|The Growth of the British Empire|
|by M. B. Synge|
|Book V of the Story of the World Series. Treats the revolutions in South America and Mexico, the Boer War in South Africa, and the exploration of Central Africa, the Greek and Italian wars for independence, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the opening of trade with Japan and China, and the rebellion in India. Ages 13-18 |
THE ANNEXATION OF BURMA
"The Great Mother cometh over the sea."
WHEN Marco Polo visited China, he brought back news of two other great countries bordering on the land of the Great
Khan—Tibet and Burma—both on the Indian frontier. Tibet lies dormant amid its snows, and plays no
part at present in the world's history. But a different fate, fortunately, awaited Burma. A glance at the map
will show that Burma occupies a remarkable
geo-  graphical position. Bounded on three sides by India, China, and Siam, it has an unbroken coastline of some 800
miles, reaching to the Malay Peninsula. Running for over a thousand miles, throughout the whole length of the
country, is the great waterway of the Irawadi, which rises in snowy Tibet and empties itself into the Bay of
Bengal, its many mouths forming natural harbours of great commercial value. The country itself was rich in
wealth: it produced rice for food, magnificent timber for building houses and ships, iron, coal, rubies, and
precious stones. But the kings of Burma, with this magnificent empire at their feet, wastefully squandered the
lives of the people and the treasure of the country in wars of aggression. Let us see how, after 2500 years of
misgovernment, the "coming of the Great Queen" in 1885, brought peace and prosperity to a people of surpassing
interest in themselves.
Early in the nineteenth century, the Burmese conquered Assam and first came into contact with British power in
India, until in 1824, war broke out between the two powers. Knowing little of the country, British troops were
landed at Rangoon in May, a few days before the rains, which, from May to October, converted the country into a
gigantic swamp. The heavy rain fell incessantly day and night, fever broke out, and hundreds died. A campaign
was carried on, until a stray cannon-ball killed the Burmese general,
 whose soldiers lost heart and allowed the enemy to sail up the Irawadi, almost to the walls of Ava, the old
capital, near the present town of Mandalay. To save his capital, the king made peace, by which Assam and most
of the west coast was ceded to the British.
Years passed on, but the Burmese were still unfriendly, and after a final protest, by the British, war broke
out again. In 1852 British war-ships appeared at the mouth of the Irawadi, and troops made their way up the
great river, capturing city after city, until Lower Burma was formally annexed to the British dominions in the
One of the chief features of this second Burmese war, was the capture of the famous golden Pagoda, or
idol-temple, at Rangoon. This had been a goal for pilgrims for over 2000 years: they had come from Siam,
Ceylon, the distant Shan hills, and even China, to worship at its numerous shrines. From a broad base, standing
on a hill, rises the golden cupola of the Pagoda
high into the sunny air to-day—the tapering point at the
summit crowned by an umbrella, hung with golden bells set in jewels. Inside are beautifully carved roofs, glass
mosaics, statues of Buddha, bronze bells, and precious stones, while crowds of worshippers are ever climbing
the flights of steps north, south, east, and west. The capture of this by the British, brought home to the
Burmese the fact, that their empire was slipping from them. They had no
 access to the sea now, save through the lost provinces in British hands.
A long peace followed. It was an era of prosperity for Lower Burma under Great Britain. The neglected land was
cultivated, justice administered, and oppression relieved. Once, in 1855, a mission was sent to Calcutta
begging for the restoration of the district; but the message from the English was decided. "So long as the sun
shines in the heavens, so long will the British flag wave over Lower Burma."
With the accession of a new Burmese king, named Thebaw, in 1878, troubles once more broke out. His accession to
the throne was signalised by a massacre of forty princes and princesses of royal descent. It is said that one
of the royal princes met his death heroically. Turning to his brother, who was begging piteously for his life,
he said: "My brother, it is not becoming to beg for life. We must die, for it is the custom. Had you been king,
you would have given the same order. Let us die, since it is fated we must die."
The news of this cold-blooded massacre was received with horror throughout the civilised world.
"The King of Burma, being an independent sovereign, has a right to take all necessary measures to prevent
disturbance in his dominion without the censure of others," said the Burmese minister.
 King Thebaw, too, resented these criticisms. He insulted the British resident at Mandalay, and began to
intrigue with the French, who, by the conquest of Tonquin, had extended their possessions to the borders of
An incident known as the "Great Shoe Question" brought matters to a crisis. King Thebaw insisted that all
Englishmen should take off their shoes on entering the royal palace. This they refused to do, and their
position in Mandalay became so perilous, that they had to leave.
In the autumn of 1885, Thebaw issued a proclamation, calling on his subjects to join him, in driving the
English into the sea. It was time for the British to take steps. General Prendergast, with 11,000 men, a fleet
of flat-bottomed boats, and elephant batteries, received orders to invade Upper Burma.
"The Great White Queen is coming at last," said the Burmans, speaking of Queen Victoria, away in distant
England. Still they took no steps to protect either their city or their king. The expedition advanced up the
"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you hear their paddles chunkin'
from Rangoon to Mandalay?"
They reached the royal city with little opposition. The king and his queen had retired to a
summer-  house in the palace gardens to await the British, with whom they intended to make peace. To distract their
minds, the maidens of the Burmese court were dancing, while near at hand stood the royal elephants, laden with
treasure and ready for flight.
To the royal palace marched the British, to demand the surrender of the Burmese king and his kingdom within
twenty-four hours. The blow had fallen at last. It was too late to think of escape.
Early next morning King Thebaw was hurried into a bullock-cart with little ceremony, his queen into another,
and in the presence of a great crowd of weeping and awestruck subjects, they were conveyed to a steamer on the
Irawadi. Here a guard of British soldiers was drawn up: they presented arms on the appearance of the royal
prisoners. As their bayonets flashed in the sunlight, the king fell on his knees in abject terror.
"They will kill me," he cried wildly. "Save my life."
His queen was braver. She strode on erect—her little child clinging to her dress—fierce and
dauntless to the last. So the king and queen of Burma were exiled to Ceylon, where they still live. The great
country of Burma was conquered afterwards, but it was some years before it quieted down.
Administered by British officials, the country was
 then restored to a state of prosperity. Trade increased rapidly, a railway was made from Rangoon to Mandalay,
telegraph wires were laid, and with all this, Burmese customs were respected. The great feature of the country
is still its pagodas. Still every little village shows its cluster of white cupolas, while the golden
umbrellas, which surmount the glistening pinnacles, flash under the fierce Eastern sun. The building of these
pagodas, in memory of the great teacher Buddha, is an act of merit among the devout Burmans. Their worship of
Buddha is at once real and true. It moulds their view of life, gives motives to their endeavours, and "reveals
the Great Hereafter." Their heaven, or Nirvana, is only attained by self-denial and self-sacrifice: to gain
Eternal Peace is more to them than the possession of this world's goods.
"The thoughts of his heart, these are the wealth of a man," they affirm with confidence. So life and death are
filled with the one great hope, that at the last, each faithful Burman shall enter into the "Great Peace."
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