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War with the British

 

The expansion of Myanmar had consequences along its frontiers. As those frontiers moved ever closer to British India, there were problems both with refugees and military operations spilling over ill-defined borders. In response to the continued expansion and even direct attacks by Myanmar, the British and the Siamese joined forces against it in 1824.

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) ended in a British victory, and by the Treaty of Yandabo, Myanmar lost territory previously conquered in Assam, Manipur and Arakan. The British also took possession of Tenasserim with the intention to use it as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with either Myanmar or Siam. As the century wore on, the British in India began to covet the resources and main port of Myanmar during an era of great territorial expansion. I

n 1852, Commodore Lambert was despatched to Burma by Lord Dalhousie over a number of minor issues related to the previous treaty. The Burmese immediately made concessions including the removal of a governor whom the British had made their casus belli (justification for acts of war). Lambert eventually provoked a naval confrontation in extremely questionable circumstances and thus started the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, which ended in the British annexation of Pegu province, renamed Lower Burma. The war resulted in a palace revolution in Myanmar, with King Pagan Min (1846-1852) being replaced by his half brother, Mindon Min (1853-1878).

King Mindon tried to modernise the Burmese state and economy to resist British encroachments, and he established a new capital at Mandalay, which he proceeded to fortify. This was not enough to stop the British, however, who claimed that Mindon's son Thibaw Min (ruled 1878–85) was a tyrant intending to side with the French, that he had lost control of the country, thus allowing for disorder at the frontiers, and that he was reneging on a treaty signed by his father. The British declared war once again in 1885, conquering the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War resulting in total annexation of Myanmar.

 

The First Anglo-Burmese War lasted from 1823 to 1826. In the United Kingdom it is called the First Burmese War whereas Burmese custom names both belligerents. It was the first of the three wars fought between Burma and the British Empire during the 19th century which resulted in the gradual extinction of Burmese sovereignty and independence.

During the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, the Burmese had engaged in an expansionist policy against its neighbors that finally set it in contact with the colonial British Empire. They apparently were not aware of the tactics, discipline and resources of the Europeans, and thus were not cautious about entering a war.

The Kingdom of Burma had invaded and conquered the Kingdom of Arakan in 1784 which brought the borders of Burma right up to the edge of British India. The Burmese destruction of Arakan and its policy of demanding slave labour from Arakan for projects inside Burma led both to rebellion and large communities of exiles and refugees forming on the other side of the Indian border. In 1798 for example, local leader Nga Than Dè and 10,000 Arakanese abandoned their homes as a group and fled to India out of desperation. Because of the refugees who were considered Burmese property and rebels on the other side of the border, the Burmese kingdom began to launch raids into Indian territory over the border.

Starting in 1817, the Burmese invaded Assam in North eastern India. By 1822, the Burmese army was effectively in control of Assam and the same problems of refugees and rebels operating in the border areas as had occurred with Arakan were now repeated in Assam.

In 1819, the Burmese launched a campaign of devastation into Manipur on the pretext of its ruler not attending the coronation of King Bagyidaw (1819-1837). The country was plundered extensively and its people were carried off as slave labour into Burma. The attack on Manipur evolved into an attack and plunder of the neighboring state of Cachar whose ruler fled to British territory asking for help. Other frontier states were threatened by the Burmese in 1823.

The British had for the previous thirty years attempted to negotiate some form of peace or stability on their eastern frontier with Burma. The Governor General of India, Sir John Shore, had sent Captain Michael Symes on an embassy to Amarapura in 1795 during the reign of King Bodawpaya (1781-1819), a son of Alaungpaya (1752-1760) who founded the Konbaung dynasty and established the Third Burmese Empire.

The British were anxious to deny the French the use of Burmese harbours and concerned about French influence at the Court of Ava as the kingdom was still known to them. Symes's mission was fully equipped to gain as much knowledge as possible of the country for future British plans whereas previous envoys were concerned principally with trade concessions. Anglo-French rivalry had already played a role during Alaungpaya's endeavour of unifying the kingdom.

Sir John Shore

It is important to note that the Burmese in these wars were advancing into smaller states not ruled by the British or the subject of expansionary goals by the British before the war began, and the British were not so much preoccupied by the refugee problem initially than by the threat posed by the French until further incidents forced their hand.

War with Burma was formally declared on March 5, 1824. On May 17, 1824, a Burmese force invaded Chittagong and drove a mixed Sepoy and police detachment from its position at Ramu, but did not follow up its success.

The British rulers in India, however, had resolved to carry the war into the enemy's country; an army, under Commodore Charles Grant and Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell, entered the Rangoon River, and anchored off the town of Rangoon on May 10, 1824. After initial resistance Rangoon was surrendered, and the troops were landed.

The place was entirely deserted by its inhabitants, the provisions were carried off to the defensive positions built by the Burmese army beyond the city or destroyed. On May 28, Campbell ordered an attack on some of the nearest posts, which were all eventually taken by superior fire-power. On June 10, another attack was made on the elaborate stockades at the village of Kemmendine. Some of these were battered by artillery from the war vessels in the river, and the shot and shells eventually led to a Burmese retreat.

It soon became apparent that the expedition had been undertaken with very imperfect knowledge of the country, and without adequate provision. Denial operations, which were part of the defensive system of the Burmese, were carried out with unrelenting rigour, and the invaders were soon reduced to great difficulties. The health of the men declined, and their ranks were fearfully thinned. The King of Ava sent large reinforcements to his army at the front; and early in June an attack was commenced on the British line, but proved unsuccessful. On June 8, the British launched a new offensive. The Burmese were driven back; and their strongly built forts, battered by artillery, were gradually abandoned.

Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell

 The Storming of one of the principle Stockades on its inside on the 8th of July 1824 - Artist J Moore The Attack of the Stockades at Pagoda Point, on the Rangoon River - Artist J Moore
The Storming of the Lesser Stockade at Kemmendine near Rangoon on the 10th of June 1824 - Artist J Moore The Attack upon the Stockades near Rangoon by Sir Archibald Campbell  - Artist J Moore

The Treaty of Yandaboo between the British East India Company and the Burmese King of Ava, signed on February 24, 1826 marked the end of the First Burmese War. By the terms of the treaty, the British took possession of the former independent kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine) and the former Siamese (then Burmese) territories of Ye, Tavoy and Mergui typically known as Tennasserim. Financial penalties were imposed on the Burmese kingdom by the treaty and the Burmese were compelled to accept the presence of the British in their capital.

Moulmein was the capital of British Burma, after the first Anglo-Burmese War.

 

The Second Anglo-Burmese War took place in 1852 and ended in 1853. It was one of the three wars fought between Burma and the British during the 19th century with the outcome of the gradual extinction of Burmese sovereignty and independence.

In 1852, Commodore Lambert was dispatched to Burma by Lord Dalhousie over a number of minor issues related to the Treaty of Yandabo between the countries. The Burmese immediately made concessions including the removal of a governor whom the British made their casus belli (Latin - justification for acts of war). Lambert, described by Dalhousie in a private letter as the "combustible commodore", eventually provoked a naval confrontation in extremely questionable circumstances by blockading the port of Rangoon and thus started the Second Anglo-Burmese War which ended in the British annexing the province of Pegu and renaming it Lower Burma.

In the British parliament Richard Cobden made a scathing attack on Dalhousie for dispatching a naval commodore to negotiate (gunboat diplomacy) and for raising the initial demand for compensation of £1000 to 10 times that amount.

Lord Dalhousie

Richard Cobden

The first substantial blow of the Second Burmese War was struck by the British on April 5, 1852, when the port of Martaban was taken. Rangoon was occupied on the 12th and the Shwedagon Pagoda on the 14th, after heavy fighting, when the Burmese army retired northwards. Bassein was seized on May 19, and Pegu was taken on June 3, after some sharp fighting round the Shwemawdaw pagoda. During the rainy season the approval of the East India Company's court of directors and of the British government was obtained as to the annexation of the lower portion of the Irrawaddy River Valley, including Prome.

Lord Dalhousie visited Rangoon in July and August, and discussed the whole situation with the civil, military and naval authorities. He decided that to dictate terms to the Court of Ava by marching to the capital was not how the war should be conducted unless complete annexation of the kingdom was contemplated and this was deemed unachievable in both military and economic terms for the time being. As a consequence General Godwin, who bitterly resented having to deal with the Royal Navy under the command of Lambert, a mere commodore, after the death earlier of Rear Admiral Charles Austen, the brother of the writer Jane Austen, occupied Prome on October 9 encountering only slight resistance from the Burmese forces under the command of the ineffectual son of the great general Maha Bandula who was killed in the First Burmese War. Early in December Lord Dalhousie informed King Pagan that the province of Pegu would henceforth form part of the British dominions.

 

The proclamation of annexation was issued on January 20, 1853, and thus the Second Burmese War was brought to an end without any treaty being signed. The war resulted in a revolution in Amarapura although it was then still called the Court of Ava, with Pagan Min (1846–1852) being overthrown by his half brother Mindon Min (1853-1878). Mindon immediately sued for peace but the two Italian priests he sent to negotiate found the British 50 miles farther north at Myedè with a rich belt of the Ningyan teak forests already staked out within their territory and presented as a fait accompli. No treaty was ever signed although trade resumed between British Burma and the Kingdom of Ava until fresh hostilities broke out in 1885.

King Mindon Min

 

The Third Anglo-Burmese War or the Third Burmese War lasted several weeks 1885, with sporadic resistance into 1887. It was the final of three wars fought between Burma and the British during the 19th century, and resulted in the loss of Burmese sovereignty and independence.

Following a succession crisis in Burma in 1879, the British Resident in Burma was withdrawn, ending official diplomatic relations between the countries. The British considered a new war in response but other ongoing wars in Africa and Afghanistan led them to reject a war at that time.

During the 1880s, the British became concerned about contacts between Burma and France. Wars in Indochina had brought the French to the borders of Burma. In May 1883, a high-level Burmese delegation left for Europe. Officially it was to gather industrial knowledge, but it soon made its way to Paris where it began negotiations with the French Foreign Minister Jules Ferry. Ferry eventually admitted to the British ambassador that the Burmese were attempting to negotiate a political alliance along with a purchase of military equipment. The British were troubled by the Burmese action and relations worsened between the two countries.

During the discussions between the French and Burmese in Paris, a boundary dispute on the frontier of India and Burma broke out. In 1881, the British authorities in India appointed a commission to unilaterally mark out the border between the two countries. In the course of its work, the commission began demanding the Burmese authorities in villages determined by the British to be on their side of the line should withdraw. The Burmese objected continuously, but eventually backed down.

In 1885, the French consul M. Hass moved to Mandalay. He negotiated the establishment of a French bank in Burma, a concession for a railway from Mandalay to the northern border of British Burma and a French role in running monopolies controlled by the Burmese government. The British reacted with diplomatic force and convinced the French government to recall Haas who was removed allegedly "for reasons of health". While the French had backed down in Burma, the French actions as well as many other events convinced the British to take action against Burma.

A fine was imposed on the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation for underreporting its extractions of teak from Taungoo and not paying its employees. The company was fined by a Burmese court, and some of its timber was seized by the Burmese officials. The company and the British government claimed the charges were false and the Burmese courts were corrupt.

 

The British demanded the Burmese government accept a British-appointed arbitrator to settle the dispute. When the Burmese refused, the British issued an ultimatum on October 22, 1885. The ultimatum demanded that the Burmese accept a new British resident in Mandalay, that any legal action or fines against the Company be suspended until the arrival of the resident, that Burma submit to British control of its foreign relations and that Burma should provide the British with commercial facilities for the development of trade between northern Burma and China.

The acceptance of the ultimatum would have ended any real Burmese independence and reduced the country to something similar to the nominally-autonomous 'princely' puppet states of British India. By November 9, a practical refusal of the terms having been received at Rangoon, the occupation of Mandalay and the dethronement of the Burmese king Thibaw Min were determined upon. It can also be assumed that the annexation of the Burmese kingdom had been decided.

King Thibaw Min
 

The War

At this time, beyond the fact that the country was one of dense jungle, and therefore most unfavourable for military operations, the British knew little of the interior of Upper Burma; but British steamers had for years been running on the great river highway of the Irrawaddy River, from Rangoon to Mandalay, and it was obvious that the quickest and most satisfactory method of carrying out the British campaign was an advance by water direct on the capital.

Major-General, afterwards Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast was placed in command of the invasion. As was only to be expected in an enterprise of this description, the navy as well as the army was called in requisition; and as usual the services rendered by the seamen and guns were most important.

The total effective of the force was 9,034 fighting men, 2,810 native followers and 67 guns, and for river service, 24 machine guns. The river fleet which conveyed the troops and stores was composed more than 55 steamers, barges, launches, etc.

Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast

Thayetmyo was the British post on the river nearest to the frontier, and here, by November 14, five days after Thibaw's answer had been received, practically the whole expedition was assembled. On the same day General Prendergast received instructions to commence operations. The Burmese king and his country were taken completely by surprise by the rapidity of the advance. There had been no time for them to collect and organize any resistance.

They had not even been able to block the river by sinking steamers, etc, across it, for, on the very day of the receipt of orders to advance, the armed steamers, the Irrawaddy and the Kathleen, engaged the nearest Burmese batteries, and brought out from under their guns the Burmese King's steamer and some barges which were lying in readiness for this very purpose.

On the 16th the batteries themselves on both banks were taken by a land attack, the Burmese being evidently unprepared and making no resistance. On November 17, however, at Minhla, on the right bank of the river, the Burmese in considerable force held successively a barricade, a pagoda and the redoubt of Minhla.

The attack was pressed home by a brigade of British Indian infantry on shore, covered by a bombardment from the river, and the Burmese were defeated with a loss of 170 killed and 276 prisoners, besides many more drowned in the attempt to escape by river. The advance was continued next day and the following days, the naval brigade and heavy artillery leading and silencing in succession the Burmese river defences.

However, some sources say that the Burmese resistance was not fierce because the defence minister of Thibaw, Kin Wun Mingyi U Kaung, who wanted to negotiate peace with the British, issued an order to the Burmese troops not to attack the British. His order was obeyed by some, but not all, Burmese brigades.

In addition, the British deceived the Burmese including U Kaung by their propaganda that they did not intend to occupy the country for long, but only to depose the king Thibaw and enthrone Prince Nyaung Yan, an elder half-brother of Thibaw, as the new king. At that time, most of the Burmese did not like Thibaw both because of the poor management of his government and because he and/or his king-makers had executed nearly a hundred royal princes and princesses when he ascended the throne in 1878. Nyaung Yan was a survivor of this royal massacre and was living in exile in British India although in fact he was already dead at the time of this war. However, the British concealed the fact, and according to some sources the British even brought a man impersonating Prince Nyaung Yan along with them on their way to Mandalay so that Burmese would believe their story of installing a new king. Thus, the Burmese who welcomed this purported new king did not attempt to resist the invading British forces. However, when it became obvious that the British had actually failed to install a new king and Burma in fact had lost its independence, fierce rebellions by various Burmese groups, including the troops of the former royal Burmese army, ensued for more than a decade.

On November 26, when the flotilla was approaching the capital Ava, envoys from King Thibaw met General Prendergast with offers of surrender; and on the 27th, when the ships were lying off that city and ready to commence hostilities, the order from the king to his troops to lay down their arms was received. There were three strong forts here, full at that moment with thousands of armed Burmese, and though a large number of these filed past and laid down their arms by the king's command, still many more were allowed to disperse with their weapons; and these, in the time that followed, broke up into guerrilla bands and prolonged the war for years. Meanwhile, however, the surrender of the king of Burma was complete; and on November 28, in less than a fortnight from the declaration of war, Mandalay had fallen, and King Thibaw was taken prisoner, and every strong fort and town on the river, and all the kings ordnance (1861 pieces), and thousands of rifles, muskets and arms had been taken. The British organized the looting of the palace and city of Mandalay. The proceeds were sold off at a profit of 9 lakhs (900,000) of rupees.

From Mandalay, General Prendergast reached Bhamo on December 28. This was a very important move, as it forestalled the Chinese, who had their own claims and border disputes with Burma. Though the king was dethroned and exiled with the royal family to India, and the capital and the whole of the river in the hands of the British, bands of insurgents took advantage of the situation to continue an armed resistance.

 

Annexation and resistance

Burma was annexed by the British on January 1, 1886. Critics of the war consider the timing of the annexation to be strong proof of what the British motives really were. But the annexation was only the beginning of an insurgency which would last for several years.

The final, and now completely successful, pacification of the country, under the direction of Sir Frederick (later Earl) Roberts, was only brought about by an extensive system of small military police protective posts scattered all over the country, and small lightly equipped columns moving out in response whenever a gathering of insurgents occurred. The British poured reinforcements into the country, and it was in this phase of the campaign, lasting several years that the most difficult and arduous work fell to the lot of the troops. The resistance was finally broken by meting out collective punishments on villages. Villages were burned and the property of villagers either confiscated or destroyed. The British policy of overwhelming reprisals against villages suspected of assisting the insurgency eventually brought the country under control.

Sir Frederick Roberts

 

The British also extended their control into the tribal areas of the Kachin Hills and Chin Hills. These territories, only nominally ruled even by the Burmese kingdom, were taken over by the British. Also taken were disputed territories in northern Burma claimed by the Chinese government.

No account of the Third Burmese War would be complete without a reference to the first, and perhaps for this reason, the most notable land advance into the country. This was carried out in November 1885 from Taungoo, the British frontier post in the east of the country, by a small column of all arms under Colonel W. P. Dicken, 3rd Madras Light Infantry, the first objective being Ningyan. The operations were completely successful, in spite of a good deal of scattered resistance, and the force afterwards moved forward to Yamethin and Hlaingdet. As inland operations developed, the lack of mounted troops was badly felt, and several regiments of cavalry were brought over from India, while mounted infantry was raised locally. The British found that without mounted troops it was generally impossible to fight the Burmese successfully.

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