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First Burmese War - 1824-1826

Unfortunately for the prospects of peace, nature, which had given India an impenetrable boundary on the north, had left her with an undefined and open frontier on the east. On the shores of the Bay of Bengal, opposite Calcutta, a struggle had raged during the eighteenth century between the inhabitants of Ava and Pegu. The former, known as Burmans or Bur, had the good fortune to find a capable leader, who rapidly ensured their own victory and founded a Burmese Empire. The successful competitors were not satisfied with their own predominance in Pegu — they conquered Aracan, they overran Assam, and they wrested from Siam a considerable territory on the Tenasserim coast.

The Burmese conquerors were cruel. Emigrations took place to the British territories, to the number of thousands, in 1797 and 1798. There was no other instance of immigration on a large scale into British territory in India. They were at first sought to be kept out; a large body refused to return, saying that they would rather be slaughtered at once than return. Not less than 10,000 "rushed to the frontier" towards the end of 1798, and the number of immigrants went on increasing, till more than two-thirds of the population left Aracan; the capital being nearly depopulated, while the road was "strewed with the bodies" of the old, and of women with infants at the breast, and hundreds found no subsistence but on leaves and reptiles. The British Government determined to settle them upon some large tracts of waste land in Chittagong, and employed Captain Hiram Cox, who had been on a mission to Ava, for the purpose.

The conquest of Aracan brought the Burmese to the confines of the Company's dominions in Chittagong. The conquered people, disliking the severe rule of the conquerors, crossed the frontier and settled in British territory. The mixed race in Aracan were termed Mugs. Many of them used their new home as a secure basis for hostile raids on the Burmese.

The Burmese first sent letters to demand the fugitives, then pursued them into Chittagong, stockaded themselves, repelled an attack by British sepoys (1799), and withdrew at last of their own accord. There were by this time, Captain Cox reported, between 30,000 and 40,000 emigrants in the province, of whom he settled more than 10,000 in the assigned district. Various missions took place to and fro on the subject, the Burmese never abandoning their claim for the restoration of the Mugs, till at last they were supplied with an awkward plea for hostilities.

For the Mug Jeshurun, waxing fat, began to kick. The more adventurous from those settled at Chittagong, seemed to have conceived the idea of avenging the wrongs of their countrymen. One Khyen Bran gathered a band around him, and began plundering Aracan (1811). The Burmese retaliated by inroads into the Company's territory, sent a mission to Calcutta, professedly to buy sacred books at Benares, but Hi»tary. really to form a confederacy of native powers for LECt. Xii. tlle eXpuisio11 of the English (1813), openly v threatened war if the Mug "slaves" were not restored (1816).

Khyen Bran meanwhile had died (1815), but had left his mantle to another warlike Mug, Charipo, who, in spite of a proclamation by the chief magistrate of Chittagong that the emigrants, if guilty of depredations, would be handed over to the Aracan authorities, committed a desperate robbery beyond the British frontier (1817). He was seized, and the magistrate of Chittagong recommended his being delivered to the Burmese; but the matter having been carried before the Council, in the absence of Lord Hastings, that body decided against doing so, on the ground of the cruel treatment to which the prisoners would, no doubt, be exposed. Charipo was tried by the Mahommedan law, still in force in the country, though the population was nearly all Hindu, and acquitted for want of strict legal evidence, although his guilt was notorious.

The Burmese were, of course, little satisfied, and the next year (1818) claimed openly, through the son of the Raja of Ramree, governor of their frontier provinces, the restoration of the territories of Chittagong and Dacca, Moorshedabad,and Cossimbazar, as not belonging to India, threatening to "destroy the country" if these provinces were not restored.1 Lord Hastings treated the claim as unauthorised, and sent back the letter containing it to the Viceroy of Pegu.

These events were occurring on the Burmese frontier at the time at which the depredations of the Ghoorkas and their on the north of Hindostan were producing the complications which resulted in the war with Nepal. The case of the Burmese against the Company was similar to that of the Company against the Ghoorkas, and the barbaric monarch of Ava used language which a civilised ruler might have employed. He insisted on the Company's duty of maintaining the peace of its frontiers, and he asked for the extradition of those of his subjects who were using British territory as a base for their warfare. The first request the Company could not comply with; it had no forces at its disposal which could enforce order on a frontier line hundreds of miles long. The second it would not grant; it was not prepared to surrender persons who had sought refuge in its dominions from the merciless treatment of the King of Ava.

A dispute of this character tends naturally to grow. Semi-independent Burmese chiefs crossed the frontier, and carried the sword into British territory. The Burmese governor of Aracan, with or without the authority of his monarch, boldly asserted his right to the whole of Chittagong, and even demanded the cession of Eastern Bengal. At the time when this demand was made Hastings was occupied with the Pindaree war, and could not venture on embarking on a new campaign. He found it consequently convenient to treat the claim as a forgery. But the barbaric people with whom he had to deal were naturally encouraged by this conduct. They saw that the outrages on their own territory were not stopped, and that their own raids on the Company's lands were not punished. They continued to meet raid with raid, and to heap disorder upon disorder.

The river Naf ran for a portion of its course between the possessions of the British in Chittagong and those of the Burmese in Aracan. With the object the of preventing the repetition of outrages, which had occurred on the river, a small British guard was stationed on a little island, called Shaporee, near its mouth. The Burmese, claiming the island as their own, attacked the guard and drove it from the post.

It was impossible to ignore such a challenge. The island was reoccupied; but the Governor-General, still anxious for peace, offered to treat its occupation by the Burmese as an action unauthorised by the Burmese Government. The Burmese Court, however, instead of accepting this offer, sent an army to reoccupy the island; collisions almost simultaneously occurred between the British and the Burmese on other parts of the frontier, and in February 1824 the first Burmese war began.

War had long been inevitable. The Burmese, ignorant of the strength of the Power which they were attacking, were anxious for an opportunity of measuring their swords with the weapons of the Company; and the British could not tolerate the continuance of disorder on their frontiers, and were forced to fight. Yet, if the war of 1824 may be excused as inevitable, its first conduct must be condemned as careless. No pains were taken to ascertain the nature of the country which it was requisite to invade, or the strength of the enemy whom it was decided to encounter. The experiences of the Nepaulese war might have taught the military advisers of the Governor-General that a rude race, acting in a difficult country, might inflict defeat on British troops. But the lesson was forgotten in 1824, or, at any rate, not applied.

Burma is watered by two great rivers, the Irawaddy and the Salwen, both flowing in parallel courses from north to south, and both enclosed by mountain ranges which separate them one from the other and from the adjacent country. In its upper waters thelrawaddy is a rapid stream; in its lower waters it flows through alluvial plains, and finds its way through a delta with nine mouths into the Bay of Bengal. On one of its western mouths is the town of Bassein, on one of its eastern mouths the great commercial port of Rangoon. The Chap, banks of the river are clothed with jungle and with forest; and malaria, the curse of all low-lying tropical lands, always lingers in the marshes. The authorities decided on invading Burma through the Rangoon branch of the river. They gave Sir Archibald Campbell, an officer who had won distinction in the Peninsula, the command of the expedition, and, as a preliminary measure, they determined to seize Rangoon. Its capture was accomplished with ease, and the Burmese retired from the town. But the victory was the precursor of difficulty. The troops dared not advance in an unhealthy season; the supplies which they had brought with them proved insufficient for their support; and the men perished by scores during their period of forced inaction.

The summer of 1824 was not, indeed, entirely lost. In August a small expedition, sent from Rangoon to the Tenasserim Coast, seized the principal towns of that district, and laid the foundation of a new possession in the Malay peninsula. But victory in this distant region made little impression on the counsels of the barbaric Court of Ava, and any effect which it might have had was destroyed by the defeat of a small British force by a large Burmese army in Aracan. This disaster—which for the moment was believed to have opened the road to Calcutta—and the condition of the army at Rangoon, wasting away with dysentery and disease, almost justified the confidence with which the Burmese had provoked the war.

The Burmese war, however, was not the first—as it was not the last—occasion on which Englishmen plunged into hostilities without adequate preparation, and triumphed over fortune herself by steady perseverance. When more favorable weather returned with the autumn, Campbell was again able to advance. Burma was then attacked from three separate bases. A force under Colonel Richards, moving along the valley of the Bramaputra, conquered Assam ; an expedition under General Morrison, marching from Chittagong, occupied Aracan; while Campbell himself, dividing his army into two divisions, one moving by water, the other by land, passed up the Irawaddy and captured Donahue and Prome. The climate improved as the troops ascended the river, and the hot weather of 1825 proved less injurious than the summer of 1824.

The Burmese, moreover, alarmed at the advance of the troops, and disconcerted at their own losses, made overtures for a reconciliation. They, indeed, imagined that the victors, as a preliminary step towards peace, would strip themselves of the advantages which they had The war gained; and, when they found that the British refused eluded. to withdraw from territory where their arms had once stood, they professed their astonishment and renewed the war. But the operations in 1825-6 drove home the lesson which the campaign of 1824-5 had already taught. The Burmese realised their impotence to resist, and consented to accept the terms which the British were still ready to offer them. Assam, Aracan, and the Tenasserim Coast were ceded to the Company; the King of Burma consented to receive a Resident at his capital, and to pay a very large sum of money — 1,000,000 £ — towards the expenses of the war.

The slow and doubtful success which had attended the British arms created unusual excitement through-out India. The natives imagined that the tide of conquest had at length reached its height, and that it was at last beginning to recede. The necessities of the campaign, moreover, compelled the authorities to reduce the garrisons of the newly acquired districts; and the Mahrattas and Pindarees, who had been crushed into subordination, thus found an opportunity for fresh disturbances. Local insurrections broke out in various places, and nothing but the gradual restoration of affairs in Burma prevented a general uprising.

One little war, indeed, arose out of these troubles which deserves a passing notice from the historian. Ever since Lake's failure to reduce its fortress twenty years before, the little State of Bhurtpore had been a rallying place for the disaffected, and its citadel had been at once the symbol and the hope of the native cause. The authorities at Calcutta, anxious to avoid or postpone a rupture, treated its Raja with a consideration which was not always shown to more submissive rulers; and Blmrtpore, in the opinion of native critics who had rejoiced in its victory, and of British officers who deplored its arrogance, reaped the reward of its own successes.

So matters continued till 1824, when the Raja died. The Company acknowledged as his successor his little boy, a child of five. Before many days were over the child's cousin seized the lad and assumed the direction of affairs. The Residency at Delhi was at that time held by Sir David Ochterlony, the stout soldier who had retrieved his country's cause nine years before in Nepaul. Ochterlony believing, like many Indian officers, that the divine right of kings was dependent on the choice of the Company, called on the Jauts to disown the usurper, and promised to uphold them in their obedience by British bayonets. His action, however, was embarrassing to a Government whose resources were already strained to a dangerous extent by the Burmese war. It overruled his decision, and ordered him to pursue a policy of peace. This order broke the heart of the brave old officer. He resigned his trust, laid himself down and died.

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Page last modified: 19-09-2017 12:00:28 ZULU