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Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter XVIII. Thibaw

AMONG the princes who came to the school at Mandalay there is one in particular of whom I must now speak at length, because about this time he became King of Burma. His name was Thibaw. While at our school (he was number twenty-seven!) he was a quiet, inoffensive, docile lad, without any particular vice or virtue to distinguish him from the other boys of his age.

He was obedient and orderly and gave but little trouble. He never presumed for one moment on his position to expect any preferential treatment. True, he had no expectation of coming to the throne, and even if he had, it is exceedingly doubtful if such expectations would have materially altered his attitude, for he was of a modest and trustful disposition, easily influenced for good or for evil. Unfortunately he was not long enough with us to strengthen the good points of his character. Let me here tell the story of how Thibaw came to the throne.

In accordance with the custom of the country, King Mindôn had four wives who were queens and many other subordinate wives. These latter were chosen where the King wished. If he saw a beautiful girl and admired her, she became his wife. If a tributary prince offered his daughter to the King, she was accepted as a lower wife.

Two at least of King Mindôn's chief queens were his half-sisters. These were the Laungshe princess--who became the mother of King Thibaw--and the Hsin - byu - ma - shin, the notorious queen-mother, whose daughter, Supayalat, married Thibaw, and was the cause of all the troubles which subsequently overtook him. I have often seen these two queens of King Mindôn. What became of the Laungshe princess, the mother of Thibaw, is not known. She seems to have fallen into disgrace and to have lived and died in obscurity, which may mean a good deal in a country like Burma.

The Hsin-byu-ma-shin was the chief queen at Mindôn's death. She had three daughters but no son, and all these daughters became Thibaw's wives. They were called, Supayagyi, i.e., the great princess, Supayagalé, or the little princess, and Supayalat, the middle princess.

On his death at the age of sixty-five, after a reign lasting twenty-six years, King Mindôn had no fewer than seventy sons, but he had not named a successor, and the law of primogeniture did not prevail in Burma; indeed, it could not, as Mr. Scott O'Connor has pointed out, in a country where kings marry so many wives.

Thus it came about, to quote Mr. Scott O'Connor once more, that "grave issues were involved in the question of the King's health. Should he die, it was certain that a struggle for the throne would take place among his sons. In this struggle many lives would be taken, disorder would ensue, and the country would be plunged into the agonies of civil war.

"All these things had happened before in Burmese history. But it was unlikely that they would be suffered, without interruption, to occur again; for across the frontier lay a province of the British Empire, and the British Empire was tired of the vanities and pretensions of the Burmese Court. . . . The issue of the King's illness was awaited with anxiety--amongst others, by a handful of Englishmen at the royal capital, whose very existence was likely to depend on the turn that events might take.

"One of them, writing in September, 1878, gives a graphic account of the situation. ' I am expecting and watching,' he says, ' for the arrival of refugee princes escaping from an expected massacre. We do not know whether the King is alive or dead, and expect to hear wild outbursts of confusion every moment.' . . .

"The Queen won over the ministers, and it only remained to secure by some signal act of treachery the persons of all the rival candidates to the throne. They were summoned accordingly on the 12th of September, 1878, to visit the King in his chamber. Believing the order to emanate from him they came. Immediately on entering the Palace they were seized and thrown into prison."

Two only of the princes ultimately succeeded in escaping, and my colleague, the Rev. James Colbeck, was instrumental in saving their lives. He has left the following account of what took place: "A lady of the Palace came to me dressed as a bazaar woman, and shortly after, about a dozen others came. I had to take them in and secrete them as well as possible. A few minutes afterwards there came in a common coolie, as I thought.

"I got up and said: 'Who are you?'

"He said: 'I am Prince Nyoung-yan; save me.'

"He was terribly agitated and escaped from a house in which he was confined, and his uncle had been cut down--not killed--in opening a way for the prince to escape. So soon as dusk came we dressed up our prince as a Tamil servant and smuggled him into the Residency compound, right under the noses of the Burmese guard at the gate. He carried a lamp and held an umbrella over me, as it was raining, and I spoke to him as a servant until the coast was clear."

For a few months after the death of his father, Thibaw reigned peaceably, and a manifesto was issued that he was to govern by means of a council, and that all monopolies were to be abolished. But when he heard of the British disaster at Isandhalwana, Thibaw thought that there was no longer cause to fear Great Britain, and he proceeded to put out of the way all possible and probable rivals. In a few days eighty-six of his blood relations were either battered or choked to death or buried alive, and a large number of their friends perished with them. The Hpoung Wun was the chief agent of the massacre and he revelled in dashing young children against the wall and committing other barbarities in the presence of Thibaw and Supayalat, who heartily applauded.

Supayalat was the instigator of this and the subsequent atrocities which marred the reign. As a child I had known her to be cruel and vindictive. Her mother knew of her weakness, and instead of correcting it she condoned it. Talking to me one day about her, she said: "Yes, she is a bad boy. She has always been a bad boy," using the masculine gender as a term of endearment. As far as I was able to judge, it seemed to me that the mother's idea was that by encouraging her in her badness her daughter would acquire "authority" (awza).

Supayalat, as a child, used to catch birds and then tear them limb from limb in mere wanton cruelty. It was her way of enjoying herself.

Such was the character and disposition of the young girl who, by the connivance of her mother, and in fulfilment of her own ambitions, became Queen of Burma. Her husband came straight from a monastery to the throne. He had so distinguished himself in his priestly studies that his father, King Mindôn, at one time thought that he was going to be the future Buddha (Payaloung). He left the seclusion and the discipline of the cloister to assume the unrestrained and limitless powers of an absolute sovereign. Could any worse training be imagined for a king than this?

After the first massacres Mr. Colbeck still remained at his post in charge of the Mandalay Mission; but at length he was compelled to leave, much against his will, together with all the English community, by the withdrawal of the Political Agent and his staff. Mr. St. Barbe refused Colbeck's appeal to be allowed to stay behind on the ground that even if he had the right to risk his own life, he had none to risk compromising the British Government and thwarting the policy in pursuance of which the Resident's departure had been ordered.

After Colbeck's departure, I felt very anxious about the buildings connected with the Mission in Mandalay, and I determined to go myself to see if my personal influence upon my former pupil, King Thibaw, would restrain him from the evil course which he had entered upon, and also avail to protect the buildings which his father had erected for me.

I had already once before attempted this, immediately on Thibaw's accession, but the previous Resident, Mr. Shaw, represented to the Chief Commissioner, Mr. Aitchison, that my visit might interfere with his (Mr. Shaw's) influence.

Now that there was no longer a British Resident, there could be no question of interfering with anybody's influence, so I determined to make another attempt. I resolved to go to Mandalay for a few days to show that the Church of England had not abandoned the church and Mission premises, and that our occupancy did not necessarily follow that of the Political Agency.

If I saw any danger of desecration, I resolved to bring away the altar and the font, and if there appeared to be none, to leave a catechist in charge till better times.

I felt it right that my visit should be public and open, and, therefore, I wrote to the King and Prime Minister a short note, simply saying that as there was no clergyman in Mandalay, I would go for a few days at the end of the month,

I received no reply, and doubting whether the letter had been delivered, I telegraphed to the Kinwun Mingyi, and he replied, asking me to postpone my departure. On the same day I received private information from some of my boys that a Mandalay spy had sent word to the Court that I was going as a spy of the British Government. I therefore sent another telegram, assuring the Kinwun Mingyi that my visit had nothing of a political nature about it, and even proceeded as far as Prome on my journey to Mandalay; but I was met there with the reply that I should on no account be allowed to visit Mandalay for the present, and that if I persisted, orders would be issued to prevent my crossing the boundary.

After this I made no further attempt to visit Mandalay in Thibaw's time, but some years afterwards, in 1886, when the Burmese kingdom had come to an end, I was allowed to visit the queen dowager and her daughter Supayagyi, when they were in captivity in Tavoy. The Queen spoke very kindly of the days when she had known me at Mandalay, when the princes were under my care. She confirmed the reports that I had often heard, that King Thibaw frequently inquired after me, and expressed surprise that I had never visited him after his accession. He evidently did not know of the Kinwun Mingyi's threat which stopped me on my way to Mandalay in 1879.

I need not detail the events which led to the last Burmese war in 1885. Sir Harry Prendergast led what was not inaptly called "a military picnic" up the Irrawaddy, meeting with little or no opposition. King Thibaw had been kept in a fool's paradise with lying reports by those who were working his ruin. The old Queen assured me that until he heard the cannonading at Myingyan, the King had no idea that hostilities had commenced. Mandalay, Thibaw, and the army capitulated at once--only too quickly for our rulers. We took Mandalay long before we knew what we were going to do with it. The army, only partially disbanded, was allowed to go off as the men chose. No effort was made to intern them, to enlist them under the British flag, or to give them work. And so, without employment, pay or control, they naturally took to dacoity, and became the nucleus of bands of robbers, which kept the country in a disturbed state for many years.

The Rev. James A. Colbeck thus describes the last hours of Thibaw's dynasty:

"General Prendergast gave King Thibaw one day to consider whether he would surrender himself, his capital, kingdom, and army, or fight. Next day the same thrilling scene took place as was witnessed the day before--thousands of men within gunshot of each other. The appointed time expired, and the order was given 'Load!' But the officers felt it would be a simple massacre of the Burmans, and did not say 'Fire!' The suspense was awful. Then at the most critical moment another flag of truce appeared, and Burmese officers of state came to say that the King accepted the terms of peace and would give himself up. The Burmese army was disarmed, and our soldiers proceeded to Mandalay.

"General Prendergast and Colonel Sladen went into the Palace, and found all in confusion. The attendants of the King and queens were engaged pillaging the treasures, gold, rubies, and beautiful silks, and destroying mirrors, lamps, costly carvings and curiosities, which people at home would give much to see.

"Colonel Sladen slept one night in the Palace, near the King, to protect him, and a guard of our men was placed at the gates. Next day the General came and gave Thibaw ten minutes to get ready to leave his country. It took, however, three-quarters of an hour. Then a procession formed: the British flag, the General and his staff, the King, holding his two wives, one by each hand, the queen-mother, Colonel Sladen, then a crowd of ministers of the court, maids-of-honour, British officers, and others, which moved past the great throne, down the Palace steps, through a long lane of our soldiers presenting arms, with fixed bayonets; and so on till the King and his party were got into bullock-carts and taken under strong guard to the steamer Thooria, which was waiting to receive him. The people of the city at first seemed bewildered; then, as they realized what was taking place, many burst into tears and threw themselves sobbing on the ground, bewailing the loss of their master, cruel though he had been." One of the first exploits of the British Government in the newly-annexed kingdom was the construction of a narrow gauge railway between Rangoon and Mandalay via Toungoo. This work was pushed on with almost American rapidity, and in spite of cholera, dysentery, dacoits and other difficulties, it was ready for opening early in 1889. I was one of the forty gentlemen who left Rangoon by the special train on the evening of February 25th to be present in Mandalay for the ceremonial opening. After the ceremony was finished, I went off to my old residence. But so utterly had the place changed from the Mandalay that I had left fourteen years before that I actually lost my way, and it was not without difficulty and adventure that I at last got to the place.

The deep and rapid stream, the Shwéda Kyoung, upon which my boys and I used to row in our doubled-banked twelve-oared boat in front of the school, had become a miserable little ditch. The royal fence which marked our Mission as a royal foundation, had given way to a light railing, and the British Residency looked seedy and dilapidated.

After service in the church I walked to the cemetery to visit the grave of dear James Colbeck. I could not help recalling the time when Bishop Milman, Captain Sladen and I, with several others, went to consecrate the little corner that the Roman Catholics gave us for our cemetery. We had to wade part of the way, be poled in rafts the other part, and walk the remainder, and the consecration service was read from the top of the unfinished wall, which had two or three feet of water on either side. Every Sunday morning" after service, while we were together, James Colbeck and I used to walk to the cemetery to see that it was properly cared for.

On Sunday we had parade service for the 231 English troops and others in the Hman-nan-daw, the grand front hall of the royal Palace. Here in this golden apartment, in which I had so often walked barefoot and anxious, waiting for hours for the appearance of one of my prince pupils with the joyful words, "Kaw daw mu thi" ('The King calls you"), I now stood with my back to the throne and preached to a large and attentive congregation. In my long intervals of waiting, in days gone by, I often used to think of the various useful purposes to which the different halls of the Palace might be put. But my wildest flights of imagination never assigned a purpose as that to which we were adapting the hall of audience, that of a military chapel for the British garrison!

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