Lost Footsteps
Lost Footsteps
The First Anglo-Burmese War (Part 2)
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November 1824 - 24 February 1826

The First Anglo-Burmese War (Part 2)

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Read part 1 here

 
The arrival of Bandula and the armies from Arakan and Assam must have cheered the demoralized Rangoon front line. Bandula immediately prepared for confrontation. To the east, at Pazundaung, he placed the governor of Myolat with three thousand men. To the north he placed his brother Mindin Minkaung with another three thousand. To the west he placed a captain of the royal guards, Mingyi Maha Minhla Zeyyathu, with four thousand, and in the forests just in front of Singuttara Hill, where Sir Archibald Campbell was encamped, he sent Mingyi Maha Minhla Raza, a minister of state, with a fourth brigade of four thousand.

With Bandula the tactics of the Burmese army changed. Rather than fighting defensively, he believed he could take the British head on and win. He convinced the court that this was possible, and in turn the court gave him everything it could in the way of supplies to support him. At Ava he was able to mobilize men who were otherwise reluctant to fight. The British was impressed and believed that actually a much larger force, estimated at sixty thousand, including seven hundred Cassay Horse and thirty-five thousand musketeers, were now arrayed against them. They later remembered that the “spearman” were of great physical strength,” and Sir Archibald himself wrote: “If I may trust the information I receive… I may conclude that the united strength of the Burmhan empire is now collecting on the front… The Bandoola, all prisoners say, has arrived in Donoobew, with unlimited powers and is to make a general attack on our positions early in the ensuing moon.”

Bandula had established his rear base at Danubyu, and on 30 November his armies quietly assembled in the forests and open fields north of the enemy’s positions. All day the British could hear the blows of axes and the crash of trees. The next morning the Burmese let loose their best artillery, and under the fire of their musketeers, they attacked, only to be repulsed in hand-to-hand fighting around the Shwedagon Pagoda. At midday, four Burmese regiments, led by their captains on horseback, moved from the southwest across Dalla toward Rangoon. To the northwest of the city the Burmese closed in toward the Shwedagon while the main force stood just to the north, near what is now Inya Lake. By the early afternoon the British found themselves entirely surrounded.

What happened next took the British by surprise. The Burmese began digging trenches as “the whole line disappeared beneath the earth.” Less than a hundred years later the British would themselves employ the same tactics on the fields of northern France, but for now this was a novel thing and not well understood:

“The moving masses, which had so very lately attracted our anxious attention, had sunk into the ground; and any one who had not witnessed the whole scene, the existence of these subterranean legions would not have been credited: the occasional movement of a chief, with his gilt chattah (umbrella), from place to place, superintending the progress of their labour, was the only thing that now attracted notice. By a distant observer, the hills, covered with mounds of earth, would have been taken for anything rather than the approaches of an attacking army; but to us who had watched the whole strange proceeding, it seemed the work of magic or enchantment.”

Over the next several days the Burmese moved forward as best they could, digging themselves in, trying to get within firing range of the two main British position – on Singuttara Hill and at Rangoon town itself. Every step of the way the British blocked their way, and in dozens of clashes each side wore the other down, until by 7 December Campbell’s troops, often supported by intense rocket fire, had begun to gain the upper hand. Hundreds of Burmese dead lay on the battlefields. Bandula and his strategy had been defeated, and Sir Archibald followed up with an offensive on 15 December that drove the Burmese from the last remaining stronghold along the river at Kokine.

Bandula now fell back on his rear base at Danubyu, a small town not far to the west of Rangoon, in the Irrawaddy Delta. The king sent down his remaining guards officers, and all the south was mobilized under the governor of Bassein. Added to this a special levy, commanded by the prince of Dwarawaddy, was dispatched from the Shan hills and hundreds of new boatmen were mustered. There were about ten thousand troops in all, of mixed quality, including some of the king’s best fighting men but also many untrained and barely armed conscripts. The stockade itself stretched a mile along the riverbank and was made up of solid teak beams no less than fifteen feet high. Behind the stockade were brick ramparts from the old town wall, and a complex mix of ditches and spikes was laid out against attack. 

When the British about four thousand strong, arrived nearby, a messenger was first sent with a call to surrender. Bandula replied: “We are each fighting for his country, and you will find me as steady in defending mine, as you in maintaining the honour of yours. If you wish to see Donabew come as friends and I will shew (sic) it to you. If you come as enemies, Land!”

The first British attack failed, and Bandula attempted a countercharge, with foot soldiers, cavalry, and seventeen fighting elephants. But it was no good. The elephants were stopped by a hail of rockets and the cavalry found it impossible to move against the sustained fire of British artillery. Hundreds more lay dead. On the river itself the British steamer routed the war boats sent against it.

Bandula was growing anxious. Around this time two Burmese soldiers, after their officers had been shot down by a rocket, abandoned their post. Bandula led them back to the spot and, standing exactly where the rockets had landed, instantly severed their heads. He knew the end was coming. On 31 March he met with all his war chiefs and decided to push one last time, knowing full well the likely result and unable, to the end, to consider different tactics. That night he sent a letter to Campbell on a dirty canvas: “In war we find each other’s force; the two countries are at war for nothing, and we know not each other’s minds!”

The next morning the British let loose their forces, pounding down on the town with their heavy guns and raining their rockets on every part of the Burmese line. At first there was no response. And then a small group of Burmese stragglers emerged with the news that Danubyu had been evacuated. Bandula had been killed by a mortar shell, and the Burmese forces had evacuated shortly afterward, first to Prome and then farther upriver. Bandula had walked around the fort to boost the morale of his men, in his full insignia under a glittering golden umbrella, unwilling to heed the warnings of his generals that he would prove an easy target for the enemy’s guns.

The Burmese remember Bandula’s last words in this way:

“We may lose this battle. This is our destiny. We fight our best and we pay our lives. However, I cannot suffer indignity and disgrace for losing the battle for the lack of courage and fighting prowess. Let them realize that the Burmese lost the battle because of the loss of their Supreme Commander. This will prove to be an everlasting example of the Burmese fighting spirit and enhance the honor and glory of our nation and the people amongst the neighbouring states.”

For the British the prizes of battle included a pair of Bandula’s Rajastani armored boots, which were taken by Campbell and today are showcased in London’s Royal Armouries.

Storm clouds turned the intense heat of recent weeks into a steady downpour of rain. For five months, the British rested at Prome. The Company’s forces now totaled around five thousand, including three thousand European troops and a troop of dragoons and artillery.

Some at Ava, including the prince of Tharawaddy, advised the king to open negotiations. A military man who had been by Bandula’s side at Rangoon, Tharawaddy had witnessed firsthand the enemy’s superiority in battle. Others argued that the kingdom’s strength was far from spent and that victory could still be theirs. But there was no apparent discussion of an alternative strategy, only an attempt to mobilize more men and meet the British again in the open field or behind a well-fortified stockade. For all his present and future fame, Bandula had not been able to imagine the use of guerilla tactics or any innovative strategy whatsoever.

Later in the summer Sir Archibald Campbell received instructions to contact the Burmese government and begin peace talks. He immediately received a reply, and a temporary armistice was arranged for one month beginning 17 September. The two sides then met halfway between British-held Prome and the Burmese lines at Myeday. The Burmese delegation included both ministers of the Council of State and Bandula’s senior lieutenants from Arakan, and all were said to have “heartily enjoyed” the lunch of cooked ham and claret that Campbell had prepared. The British then presented their terms: the government of Burma recognize the “independence of Manipur” and “desist form interference with Assam and Cachar,” “cede Arakan and its dependencies,” receive a British Resident at the Court of Ava, and pay two crores of rupees as an indemnity. Rangoon, Martaban and the Tenasserim, all now in British hands, would be held until the indemnity was paid.

These were conditions the Burmese were not prepared to accept. They first played for time and then said:

“If you sincerely want peace, and our former friendship reestablished; according to Burmah custom, empty your hands of what you have, and then, if you ask it, we will be on friendly terms with you… however, after the termination of the armistice between us, if you shoew any inclination to renew your demands for money for your expenses, or any territory from us, you are to consider our friendship at an end.”

But the Burmese really had little chohice. They were not willing or able to think of a new strategy and had little at hand that could really stanch the British advace. All they could do, they reckoned, was throw thousands more ill-trained and ill-equipped men at the front lines, pause for new negotiations, and try again. The king and court had been annoyed by the proposed terms. Perhaps they expected much lighter conditions than the full dismemberment of their western empire and the crushing financial penalty demanded. They described to the British their treaty with China in the 1770s, forgetting to add that this had been a treaty agreed to after a run of Burmese victories rather than after as many unqualified defeats.

In later talks, the Burmese envoy, the lord of Kawlin, said that the royal treasury had been depleted by the war and the court was in no position to pay the indemnity. He said his government would be willing to give up any claim to Assam and Manipur but that it objected to the British choice for a future Manipuri raja. He said the Burmese were even willing to cede the Tenasserim coastline but not Arakan. Arakan was special and should now be an integral part of the Burmese kingdom. The British were unimpressed: “The question is not how much you will cede to us, but how much we shall return to you.”

There were a few more moments of determined resistance. In November, forces under Maha Naymyo had threatened Prome in a daring circular movement that had almost surrounded the town and cut off communications lines to Rangoon. The British noted the “great boldness” of the troops arrayed against them as well as their “well-directed and destructive” artillery fire. Much of the new army was drawn from the Shan hills, and the Shans were led by their own sawbwas. Several were gray-haired old chieftains, men from the China borderlands, and they died with their swords in their hands, sometimes in close combat. Sir Archibald’s men even found themselves attacked by three “young and handsome” Shan women, who rode on horseback, encouraging their compatriots and leading them into battle.

But the British won this and other engagements. Over the next many weeks the Burmese suffered thousands more casualties under the withering fire of British guns and missiles. The commander himself, Maha Naymyo, died in early December as Campbell’s forces went on the offensive and attacked every part of the Burmese line. The Burmese had one hope left, the huge teak war boats, over a hundred feet long, each with up to sixty oarsmen and thirty musketeers and fitted with six- or twelve-pounder guns. They readied all the boats they had and hoped, as a final gamble, that the effect of these boats would win them better conditions.

In 1823, the British had built a new ship, the Diana, at the Indian port of Kidderpore, the first steam engine and a few small cannons and rockets. She could navigate up the rivers faster than a rowed boat, and she could tow a line of boats carrying troops or supplies. She sped up the Irrawaddy just in time. When the giant war boats attacked her, she simply steamed away from them until their rowers were exhausted. Then she could steam up to them one by one and sink them with her small cannons, drowning their crew chased and destroyed larger war boats or even fleets of war boats and sank them all with virtually no damage to the Diana. The king’s navy was gone. Virtually nothing was left.

Two prisoners of the Burmese king, one English and one American, were released and sent as envoys to the British camp. They were told that the terms still held good. But the king objected to the money payments, and yet another levy was raised and placed under Minkyaw Zeya Thura. This new army had no chance. It was made up almost entirely of peasant conscripts, armed with little more than their own personal swords and with no real fighting experience, officered not by experienced army men, all of whom were now dead or wounded, but by courtiers and palace staff. All that was left was brought together and marshaled under the shadow of Lokananda (“the Joy of the World”) Pagoda near Pagan for a final and desperate defense, but it was no good, and this army of last resort was soon swept away.

A confident Sir Archibald Campbell advanced on to Yandabo, four days’ march from Ava. There he was met by the same two Anglo-American envoys together with two Burmese ministers and all the British prisoners. The Burmese were authorized to sign a treaty meeting all British demands. The delegation then and there paid twenty-five lakhs of rupees in gold and silver bullions as the first installment of the indemnity.

Under the Treaty of Yandabo, the Court of Ava agreed to cease interference in the affairs of Jaintia, Cachar, and Assam and to cede to the British their provinces of Manipur, Arakan and the Tenassarim. They also agreed to allow for an exchange of diplomatic representatives between Amarapura and Calcutta and to pay an indemnity, in installment, of ten million rupees or one million pounds sterling (then about 5 million U.S. dollars), an incredible sum for the time. The British would withdraw to Rangoon after the payment of the first installment and from Rangoon after the second. The Burmese Empire, for a brief moment the terror of Calcutta, was effectively undone, crippled and no longer a threat to the eastern frontier of British India. Success would bring Campbell fame and fortune and a governorship at New Brunswich in Canada. For the Burmese it was to be the very beginning of the end of their independence.

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