Lost Footsteps
Lost Footsteps
The First Anglo-Burmese War (Part 1)

event_note History Timeline

5 March 1824 - November 1824

The First Anglo-Burmese War (Part 1)

room United Kingdom

မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရန်

The king at the time was Bagyidaw, grandson of Bodawpay (the “Grandfather King”) and a great-grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Alaungpaya. He had inherited the empire at its very height. Described by the British as a “mild, amiable, good-natured and obliging” man, said to the be “fond of shows, theatrical exhibitions, elephant catching and boat-racing.” He was in 1824 very much under the influence of the war party, those processing for confrontation. Part of the war party was his senior queen, Me Nu, and her power-hungry brother, the lord of Salin. 

Another member of the war party was the Burmese commander in the theater, the lord of Alon, Thado Maha Bandula, stalwart idol of the modern Burmese armed forces and an ambitious solider then in his early forties. He was the firstborn son of a minor gentry family who had taken on early responsibilities after the death of his father. A stocky man of medium height and blunt demeanor, Bandula was as well known for his outspokenness as for his successes on the battlefield. He had risen through the ranks of the royal service, first through special assignments for the crown prince and later as the governor of the Dabayin. His later promotions were rapid, and he had become the spokesman of a faction at court bent on an aggressive westward policy. 

Bandula was supported by twelve of the country’s best battalions, including one under his personal command, all totaling ten thousand men and five hundred horses. His general staff included some of the country’s most decorated soldiers, men like the lord of Salay and the governors of Danyawaddy, Wutho, and Toungoo. In those days, as today, many senior officials held both administrative and military offices. In Jaintia and Cachar, Burmese forces were led by one of Bandula’s top lieutenants, the lord of Pahkan, Thado Thiri Maha Uzana. 

On 5 March 1824 Lord Willian Amherst, governor-general of Fort William and best known until then for leading a failed diplomatic mission to Peking, formally declared war on the kingdom of Ava. For the next two years the armies of the Burmese king and the English East Indian Company would fight the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history. Fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers died, together with an unknown (but almost certainly higher) number of Burmese. The campaign cost the British exchequer five million pounds, or about ten billion pounds (roughly eighteen and a half billion U.S dollars) today if measured as a percentage of the country’s economy. 

Leading the British side was Sir Archibald Campbell, born at Glen Lyon in the Scottish Highlands to an old army family, an experienced East India Company soldier who had devoted more than thirty years to the service, mainly South India and the war against the Tipu Sultan. He had also taken an active part in the Pennisular War, under the future duke of Wellington, and had firsthand knowledge of the latest in European warfare. 

A combined force of over ten thousand men soon set sail from Fort William in Bengal and Fort St. George in Madras. The initial objective was to seize the port city of Rangoon. 

At Amarapura the king’s men from their spies at Calcutta or Madras that the English were coming by sea. How should they respond? Should Bandula and the army along the Bengal border be recalled? This would lead to a collapse of the western front and the certain loss of Arakan and Assam. How big would the English force be? No one could say for sure. But the strategic choice seemed clear: either admit defeat in the west now and throw everything against the English once they landed or hope for the best and maintain a two-front strategy. The Burmese liked to hope for the best. With some luck, the English would land and be defeated, and Bandula’s army would push forward and take eastern Bengal. The key was to destroy the English force as soon as it landed, most likely at Rangoon. And to do this, the Burmese would employ tactics the English had never seen. 

Rangoon was a not particularly attractive and sometimes fishy-smelling town of about twenty thousand people, a good half day’s sail upriver from the sea, with a strong wooden wall, about eighteen feet high, which cut off the town from the river and prevented any view of the water. It occupied a small fraction of today’s Rangoon and was centered just east of where the Strand Hotel and British embassy are today. A handsome teak palace served as the home and court of the king’s governor. But there were few brick structures, other than a big customs-house and the Armenian and Portuguese churches; most of the buildings were made of wood and bamboo, giving the place a sort of ramshackle look, except for the glittering Sule Pagoda just to the west. And beyond the town walls was a scattering of villages, today all neighborhoods within Rangoon, but then separated from the main settlement by forests and gardens and grasslands crowded with tigers (especially in the area near where Prome Road is today, which was well into the nineteenth century known as Tiger Alley). A map of greater Rangoon is a little like a map of lower Manhattan, with the old town at the very bottom and rivers to the both sides. Rangoon was a commercial port. But to ordinary Burmese what was much more important was what lay sitting on a great hill just five miles north: the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s most important place of pilgrimage and the pride of Buddhists across the region. 

British military planners hoped that the Burmese court would sue for peace as soon as Rangoon was captured. They expected a fight, perhaps a tough fight, but fully expected that this second city of Burma would before long be theirs. Pehaps the ordinary people themselves, believed to be cruelly oppressed, would rise up and help. At best the king’s envoys would then open negotiations, and after some give-and-take, a peace treaty favourable to the Company would be signed. At worst the Burmese wouldn’t give in so easily. Rangoon would be used as a base. Boats and boatmen would be requisitioned, food supplies would be restocked, and the invading army would quickly make its way northward to the capital itself. The campaign would still be over in a matter of months, if not weeks. 

But the British had no plan for what actually happened. As the tall wooden ships approached the shore on 11 May, they noticed only an intermittent row of fires, apparently burning at observation posts in and around Rangon. The HMS Liffey  was the first to sail into the King’s Wharf, and soon the first Company troops landed on Burmese soil. But there was no fight. No artillery fires. No gunfire. Moreover, there were no people, soldiers or civilians. The town was entirely deserted, a ghost town. The Burmese had begun a policy of scorched earth. There would be no boats to be had or boatmen and certainly not any food. No crowds of oppressed peoples would welcome Sir Archibald or his men. 

The withdrawal must have been harsh; it was also alarmingly total, for not only were no supplies or collaboration to be found, but the British were unable even to gather any sort of intelligence.6 The native state and society had simply been rolled back like a giant carpet before the invaders, leaving nothing useful behind, not even a scrap of information. There were certainly no white flags to be seen or offers for immediate negotiations. 

There were also no boats, and boats were key to moving beyond the Rangoon area. There were few real roads, only some dusty and seldom used footpaths. Other than waterways, only malaria-infested jungle separated the villages and towns of the delta. What British planners back at Fort St. David had not known was that all the boatmen of the Irrawaddy were crown servants, organized into close-knit regiments under their own hereditary chiefs. In peacetime they made their livelihoods ferrying people and goods. But in wartime they were the king’s men, and all had disappeared without a trace. 

Over the next several days, as he conferred with his red-coated officers about next steps, Sir Archibald did his best to establish defensive positions in and around Rangoon. Against little or no resistance, the British and Indian soldiers moved north and took the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Singuttara Hill, on which it stood, as well as several nearby hamlets. But they had no idea what lay beyond the marshlands and small lakes they could see. As one officer remembered, “Neither rumour or nor intelligence of what was passing within [the enemy’s] posts ever reached us. Beyond the invisible line which circumscribed our position, all was mystery or vague conjecture.”

Unknown to Campbell, and just beyond the last Company outpost, the king’s generals had assembled a huge force of over twenty thousand men. The pullout from Rangoon complete, the Burmese had focused their energies on building fortified positions along an east-west ten-mile arc. Here and there they massed their musketeers and cannons on little hillocks and at strategic points leading away from the city. They were led by an experienced military man and a half-brother of the king’s, the prince of Dwaraddy, until then the commander of the royal garrison in the Shan hills. There were several other princes of the blood, including the future king Tharawaddy, each on his decorated elephant, and the broader aristocracy was also well represented. Among the commanders waiting for battle in the forests north of Rangoon were the lords of Zayun and Yaw and even the sawbwaof the Kanmyaing, a remote upland principality near the Chinese border. 

Thado Mingyi Min Maha, the master of the royal fleet, had come down in person at the thread of dozens of boats and over a thousand rowers. And the king had dispatched many of the remaining top echelon in his Household Guards, including the captain of the Left Brigade, Mingyi Maha Minkaung, and the distinguished cavalry general Thiri Maha Zeyya Thura. Bandula and the cream of the military corps were on the western front, but Burma was itself a martial state, and there was no shortage of men raring for a fight. The upper classes had prided themselves on a generation of relentless conquest. Only by retaking Rangoon could that pride be restored. By late May, as fierce electrical storms heralded the start of the southwest monsoon, the Burmese were more than prepared for war. 

On 28 May, with fresh reinforcements on the way from Madras, Sir Archibald Campbell ordered a few frontal assaults on some of the nearest post, all carried out after cannon fired had first weakened the Burmese line. And then a much bigger attack, by four regiments of Indian as well as European infantry, was made a couple of weeks later at Kemmendine, close to the river, where the sizable Burmese stockade was first pummeled by artillery fire from the British warships nearby. Two hundred Burmese were killed before the stockade was taken, and among the dead and dying left behind was the royal governor of a nearby province, lying close to his gilt umbrella. Soon the Burmese were forced to retreat toward Kamayut, five miles from the Shwedagon, abandoning their major fortresses. At another big battle, on 8 July, a convincing British victory left another eight hundred Burmese causalities on the battlefield, including one of the king’s chief ministers and other senior officials of the court. Behind the front lines Burmese villages were crowded with wounded soldiers. 

Despite these initial successes, the picture was rapidly turning grim for the British, as they like the Manchu armies of the 1760s, encountered their most deadly foe in Burma, disease. The soldiers, living and sleeping in soaking rain, with little fresh food, quickly succumbed by the thousands to malaria, dysentery, and other tropical illnesses. By September sickness had decimated Campbells’ force, and it was only with difficulty that they were able to resist a spirited midnight Burmese attack on their main positions around Singuttara Hill. Luckily, this was around the same time that the Company managed to seize the Burmese provinces of Tavoy and Mergui along the Tenasserim coastline, and these places, with their nice beachfront towns and cool evening breezes, became important convalescent stations for the growing numbers of British sick. 

The Burmese side had also received reinforcements as jittery Court of Ava began to realize the full gravity of the situation. The armies in Cachar and Jaintia were immediately pulled back, and Bandula himself was ordered to wheel his forces around and return home. Even in good weather, moving tens of thousands of men over the Arakan hills, with peaks more than three thousand feet high, heavily forested and with only narrow footpaths, open to attack by tigers and leopards, would be difficult, but to do this at the height of the drenching rains, through clouds of flying insects, was no easy task. And yet Bandula and his deputy, Uzana, in a testament to their generalship and logistical skill, managed to do just that and were soon rewarded by a grateful king with impressive promotions. Both were granted the title Agga Maha The’napati Wungyi, the highest possible military rank. Others who had survived the recent slaughter were also decorated and promoted. Bandula was made myozaof Sittang. The king was nervous, and he had reason to be. Unknown to him, not only were fresh Indian and European battalions arriving from Madras, but also an entirely new military weapon, never before used on the battlefield. 

The modern war rocket started its life not in the West, as one might expect, but in India. In 1799, as the British laid siege to Seringapatam, Colonel Arthur Wellesley (the future duke of Wellington) advanced with his men toward a small hill nearby, only to be attacked by a tremendous barrage of rocket fire and forced to flee in complete disarray. When the fortress finally fell, among the enormous loot sent away to England were two specimens of Mysorean rockets. 

Rockets were of course long familiar to Europeans, but these were different. The technology was much advanced, using iron instead of wooden tubes, and this allowed for much greater range, stability and explosive power. Most important, the rockets had no recoil, meaning that they could be fired from ships. Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali, had a rocket corps of twelve hundred men. Tipu Sultan himself had over five thousand. Three or four rockets were sometimes placed on a single cart, acting as a sort of launchpad, and the resulting flash and noise when fired en masse often had a devastating effect on both the enemy’s men and war animals. The British were much impressed. A vigorous research and development program followed at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal. The resulting weapons, a new and improved version of the South Indian prototype, were known as the Congreve rocket after their designer. 

In 1807, as part of an assault on the Danish fleet, the British were able to fire forty thousand of these Congreve rockets at hapless Copenhagen, setting off big fires and causing panic throughout the city. By 1812 they formed an important part of the British attack on Washington when the White House was burned to the ground. 

In November 1824, just as Bandula was heading south with the main Burmese army, the first shipment of Congreve rockets were unloaded at Rangoon. 

Read part 2 here

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