatedly marched up to the hall of justice, to be examined and interrogated by the governor and its assistants.

Ignorant of the equipment, or intended departure of an expedition from India, they were incapable of giving any information on the subject, which by the governor and his colleagues was ascribed wholly to deceit and treacherous designs.

Accused of being not only aware of our approach, but of having concerted measures for attack upon Rangoon with the Indian government, the unhappy prisoners vainly urged their innocence, representing the improbability of their having remained in the country with the knowledge that war was likely to ensue, and the very town they lived in to be invaded by their countrymen, with so many opportunities of quitting the place, where, under such circumstances, they could not fail to lose their liberty, if even worse did not befall them.

But such reasoning, however convincing it may appear to others, was found to have little weight with the provincial tyrants of the Burmhan empire, whose power, when distant from the seat of the government, is absolute and uncontrolled, and who, cruel alike from nature and from habit, are seldom to be restrained in their capricious acts of violence and injustice, except by bribery or interest.

From a tribunal composed of such officers, little mercy was expected by men who knew them, and whose property, exciting the avarice of their judges, served but to render their destruction more certain. Their death was soon resolved on, and they were accordingly sent back to the Custom-house, to undergo the sentence that had been passed upon them.

In their prison, the guards who surrounded them took a savage pleasure in parading and sharpening the instruments of execution before their eyes, in strewing the sand, an in making the necessary preparations for the work of death.

In this dreadful state of suspense they remained for many hours; but what neither pity nor remorse could effect, fear at last produced upon the mind of the governor, who afraid of retaliation, and perhaps not without hopes that, through the means of his prisoners, he might prevent our landing, delayed from hour to hour give the final order, until the Liffy’s opening fire upon the town seemed finally to seal their doom, when the timely intrusion of a thirty-two pound shot into the custom-house godown, where the authorities were assembled, suspended their deliberations, and hastily broke up the meeting.

The chiefs lost no time in leaving the city, and their prisoners, under a small guard, were marched, strongly fettered, some miles into the country.

Part of the troops on landing, being pushed a short distance in advance of Rangoon, the guard which accompanied the prisoners became alarmed for their safety, and lodged their charge in two houses near the great pagoda, where they were next morning found by our advance patrols.

(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 2