Forgotten Voices of Empire: A letter from Burma 1887

In 1885 The British Empire invaded Burma, starting the third Anglo-Burmese War. The British claimed that King Thibaw Min (ruled 1878–1885) was a tyrant intending to side with the French, that he had lost control of the country, thus allowing for disorder at the frontiers, and that he was reneging on a treaty signed by his father.

The war lasted a little over two weeks with only sporadic resistance by the Royal army after intrigue at the Burmese court lead to conflicting orders being issued. The War ended with the British marching into Mandalay and the capture of King Thibaw Min.

The British immediately organised the looting of the palace and city of Mandalay. The proceeds were sold off at a profit of 900,000 of rupees.

King Thibaw being escorted to captivity by British soldiers, Burma, 1885

King Thibaw being escorted to captivity by British soldiers, Burma, 1885 NAM. 1974-03-148-5

Burma was annexed by the British on 1 January 1886 but an ongoing insurgency carried on until 1896. With the end of the war came the men of the Royal Engineers whose job it was to build roads, bridges and fortified posts to help pacify the country and allow easy transport not only of troops but also the vast resources so converted by the British merchants.

An officer with the Royal Engineers wrote on the 29th December 1886:

To say that I am worked off my legs is putting it mildly. I have just completed this post, and have three more to make at the same time, and about twenty miles of hill roads, with bridges innumerable, and I find no work goes on without my personal superintendence. I have occasionally to do twenty miles in a day and then work at the other end – and this in a country where roads are not even decent bridle-paths over rocks.

This morning I was up at dawn and out in the road superintending coolies, then  up the hill about 900ft higher than this to see arrangements for clearing jungle and preparing a site for a post; then down again for breakfast, after which I had to pay some men, and then went out to experiment with some dynamite upon rocks – work I did not much like as I had never touched the infernal stuff before. 

Minhla, after its capture by the British, mid-November 1885, showing death and devastation

Minhla, after its capture by the British, mid-November 1885, showing death and devastation. Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1837–1912).

Then I had to wander about looking for timber for a bridge. After this I wrote some officials, had a bath, and out open the road again some two miles out to see how the work was getting on, and explore a stream for a suitable place for a bridge. Then I came in and handed over some money and orders to an overseer, who had come out to assist me and make arrangements for marching out tomorrow morning for a six days trip (Not a pleasure one) to posts further out and arrange for carpenters and tools to come out with me. By that time dinner was ready, and I had a cheroot before a jolly log before sitting down to write. This is much the way I spend my days. Tomorrow I’m off to a post twelve miles further in the hills, about 1,200ft higher than this; and then on next day, or as soon as I can get the work into order, to a post further on at the end of the line.

792px-British_soldiers_dismantling_cannons_ava1885

British soldiers dismantling cannons 1885 Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1837-1912)

I got into Mandalay on Christmas day by riding six marches in three days to bring in a report on a position, and had a good dinner at the mess, which was a relief after living on compressed beef and tinned things for a fortnight. Sometimes we can get beef out here- i.e, a calf, costing about 6s. English Money; but often, as is the case now, we can’t get fresh meat for love or money. However, I like the place, and plenty of work suits me. Of course I have had my goes of fever; but then I have seen two doctors carried out of the post in doolies quite unable to stand. About 300 men have gone down sick (since I have been here) into Mandalay- some to die, others to be invalided to India. We have only buried about six of them here. Many a day I have dined alone, the doctor and officer commanding both down with this blessed fever. However, the bad times are over, the weather is jolly and cool and thanks to five grains of quinine a day, I keep the fever off, and feel up to any amount of work. It is a lovely view from from here over Mandalay and the valley of the Irrawaddy, and the jungles are pretty in their way,

St James Gazette February 2nd 1887

 

 

 

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