India - Victor Surridge

The Golden King

Alompra the Hunter was a mighty man. He is one of the chief of Burma's national heroes. When, in the middle of the eighteenth century, his country lay groaning beneath the yoke of Pegu, he gathered together a band of brave and resolute men who swore by a brave oath never to sheath sword until they had recovered for their land its former freedom; and so successful was the enterprise that not only were the invaders overthrown, but their very territories were annexed to the Burmese crown. Under the inspiriting rule of Alompra Burma took her place among the conquering nations of the East. To the north, east and south her armies marched; on every side her dominions were extended and enlarged. The small neighbouring states were the first to fall; then Siam was overrun and humiliated, and the invading hosts of China outwitted and lured to their destruction.

Before Alompra the Hunter died he founded a new dynasty. He sat in the seat of the Golden Kings. The sword which had carried him to power was wielded no less vigorously by his successors, and ere many years had passed other territories were added to the fast-growing empire. Among these was Arakan, a state which is situated between Burma and the Bay of Bengal. It is not good to be conquered by a semi-barbarous race; very unenviable was the plight of the poor Arakanese. So hard, indeed, became their lot, that in 1798 they fled, to the number of thirty thousand, across the intervening river into the neighbouring British district of Chittagong. It was a terrible journey; the narrow forest paths were littered with the bodies of aged men and frail women and little children who were unable to keep up with the rest of the fugitives. The British officials were far from enthusiastic in their welcome of these uninvited guests. But what could they do? It would have been an act of barbarity to deliver up the helpless refugees to their savage oppressors. So they were allowed to settle in the country. Nevertheless this gave great offence to the Burmese. The Golden King haughtily demanded that his escaped subjects should be handed over to the executioner. Woe betide the British if they should refuse his request! Their Bengal possessions would be taken from them, their armies destroyed, and their rulers visited with sundry severe pains and penalties.

From this it will be seen that his Burmese majesty had a very good opinion of himself. A few years previously he had, indeed, been good enough to offer to sweep the great Napoleon from the globe, and his astonishment knew no bounds when the generous proposal met with a polite refusal. From. the king to the beggar-boy the whole nation was imbued with the same spirit. Their military successes had turned their heads; they thought themselves invincible. "The English," declared their Royal Council, "have conquered the black foreigners, the people of castes, who have puny frames and no courage. They have never fought with so strong and brave a people as the Burmese, skilled in the use of the spear and the sword."

When a nation is anxious for war it is not difficult to find a pretext. In this case it took the form of a small muddy islet which is situated at the mouth of the river dividing Arakan from the district of Chittagong. For many years the island had been occupied by the British; but the Burmese now asserted that from time immemorial it had belonged to them. One dark night in September 1823 they landed a thousand of their yellow-skinned warriors and routed the small Sepoy guard. Promptly the British protested against the outrage. "The island," loftily declared the Governor of Arakan, "was never under the authority either of the Moors or the British; the stockade thereon has consequently been destroyed, in pursuance of the commands of the Great Lord of the Seas and Earth. If you want tranquillity, be quiet."

Although Lord Amherst, the Governor-General, was very anxious for tranquillity, he was by no means disposed to be quiet. The British flag had been insulted! But instead of taking instant action to vindicate its honour, he endeavoured to stave off war by a series of courteously worded requests for an apology. The Burmese took this for a sign of weakness. They became more than ever convinced that the British were afraid to fight them. At Ava, the capital, a Grand Council of State was held, and it was enthusiastically resolved upon to invade Bengal. The fiery Bandoola—the most famous general in all Burma—delivered an eloquent denunciation of the British. From that moment, quoth he, Bengal was taken from under the British dominion. "Henceforward," he concluded, "it was become in fact what it has ever been in right—a province of the Golden King. The Bandoola has said and sworn it!"

So war was declared.

At the mouth of the Irawaddy in the district of Pegu the valiant Alompra had founded the city of Rangoon. It became the chief port of the Burman Empire. The British deluded themselves into the belief that if they could seize and hold this city, the Burmese government would be dismayed into surrender. So it came about that early in May 1824 a fleet sailed boldly up the spacious estuary of the Irawaddy and dropped anchor before the threatened town. Great was the amazement of the chief magistrate of Rangoon when he beheld the strange vessels. Promptly he gave his orders: "English ships have brought foreign soldiers to the mouth of the river. They are my prisoners; cut me some thousand span of ropes to bind them!"

Unhappily, the magistrate found within the walls of his city white men who could be taken captive without any awkward preliminaries. For there were several British merchants resident in Rangoon, who, together with some American missionaries and a sprinkling of European adventurers, were immediately placed under arrest. Centuries of education in the refinements of torture have given the Burmese a national taste for cruelty. They love to gloat over the sufferings of their victims. On this occasion they left nothing undone that would add to the misery of their prisoners. Stripped nearly naked, and bound so tightly that their thongs caused them untold agonies, they were placed in a row inside the courtyard of the prison. The floor was strewn with sand to imbibe their blood. It was arranged that the prisoners should be put to death immediately the British began to bombard the town. The unhappy captives went through a long agony of suspense. In front of them strutted their executioners, pirouetting gleefully and uttering uncouth cries of joy. Some would stop ostentatiously to sharpen their knives; others would seize hold of an intended victim to prod him in the neck or to finger his spine with the critical air of a butcher examining a prize ox.

At length the guns boomed forth. It was the signal for death! The prisoners closed their eyes, expecting every moment to feel the knife at their throats. Horrible shouts smote upon their ears; it seemed as if the gaolers were working themselves up into a frenzy so as to ensure an effective rendering of their duties. Presently the clamour died away and all was still. The prisoners opened their eyes and gazed wonderingly upon an empty courtyard. Nowhere could they see a sign of their executioners—all had fled panic-stricken from the scene. Even their deep-rooted love of killing had been for the moment forgotten; wild, ungovernable fear reigned in its place. The sight of shells whizzing over their heads proved to be altogether too much for them.

A general stampede took place. Each citizen—from the chief magistrate downwards—seized as much of his worldly possessions as he could carry, and fled for refuge into the jungles and forests of the interior. A landing-party from the ships found the town deserted. None had stayed to give them welcome, save in the prison courtyard, where a score or so of bound and tortured forms waited eagerly for deliverance. But four, when their bonds were cut, babbled strange and meaningless words and looked up at their rescuers with eyes from which the light of reason had for ever departed.

Eleven thousand British soldiers took up their residence in Rangoon. The first step in the campaign had been taken—the step from which so much was hoped. Yet, in spite of the rosy forecasts of the tacticians, Rangoon proved to be of no use—save as a burying-ground for our best and our bravest. The occupation of Burma's premier port proved, in fine, to be a miserable mistake.

An empty stomach knows very few illusions. Our officers realised their blunder simultaneously with the compulsory tightening of their waist-belts. The natives, from whom they had confidently expected to obtain provisions, had vanished; the surrounding districts were empty and deserted. So the army became entirely dependent on Calcutta for its supplies; and since the scanty stores which reached them from that town were invariably unfit to eat, the distress became acute. The country abounded in cattle; yet hundreds of men starved to death on a diet of putrescent meat and biscuits rotten with maggots. The reason for this may not at once be obvious—on the face of it, it sounds a little absurd. But the fact remains that the British government strictly forbade any interference with the kine. It was thought that their transportation into succulent ribs and sirloins might seriously offend native susceptibilities. Now, to respect the whims and prejudices of other nations is a very wise and excellent thing; yet one may, perhaps, be permitted to wonder whether at times it is not possible to carry the spirit of toleration beyond the border-line of reason!

Hardly had our troops ensconced themselves in Rangoon when the rainy season set in. Immediately the country became a swamp, from which arose noxious and malaria-laden vapours. Fever, dysentry, and death stalked through the stricken camp. Scarcely a fourth of the once noble army remained fit for active service. All hopes of being able to sail up the Irawaddy into the romantic and mysterious interior were at once dispelled; the river had become a raging torrent. To advance by land was equally impossible. Truly here was a sorry plight!

Meanwhile a British force had invaded Burma from the north. It was to them an entirely unknown country; and they fared but little better than their comrades at Rangoon. Through pathless forests and fever-laden jungles they had to force their way. Many died of fever and disease. Sometimes in the course of their march they came across deep quagmires into which hundreds of their bullocks, elephants, and camels would sink, or become so imbedded in the mire as to be unable to move. Everywhere the force found its way impeded by giant stockades of interlaced trees and bamboos. Behind these crouched the Burmese soldiers, firing with antiquated guns upon the invaders. Against such defences artillery was useless. The British commanders would attempt to carry the position at the point of the bayonet, often losing heavily in the contest; it would have been better had they tried to expel the enemy by means of shells and rockets. The Burmese fought with hoes and spades rather than with muskets and swords. Each man, as he advanced, would dig a deep hole in the ground in which to shelter, and thus protected would fire complacently at the advancing foe until prompted by discretion to seek a more distant refuge.

Burmese War


For two long years the war dragged on. Twenty thousand British soldiers had found their last home in Burma, while fourteen millions sterling had been expended on the contest. At length the Burmese became so demoralised that they were glad to sue for peace. On the 3rd January 1826 a treaty was signed. Assam, Arakan, and Tenasserirn became the undisputed property of Great Britain, while the sum of one million sterling was paid to her as a war indemnity.

For the first time in its history the Company had undertaken a war outside the confines of India. It did not enhance their prestige, Vague rumours of British disaster and loss had from time to time reached the ears of their native subjects, and a wave of restlessness and dissatisfaction swept over the country. Affairs came to a head at Bhartpur, where a powerful prince openly defied the Company by deposing his infant cousin and seizing the throne for himself.

Eager to avenge this insult to the British flag, gallant Sir David Ochterlony led forth his men to the attack. To him came a note from the Governor-General. It was none too pleasantly worded, and Ochterlony found himself severely rebuked for his impetuosity. Poor Sir David! He was a born fighter, and could not understand the halting policy of his political chiefs. To the Governor-General he despatched an angry and characteristically indiscreet reply; his resignation soon followed, and two months later, in July 1825, he died of a broken heart.

Lord Amherst had weighty reasons for his hesitation. Bhartpur was the strongest fortress in all India. Four times during the Maráthá wars Lord Lake had attempted to storm it. On each occasion he had been repulsed with heavy slaughter. The news of the British failures had spread rapidly throughout India. Here at last was a place which the invincible white Sáhibs could not conquer! Even they, then, had their limitations! Remote mountain chieftains caught up the cry and tossed it derisively at the British envoys. "Conquer Bhartpur," cried they, "before you attempt to conquer us!"

Again to besiege Bhartpur would be a very serious undertaking. The British government could not afford to suffer a fifth defeat. Nevertheless, circumstances so forced Lord Amherst's hand that he was obliged to take the field. The Christmas of 1825 saw twenty-five thousand men gathered around the fortress. Theirs it was to do or to die; for the eyes of all India were upon them, and to fail in their task would be to strike a crushing blow at the foundations of our empire.

Picture to yourself an immense circular ditch, fifty-five feet deep and one hundred and fifty feet broad. From the edge of this rise walls of massive thickness, extending five miles in circumference. They are built of clay, but centuries of exposure to the blazing sun have made them hard as adamant; while they are supported and strengthened by beams and logs of prodigious size. Nine gateways and thirty-five lofty bastions lent an imposing air to the structure. One of the latter was a grim relic of Lord Lake's failures. They called it the "bastion of victory," and it was built—said the natives—of the bones of the British who had fallen before the walls.

The siege commenced. For nearly a month one hundred and thirty heavy guns raked the defences with their fire. In vain, however, was the effort; the sun-dried walls were proof against the heaviest shells. So it was decided to try the effect of mining. Under the main battery of the fortress a mine was driven and filled with ten thousand pounds of powder; the fuse was lit, and the besiegers drew back into safety. There were a few minutes of breathless suspense. Upon the doomed bastion could be seen the forms of hundreds of native soldiers who were gazing curiously towards the British lines. Suddenly a mighty roar was heard: the whole bastion rose slowly into the air, and amid a cloud of fire and smoke could be seen the flying limbs and bodies of the Bhartpur soldiery. Many of the British were killed by falling fragments of iron and timber. But a breach had been made, and through it the storming parties charged tumultuously into the fort. Ere many hours had passed the Union Jack was floating bravely over the mightiest fort in all India. Bhartpur's tale of renown was over for ever; the defences were razed pitilessly to the ground, and the stronghold, that so long and so successfully had mocked at the flower of England's armies, was numbered among the things of the past.

The princes and nobles of India received a much-needed lesson. They learned that, however disastrously their white conquerors may have fared on foreign soil, here in India the Company still remained supreme.

Over a quarter of a century elapsed before the British ventured to send another army into Burma. In 1852 a second war broke out, which resulted in the addition of much territory to our Eastern Empire; while in 1886, owing to the cruelties of King Theebaw, the whole of Upper Burma was annexed to the British Crown.