Lost Footsteps
Lost Footsteps

British Burma (1826-1942)

Myanmar’s first modern migrant workers - Cheroot Ladies

This is a photograph of some of the country's first modern migrant workers - the "cheroot ladies" who were brought to Penang in the 1890s to work at a Chinese-owned cigar factory. Many ethnic Burmese in Penang are descended from these ladies.

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Never on Sunday

A famous tourist attraction at 6 Barr Street (now Maha Bandoola Garden St). The owner was an old Yorkshireman, Mr J. Whitfield Hirst, who had settled in Rangoon in the 1880s. He was well known for never bargaining and never compromising. When the Prince of Wales (on an official visit in 1906) sent word on a Sunday that he wanted to come by, Mr Whitfield Hirst refused, sending this message back: "My compliments to the Prince of Wales, but tell...

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the Rev. Theodore Thanbya (1842-1920)

A photograph of the Rev. Theodore Thanbya (1842-1920) one of the very first students from anywhere in Asia to study in America. He attended Rochester University from 1868-1871, mastering Greek and Latin, and even delivered his class's senior oration at graduation ("The Contest for Commercial Supremacy in Asia"). He would go on to live a long and fruitful life in Kemmendine, Rangoon as a leader of the Karen community and the Baptist church in Burma.

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The descent of Genghis Khan secretly buried in Rangoon

On 7 November 1862, the last Emperor of India, the last of the Great Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, direct descendent of Timurlane and heir to Genghis Khan, died aged 87, heart-broken and a British prisoner in Rangoon, and was buried at an unmarked grave just south of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Mughal empire was one of the greatest the world had ever known. At it's peak around 1700 the empire stretched from what is today Uzbekistan through Afghanistan and included...

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The origin of today’s Myanmar men’s outfit

There's sometimes a misconception that today's Myanmar men's outfit is a very old one, when it's only less than a hundred years old. It was only in the early 20th century when the traditional paso began to be replaced with the much simpler India-derived longyi and men began to wear English collarless shirts together with a Manchu "Ma Gua" or 馬褂 riding jacket. The fur lined Manchu "Ma Gua" (馬褂, literally "horse-jacket" for riding) jacket is a precursor of today's...

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The Lim Chin Tsong Palace

The Lim Chin Tsong Palace c. 1920 at the corner of Kokine and Victoria Roads (now Kaba Aye Pagoda Road and University Avenue). Lim Chin Tsong (1867-1923) was a very successful Sino-Burmese businessman, born in Amoy, educated at St Paul's, owner of the Rangoon Turf Club, and Member of the Burma Legislative Council. In 1918 he built this lavish residence in a peculiar mix of Western and Chinese styles for a whopping 22 lakh kyats (rupees). The murals inside were...

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Dr San C. Po, the leading Karen political leader of his time

Dr San C. Po, the leading Karen political leader of his time was born near Bassein (Pathein) on 4 October 1870. He travelled to the US at age 14, eventually studying medicine at Albany (and becoming, I think the first "Burmese-American", before returning to Burma and later renoucing his US citizenship to enter Burmese politics).He was a medical doctor and writer, as well as a politician and Karen nationalist, serving for many years in the Legislative Council. He was knighted...

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Sir Joseph Augustus Maung Gyi (1871- 1955)

In 1930, Sir Joseph Augustus Maung Gyi was appointed (Acting) Governor of Burma by the then Viceroy the Earl of Halifax. He was the only Burmese to ever serve as Governor of British Burma. He was born in Moulmein and was, I believe, an ethnic Mon by descent. He was 'acting' governor during the tenure of Sir Charles Innes, who was away for several months in 1930-1 on sick leave in the UK. He has the misfortune of being governor...

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A Karen in America 1878

Moung Edwin was one of the very first Burmese students in the United States.  He was also one of the earliest foreign students from any country in America.   He was born in 1849.  His father was U Shway Bo, the first Pwo Karen pastor in Burma.  After arriving in the US in 1875 he first attended the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.  This was the same seminary that Martin Luther King Jr would attend 75 years later.  He then...

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President Grant’s visit to Rangoon

On 20 March 1879, Ulysses Grant, former US President and commander of Union armies during the Civil War arrived in Rangoon for a short visit. He was on a round-the-world tour following his retirement as president in 1877. President Grant and his family were entertained at Government House (now destroyed), where he and then Chief Commissioner HT White discussed the possibility of a future "Anglo-Saxon League" to "impose peace on the world". President Grant found Burma to be a much...

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The life of U Chit Hlaing

U Chit Hlaing (1879-1951), barrister and national leader, was once the towering figure in Burmese politics, attracting enormous crowds, known as the "Uncrowned King of Burma", before losing influence to a younger generation of politicians in the 1930s. This is a portrait of him taken in 1931 in London where he was attending the Burma Roundtable Conference chaired by Lord Peel.

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The Burmese dwarf "Smaun Sing Hpoo"

The Burmese dwarf "Smaun Sing Hpoo", "the smallest most perfectly formed man in the world", standing at 2 feet 10 inches and weighing 18 pounds, and an expert gymnast. He and his sister (also a dwarf) were born in British Burma around 1880 and first toured Europe before arriving in New York in 1905. They performed at Hammerstein's Victoria Theater on 42nd Street (owned by the father of Oscar Hammerstein Jr, the famous Broadway producer), to mixed reviews. The sister...

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A British firing squad executes Burmese 'rebels' outside the walls of Mandalay.

The Third Anglo-Burmese War had lasted only two weeks, leading to King Thibaw's surrender in November 1885. But the real fighting was only just beginning and would last nearly 5 years. There was no single resistance against the new occupation, but many different groups, led by Konbaung princes, various myoza and myothugyi, Shan chiefs, and others. The British invaded Upper Burma and won the Third War with 10,000 men. But 40,000 were required for the 'Pacification' of 1886-7. Thousands of...

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Proposed railway connecting Rangoon to Bangkok in 1886

Until the building of the Burma Road in the late 1930s, there was really no proper overland connection between Burma and either India, China, or Siam (Thailand). The railway to Bangkok was of course never built. Modern infrastructure in British Burma was focused almost solely on the export of rice, oil, and logs from the port of Rangoon. The rest of the economy was barely developed.

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Mandalay 1888: An Englishman discovers Thingyan

(From the Illustrated London News, April 1888) For anyone wondering why "New Year" is celebrated in mid-April: 1. "Thingyan" (spelled "Saṁkran" in Burmese) is derived from the Sanskrit "Saṁkrānti". It is the same word as "Songkran" in Thai. 2. "Saṁkrānti" means the day the sun moves from one "rashi" or constellation of the zodiac to another. There are actually 12 "thingyans" in a year! 3. The "new year" marks the movement of the sun from the last constellation (Pisces or...

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The Burmese "dacoit' leader Maung Hmone who surrendered to the British in 1889

The drawing is from an 1889 issue of the Illustrated London News. (It seems also started wearing English clothes.) 1889 was more or less the last year of the bloody "Pacification" of Upper Burma by the new British occupying power. 40,000 British and Indian soldiers had been deployed to crush the multi-headed, at times chaotic, and often fierce resistance. Tens of thousands of Burmese lost their lives as a result of the fighting, forced displacement and the resulting near famine...

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U Tin Tut, one of the most important figures in modern Burmese history

U Tin Tut, one of the most important figures in modern Burmese history, was born on 1 February 1895. He was educated at Dulwich and Queen’s College Cambridge. A star rugby player (he captained his college team), he was after Cambridge called to the English bar and became as well a King’s Commissioned officer in the (British) Indian army. He was also the very first Burmese to join the hallowed ranks of the elite Indian Civil Service.Over the 1920s and...

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George Orwell's favourite bookshop in Rangoon

“Oh the joy of those Rangoon trips. The visit to Smart & Mookderdum's bookshop for the new novels out from England..." - George OrwellA very special place: the old Smart & Mookderdum bookshop on Sule Pagoda Road. It was the city's preeminent English-language bookshop and a favourite of George Orwell (Eric Blair) as well as several generations of Burmese including U Aung San, U Thant, and U Nu. Smart & Mookerdum was first established in 1897 in the Sofaer building...

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People in Mandalay being 'vaccinated' against the plague by a British physician in the early 1900s.

A bubonic plague pandemic killed more than 15 million people around the world (mainly in India and China) in the early 1900s. It originated in Yunnan and killed thousands in Rangoon and Mandalay between 1905-6. My great-grandfather, U Maung Maung Gyi of Mandalay was one of those who died from the plague in 1906. He was then in his 40s. I recently found this photograph of people in Mandalay been 'vaccinated' against the plague by a British physician. The 'vaccination'...

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A mysterious Burmese prince?

The photograph is from the (UK) National Portrait Gallery. Only a handful of Burmese have ever had their portraits there. He is listed as "Prince Maung Maung Gyi" a great-grandson of King Mindon. Elsewhere, he is listed as a grandson of Thibaw (which is impossible). His father is listed as "Prince Maung Maung U", but the name of his grandfather (Mindon's son) is listed as "unknown". He was born in 1902 and in 1922 seems to have been embroiled in...

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Shan Chiefs at 1903 Delhi Durbar

The 1903 Delhi Durbar marked the accession of King Edward and Queen Alexandra as the Emperor and Empress of India and was presided by the then Viceroy Lord Curzon and attended by hundreds of Indian princes. The Saophas of Mongpawn and Yawnghwe are to the left. The Saopha of Mongpawn, Hkun Ti had been a prime mover behind the Limbin Confederacy (which had rebelled against King Thibaw). He was the father of Sao Sam Htun (Counselor for the Frontier Areas,...

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The legendary Gertrude Bell spent a couple of weeks in Burma in early 1903.

Gertrude Bell, the near legendary British adventurer, archeologist, administrator, and spy (apparently to be played by Angelina Jolie in an upcoming Ridley Scott bio-pic) - spent a couple of weeks in Burma in early 1903. Very little survives from the trip except a few letters home and this photograph, of a "Burmese girl", taken by Gertrude Bell herself.

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Yenangyaung, home to one of the world's oldest oil industries

The photograph is of Americans getting ready to play baseball, Yenangyaung, 1905. Yenangyaung is home to one of the world's oldest oil industries. The hereditary Twinza-yo of Yenangyaung had produced earth oil locally for centuries. In 1853 King Mindon's new government began to export petroleum to India, becoming one of the first countries anywhere to export energy. The Glasgow headquartered Burmah Oil Company became the dominant oil company in Burma under British rule. It's subsidiary, Anglo-Persian Oil later became British...

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Colonial propaganda?

An English doctor examining a Burmese plague victim in Mandalay c. 1910.

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Shan Chiefs at 1911 Delhi Durbar

Shan chiefs and other notables were at the Delhi Coronation Durbar of King George V and Queen Mary as the Emperor and Empress of India. The Durbar was one of the grandest spectacles ever of its kind anywhere in the world and was attended by every ruling prince and nobleman in India. This may have been the last event where the Burmese dressed in proper court attire. Those who came from Burma included the Sawbwas of Yawnghwe, Hsenwi, Kentung, and...

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Easter Rising

24 April 1916 is the anniversary of the Easter Rising. Though the uprising failed, the Easter Rising in Dublinin 1916had a profound effect on the whole of the British Empire, not least on Burma, then a province of India. 1916 was a turning point in Burma's history: King Thibaw died that year, sealing the fate of the Konbaung monarchy and the royal establishment that had ruled the country for generations.At the same time, modern nationalist politics was born, inspired by...

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Burmese who fought in World War One

11 November marks the anniversary of the end of the Great War (World War One).  The role of people from Burma in the war is largely forgotten.    Thousands of Burmese volunteered to serve in Mesopotamia as drivers, sappers, and part of the labour corps.  Chin volunteers served as part of the labour corps on the Western Front (in France). The 70th Burma Rifles and the 85th Burman Rifles were raised in 1917-1918 and saw action against the Ottoman Empire in...

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Demonstration against Imperial Germany

A demonstration against Imperial Germany in front of the Central Fire Station (Sule Pagoda Road), with Kaiser Wilhelm hanging in effigy. This was probably in the months just before Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication in November 1918. A regiment of Burma Rifles, several companies of Sappers and Miners, Mechanical Transport companies, and Labour Corps from Burma served during WW1 in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and France. The troops recruited from Burma were primarily ethnic Burmese, Kachin, Karen, and Chin.

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