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Dynastic Decline and the Second Anglo-Burmese War, 1826-53

The First Anglo-Burmese War had been, for the British, essentially a defensive war. The causes of the second and third were more complex, involving a number of different colonial and metropolitan interests. Commercial interests were tied to the promotion of trade and a free market in Lower Burma and elsewhere; "imperial" interests regarded the pacification, if not the annexation, of the Burmese kingdom as essential to the security of British India. Missionaries and the more ideologically inclined imperialists enunciated other interests that served as a sort of moralizing backdrop to more pragmatic economic and strategic concerns. The Buddhist Burmese kingdom stood in the way of Christianization, which Adoniram Judson, an American Baptist, had attempted to initiate as early as 1813. Most British, moreover, tended to regard Burma as an uncivilized country whose people would be only too grateful to exchange native "despotism" for the blessings of British rule.

The Burmese monarchs between Bodawpaya and Mindon Min (1853-78) failed to establish strong, stable governments that could have responded effectively to British encroachments, and the royal succession became a free-for-all among contesting princes in which the losers often paid with their lives. In 1837 Bagyidaw, suffering mental illness and increasingly incompetent to rule, was overthrown by his brother Tharrawaddy. Kin Tharrawaddy attempted to curb corruption and abuses of the legal system; he also carried out a purge in which a number of former officials and court figures, including the crown prince, Bagyidaw's son, and Bagyidaw's principal queen, were executed. Revolts among the Shans and in Lower Burma in 1838-40 further undermined political stability.

Tharrawaddy repudiated the Treaty of Yandabo and, impatient with what he perceived as the humiliating presence of a British resident, Henry Burney, in the royal capital, made life so uncomfortable for him and his successors that they were forced to leave. In 1839 the Indian governor general, Lord Auckland, ordered the residency closed and formal diplomatic relations severed. Although many, including the missionary Judson, cried for war, the governor general, preoccupied with Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier, judged Burma at the time not a vital British interest.

Tharrawaddy died in 1846 and was succeeded by his son, Pagan Min. The new king was described in some accounts as a cruel tyrant and in others as merely an impractical doer of Buddhist good works having no interest in government. Whatever the case, he was particularly weak and allowed corruption and misrule to run rampant. In Upper and Lower Burma alike, the machinery of government was in a process of disintegration, while unrest continued in the Shan states.

A commercial treaty between Burma and British India had been signed in 1826, providing for unrestricted travel and trade by merchants of the two countries in each other's territory and uniform duties on imports. The immediate cause of the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852 was a dispute involving two British merchants who had been arrested by the Burmese governor of Rangoon for evading customs duties. Released after paying a small fine, they returned to Calcutta and claimed damages from the Burmese government totaling 11,920. It was unfortunate for the Burmese that the Indian governor general at this time was the Marquis of Dalhousie who, in the words of historian and former colonial administrator John S. Furnivall, "regarded the expansion of the British empire as a law of nature." In Dalhousie's eyes, this seemingly petty incident deserved serious attention, because British prestige in the East would suffer if the government "even for a single day" took "an attitude of inferiority toward a native power."

In a classical case of gunboat diplomacy, he sent Commodore George Robert Lambert with an armed naval escort to Rangoon to demand compensation and the removal of the Rangoon governor. Heavy-handed diplomacy on the part of Lambert, whom even Dalhousie labeled the "combustible Commodore," and the issuing of a stiff British ultimatum that the Burmese could not possibly accept led to the dispatching of a British expeditionary force in April 1852. The ultimatum had demanded a British resident in Rangoon, resignation of the Rangoon governor, a new indemnity of 2100,000, and a personal apology from the king Rangoon, Martaban, Bassein, Pegu, and Prome had been taken by October, though the Burmese staged a fierce, but futile, counterattack at Prome. On December 20, 1852, it was announced that Lower Burma would be annexed as a province of British India.

The Second Anglo-Burmese war not only gave the British all the ports at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea but also left the Burmese kingdom shorn of its richest provinces. The boundary of the truncated kingdom and British Lower Burma was set along a line running through Myede on the Irrawaddy River, about 80 kilometers above Prome. Mindon Min, Pagan Min's half-brother, had opposed going to war with the British and in December 1852 staged a revolt at Shwebo, Alaungpaya's old capital. Pagan Min was deposed and forced into retirement in February 1853. The new king hoped to negotiate the return of Lower Burma but was disappointed in his efforts. Although he refused to recognize the annexation, he did not resume the war.



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