History of Brahmadesh(Burma)-by Herbert Thirkell White-1923

Legends and myths, unprofitable to relate, fill the early chronicles of Burma. In times of which there are no authentic records, the Burmese, issuing from the highlands of central Asia, drove into Lower Burma the Talaings, the first inhabitants of whom we have any knowledge, and occupied Upper Burma. They are said to have established a kingdom with its capital at Tagaung in the 9th century, B.C.[1]. Early in our era, Shans invaded and overspread the north of Burma and founded a dominion which endured for hundreds of years. The Burmans retreated to Pagan, below Myingyan, said to have been built in the 2nd century, A.D.[2]. Thus, for many centuries, in a welter of conflict, Shans dominated the north and east; Burmans held the middle country; Talaings the south, part of which however belonged to Siam. Arakan was independent. These are merely approximate and to some extent conjectural generalizations. It would be vain to assign limits to these kingdoms or dates to events; idle to record the names and exploits of kings celebrated in native chronicles and accumulated legends. Of the Pyu there is nothing definite to record except that they had their capital at Prome up to the time of Anawrata. A few Pyu inscriptions remain.

The five kings worth remembering are Anawrata, Tabin Shweti, Bayin Naung, Alaungpaya and Mindôn Min. Serious history dawns with the reign of Anawrata who ruled at Pagan for over forty years (1010—52). This great king extended his sway over the greater part of Burma. In the north he broke the Shan dominion, which had already disintegrated into many independent States, and subjugated the country as far as Bhamo[3]. Thatôn and Pegu were taken and the Talaings reduced to subjection. Arakan, which had been invaded and for a few years held by Shans, became tributary. For some two centuries the Pagan kingdom flourished. Marco Polo (1272—90) mentions the King of Mien (Burma) as “a very puissant Prince, with much territory, treasure, and people.” But the traveller saw these glories fade, this strength diminish. He describes a battle at Yungchang between the Burmese and Kublai Khan’s army. The elephants on which the Burmese chiefly relied were thrown into confusion and put to flight by Tartar bowmen and the troops of the Great Khan won a signal victory. Somewhat later (1284), Pagan itself was taken and sacked and the Burmese kingdom was broken to pieces. The next half century witnessed the rise and fall of two Shan kingdoms, with capitals at Panya and Sagaing respectively, extending as far south as Prome.

In 1364 Burmese supremacy was restored by Thadomin who claimed descent from the ancient kings of Tagaung. He erected his capital at Ava and he and his successors conquered much of the country formerly ruled from Pagan, as far south as Prome but not including Pegu. Ava was perpetually embroiled with the Shans who still dominated the north; and for a time Shan kings from Mo-hnyin occupied the throne.

Meanwhile Pegu, after regaining its independence, was overrun by Wareru who had set up a new Talaing kingdom at Martaban which eventually tore Tavoy and Tenasserim from Siam. Later, in 1323, the capital was moved to Pegu. In the latter part of the 14th and first part of the 15th century Ava and Pegu were seldom at peace with each other.


Since the downfall of Pagan (1284), the small territory of Toungoo, peopled by Burmans, had been practically uncontrolled. But it was not till 1470, nearly two centuries later, that its independence was formally asserted. The first notable event in its history is the accession (1530) of one of the most conspicuous figures in Burmese annals, Tabin Shweti (1530—50), who claimed descent from Anawrata. Extending his rule successively over Pegu (1538—39), whither he transferred his capital; Martaban; and Prome (1541—42); he defeated the Shan king of Ava (1544) and occupied his territory as far as Pagan. After his death, for a short time, the power of Pegu declined. It was restored and enhanced by Tabin Shweti’s famous general, Bayin Naung (1551—81), who, after a short interval, became king. This great soldier and ruler subjugated Ava (1554); finally and effectively broke the Shan dominion (1557—58), as relics whereof in Burma proper only isolated States survived; reduced all the Shan country as far north as China and Assam, as far east as Chieng mai[4]; and ruled over the whole of Burma except Arakan and presumably the remote hill tracts. Siam was twice invaded, Ayuthia taken (1563—64), and three white elephants, the ostensible object of the first expedition, carried off (1568—69). Bayin Naung’s tempestuous glorious reign ended as he was planning operations against Arakan (1581). This was the brightest epoch of Burmese civilization. Cæsar Frederick, whose description of Pegu (1569) is given elsewhere[5], writes of Bayin Naung:

There is not a King on the earth that has more power or strength than the King of Pegu, because he has twenty and six Kings at his command. He can make in his camp a million and a half of men of warre in the field against his enemies….This King of Pegu hath not any army or power by sea, but in the land, for people, dominions, gold and silver, he far exceeds the power of the great Turke in treasure and strength….Also he is Lord of the Mines of Rubies, Sapphires, and Spinels[6].


Doubtless this report inspired Butler’s reference to the Burmese king[7].

After Bayin Naung the glory waned. Siam became independent. Pegu was taken and destroyed by invaders from Toungoo and Arakan (1599), and a Talaing king was set up at Martaban. By degrees the empire was partly restored and a king again ruled in Pegu (1634). Some years later the capital was transferred to Ava. In the next hundred years, under feeble rulers, outlying districts were  lost and disastrous wars were waged with China and with Manipur. Finally, assisted by Shans settled in Pegu (called by the Burmese Gwè Shans), the Talaings rebelled (1740). They occupied Toungoo and Prome and, after some years of desultory fighting, captured and burnt Ava and put an end to the dynasty of Bayin Naung (1752).

The ascendancy of the Talaings was of brief duration. Immediately after the fall of Ava, revolt was initiated by a petty official, afterwards known as Aungzeya, the Victorious, and even more widely renowned as Alaungpaya. His rise was more swift and miraculous than Napoleon’s. Early in 1752 he was a village headman. Before the end of 1753 he was proclaimed king, received the submission of the northern Shan chiefs, established his capital at his native village, Shwebo, and occupied the royal city of Ava. Continuing the war with the Talaings, Alaungpaya advanced as far as the Shwe Dagôn pagoda (1755), near which he laid out a new city and called it Rangoon; took Syriam, the port of Pegu and seat of European trade (1756); and in the year of the battle of Plassey occupied Pegu (1757). By this time his rule extended over the whole of Burma except Arakan. Siam was next invaded (1760) and Ayuthia invested. But sickness forced Alaungpaya to retreat, and before he reached the Salween the great conqueror was dead. A contemporary account[8] describes him as of impressive personality and overweening arrogance. Beyond doubt his name is notable in the world’s history.

Ten kings of Alaungpaya’s race succeeded him:

1. Alaungpaya (1752—60)
3. Sinbyuyin
6. Bodawpaya
2. Naungdaw
4. Singu Mintayagyi
(died before
his father)
Paungga Min
(reigned seven days
in 1781)
7. Bagyidawpaya
8. Shwebo Min (King
Tharrawaddy) (1838—46)
9. Pagan Min
10. Mindôn Min
11. Thebaw Min


Sinbyuyin successfully repelled two formidable Chinese invasions, annexed Manipur, and in war with Siam once more destroyed Ayuthia. Bodawpaya conquered Arakan (1784) and brought across the hills the famous statue of Gaudama Buddha, which still stands at Mandalay in the Arakan pagoda[9]. His successor, Bagyidaw, annexed Assam (1821). This year saw the height of Burmese prosperity under the House of Alaungpaya.

Soon afterwards, Burmese incursions into Chittagong brought about a conflict with the Indian Government and caused the First Burmese War (1824). The Burmans put up a stout resistance. Rangoon was occupied by General Sir Archibald Campbell about the middle of 1824. Later in the year a large force under Maha Bandula made a determined but unsuccessful attack on the town and suburbs. Next year (1825), two British columns moved up the river and Bandula was defeated and slain at Danubyu. The war was ended by a Treaty concluded at Yandabo, not far below Ava, by which Assam, Manipur, Arakan and Tenasserim were ceded by the Burmese (1826). A quarter of a century later Burmese oppression of English traders occasioned the Second War (1852). The resistance offered by the Burmese was far less strenuous than in the First War; and General Godwin occupied Pegu and all the country as far as Myedè before the close of the year[10]. By proclamation of the Governor-General, all the territory south of a line drawn east and west, six miles north of Myedè was annexed. Stone pillars marking the boundary were erected, those on the banks of the Irrawaddy under the personal supervision of Lord Dalhousie. Mindôn Min declined to sign away any part of his kingdom and no treaty was concluded. But British occupation was not challenged.

Friendly relations were maintained throughout the reign of Mindôn Min, an astute and in some ways enlightened monarch, of whom Sir Henry Yule wrote[11]:

The King is, without doubt, a remarkable man for a Burman; but rather in moral than in intellectual character, though his intelligence, also, is above the average….The Sovereign of Burma is just and mild in temper, easy of access, hears or seeks to hear everything for himself, is heartily desirous that his subjects shall not be oppressed, and strives to secure their happiness….As long as he lives and reigns, peace will probably be maintained.

This prediction was fulfilled. But in the nerveless hands of Mindôn Min’s successor authority slackened and anarchy supervened. After the massacre of many members of the Royal Family, for seven years King Thebaw and his Ministers allowed Upper Burma to become the prey of dacoits and corrupt officials. Finally misrule, oppression of British traders, and attempts at intrigues with European powers, forced on the Third War (1885). King Thebaw had no standing army, no munitions of war, no money in his Treasury. With unprecedented celerity, a small but well-equipped force of 10,000 men under General Sir Harry Prendergast, V.C., crossed the frontier on 14th November; and after one not very serious encounter at Minhla, occupied Mandalay within a fortnight. The king and queen surrendered and were sent to India where they remained till Thebaw’s death, a few years ago. The remnant of the Burmese kingdom was annexed and Burma once more became an undivided nation.

The pacification[12] occupied the next four or five years. At the outset Upper Burma was in a state of anarchy. Dacoit[13] bands infested the country-side. Chinese brigands penetrated as far as Bhamo. The Shan States were in revolt. Hill men raided the plains and levied toll on caravans. Gradually order was established in the plains (1890). The Shan country was more easily brought to submission (1887), most of the chiefs accepting office and continuing in charge of their States. The names associated with the settlement of the Shans are those of Mr A. H. Hildebrand and Sir George Scott. Eastern Karenni was subdued (1889); its turbulent chief, Sawlapaw, fled and was replaced by his nephew Sawlawi, who proved a capable and loyal ruler. The Chin Hills were not finally dominated till after operations lasting for four years (1888—91). For nearly six years (1888—93) fighting continued in the Kachin Hills. The Chins gave some trouble recently; but order has been restored.

Of the distinguished men who took part in the conquest and pacification of Upper Burma may be mentioned, besides Sir Harry Prendergast, Lord Durferin, who, as Governor-General, visited Mandalay and decreed the annexation; Lord Roberts, who, as Commander-in-Chief, spent some time in Burma directing military operations; Sir Charles Bernard, Chief Commissioner 1885—87; Sir Charles Crosthwaite, from 1887—90; Sir Herbert Macpherson, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras army, who died in Burma; and Sir Charles Arbuthnot who succeeded him; Sir George White[14] who commanded the forces for several years; Sir William Penn Symons who did admirable work in the plains and also in the Chin Hills; Sir Edward Stedman, organizer of the military police; Sir James Willcocks who spent in the Province some months of his early service.

Early travellers. After Marco Polo (1272—90), who may possibly have visited Burma, the earliest known European in the country was Nicolo di Conti, a Venetian, who travelled in Arakan and Ava (1430). Some years later (1496), Hieronymo da Santo Stephano, a Genoese, and Ludovico Bartlema of Bologna, came to Pegu. The first Portuguese was Ruy Nunez d’Acunha, early in the 16th century. Next came the reputed liar[15], Fernan Mendez Pinto, who says he was at sieges of Martaban and Prome and mentions the well-known names of Dalla (opposite Rangoon), Dagôn (the great pagoda), Danubyu, Henzada, and Myedè. Later in the 16th century, Cæsar Frederick, a Venetian merchant (1569), and Ralph Fitch (1586), the first Englishman in Burma, came to Pegu and have left valuable records of their journeys.

Relations with European countries. The Portuguese, the earliest European settlers, established factories at Martaban and Syriam. Later (1519), Dutch settlements were founded at Syriam, Negrais and even as far north as Bhamo. Early in the 17th century, the British East India Company began to trade regularly with Burma and in process of time set up agencies at Syriam, Prome, Ava and Bhamo. British merchants settled also at Mergui, then a Siamese port. In the first years of the 17th century the Portuguese were expelled and somewhat later all other foreigners were driven out. The Portuguese and Dutch did not return. But at the close of the century British factories were again established at Syriam, Bassein and Negrais. The French also had an agency at Syriam till they were evicted by Alaungpaya. The British factory at Negrais was destroyed in 1759; but was rebuilt two years later. From that time, the East India Company maintained uninterrupted commercial relations with Burma.

When first annexed (1826) the Divisions of Arakan and Tenasserim were administered by Commissioners. The Pegu Division was constituted after the Second War (1853). Some years later (1862) these three Divisions were amalgamated into the Province of British Burma, the first Chief Commissioner being Sir Arthur Phayre, one of the most distinguished of British administrators. After the Third War the whole of Burma was formed into a Province (1886); and in 1897, Sir Frederic Fryer became the first Lieutenant-Governor.

Many towns have been mentioned as capitals of the whole kingdom or of various parts. The House of Alaungpaya adopted the custom of moving the capital whenever the throne was occupied except by regular succession. The capitals of the several kings of that dynasty were:

Alaungpaya   Shwebo
Naungdaw   Sagaing
Sinbyuyin {\displaystyle \scriptstyle {\left.{\begin{matrix}\ \\\\\ \ \end{matrix}}\right\}\,}} Ava
Singu Min
Paungga Min
Bodawpaya   Amarapura
Bagyidaw   Ava
Shwebo Min {\displaystyle \scriptstyle {\left.{\begin{matrix}\ \\\ \end{matrix}}\right\}\,}} Amarapura
Pagan Min
Mindôn Min {\displaystyle \scriptstyle {\left.{\begin{matrix}\ \\\ \end{matrix}}\right\}\,}} Mandalay
Thebaw Min

Those kings who did not change their capital were all deposed.

  1.  At Tagaung, on the left bank of the Irrawaddy in the Katha district, can still be traced remains of a royal city.
  2.  Pagan, of which remains exist, dates from 847 A.D.
  3.  The more remote Shan States, such as Mogaung and Mo-hnyin, retained their independence.
  4.  Now subject to Siam.
  5.  p. 182.
  6.  Hakluyt, ii. 365.
  7.  “Grave as the Emperor of Pegu.” Hudibras, i ii. 155.
  8.  By Captain Robert Baker, sent as an envoy by the East India Company in 1755.
  9.  This image is said to have been cast in the reign of Chanda Surya, King of Arakan, who came to the throne in 146 A.D.
  10.  Ensign Wolseley served in this war and was wounded at Danubyu.
  11.  The Court of Ava.
  12.  See Sir Charles Crosthwaite’s book, The Pacification of Burma.
  13.  Technically, a dacoit is one of a body of five or more banded together for purposes of robbery.
  14.  Afterward Commander-in-Chief in India and later the defender of Ladysmith.
  15.  Congreve.

SOURCE-Provincial Geographies of India/Volume 4 (1923) by Herbert Thirkell White, edited by Thomas Henry Holland
Chapter 11


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