1815 - 1817
Getting to know the British
The Court of Ava knew little about the new English, only that they were traders and were rapidly expanding their power throughout India. Spies had been sent west by Bodawpaya. One who returned in 1815 had spent three years in eastern and southern India as well as Ceylon, and reported to the king that only the English flag now flew all along the Coromandel coast. He also reported that Ceylon had passed from the hands of the Dutch to the East India Company and that the Kingdom of Kandy had also fallen to the English. Spying was followed by more active attempts at diplomacy. By the late 1810s, the Burmese were sending an increasing number of missions to India, including one to the Mughal court, apparently to suggest an anti-British alliance. Contacts had also been made with Nepal, the Marathas and Ranjit Singh in the Punjab, but none of these missions seems to have produced any real results.
In one intelligence extract, a former palace steward, Maha Minhla Thagathu, sent around India at the turn of the century, warns his king of the untrustworthiness of their new rivals. Drawing on recent events in Mysore and in Maharastra, as well as older events in Siam, the writer compares the British to a banyan tree which leans on others at first, but then drains the life from all around. Interestingly, this comparison of the British Raj in India to a banyan tree was apparently not confined to the Burmese. In 1836, after the Court of Ava had allowed a British officer to accompany a government party to its northernmost post of Mogaung, a protest was received from the Manchurian Viceroy of Yunnan, who also made the same comparison.
Attempts at a grand coalition against the British may always have been partly fanciful. What was not, however, were increasingly belligerent designs on adjacent territory close to or within the British Bengal frontier. Probing movements by Thado Maha Bandula from Assam into the Jaintia and Cachar hills had ignited the First Anglo-Burmese War. But the principal Burmese aim seems to have been the annexation of the area just to the north of Arakan. Two court documents from 1817 reasoned that the eastern Bengal had belonged to the kings of Arakan. As the Burmese king was now sovereign over Arakan, eastern Bengal should also come under his authority. One order argued that while the ‘English may have a right of possession over all the British Isles they cannot possibly have a legitimate claim over the territory just to the west of Arakan.’ The same order demanded that the English, ‘who are now in occupation of Benares and Lucknow’, must return Mushidabad, Chittagong and Dacca to the Burmese Myowun of Mrohaung. A letter to the East India Company was sent at the same time demanding an end to tax collection in the area.
The image is a contemporary watercolour of a Burmese ambassador to the Mughal court at Delhi and his Indian counterparts c. 1810.
(Extracted from ‘The Making of Modern Burma’ by Thant Myint-U)