Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter XI. Mindôn Min

AFTER the second Burmese war in 1852, when the Province of Pegu was annexed to the Indian Empire, a line was drawn across the country a few miles above Thayetmyo on the Irrawaddy, and Toungoo on the Sittang, all south of which was called British or Lower Burma, and all to the north (comprising about 200,000 square miles) was called the Kingdom of Burma, or Upper Burma.

By the terms of the treaty by which this settlement was concluded, it was arranged that the kingdoms should be separate and independent of one another, but that a British Agent should be entertained at the Burmese capital, then Amarapoora, and that there should be an envoy in Rangoon.

It was foreseen that difficulties would arise, but it was hoped that by mutual forbearance these might be overcome. Absconding traders would find a refuge in Upper Burma, where they would be safe from civil process, while political refugees from the North would find immunity in British territory.

Shortly after the conclusion of the war, or rather as the cause of its termination by a bloodless revolution, the foolish King Pagan Min was deposed, and his brother, Mindôn Min, was placed upon the throne. The former was one of the worst, the latter decidedly the best, Burmese monarch of the house of Aloungpaya. Pagan Min, on his dethronement, instead of being murdered by his successor according to Burmese custom, was kept in honourable seclusion till his death from old age.

Of Mindôn Min I would speak with gratitude and respect. Personally, I found him to be a good Burmese scholar, a gentleman with much of kingly dignity but of very narrow ideas concerning the relations of his kingdom--or Empire, as he chose to call it--with other States.

He believed himself to be at least an equal of the most powerful monarch in the world.

He had a horror of bloodshed, and never tired of delivering himself of moral platitudes which did not always find expression in his dealings with others. I often thought, on personal intercourse with him, that with a little training he would have made an astute merchant after the Oriental type--"Heads I win, tails you lose."

He was of a kindly disposition, a lover of, and beloved by, children--a good sign in any man. He inaugurated a large harem. He had a strong sense of humour and could laugh heartily. He had a genuine desire for the prosperity of his country, of which, however, he knew very little except from the reports of his ministers.

He was a pious and learned Buddhist and spent large portions of the revenues of his country on the endowment of Buddhist institutions, while his military and other servants had to go without their pay.

In personal appearance he was every inch a King though the nasty habit of chewing betel-nut and expectorating, detracted greatly from his personal dignity. He had a pleasant, low, musical voice.

The story of the founding of the new capital of Mandalay is well known; but, for the sake of those who are not familiar with it, I will quote Mr. V. C. Scott O'Connor's interesting book, "Mandalay and other Cities of Burma." "In 1853 King Mindôn ascended the throne of Burma. In 1856 he grew very tired of his capital (Amarapoora), associated in his mind with the unfortunate reign of his elder brother and the humiliation of his country. He was anxious to make a better beginning, he was avid of fame, and he wished to draw away the attention of his people from the disaster which had overtaken his dynasty.

"He began accordingly to dream dreams, to see visions, and to consult with his wise men and his soothsayers about the founding of a new city. . . . And so it came to pass that on Friday, the I3th of February, 1857-- that year of terrible upheaval in India--the first stone of Mandalay was laid to please the King, and a hundred and fifty thousand people prepared to give up their homes and all their associations, and move to a new city at the caprice of his will. . . . When the new palace was finished, the King and Queen went to it in royal procession and entered in. Here in the heart of his new city, and out of sight and sound of the British steamers which fretted his spirit, Mindôn Min lived and ruled for more than twenty years."

I have interpolated this long quotation as I shall have a good deal to say about Mandalay and Mindôn Min, and this statement of Mr. Scott O'Connor will enable the reader to gain a clearer insight into the conditions and environment to which the sequence of my narrative is now leading me.

Although Mindôn Min was the best, the most enlightened, and the most honourable King that ever reigned in Burma, his reign was by no means one of continued peace and prosperity. It was part of the compact by which he was helped to the throne that he should reign during his lifetime, but that his brother, the "War Prince," should be proclaimed "Ain Shay Min," or heir-apparent, and that the War Prince's sons should be recognized as heirs-presumptive to the throne, to the exclusion of the sons of Mindôn Min.

The War Prince was so called because of his official position as head of the army, and of his warlike propensities. It was his fixed determination to train the Burmese soldiers to be able to cope with British forces, and his constant endeavour was to gather great store of arms and ammunition in Mandalay. He employed many French, German and Italian workmen in his forts and arsenals, and sent the most promising Burmese youths to be trained in the military schools of France and Italy. His dream was to drive the British by force of arms out of Lower Burma.

King Mindôn, on the contrary, was of a mild and peaceful disposition. He, too, longed for the restoration of the Lower Provinces to his kingdom, but he trusted for that restoration to the magnanimity and generosity of the British Government, when it should be seen how wisely and justly he ruled his own kingdom. He always believed that under stress of foreign or Continental complications Great Britain would be glad to withdraw her troops and hand back these provinces to him.

So strong was his belief that this would happen, that (as he frequently told me) he felt sure that he would eventually reign over a reunited Burma, and for that purpose he kept a number of officials in readiness to resume the government of the restored districts; though he always expressed his admiration of our rule in Lower Burma, and his wish to retain the services of some of our officers. Let me anticipate, by the following story, an illustration of the King's intense anxiety on this point.

One morning, when I was at the height of royal favour, a King's messenger came to me shortly after seven o'clock, saying: "His Majesty wishes to see you immediately."

I at once ordered my bullock carriage to be got ready, but before it could be prepared two other messengers came, each more urgent than the last, saying: "The King is in the Hall of Audience, and is impatiently calling for you."

I was at a loss to guess the cause of this unusual haste. But I went as quickly as possible, and found all waiting for me at the Palace, where I was ushered at once into the presence of the King, who, surrounded by his ministers and a large court, was eagerly awaiting my arrival.

Without any of the usual preliminaries, His Majesty asked me if I had had any letter from Rangoon, Calcutta, or England. I replied that by the mail which had arrived on the previous night I had letters from all these places. "Did they tell you the great news?" he asked. I replied that my letters contained no important information whatever.

The King seemed astonished, and repeated his question in other forms. I could not make out what he meant, and assured him that my answer was quite accurate. So, still thinking that I was keeping back important news, he ordered a herald to read out loud, for the information of myself and others, a Burmese translation of a pamphlet of the "Battle of Dorking" series, entitled, "How the Russians took India."

I listened with interest and amusement, the King, with his binoculars, watching my face the whole time. When the reading was finished, His Majesty, with great satisfaction, said to me, "There, English Priest, what do you say to that?"

I told him that I had some weeks previously read that pamphlet, which was not history, but only a parable to warn England what might possibly happen unless due precautions were taken.

The King was incredulous, and said that he knew that English people never confessed to having been defeated. I told him to ask his French and Italian dependents, who, to gain his favour, had given him the pamphlet, whether what I had said of it was not true.

They, of course, were obliged to say that I was right. "Then," said the King, "I have been deceived and made a fool of;" and he hastily rose up and quitted the hall in great anger. People who had petitions to present to him that day were very unfortunate!

I have made this long digression in order that my readers may have some idea of the state of things in the Kingdom of Burma when, in the Providence of God, I was called upon to begin our Church's Mission in that country.

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