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British Burma - Colonial Economy and Society

The development of efficient steamship transportation, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the construction of railroads (reaching Mandalay by 1889, Myitkyina by 1898, and Lashio by 1902), drew the country more tightly into the international economic system in ways that would have as far-reaching consequences as had the extinction of the Konbaung kingdom in 1886.

The pace of economic development under British auspices was spectacular. Between 1870 and 1926-27 the value of exports increased 20 times and the value of imports, 15 times. Modern, large-scale Western enterprise was firmly established. Most important at first was the transportation sector (the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and the railroad) and the teak-extracting and rice-milling industries. The mining sector, however, became increasingly important in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Although rubies, Burma's most exotic mineral resource, attracted foreign entrepreneurs, they were soon eclipsed by petroleum. The Burma Oil Company, working wells that the British government took over from the royal monopoly in Upper Burma, produced some 465,000 barrels of crude oil in 1898. By 1923 this had increased to 6.4 million barrels. In Asia, Burma's petroleum industry was second only to that of the Netherlands East Indies. Tin and tungsten mines were developed in Tenasserim Division, the latter becoming an important mineral export during World War I. When automobiles appeared in the early twentieth century, a system of paved roads was built.

Before Alaunsaya unified Burma in the 1750s, the Irrawaddy River delta region of Lower Burma was inhabited primarily by Mons. During the first century of Konbaung rule, however, Burmans migrated into the region from the drier heartlands, and the indigenous population was "Burmanized" by being obliged to adopt the Burman language and customs. Karens also moved into the delta from the headwater region of the Salween and Sittang rivers. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, the river delta was still a thinly populated region compared with Upper Burma.

Burman migrants to Lower Burma had traditionally been subsistence farmers, but the British conquest of Lower Burma opened up new markets and incentives for surplus production. This spurred the transformation of the region into what British administrator Furnivall has called "a factory without chimneys -- a highly efficient system for the growing, milling, and distribution of rice to overseas markets in India, China, and Europe by the turn of the century. The British offered inducements to new settlers from Upper Burma, such as 12-year tax exemptions and low-cost, or free, river transportation. The king attempted to stem the flow by prohibiting cultivators from taking their families with them, but this restriction was easily evaded. Like the American and European settlers who were opening up the Great Plains of the United States and Canada at roughly the same time, the Burman settlers encountered considerable hardship, though of a different kind. The land with the greatest potential for rice paddy was covered with dense jungle or thick grass, which had to be cleared by hand. Poisonous snakes were always underfoot, and stockades had to be built to keep out tigers and other dangerous animals. Worst of all, fever, especially in newly cleared land where mosquitoes swarmed, was a cause of high mortality.

The enterprise of individual Burman settler families and the creation of a modem transportation network in the last decades of the nineteenth century produced a remarkable revolution in "industrial agriculture." According to Furnivall, the land under cultivation grew by 145,300 hectares between 1861 and 1870; between 1890 and 1900, however, rice land increased by 943,900 hectares. In the early 1870s the annual average of rice exported was 732,000 tons. This increased to 2.5 million tons by 1900 and 3.6 million tons by 1920. The opening of the delta "rice frontier" involved a land rush in which laborers from Upper Burma or elsewhere would save their wages over a period of a few years, buy cattle and tools, and stake a claim to some open land.

The first years of settlement, however, did not bring in a crop, so the settlers required investment capial. This was provided at first by the older and more established settlers who supported their relatives' settlement or who started up moneylending operations; but it came increasingly from Indian moneylenders, members of the Chettfar subcaste. The Chettlars, based in Madras in southern India, had a long history of commerce with the countries of Southeast Asia but had become particularly active with British colonial expansion into the region. Though based in port cities, such as Rangoon and Bassein, they would send agents into the countryside to arrange loans with Burman cultivators.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:44 ZULU