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The Founding of Rangoon
A History of Rangoon
by B.R. Pearn, published 1939
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A History of Rangoon
by B.R. Pearn, published 1939
to search this page press ctrl. f
...But at other seasons of the year than the great festivals, Dagon remained a quiet, half-deserted spot, disturbed by none of the bustle which enlivened the commercial city of Syriam across the water, a place of which a writer of 1759 can find no more to say than that it was "a very noted Pagoda."
Towards the middle of the eighteenth century there as a revival of Mon nationalism in the Delta. When in 1740 it was learned that the King of Ava, Mahadammayaza-Dipati, was besieged in his own capital by invaders from Manipur, the Burmese Governor of Pegu, Tha Aung by name, proclaimed himself King, he “put to death the State Secretary, the two Lieutenant-General’s and the Governor of the prison and made himself King in Pegu. This ruler was very harsh and cruel and reigned only a month and a half.” He was murdered by his officers and the King then sent his own uncle, who established a new Governor who would be faithful to his allegiance, but this Governor “was very avaricious. He took bribes in gold and silver and in coin and made great distress for the people. He ruled but four months and twenty days.” The weakness of the King’s power and the misgovernment of his officers encouraged a revolt and the Mons, rising in rebellion, completely overthrew the Royal administration. The son of a former rebel Myosa of Pagan who had fled into the Karen country in 1714 when Taninganwe, his nephew, became King, was set up as King of Pegu under the name of Smim Htaw Buddhaketi.
There was little resistance from the Burmese, indeed, for some years the Mons were able to carry out raids on Upper Burma. But Smim Htaw Buddhaketi was not the type to lead his people in wars and in 1747 he abandoned the throne which was held for eighteen days by a monk, Nai Caran Khuin, who was then replaced by a Mon Lord, Binnya Dala, who had formerly served the Burmese King as Master of the Elephant Stables at Pegu and was Smim Htaw Buddhaketi’s father-in-law. The Mons under his leadership continued their raids on Ava which in 1752 they sacked and burnt.
It was at this point that the great Alaungpaya rose to prominence as leader of the Burmans and began to re-establish the Burmese power. Having defeated the Mons in Upper Burma, he pursued them southwards and in February 1755 entered Prome. By May of the same year he had entered Dagon. His conquests were marked by great cruelty which spared neither age nor sex: “His Majesty Aungzeya was of a very fierce and cruel disposition and made no account at all of life. He put to death many monks and their iron alms-bowls and silk robes were taken away and the homespun robes were made into foot mats. Of some they made pillows, of some they made belts and of some they made sails. The monks’ robes were scattered all over the land and water.” It is also said that when he took Pegu he found more than three thousand monks in the place and that he had them all put to death.
It would appear that Dagon escaped the worst of these disasters, no attempt was made by the Mons to hold the town ..... The Mons were better equipped than the Burmans in arms and ammunition and had the further advantage of enjoying the assistance of the French establishment there (Syriam) which was under the command of the Sr. Bruno. Alaungpaya’s obvious course was to seek the assistance of the rivals of the French, the English, who were now established at Negrais and had almost deserted Syriam and as early as March he had approached the head of the factory at Negrais, but his proposal was without effect, for the policy of the East India Company was to maintain strict neutrality in the contest, since their commitments in India were too great to allow of further liabilities elsewhere.
After occupying Dagon Alaungpaya received a visit from Bruno, who professed a desire to congratulate him on his conquests, but the King realised that no sincere assistance could be looked for from that quarter and in June, a month or so after entering Dagon, he despatched a second mission to Negrais bearing various presents and since it seemed evident that the Burmans were the winning side, the English sent two officers to him with a present of, among other items, a twelve-pounder gun, three nine-pounders, eight shot and four chests of powder.
Meanwhile, Alaungpaya had persuaded the English shipwright, who was almost the only Englishman still resident at Syriam, to come to Dagon and with him came four English ships that happened to be in the port. The English had suffered much at Syriam from the Francophile propensities of the Mons and were doubtless glad to place themselves under the protection of the Burmans, so much so, that Alaungpaya appears to have received overt assistance from them, for when in May, a week or two after the King’s arrival in Dagon, the Mons crossed the Pegu river and established a stockade at Tamwe to the north-east of the town, Alaungpaya had the aid of “Indian soldiers” from the four ships in expelling the Mon force. At the beginning of June another English vessel, the Arcot appeared in the river in need of repairs and the shipwright, Stringfellow by name, sent a message urging Capt. Robert Jackson, to come to Dagon where the King would give every possible assistance. On the sixth June, the Arcot anchored off Dagon.
Alaungpaya was at once visited by a Company’s officer, John Whitehill, who happened to be on board, Whitehill gave him a present of a fowling-piece and two bottles of rosewater, the King extended to him a courteous reception, promised the needed assistance of carpenters and caulkers and also agreed to send river boats to Negrais with letters. But Alaungpaya wanted a quid pro quo, the Mons had the aid of the French vessels that were in the port of Syriam and under their protection might come up the river and attack Dagon, he therefore needed guns. So the following day he invited all the Englishmen of the various ships to come shore and in their absence sent men to demand all the guns, small arms and ammunition that the Arcot carried as well as a statement of her cargo. Jackson, who had not gone ashore, replied that this demand was contrary to established usage and that rather than comply he would go to Syriam. The day after, the Burmans came and threatened to take the guns by force, but Jackson prepared to resist and made his ship ready to sail.
Alaungpaya, having no desire to see his enemies strengthened by the accession of the English vessel, sent his son to explain that the demand was made under the apprehension that it was the custom at Syriam to land all arms but that if it was not the custom the demand would not be persisted in. Nevertheless, the Burmans managed to get possession of all the arms and ammunition of the country vessel Elizabeth that had come up from Syriam before the Arcot arrived.
Alaungpaya was no doubt disappointed, but he could not afford to alienate the English at the moment, especially as the Negrais staff seemed well-disposed and sent him at this juncture a dozen muskets and some powder as a foretaste of the heavy guns which were to come later. Moreover, it was not possible for him to stay at Dagon any longer, a son of Mahadammayaza-Dipati had effected a rising in Upper Burma and Alaungpaya left Dagon towards the end of June to secure his authority in the north. The rains had begun and perhaps he hoped that weather conditions would prevent much activity during his absence. He had taken measures for the safety of Dagon, a new town had already been planned and a moat and fortified gateways had been projected, while a large force was left to hold the town under Zeyananda who had been appointed Wun or Governor, further, Alaungpaya ordered the people of villages which he passed to prepare boats against his return, “having appointed about 15,000 men to maintain the Post at Dagon......"
The Mons took advantage of his departure to made several attacks. Like Alaungpaya, they realised the effect of the English ships might have on the fortunes of the day and even before Alaungpaya departed they had sent a letter to Jackson stating that an attack on Dagon was impending and asking the English not to fire on their boats and at the same time offered Jackson a friendly welcome at Syriam. Jackson, who was disgusted because the help in repairing his ship which Alaungpaya had promised had not in fact been forthcoming, was inclined to listen to such suggestions, the more so as Alaungpaya’s departure seemed to promise success for the Mons. So he replied that he would not oppose the Mon forces and that he would come down to Syriam at the first opportunity.
A few days afterwards the Mons attempted a surprise attack, their boats coming up the river with the night tide while another force crossed the Pegu river and advanced by land. The boats, however, were repulsed by the fire of the Burmans who lined the bank of the river, while the land force, finding that the Burmans post on the Pagoda Hill could be carried only by assault and disheartened by the failure of the attack from the river, made only a feeble attempt and after sporadic firing had gone on through the night and most of the morning, the Mons withdrew. By noon the attack was over.
During this affair the English remained strictly neutral but the Burmans suspected them for that very reason of favouring the enemy since Alaungpaya seems to have extracted from them some sort of promise that they would aid his men in the event of an attack The Burmans were not far wrong in their surmise, a week later another message came from the Mons announcing a further attack and to this Jackson and the other English officers replied that if the Mons would aid them to escape from Dagon they would give active assistance in the fight.
They at the same time gave the Mons information about the strength of the Burmans, which consisted of eight river-boats, of which nine were armed with guns, a Dutch Brigantine which they had commandeered and manned with their own men and two guns mounted on shore. The Burmans, however, became aware of these conversations and demanded a definite assurance that if the Mons attacked the place the English would resist them. The English replied that without express orders from the Company they must remain neutral, but that if the Mons attacked them they would assist the Burmans. The latter were far from being satisfied with this and kept a strong guard of boats around the Arcot for several days.
Meanwhile, the Mons, assured of the assistance of the English ships which, they hoped, would give certain victory, prepared for battle and early one morning the Mon flotilla of two hundred boats and one xxxx, headed by two French vessels, could be seen down the river. They had dropped down the Pegu river with the tide overnight and lay at the junction of that river with the Hlaing river, waiting for the turn of the tide to carry them to Dagon. As soon as daylight enabled the enemy to be seen, the Burmese commander sent an urgent message to Jackson demanding his support, but, in the words of Jackson “very little notice was taken of this application.”
Owing to the time of the tide, it was two o’clock in the afternoon before the flotilla arrived off the town. The French ships anchored and opened fire with their cannon while the Mon musketeers commenced firing at the Burmese boats. The Burmese had withdrawn their boats into a creek, probably the old creek running up to the Sule Pagoda, where they hoped to be protected by a small battery consisting no doubt of the two guns mounted on shore, the existence of which had been reported to the Mons, these guns had been placed behind hastily constructed works in a mango grove by the river bank. As soon as the firing commenced, the English ships also began bombarding the Burmese position and unable to withstand the combined force of the enemy artillery, the Burmese were compelled to abandon their boats and take shelter among the mango trees. There they put up a determined resistance and though their cannon were not well managed, nevertheless they managed to do some execution with their musketry, two Mons killed on board the Arcot.
It appeared to the French and English that if the Mons had gone in-shore they could have taken all the Burmese boats, but they were afraid to face the Burmese musketry at close quarters and despite the persuasions of Europeans they remained out in the stream. Firing went on until nightfall and after dark the English ships moved farther out into the stream, to be out of range of the Burmese muskets. The bombardment went on for seven days and then having exhausted their ammunition and achieved nothing, the Mons withdrew. The attack had been ill-managed, no diversion was made by any land force and the Mons refused to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. Thus their seven-day attack left the Burmese still in possession of their fortification.
When the Mons returned to Syriam, the English ships went with them. Jackson, who had apparently gone to Syriam after the first day’s fighting, afterwards explained his conduct in preferring the Mons at Syriam to the Burmese at Dagon on the grounds that he was sick with dysentery and needed medical attention from the doctor attached to the French factory “there everything was to be got for his assistance, at Dagoon nothing, nor had they seen a fowl since they had been there and no water but what was very bad, which had thrown him into a bloody flux and a strong fever.” For the time being Dagon was safe but its position was precarious, for now the Mons were reinforced by the English ships as well as the French.
The King was greatly angered by the conduct of the English in assisting his enemies, when the mission from Negrais bringing the cannon reached him at Shwebo in September, he expressed his wrath “Your ships that were at Dagon with Mr Whitehill, I treated with kindness,” he said, “and supplied them with what they wanted and at my leaving that place, to come here to keep our fast, desired him that, in case it should be required in my absence, or an emergency, to assist my people, or at least not to join the Peguers against them, which though he promised to observe, yet was the first that fired on them.” This episode implanted in his mind a suspicion of the English which was never eradicated and which led to the massacre of the English at Negrais when opportunity offered four years later.
Alaungpaya now sent a new commander, Minhlaminkaungkyaw, to Dagon, who brought reinforcements with him and took energetic measures to improve the defences. At Syriam, meanwhile, preparations were in hand for a further attack on Dagon and the English were compelled to take part in this also, it being made clear to them that unless they rendered such assistance they would not be allowed to depart. The English had found the Mons if anything even less easy to deal with than the Burmese, the Mons also were suspicious of their good faith and when the chief of the Negrais factory wrote demanding the surrender of four guns belonging to the English factory at Syriam, the Mon commander refused, saying that “he knew Mr Brooke wanted to give them to the Buraghmahns that he might get some rubies from the Dagoon Pagoda.”
In December Dagon endured another onslaught of even greater magnitude. Three English ships, one French ship, the Snow belonging to the Mon King and three hundred boats participated, while ten thousand men were landed to march against the fortification on the Pagoda Hill and at the mango grove. The Burmans found it impossible to hold the town and withdrew to their fort at the Pagoda. There they maintained themselves and the Mons proved unable to dislodge them. When the Burmans sent down fire-boats on the tide, the Mon flotilla and the European ships had to slip their cables and retreat, the land force, unsupported from the river, made an ineffectual attempt to storm the fort but was easily repulsed. So the attack was brought to an end.
After this abortive effort the English ships were allowed to depart, though the Mons retained five of the Arcot’s guns. This was the last attack which the Mons were able to make on Dagon. Alaungpaya returned to Upper Burma with a large force and was now able to resist Syriam, which was finally taken in July 1756. The few Englishmen in the town were spared, but Bruno and the other French were put to death. Such was also the fate of the officers of two French vessels which entered the river two days after the town had been taken, they were decoyed ashore and were beheaded. The crews were made prisoners and were taken into the Royal service as soldiers.
Alaungpaya then proceeded to the capture of Pegu, which he took in May 1857, but though the Mon resistance was not yet by any means finally broken, Alaungpaya’s power had still to be thoroughly established in Upper Burma, so after a further visit to Dagon in July he went northward, leaving the town under the care of one of his officers, Namdeoda. For some time he was busy repelling the Manipuris and while he was thus engaged in the winter of 1758-59, the Mons rose once more. They were able to defeat Namdeoda and re-occupy Dagon as well as Syriam and Dalla. Alaungpaya hastily came to the Delta at the news of this disaster, but meanwhile Namdeoda had gathered a force from Upper Burma and marched on Dagon. The Mons were holding the stockade by the river and also it would seem, the Pagoda Hill, for it is said that they were “encamped a little above the city.” After a stern struggle, however, the Burmans won the day and once more secured possession of the town and Hill. Dalla and Syriam fell soon after, and Alaungpaya’s arrival finally ended the rebellion. From this time onwards the Burmans suffered no serious threat to their power on the part of the Mons.
Alaungpaya’s conquest is the most important event in the history of Rangoon. May 1755 marks the beginning of modern Rangoon, from this time it became the major port of Burma. Alaungpaya was resolved that Syriam must be destroyed and that some other place must become the port of the Delta. Even before he had taken the town he informed the English that “We intend to destroy Syriam,” and he fulfilled his intention, a European writer of 1782 says of Syriam that “this town no longer exists.” There were good reasons for the destruction of Syriam. Syriam had been the centre of Mon resistance and had also been the centre of European interests in the country. Alaungpaya desired to make a fresh start and to have a new port that would be neither Mon nor European by tradition but would be Burmese. Further there were sound economic reasons for abandoning Syriam. The Delta was effecting yet another change and Syriam was ceasing to have any utility as a port. The Pegu river was silting up off Syriam and sea-going vessels were finding it difficult to navigate the reach opposite the town.
The English had already noted that Syriam “it seems will in a few years be almost impracticable for large ships by the increase of the sands in several places, especially before the town.” Hence they had already established a new factory at Negrais, since “the danger of going out and coming in of that harbour, is nothing in comparison of Syriam River, or the coast near it, whence the strong tides and the sands, lying at a great distance from the shore makes the entry difficult and dangerous for ships.” The English evidently regarded the whole river, for the term “Syriam River” was used to imply the Rangoon River as unsatisfactory and would have preferred the new port to be elsewhere.
But Dagon was not so dangerous as Syriam, where the sandbanks had developed “especially before the town” and moreover, Alaungpaya would not be willing to establish his port at or near Negrais where the English were in possession, so that Bassein was ruled out, the more so as it had no through river connection with the main Irrawaddy in the dry season.
If a new port had to be cleared, Dagon already a place of commercial importance at the seasons of the great festivals and near enough to Syriam to draw on the same field of trade, was the obvious place. So Alaungpaya established a new town at Dagon, which hereafter ceases to be a quiet riverside village and becomes instead a flourishing port. He gave it a new name, changing Lagun to Rangon “the End of Strife” and the war being over, he built a new town of Rangon or Rangoon as the English called it, a town which lasted for ninety years.
Alaungpaya's Rangoon (1)
The most striking feature of Alaungpaya’s Rangoon is the insignificance of its size. So small was it that it could all be comprised with an area between Sule Pagoda and the river on the north and south respectively, with ........
Around all four sides ran a stockade, built of solid teak piles, driven a few feet into the ground and rising in places to a height of as much as twenty feet, though in other places it was only ten to twelve feet.....
Inside the stockade, which, as suburbs grew up, came to be known as “the fort” (the strict meaning of the Burmese myo) the town consisted primarily of three streets running east to west and two running south to north....
... Thus in reality Rangoon stood on a small island and this no doubt largely accounts for its confined area. Beyond the town, where all is now dry land, were numerous tanks, some of considerable size. West of the town there was a tidal creek near the present day Latter Street and to the east was the Botataung Creek, near modern Creek Street, linking the river with the Pazundaung Creek and so forming another island known as Queen’s Island, of the present Pazundaung and Monkey Point areas....
Apart from tanks and creeks, the land was so low-lying that most of it was covered with water at high tide and during heavy rain and this was the case within the town as well as outside it. East and west, towards the distant hamlets of Pazunadung and Kemmendine, the latter being the residence of some of the King’s boatmen and the site of a guard-post, the land along the river was little better than a morass and within the stockade houses had to be built on piles to escape the rising river at high tide and the water with which the place was inundated after every shower. Drains, however, were cut alongside the streets to carry off the water and planks were laid down along each road so that the foot-passenger might avoid the worst of the wet.... As late as 1782 the streets were not paved but in 1795 they were, it is stated “tolerably well paved with brick”....
Health was possibly assisted by the practice, indulged in by the European inhabitants if not by others, of bathing in a tank south of the Shwe Dagon when one William Caldwell was brought to the town in a very low state of health after being cast away in the Gulf of Martaban, a surgeon recommended that “he should remain here for three or four months to take advantage of the mineral baths of Rangoon as the most likely remedy of restoring him to health.” This tank, whose waters were “limpid, but austere and acid to the taste,” combined natural mineral water, which on rough analysis was found to consist of a “a pure chalybeate, containing iron held in solution of the acid of sulphur or vitriolic acid, with a very small proportion of magnesia and muriatic salt.” It was commonly known as “the Scotch tank” because, it is ambiguously stated, of “the sulphurous qualities of its water.” .....
For drinking water the town was dependent on wells, the best of which were outside the stockade, for within it the wells tended to become impregnated with river water. The most potable water was obtained from a well, north of the stockade, known to the Europeans as “Rebecca’s Well” because “here at all times of the day and often at night, would be found with their earthen water pots the maidens of the town, for water and gossip.” The well was famous then as now for it excellent water and was almost the only well from which the people of the stockade had their drinking water.
In general aspect the town must have been not unlike a modern Burmese village. The houses were nearly all built of bamboo matting with thatched roofs. The space underneath the floor, between the piles on which the house was erected, became a depository for filth and a home for animals and fowls. One writer unkindly states that “fowls, ducks, pigs and pariah dogs ..... added to the inmates of the house, place it on a par with an Irish hovel.” Another observer says that “the space beneath is invariably a receptacle for dirt and stagnant water, from which, during the heat of the day, pestilential vapours constantly ascent.”
“The City” wrote one observer, “appeared to me very strange and such wretched houses I thought I never saw, though they are built with wood. Dogs, rats, hogs and all manner of vermin are certainly very numerous, but not more so than they are in a native town in Bengal. Houses are raised two, three, four or five feet from the ground and all underneath is hollow and filled with all manner of rubbish and filth of the house and family, which these animals feed upon and live among.” The number of owner-less swine and dogs which wandered around the town and played a part of public scavengers was frequently commented on by travellers. “Heaps of meagre swine, the disgusting scavengers of the town, infest the streets by day and at night they are relieved by packs of hungry dogs.”
Timber houses were few and brick houses even fewer. It was illegal for a Burmese subject to build a brick house, for it was feared that such buildings might become centres of resistance against the authorities, but no restriction was placed on the materials used by European residents for their buildings, provided they obtained prior permission and paid a heavy tax, though in general the Europeans preferred timber houses “not from any want of brick or lime, but because the wooden houses are more adapted to the dampness of the climate. Such few brick buildings as so exist are used more as magazines than as dwelling houses.” It would appear, however, that the true reason for the preference for timber houses was the poor workmanship of the builders, “even these buildings are erected so very badly that they have more the appearance of prisons than habitations. Strong iron bars usurp the place of windows and the only communication between the upper and lower story is by means of wooden steps placed outside.”
Symes, in 1795 noted that the two-story Customs House which lay more or less or the site of the present day new Law Courts, was the only lay building in the town constructed of brick. Apart from the Customs House, the principal buildings were the residence of the Myowun, which lay approximately on modern Merchant Street between Lewis Street and Sparks Street and the Yondaw, the Public Court, which lay opposite it on the south side of Pegu Place, both of these buildings were made of timber.
... The town outgrew the narrow limits within which it was first designed but it extended along the river bank to the west not to any extent northwards but not much eastwards where the ground was even more swampy than on the west. West of the stockades here grew up, along modern Strand between Maung Khine and Mogul Streets, a suburb known as Tatgale or Tackley as it was Anglicised. Here a populous area appeared, inhabited mainly by workmen connected with the ships and by prostitutes. Merchants and ships’ officers lived inside the stockade. It appears that houses were also erected between the stockade and the river..... There were also a number of burial grounds, such as the Armenian cemetery, not far from the north face of the stockade. As the ground rose towards the laterite ridge it became covered in jungle. There was much jungle also west of the Shwe Dagon, covering the present golf-course, the Government House area and Ahlone, “the whole space between the western face of the Shwe-da-gong and the left bank of the Rangoon river is covered by the densest forest.”
In these jungles wild animals abounded, elephant and tiger among others, the tigers would come up to the stockade around the town in hope of seizing pariah dogs and one case is even recorded where a tiger was found within the stockade. To the east of the Shwe Dagon lay the lakes known as the Kandawgyi and the Kandawgale and beyond these the swamps verging on Pazundaung Creek.
Across the river lay the town of Maingthu, where now Dalla stands. It was a moderate-sized place, “one long street” and was the residence of the Governor of the province of Dalla, for Twante had now lost its importance and with the rise of Rangoon the provincial capital of Dalla had been attracted thereto. One part of Maingthu, the Meinma Shwe Ywa, was inhabited exclusively by prostitutes. As it was the capital of the province Maingthu came to be called by the province’s own name and as early as 1895 was beginning to be known as Dalla.
The town of Rangoon came within the jurisdiction of the Myowun of Hanthawady, commonly known to the Europeans of the time as the Viceroy or Governor of Pegu or of Rangoon, after 1790 he was accustomed to divide his time between these two towns and in his absence Rangoon was under the charge of the Yewun. The powers of the Myowun were extensive, he was as one holder of the office told Symes “vested with authority to adjust every matter that related to the province” he had judicial as well as executive authority and in criminal causes he and he alone had the power of life and death, though in civil suits an appeal lay to the Hlutdaw at the capital. In executive and in judicial matters alike he was assisted by the advice of a council formed of his principal subordinates, but he appears to have had the final voice, for it is said that no matter was settled contrary to his opinion. Once a year he was required to visit the Court to render an account of his stewardship.
The second officer in the province was the Yewun, “the minister of the water,” the title being conferred on the Deputy-Governor of a maritime province without any necessary reference to maritime duties. The Yewun was primarily a judicial officer and cases other than those of major importance came before him. Cases of gravity came before the Myowun aided by his council.
The third officer was the Sitke and the title of Sitke is generously defined by the dictionary as “a Lieutenant-General; a Magistrate.” Actually the Sitke appears to have been primarily a Police Officer, for he is defined elsewhere as a “Conservator of the Peace.”
There was also an Akunwun or Collector of Customs, usually known to Europeans as the Shahbandar. There was an Akunwun or Collector of Revenue, who received the taxes for the whole of the province, the Akunwun having no jurisdiction outside the port. Other officials were the Nakhan or “Public Informer” whom Cox described as a “reporter” the Head Clerk, the Secretary and the Aweyauk or Officer to whom the arrival of strangers had to be reported. These officers were accustomed to assemble daily for the despatch of business in the Yondaw or Royal Court, where all Royal Orders were read and local affairs were discussed. They were supported by a small force of troops, some four or five hundred in number, under the command of the Sitke, the troops were armed with condemned East India Company muskets bought up by speculators and sold in Burma.
There were in addition a number of official interpreters, whose services the foreign merchants and sailors were required to employ in the transaction of their business, complaints were sometimes made of their dishonesty of these “licensed linguists” and after a time permission was given to employ interpreters without restriction.
The authority of the Myowun and his council extended over the whole province of Pegu or Hanthawaddy, not merely over Rangoon “all the causes and Government business which arose, I reported to the Royal Court at Rangoon and settled in accordance with the instruction sent me,” stated the Headman of Ma U township in the Census returns of 1802. Similarly the record of Kawliya township in the Census of 1783 states that fees were paid “to the revenue writers and Akunwun of Rangoon town... If there is a Myosa or Ywasa, one half of the revenue is paid to him, one half is taken for my own use. If there is no Myosa or Ywasa, one half is paid to the Viceroy of Rangoon.... Criminal cases of theft, murder and arson are sent to the Court at Rangoon Town.”
These various officers who constituted the local Government, far removed from the capital and enjoying a wide measure of authority were almost completely uncontrolled, except when they quarrelled among themselves and conducted intrigues against one another which produced intervention from above. Not infrequently the Yewun would intrigue against the Myowun in the hope of displacing him and each would form a faction among the subordinate officials and the town folks, so producing conditions in which violent outbreaks seemed hardly to be avoided.
The Officials were Burmese with the exception of the Akunwun, who was almost invariable a foreigner, the office being the highest that a foreigner could aspire to and occasionally the Akunwun who was at one time an Armenian. The reason for the employment of non-Burmans in this office was that a foreigner was likely to have a better knowledge of trading conditions and shipping than could a Burman.
Thus for many years the Akunwun was a Portuguese, Joseph Xavier da Cruz, commonly known as Jaunsi, who first appeared in Burma in 1760 and was still employed by the Burmese Government as late as 1804. He was, it would seem, typical of the adventurers who frequented the Burmese ports, he had been gunner on an English vessel, had murdered his Captain and come to Burma with his plunder. He settled down as a respectable citizen, became Akunwun, married a widow of a Frenchman who had served in the Royal Guard and was largely responsible for paving the streets of the town and erecting the jetty at the King’s Wharf.
At another time one Baba Sheen, born in Burma of Armenian parents, held the office. Later it was held by an Englishman, Rogers, a native of Windsor, who had been an Officer on an East Indiaman, had assaulted his superior and had fled from Bengal to Burma to avoid the consequences of his crime, about the year 1780, being destitute and pressed by creditors he became the slave of the Prince of Prome, the King’s second son, he adopted Burmese dress and customs and prospering in trade, became Akunwun. He had a rival in the person of Lanciego a Spaniard who had command of a privateer during the war of the French Revolution and had settled in Rangoon as a trader, then he married a daughter of the Akunwun, Jaunsi and became Akunwun himself in the course of time.
Thereafter the office alternated between Lanciego and Rogers according to the fortunes of their friends at the Court. Such were the foreigners who were employed by the Burmese Government. It may be noted that foreigners were employed at other ports also in the office of Akunwun.
The officials received no regular salary but lived on the fees which they were authorised to charge and on a share of the taxes. Fees were levied for example, in connection with the administration of justice, in general to the extent of ten per cent of the amount involved in the litigation and in general of all imposts half went to the King’s treasury and half to the officials, except when the King had appointed a favourite or relative as Myosa of a district to enjoy half the revenues from it. But the officials augmented their incomes by impositions of dubious legality and this is not surprising, for when the King wanted to extend his patronage he would double or treble the number of offices, thus at times in Rangoon there were two Yewuns, two Sitke’s two Nahkans, two Head Clerks, two Secretaries and even two Akunwun’s. And since all the office-holders wanted fees, extortion became the rule.
Many complaints were made of the extortions of officials, when suits were tried, the officials would extract fees from both sides, often to the extent of three or four times the value of the object of the litigation. Not infrequently subordinate officials would arrogate to themselves judicial authority and keep what were called in Rangoon “justice shops” where “justice” was sold to the highest bidder. “These numerous tribunals are an endless source of gratification to the litigious, of fees and presents to the judge and others employed on the occasion. It is true, in case of grievance, redress may be had from the Viceroy, but the expense and the fees attending such an appeal generally equal, if not exceed the sum for which it is made.” The peons attendant on each officer, moreover, made it their business to encourage unnecessary litigation, since they shared the fortunes of their master. These abuses, however, arose only under the rule of a weak Myowun, a strong Myowun would require all cases to be brought to the Yondaw. When, however, a Myowun was removed from office, the interim between his departure and the arrival of his successor was utilised by the subordinate officers encouraging appeals by litigants for revision of the late Myowun’s judicial decisions, so that they obtained fees and presents for hearing case anew.....
... In general the administration of criminal justice was harsh in the extreme. The punishments inflicted astonished European observers, accustomed as they were to the severity of the penal systems of their own countries, by their ferocity, for impalement, mutilation, crucifixion, disembowelment, were by no means uncommonly witnessed at the Execution Ground and the innocent member of a criminal’s family often suffered along with the guilty.
... Despite the prevalence of crime, the authorities could enforce law and order when they felt inclined to do so, even the foreign sailors, not the most docile of men, behaved themselves in Rangoon and when the mutinous crew of an English ship came to the port, they gave no trouble at all for the two months of their stay.
.... But in no case might a vessel proceed beyond the Danot watch-post without pilotage and severe penalties might be imposed for a breach of this regulation.
There were other port regulations which were equally strictly enforced. The Burmese record continues “On arrival at the Royal Wharf after casting anchor the Captain and the Ship’s Officer (mate?) go up and are questioned in the Customs House. Then they go to the Royal Court with the interpreters and file a list showing the Captain, Ship’s Officers and Lascars and the cannon, guns, powder, lead, shot and all their goods for sale and their clothes. They have to dismast the vessel and take out the ropes and sails. Guards are placed above and below the vessel to keep watch on it carefully..... Further, as a measure of precaution, all guns, muskets and ammunition must be landed and to render the ship the more helpless and incapable of departing against the will of the authorities, the masts, sails and the rudder also, had to be unshipped. This equipment was only returned when the ship had completed its business and had received permission to sail.... Until all these preliminaries had been completed no business could be transacted. But some of the requirement, such a landing the sails and rudder, could generally be evaded by judicious bribery, while it was customary to waive the law regarding the landing of equipment in the case of East India Company vessels engaged in official business.
....The only exceptions mentioned in the Sittan are precious stones, of which it is said that “if there are diamonds or emeralds or pearls of peculiar excellence, they are stamped with a seal and taken on duty for the King. As complaints were not infrequently made by merchants of unlawful extractions, it is possible that on this occasion, as on other occasions, the importers of silver and wine were compelled to pay more than the authorised percentage. On the other hand, it also appears that the rate of duty was at this period increasing, for in 1812 it was stated that “the regular and known amount of the duties on all goods imported in Rangoon a few years ago was 10 per cent, which had by degrees been raised to 17. Nor is it probable that the amount will stop there, one of these causes that have raised the duties to the above mentioned sum being grants of 1 and ½ per cent on all goods imported, to two persons lately sent down from Court.”...
.. But the changes varied from time to time. In 1813 the flat-rate for all ships amounted to case and goods valuing Rs. 1630. Then a sliding scale was introduced....
The goods which were imported consisted mainly of cotton piece goods, woollen piece goods, iron, steel, fire arms, cordage, sulphur, saltpetre, quicksilver, copper, coarse china, glass, opium, tobacco, coconuts, areca nuts, sugar and spirits. Of these cotton goods were the most important.... these were mainly of Indian manufacture until in the early eighteen century Manchester cotton goods began to be imported....
Exports comprised, lac, catechu, isinglass, vegetable oil, petroleum, beeswax, ivory, raw cotton (for manufacture at Decca) orpiment and ponies. The lac, catechu and isinglass, went mainly to China and Malaya, the other articles to Indian and the West. But more than any of these the export for which Burma was famous was teak, either in the form of ship’s masts or in planks. Besides this, the other exports were trifling. Teak was greatly esteemed for ship-building in Calcutta and Madras and even in Bombay.......
The difficulty about exporting other goods was the attitude of the Burmese Government, which prohibited many exports for fear of draining the country of useful commodities. Thus even rice could not be exported, not precious metals nor precious stones. “In fact, one would argue, from the state of the laws, that the Government had the definite object in view completely to exclude any commercial intercourse whatever with other countries.”....
... These shipyards lay principally along the tidal creek which ran in from the main stream from the present Latter Street. So important did the Rangoon ship-building industry become that there was some alarm expressed in British India and it was even suggested unofficially that steps of some sort should be taken to discourage it as dangerous rival to the Company’s maritime power.
As regards inland trade, apart from forwarding imported goods and receiving goods for export, Rangoon did a large trade in ngapi and rice exported to Upper Burma. The Pagoda still continued to be a centre of pilgrimage and of trade, especially, it was noted, for the Shans, who brought to Rangoon the “Pegue ponies” for export to India and every year the great festival was held at the full moon of Tabaung, with its cosmopolitan market to which men and women came even from China, as had been the case for centuries past. “This is the season for the great feast of Gaudama,” wrote a resident of Rangoon in March 1817. “It commenced yesterday but I presume the multitude collected in this place is much greater than at any other, excepting Ava. Priests and people come in boats, from a great distance, to worship at the Pagoda in this place, which is supposed to contain a relic of Gaudama. The Viceroy on these days goes out in all the pomp and splendour possible, dressed and ornamented with all his insignia of office, attended by the members of Government and the common people.” The festival was said by another observer to constitute the second largest fair in the country, the only larger one being at Paleik, near Amarapura.
... At the time of the War of 1824, 40,000 or 50,000 inhabitants were reckoned, of whom 1,500 were said to be pongyis, yet in 1822 an observer estimated the population at only 10,000 and in 1823 another observer noted that “the population of this town perhaps amounts to 10,000 inhabitants and the island navigation to about 10,000 more,” meaning, presumably that the creek villages of the district contained about 10,000 inhabitants. It is probably safer to take the lower estimate and reckon the population at an average of 10,000.
Of the ten thousand inhabitants a certain proportion were slaves, though there is no record of the actual number. The slaves fell into three categories. There were prisoners of war, who had been sold to the highest bidder, these were mainly Siamese. There were Pagoda slaves, whose number, in view of the many Pagodas in Rangoon, must have been considerable. And there were those enslaved for debt. Under Burmese law, a debtor who could not fulfil his obligations was liable to be seized by the creditor, who might employ him in performing “menial service” until he could liquidate the debt.
It would appear that a wife and children of a debtor were equally liable to be enslaved in this manner. But in such cases the enslaved person was rather a pledge for the redemption of the debt than a slave proper, for at any time when the debtor could produce the amount owed, the slave must be set free. Nor was there any degradation involved in this form of slavery, such slaves were regarded as servants and were treated well. It was only the Pagoda slaves and those engaged in burning and burying the dead or employed as public executioners that were out-casts.
Indeed, it would appear that enslavement for debt was sometimes incurred voluntarily. A missionary states that servants commonly entered onto employment on such terms. “It is not perfectly clear to us,” he wrote, “whether what is termed here buying slaves ought to be considered anything more than a different mode of hiring servants.” It was customary, he continued, for a would-be servant to go to a prospective employer and “offer to become his slave, (or servant, perhaps, it would be proper to say) on occasion that he will advance a certain amount of money.” The sum agreed upon, the servant would receive the money and commence work, without wages. He could not then leave his service unless he redeemed himself by repaying the sum advanced, but on the other hand he did not in so doing renounce his civil rights, for he might not be abused or beaten and could obtain redress in the courts against his master if he were thus maltreated. Further, if he cared, he might at any time go to another employer and similarly receive an advance from him with which he might repay his late master and so transfer his service. “If this be a lawful way of obtaining the services of a person” observed the missionary, “It is probable that we may get servants as cheap here, after a while as you do in Bengal. Such a woman as costs us at present eight rupees per month, may be obtained for the use of one hundred.” Sometimes this system of service was combined with the normal system of wage-payment, thus the same missionary later gave Rs. 125 to emancipate an old washer-man, who agreed to work for Rs. 5 a month, of which Rs. 2 was to retained towards the payment of the debt, and he emancipated another servant for Rs. 75 and paid to him Rs. 5 a month without any repayment of the principal.
The free population was of a heterogeneous nature, as is commonly the case with sea-ports. Symes in 1795 remarked that “Rangoon, having long been the asylum of insolvent debtors from the different settlements of India, is crowded with foreigners of desperate fortunes, who find from the Burmans a friendly reception and for the most part, support themselves by carrying on a petty trade, which affords a decent subsistence to those who act prudently. Here are to be met fugitives from all countries of the East and of all complexities, the exchange, if I may so call the common place of their meetings, exhibits a motley assemblage of merchants, such as few towns of much greater magnitude can produce, Malabars, Moguls, Persians, Parsees, Armenians, Portuguese, French and English, all mingle here and are engaged in various branches of commerce.” His reference to the “desperate fortunes” of the foreigners is borne out by the personal history of such of them as is known. That the foreign residents should have been of bad character is not surprising, for there was at this time no official supervision of any foreign power over its own nationals.
The English East India Company had withdrawn completely from Burma after the massacre at Negrais in 1759. In 1755 Alaungpaya had been willing to grant permission for factories to be established at Dagon and Bassein in return for an immediate gift of one thousand muskets and twenty pieces of artillery, but this gift was not forthcoming and though opportunity was given once more in 1760 for the establishment of a factory at Bassein the Company failed to take advantage of it.
Again in 1767 there occurred an opportunity of founding a factory at Rangoon. The circumstances accompanying the offer which the Burmese Government made on this occasion are peculiar. It appears that a ship the Tantabin, belonging to the King, was detained at the instance of a shipbuilder of Bengal for non-payment of certain sums due for repairs, but that Lord Clive, desiring to maintain good relations with the King ordered her to be sent to Rangoon together with presents and this was done. The King, being much pleased by Clive’s courtesy ordered her to be sent back to Calcutta as a gift to Clive or whoever else might be at the time in charge there, together with a present of timber and an elephant, though the latter “not being possible to be taken on board any ship,” was not actually sent. He at the same time made a grant to the Company of ground near the river at Rangoon, two hundred fathoms long and one hundred fathoms broad for the erection of a factory and expressed a desire for a return gift of powder, ball, large guns and firelocks.”
Notices of the King’s gift were posted up in public places in Rangoon and the Akunwun was ordered to despatch a letter with the ship, but knowing no English, he employed one Richard Tyson, an English merchant of Rangoon, to write it. Tyson entered into a conspiracy with another Rangoon merchant, Richard Dundas and the ship’s Captain Moses Smith, “to pervert the King’s intentions by concealing the above circumstances and by pretending that she (the ship) belonged to Gregory Awas the King’s Shawbunder at Rangoon for whom Smith pretended to act in the quality of Captain and Supercargo.” In pursuance of this design, Tyson wrote “such a letter as would best answer their purposes” instead of the letter which the Akunwun desired. But a firm in Calcutta, Messrs. Waple & Banks, had previously endeavoured to purchase the same ship from the King and had sent a considerable present to him with this object and when the ship came once more to Calcutta they seized her as their property.
The matter was taken to the courts, which gave judgement in favour of Waple and Banks, but something of the true circumstances of the case became known in the course of the proceedings, and Harry Verelst, Clive’s successor, carried out a further investigation. A number of ship’s masters and merchants who had been in Rangoon at the time when the letter was being written gave evidence consistently showing that Tyson had misrepresented the Akunwun’s intentions and Messrs. Waple and Banks then agreed to waive all claim to the vessel provided that they were compensated for their expenditure in presents, whilst Verelst also waived all personal claim and made the ship over to the Company. But Verelst was desirous of accepting the King’s offer of a site for a factory, “It will,” he wrote, “be proper for us to take possession of the ground granted to us by His Majesty – a gift which promises to be productive of advantage both to the Company and to individuals.”
He proposed further to request the King to sent Tyson and Dundas to Calcutta for trial. There is no evidence that this latter request was actually made, nor did the Company accept the offer of a factory site. No further reference to the matter is discoverable in the records and since no contemporary writer makes mention of the existence of such a factory, it is evident that the offer was declined, the Company doubtless feeling that after the Negrais episode settlements in Burma were likely to be more trouble than they were worth.
Official relations with the Burmese Government, indeed, almost ceased for thirty-five years after the Negrais massacre and the trade with Burma was left entirely in the hands of private adventurers. The French on the other hand, saw in Burma an opportunity of compensating themselves for their losses in India. In 1766 they regained possession of their Indian factories which had been lost to them during the Seven Year’s War and which were returned to them under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and the Council of Pondicherry began to consider re-opening an establishment in Burma.
An officer named Lefévre was sent as emissary to the King, to deliver presents and to seek the release of the prisoners who survived from the taking of Syriam in 1756 and further to ask permission to found a factory at Rangoon. The King, Hsinybushin, consented to the release of the prisoners and also granted land eight “bamboos” by fifty (one bamboo equalling twelve feet,) with permission to set buildings thereon and to hoist the French flag, together with exemption from the fees generally levied on the building of ships. The permission to hoist the flag was granted to no other nation, so the French assert, but there is no evidence that any other nation asked for it. But the factory was not allowed to be built in Rangoon itself, there was evidence some suspicion of the good faith of the French, their support of the Mons in 1755 being long remembered against them so that it was still talked of even fifty years later and they had to build their factory at Maingthu, modern Dalla. The factory did not prosper. The French Company in India never recovered its old power and its decline in India was accompanied by weakness in Burma, though the factory was useful and built a number of ships in its shipyard including the Lauriston which took part in the war which broke out with the English in 1778. But that war paralysed the factory, the English once more took the French ports in India, the Maingthu factory had to be abandoned for lack of support and when peace was made and the Indian factories were restored, no attempt was made to re-establish it.
The abandonment of the connection with Burma was not effected without due consideration however. In 1783 Bussy had some thought of concluding a new commercial treaty with Burma and consideration was even given to project of deserting India and seeking in Burma an alternative sphere for French enterprise. But Bussy came to the conclusion that the project would not succeed, “Pegu,” he observed “is a country of the most decided anarchy, where revolutions are very frequent between two sects which consist of the Peguans and the Burmans. Rangoon is thirty-six leagues from the King’s residence and is the place where the ship-building yards are established and is the only one that would suit us. The acquisition of it is not practicable and we could become master of it and hold it only by constantly maintaining a superior force there,” and he noted that the English, who had been so successful in India had not been able to establish themselves on the coast of Burma.
The famous Admiral Suffren seems to have taken the matter more seriously, for he observed to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Pegu who visited Europe in 1783, that, “he soon expected to see him in that part of the world, for that Pegue was the country through which the English might be attacked in India with most advantage. Souffrein (sic) did not hesitate to avow the hostile designs of the French against Pegue, which would certainly have been executed had not the derangement of affairs that immediately preceded the revolution and the death of Suffrein himself, the chief promoter of the scheme, prevented it.” Thus nothing came of the project and except for the ten years or so following 1768 there was no European settlement at Rangoon......
In 1802 the number of British subjects in Rangoon, including not only permanent residents but also seamen frequenting the port, was only about 60, while in 1810 it was reported that “the number of British subjects at Rangoon is very small. Messrs. Fleming, Turner, Ramsden and Snowball, are the only ones that can be termed residents of the place. The first is a respectable merchant, formerly Commander of a ship, who had been some time settled in Pegu. The second is a ship builder. The two others by having married Burmah women who are not permitted to quit the country may be looked upon as in same measure naturalized at Rangoon. Besides these there may be in general an average of eight or ten British subjects attached to the few vessels that frequent the port or other adventurers not of the most creditable description,” and this statement is borne out by other evidence that there were in that year eleven Englishmen in town.
There were also a few Frenchmen, in 1804 an English observer remarked the presence of only three permanent French residents, besides four Frenchmen who were temporarily in the port engaged in building a ship. One or two Dutch merchants are also referred to in various accounts of the period. Admittedly the dislocation of trade attendant on the French Wars, together with the disturbed state of the country at that period, had tended to reduce the foreign population, but even so, since in 1824 there were only seven Englishmen (one being country-born) two Americans and one Greek, in the town, it is evident that at no time did the European population approach the figure of five hundred. Apart from the floating population of sailors, twenty or thirty householders and their families, totalling a hundred or so persons, is more like the probable figure. The remaining four hundred Christians must have been constituted the Goanese, or, as it was commonly called the Portuguese, community. The families of the European inhabitants would be in general Burmese or Anglo-Burmese.
The figure of five thousand for Muslim community is surprisingly high and is perhaps an error for five hundred. If so, it may be concluded that of the total population about a fifth were of a foreign race and this is not a remarkably high proportion in a seaport. Of the indigenous population, Mons and Burmans were present in about equal proportions.
The Armenian community was probably the most important of the groups of foreign residents. The import and export trade was very largely in their hands and the community seems to have been a prosperous one. The Armenians had their own church which was built about 1766 on a site south of the Customs House by Gregory Avas, who served the Burmese Government as Akunwun of Rangoon and who is said to have been rewarded for his services with the Myosa-ship of Syriam.
It is significant that not only Symes but also other official observers, such as Canning who made four visits to Burma, comment on the undesirable character of the Europeans who lived in Rangoon. The Burmese authorities realising the advantages to be derived from a flourishing commerce, were not averse to allowing foreign merchants to settle in the port and even encouraged them to marry into the country, but at the same time the attitude of the local officials towards foreigners remained one of suspicion. Thus special precautions were taken whenever a larger number of foreign vessels than usual happened to be in the harbour, and, some rumour of the French design of seizing Lower Burma having reached the ears of the authorities, at one time in 1783 the Myowun was paying daily visits to the wharf to see for himself what shipping had arrived and the appearance of a single unexpected ship was enough to throw the town into a causeless panic.
The effect of this suspicion was that while the less reputable foreigners were encouraged to settle in the place, merchants of good standing were nevertheless not by any means welcome. “For the sake of his revenue he (the King) is willing to admit the common class of traders that frequent Rangoon whom the hope of gain and other allurements will ever attract and render submissive to any indignity,” wrote Capt. Canning. “These he regards as too insignificant to create alarm.” But while “fugitive Englishmen” and others who by reason of their past misdeeds were not likely to claim protection from the foreign governments were welcome, respectable men whose interests their governments might regard seriously were looked on with suspicion. Nor, indeed, were conditions of life in Rangoon such as to attract the better type of foreigner. For example, a merchant could by no means be certain of receiving his letter without their contents being made known to his competitors, for orders were at one period issued that all foreign correspondence was to be censored and the censors were not at all trustworthy. “It is difficult,” it was said, “to imagine a more disagreeable or even degraded state than the present situation of Europeans at Rangoon where their public or private letters, invoices and most secret accounts are subject to the inspection of three or more interpreters, some of whom are naturalized in the country and of the lowest class.......”
Again, while marriages into the country were approved, the law forbade the departure of females from the country, so that a foreign resident could not normally leave the country unless he were prepared to cast his female children adrift. “As long as Europeans frequent the Port of Rangoon such children will certainly be born,” it was said, and, the parents being in general of bad character and possessed of little scruple about deserting their offspring, there resulted “the extreme hardship of the female children of Europeans in the country being doomed to a life of certain immorality and degradation.”
On the other hand, it was not impossible to evade the law in this regard, at least two cases are on record where this was done. In one case an English missionary was allowed to depart with his family, accompanied by a Burmese woman servant, in respect of whom the Myowun waived “the usual fees,” and it would thus appear that by paying “fees” which were more likely bribes, the enforcement of the law could be avoided. In the other case, a missionary apparently entered into a bond for the eventual return of certain women. But such relaxations were obviously dependent on the favour of the authorities and many cases must have occurred in which this was not forthcoming.
Again, the administration of justice was galling to Europeans. In one instance a lascar jumped into the river to avoid punishment which the mate of his ship was about to inflict. It was believed that he was drowned and the mate, being held responsible for his death, was arrested and kept in the stocks all night. Next morning the lascar, who had in fact climbed back into the ship and hidden himself, reappeared, the mate thus escaped the penalty of a heavy fine.....
It was also not uncommon for foreign vessels to be impressed for government purposes, such as the transport of troops and supplies to Arakan or Tenasserim, quite inadequate compensation being paid for such services......
On another occasion, when the Burmese were besieging Tavoy, held by the Siamese, foreign ships were required to discharge their cargo and go to Arakan to bring grain thence to the seat of war and it was complained that no payment was made for such service, although the King was actually charged for freight by the local authorities.
While an appeal to the King against the arbitrary actions of the local Government might be attended with success, such a proceeding was dangerous. This a certain Capt. Archer, while building a ship at Rangoon “being at different times wantonly ill-treated and retarded in his operations and finding his consequent applications to the officer of Government for redress only ended in additional insult, came to a determination of proceeding to Ave in order to submit his grievances to his Majesty. He accordingly escaped in a small boat and pursued his way thence at the risk of his existence. The Governor on discovering his departure, ordered armed boats to pursue and retake him, encouraging them with a very large reward for his head.” But Archer reached the capital safely and received immediate redress.
... The impossibility of obtaining supplies locally is illustrated by the following demand which two missionaries sent to Bengal within a week of landing at Rangoon, they asked for “a maund of ghee, a maund of candles, four of common Bengal soap, the cheapest sort, for our private use, a jar of biscuit, two of baked bread and two of butter, about twenty gallons of rum, a pint and a quart sauce-pan would be very useful articles. We shall want a little tea. We are in need of another smoother for the washer-man, larger than those used at the mission house... send and place to the account of Brother Chater, one table shade and a dozen pairs of shoes. Let them be the size of Brother Moore’s foot. Ten pairs of the half rupee shoes and two one rupee shoes with thick soles.” If it was necessary to import from Bengal even such commodities as those thus enumerated, it is evident that living in Rangoon was costly and difficult.....
Houses were, like the food, expensive. A good house, of brick, cost Rs. 100 a month an even a timber house taken on a year’s lease cost Rs. 35 a month. The cost of building was also high compared with India. Bricks of small size cost Rs. 50 per ten thousand and large sized bricks were Rs. 100 for ten thousand. A pukka house could not be built under Rs, 6,000 not a timber one under Rs.3,000.
The foreign trading community was supplemented by the presence of foreign priests and missionaries. From the earliest days of Rangoon there had been Portuguese priests subject to the Bishop of Meliapur, whose function was to minister to the Portuguese or Goanese Christians. They built a small church, the church of the Rosary, in the suburb of Tatgale, with a dwelling house attached. In 1760 Frs. Donati and Gallizia and in 1761 Bishop Percote, arrived in Rangoon and six years later Father Carpani. They were Italians and not subject to the Portuguese Bishop of Meliapur and there seems to have been deadly rivalry between them and the Portuguese priests. One of the latter tried to poison Carpani and that failing, to stab him, wherefore the authorities arrested him and put him aboard a ship to be taken to India, but he went for a swim when the ship anchored down the river and was eaten by an alligator.
In 1782 Father Sangermano arrived and stayed in Rangoon till 1808. The Italians built two churches, the Church of the Immaculate Conception within the stockade with a school attached and the Church of St. John some distance to the north of the town. Percoto seems to have had some influence with the local authorities and was sometimes called to the Yondaw to advise in litigation between foreigners.
In the early nineteenth century the first Baptist missionaries settled in Rangoon. The Company’s Government disapproved of missionary activity in India and the English Baptists of Serampore, seeking a new field of activity despatched two of their members to Rangoon in 1807 to enquire into the prospects for mission work there. They returned with a favourable report. Hence towards the end of the year James Chater and Felix Carey, son of William Carey the founder of the Serampore College, were sent to found a mission in Burma.
They arrived on the 19th December and after living for a time in a hired house in the town, received a grant of land on which they built a mission house, outside the stockade, somewhere near the northern end of the present Barr Street. The house cost about five thousand rupees and was in some quarters regarded as “far too sumptuous” for missionaries. It was “large and convenient, situated in a rural place about half a mile from the walls of the town. We have gardens enclosed, containing about two acres of ground, full of fruit trees of various kinds. In the dry season our situation is agreeable. We often enjoy a pleasant walk, within our own enclosure, or in some of the adjoining villages.”
In 1810 two more missionaries arrived, Couch and Prichett, members of the London Missionary Society and they took up residence with the Baptists until such time as they should gain enough knowledge of Burmese to fend for themselves. But the missions did not flourish....
Chater and his wife both suffered from bad health and in the year 1811 were transferred to Ceylon, leaving only Carey to carry on the work. He entered the service of the Burmese Government and in 1814 abandoned the mission. But by that time it had been reinforced by the arrival of the American Baptists, Judson and his wife, who took up their residence in the mission house in July 1813 and in the next few years yet other American missionaries arrived. To the mission house was attached a burial ground, which became the English cemetery of Rangoon.
The Burmese Officials displayed considerable tolerance towards these English and American missionaries, but this tolerance was based on a misapprehension of their objects. They were regarded in the same light as the priests of the Armenian and Portuguese communities, who were not of a proselytising habit, “the missionaries have been considered” noted Judson, “in no other light than as ministers to the English who reside here.” It would further appear that the indifferent attitude of the authorities was dependent on their remaining in Rangoon, Canning was of opinion that they would never be permitted to settle in other part of the country and a warning against attempting to do so was conveyed to them by the Armenian Akunwun Baba Sheen.
The same tolerance towards alien religious practices was shown in another respect “by orders of Government,” it was recorded “no person is allowed to go up to the Pagoda with their shoes on, but I saw many Europeans and native Christians breaking the order with impunity.”
The protestant missionaries seem to have been on good terms with the Roman priests, for one of the Italians lent Chater and Carey a book of translations of the scriptures to aid them in learning Burmese and there seems to have been no difficulty placed in the way of their distributing Bibles among the “Portuguese” population. The opposition to their work came from the English community.
In some cases the English inhabitants were not the type to regard religion seriously, while others held the common prejudice against missionaries. One indeed, went so far as to tell them that all the troubles which afflicted Rangoon, including even a fire which destroyed much of the town and also the war with Siam, were due to the admission of missionaries to the country.
Alaungpaya's Rangoon (2)
During the period from 1755 to 1824, Rangoon was by no means free from civil disturbances for the Mons did not at any time entirely resign themselves to their vanquished state, although they never again succeeded in becoming a real threat to Burmese power. When he occupied Dagon, Alaungpaya had worshiped at the Shwe Dagon and embellished it by re-gilding thus indicating his supremacy over the Mons, but even after he had suppressed the rising of 1758-59 the Mons were always ready to rebel. In 1773, in the time of King Hsinbyushin a number of Mons who has been conscripted for war against Siam mutinied, the army was at the time assembled at Martaban and the Mons, being thus gathered under arms and outnumbering the Burmese troops, seized the opportunity to rise.
Led by three Mon chiefs Dalla Khin, Dalla Hsin and Minasi, they suddenly attacked the Burmese and killed a large number of them, the rest, under the Martaban Myowun, escaping to Rangoon pursued by the victorious rebels. Lulled into a false sense of security by fourteen years of peace, the Burmans were by no means prepared for this rising, moreover, the Hanthawaddy Myowun was at the time absent at the Capital with his principal officers and most of the garrison. However, the Sitke, Shwedaungnawtha, who was temporarily in charge, proved equal to the emergency, at the first news of the rising, reinforcements were summoned from Henzada, Danubyu and Padaung and these manned the stockade. The Mons on arrival fired the suburbs and burnt some ships which were on the stocks and three times tried in vain to storm the stockade. Then they established a state of siege, even entrenching themselves round the fort.
For seven days the siege went on, until the Hanthawaddy Myowun with some three thousand men arrived by boat from Upper Burma, and, aided by the gunfire of a Dutch ship that was in the port, forced the Mons to retreat. Lack of general-ship, it was said, was responsible for their failure to take the weakly defended city. The Mons withdrew to the Salween and after holding out for some twelve months were finally over thrown. Dalla Hsin and Minasi fled to Siam but Dalla Khin was taken prisoner. There were a number of French vessels in the port at the time of the siege, but the Captains declined to aid the rebels and lay in hiding in a boat up one of the creeks.
When the Myowun relieved the town he gained the impression, perhaps from the Dutch, the trade rivals of the French, that the missing officers had assisted the Mons and he had a strict search made for them. When they were found, their arms were tied behind their back and they were flung into the river, where all but one drowned. The exception was a man named Boutet, who had come to Rangoon from Pondicherry and had been engaged in building a vessel of four hundred tons which the Mons had just burnt. He was accompanied by his wife, who was a grand-daughter of the famous Minister of Siam, Constance Phaulkon and whom he had only recently married.
He managed to keep afloat while he released his arms, no easy feat in the swift-running Rangoon river and so contrived to reach the bank. Some other of the Frenchmen had their wives with them and these, together with Boutet’s wife, having been compelled to witness the murder of their husbands, were taken as slaves. Boutet’s wife was the most beautiful of them, the Myowun took her and sold her the next day to an Armenian for the enormous sum of Rs 400. But that day her husband reappeared in the town, as if risen from the dead and so impressed were the Burmese by his apparently supernatural escape that they made no further attempt on his life, though it is not clear whether he regained his wife.
To fulfil the terms of the prophecy and to impress the Mons with his greatness, the King therefore came to Rangoon bringing with him the captive Mon King, Binnya Dalla, taken by Alaungpaya seventeen years before and accompanied, it is said, by fifty thousand men. He had a new Hti made of gold set with diamonds and rubies to weigh of himself, his wife and his children and not only did he impose this but he also raised the Pagoda to its present height of 327 feet, gilding it with his own weight in gold, 12 stone and 3 pounds, at a cost of Rs. 94,000. Much treasure was deposited in the Pagoda by his Lords, immense wealth being thrown in through, according to one account, an opening in the top where the Hti was to be imposed.
Further to impress the Mons he brought Binnya Dalla to his death. After nearly twenty years of imprisonment, the Mon King was brought in chains before the Yondaw, the Hanthawaddy Myowun, he was accused of instigating the late rebellion and despite his pleas was condemned to die. To emphasise the point, his execution was carried out by the common executioner so that all the circumstances of his death, both the trial and the execution should stamp him as a common malefactor. On the 7th waxing of Tabaung the unfortunate captive was led in procession through the town and taken to Ava-bok (Pagoda Point) at the junction of the Hlaing and Panhaling rivers, where the execution took place. Many other Mons of high rank now suffered the same fate and for the time being Mon resistance was again suppressed.
It was said that when Binnya Dalla had been executed it was found that held in his hand was a piece of wax within which was concealed a magnificent ruby, the last remnant of his former glories, the ruby was handed over to King Hsinbyushin.
Nevertheless, Burmese hold on the Delta was not yet secure. In 1783, in the time of King Bodawpaya, Rangoon was involved in another rising. At sunset on the 8th September some three hundred Mons, armed only with bamboo spears and swords rushed the suburb of Tatgale where they had landed from their boats, killing many of the inhabitants and severely wounding a couple of sailors from a French ship who had come to see what the noise was about. By 7 o’clock they had burst through the western gate of the stockade and hastened to the Yondaw and the Myowun’s residence, ordering the people to keep to their houses as they went. The Myowun’s house was fired and the Myowun and the Akunwun were killed, besides some fifty of the townsfolk who were attracted to the spot by the fire. Not realising the insignificance of the Mon force, the surviving officials and many of the towns-people fled for refuge to the neighbouring jungle, the few that remained were easily mastered. The Mons armed themselves with muskets from the garrison armoury and directed some Portuguese and Armenian sea-captains whom they had caught in the town to aid them, promising many rewards when their leader was successfully establish as King. The streets were patrolled and the Yondaw, which they made their headquarters, was defended by two hundred men, evidently there was organising ability among the Mons.
Early next day the townsmen who remained were forced to help man the stockade, the merchants and ships’ Captains were compelled to drink the water of allegiance and the Burmans were made to do the same, any that objected being promptly decapitated. The rest of that day was passed in establishing the new government in the town.......
... was sent to the Captain of the French vessel Bien-venue to send eight of his men with the necessary tools to mount two cannon and to assist the defence. But the Captain of the Bien-venue, M. Merlan, though willing enough to comply with this demand, was, fortunately for himself, somewhat dilatory and before he had taken any action the Burmese attack had begun...
... The Yewun therefore required the Captain of the Bien-venue to assist the defence by sending his men to hold the wharf, and, no doubt rejoicing that he had been dilatory in lending aid to the Mons, the Captain did so.....
... When asked why they had not in fact pillaged the town, he explained that their numbers were too small to cope with the large number of foreigners in the place, which he placed at one hundred and fifty Europeans and two hundred “black Christians,” that is, presumably Goanese......
... It was said that a fisherman, named Natchien, a man of low birth, who was inspired by a prophecy that a man of his profession was to free the Mon people and re-establish the Kingdom, induced a number of Mons from the Delta district to aid him in a surprise attack on Rangoon.....
In 1786 Rangoon was honoured by a visit from King Bodawpaya who, having suffered defeat in an invasion of Siam, fled back to Burma and “such was his apprehension, that he did not think himself safe till he found himself in the vicinity of Rangoon.”....
Towards the end of the eighteenth century there was a renewal of official relations between the Burmese Government and the East India Company and Rangoon was visited thereafter by a series of embassies. Since the 1760’s official intercourse had been restricted to casual letters usually making enquiries about missing vessels, but in the 1790’s the troubles which arose on the frontier between Arakan and Chittagong made it desirable for the East India Company to establish a regular channel of communication with the Burmese Government for the solving of diplomatic difficulties and the despatch of a mission was determined on.
There were other reasons for this decision also. Trade between Rangoon and British India had increased considerably in recent years, it was now sufficiently important for the Company to take an interest in it once more, especially as teak was so essential for the shipyards of Calcutta and Madras which drew all their supplies from Burma, while the return trade from British India to Rangoon was of sufficient promise to call for encouragement. The vain dream of an extensive overland trade to China through Rangoon which continued to haunt the minds of English merchants for the next hundred years was another reason for promoting friendly relations with Burma. Moreover, representations were not infrequently received from English merchants in Rangoon of oppression and injustice suffered at the hands of the port officials and it was desired to rectify such grievances. Furthermore, the maintenance of a French agent in Rangoon had given the French a degree of influence which the English Company lacked and when war with France broke out in 1793 steps had to be taken to counteract that influence and especially to prevent any possible establishment in Rangoon of a French settlement which might be a base for attacks on Calcutta and on the Company’s shipping.
It was further desirable to make representations about the misuse of the Burmese flag by French privateers. Hence the appearance in the Rangoon river on the 19th March 1795 of Capt. Michael Symes who had been deputed by the Company’s Government to negotiate an understanding relating to these matters.
It is apparent that the authorities of Rangoon regarded Symes with suspicion, the more so since he was accompanied by a guard of sixteen sepoys. He was not at first allowed to reside within the stockade, but was allotted a house on the water’s edge five hundred yards below the town, where the tides actually ran up the piles of the house. This building must have been near the Botataung Pagoda, though Symes, in common with other writers of the period, makes no mention of this Pagoda. The sailors of the ships in harbour were at first forbidden to visit Symes’ vessel, the Sea Horse and it was several days before his men were allowed to go to the bazaar. While the authorities were glad to encourage foreign traders to settle in Rangoon and to marry into the country, they were not too sure of their hold on the Delta and foreign officials were therefore naturally suspect.
Moreover, foreigners of other than English nationality were averse to the establishment of the Company’s influence in Rangoon and they sowed the seeds of mistrust in the official’s minds. They had, in some cases managed to obtain commercial advantages over their competitors and they wished to retain those advantages. However, Symes managed to allay suspicion and a month later he was allowed to hire “two respectable houses” within the stockade.
Symes went on to the Capital and in his absence there arrived at Rangoon a Burmese vessel from Mauritius, which brought news of French victories in Europe, the French agent in Rangoon sent this news to the Capital, thus causing Symes some difficulty. But he was successful in obtaining an undertaking which, if carried out, would have been of great benefit to the merchants of Rangoon.
It was agreed that goods imported in British ships should pay a duty of ten per cent only and be free from the arbitrary exaction which had often been imposed;
that a regular scale of pilotage and anchorage dues should be laid down;
that the fees of the officials should be defined;
that no more than five per cent should be levied as export duty on teak;
that no obstacles should be placed in the way of trade;
that British merchants employ what interpreters they pleased;
that the Company might station an agent in Burma.
The permissions thus given to maintain a representative in Burma resulted in the arrival in Rangoon in October 1796 of Capt. Hiram Cox who had been sent to reside at Rangoon “to maintain a friendly intercourse with your Majesty and superintend commercial concerns,” as his credentials stated. The circumstances of Cox’s arrival were as unfortunate as all succeeding circumstances of his mission, for the ship in which he came went aground at the mouth of the river. He actually arrived on the 10th of the month, but did not land till the 12th owing to a protracted argument with the local authorities about procedure, they wishing him to go to the Customs House like a private trader and he firmly refusing. He was, ultimately, successful in his determination and was officially received at the wharf.
In some respects he was treated with more courtesy than Symes had experienced, for he was allowed to live in “a capacious lower-roomed brick house” within the stockade and was taken to his residence with every mark of respect. “the town battery” he records, “saluted me with fifteen guns. Mr Jhansey, the Shabunder and Baba-sheen, the collector of the revenues of the province, the two superior ministers of Government here, received me at the pier-head. From thence I proceeded through an avenue formed by the inhabitants seated on the ground, (preceded by the officers of the police to preserve order) towards the house provided for my residence. On passing the Customs House a band of musicians, with dancers, exhibited for my entertainment and at the head of the principal street, another band of Siamese dancers were stationed... Immediately after I reached the house, I was visited by the remaining principal members of the Government in their robes of state, who congratulated me on my safe arrival.”
But he found that the terms of the agreement secured by Symes had not been adhered to. Many complaints were made to him by English merchants of unjust treatment and in particular that monopolies had been granted to a Muslim names Boodham, “an insolvent unprincipled villain,” who thus enjoyed “the exclusive privilege of trade in Rangoon.”
Merchants of all nationalities who happened to be in difficulties with the authorities looked to Cox for assistance. “Mr Agazar, one of the principal merchants in Rangoon," who at the time of Symes’ visit had been a monopolist but who now, owing it would seem to some variation in the fortunes of his friends at Court, had lost this influence, stated that “all the merchants considered themselves under the protection of the English Government,” while a Parsi merchant also sought his aid against Boodham’s monopolies.
After a delay of nearly two months in Rangoon, Cox was allowed to go to the Capital to present his credentials, the sum of Rs. 35,000 being collected from the inhabitants of Rangoon for the expenses of the journey, but he was greatly disappointed by the unfriendly reception which he now endured. It was apparent that many of the principal ministers were better disposed towards the French than towards the English and were given encouragement to the privateers which infested the Bay of Bengal and which frequently sheltered in the Burmese ports. These privateers did much harm to English shipping and privateering being not far removed from piracy, often to Burmese shipping as well, but they had the goodwill of the officials. The proposed establishment of an agent of the Company in Rangoon roused mistrust in the minds of the Burmese, the more so, no doubt, since merchants of all nationalities were looking to him for protection against the local officials whose authority thus appeared to be threatened.
The influence of men like Boodham was thrown against the Company as well as the influence of various French agents. Further the success of the French privateers gave the impression that the Company was weak, “if the English were more powerful by sea, why were their ships afraid to come to Rangoon as formerly” it was asked and “why did we permit them to take the Burman shipping?”
Nor did Cox help matters by proposing to improve the King’s finances by forming a monopoly in salt, betelnut and balachaung, to be managed by the Hanthawaddy Myowun and himself, the two managers “to divide the surplus revenue between them.” This peculiar proposal was still talked of in Burma forty years later.
After nearly a year of disappointment Cox returned to Rangoon, where he arrived on the 1st November 1797. He found conditions in Rangoon no better than they had been at the Capital. In disgust he wanted to return to Calcutta but was not allowed to leave the country, while the merchants were still complaining to him of oppression which they suffered. Suspicion of the English was so great that orders were issued to the pilots to run ashore any vessel that came up armed, while the Captain of one ship was threatened with a ropes-end on his own quarter deck by a “chokey peon” for attempting to being his ship up without a pilot. Even letters belonging to the mission were opened under pretext of searching for diamonds and it was ordered that Cox’s stores should not be allowed the usual diplomatic privilege but should be opened at the Customs House.
It was evident that no good purpose could be served by Coz’s continued residence in Burma and in February 1798 the Company’s Government recalled him. At the last the Myowun showed a certain degree of civility, for he wanted permission to purchase arms and ammunition in Calcutta and at the same time the ministers at the Capital, also desiring to obtain a supply of arms, sent orders granting land for a factory in Rangoon. But by the time that these orders arrived Cox had left Rangoon, on the 1st May 1798, leaving conditions in Rangoon for the foreign merchants no better than when he arrived and with shipping still endangered by the privateers who frequented the Burmese ports and were slowly destroying the trade with India.
Rangoon remained un-visited by further missions until 1802. The cessation of the war with France did not make it any the less desirable for the Company to weaken French influence in Burma, the more so as the peace was not likely to be enduring. Therefore on the 30th May 1802 Col. Symes arrived in Rangoon once more with an escort of one hundred sepoys to seek a further treaty:-
to secure protection for merchants against oppression;
to establish a Resident at the Capital and a Consul in Rangoon;
to obtain a grant of the island of Negrais or some commercial concession equivalent thereto;
to settle the vexed question of the Maghs on the Arakan frontier.
Like Cox, Symes had some difficulty in securing an appropriate reception, he also was requested to go to the Customs House and he also refused. In the end he was received in the Exchange, “the floor of which was carpeted and the sides screened with ornamental flags,” where the Yewun, who was acting in place of the Myowun, who had been summoned to the Capital in disgrace, kept him waiting thirty minutes before arriving.
In general he was treated with incivility and distrust, he was even forbidden to allow his ship, the Mornington, to fire the usual morning and evening gun on the grounds that “being wholly unaccustomed to hear the sound of cannon and it being a breach of law in a Burman to fire even a musket at such untimely hours, the report of our gun created an alarm so general as to endanger every pregnant woman in the city with miscarriage.” It was apparent that the feeling in Rangoon was antipathetic, two French vessels had recently been sent from Mauritius bringing arms and though one had been wrecked in the Gulf of Martaban, the other arrived safely and French influence was therefore in the ascendant. The statement made by the French that “the peace lately concluded was earnestly solicited by the English” was fully believed in Rangoon and was accepted as evidence of the superior power of the French.
Symes noted that ship-building was still flourishing and wrote with evident exaggeration that “vessels, several of them of considerable burthen, are laid down and launched every week.” In August he proceeded to the Capital where, to his surprise he found conditions to be much as Cox had reported. The arrival of the arms from Mauritius had evidently had the same effect at the Capital as it had in Rangoon and “the undisguised partiality of the King for the French” was expressly commented on by Symes. “His Majesty,” he reported, “was highly displeased with the English” and had been for some time in correspondence with their enemies. “The true characteristics of the English nation are pride, violence and rapacity, whereas the French, on the contrary, are gentle, courteous, peaceful and quiet,” was the Kings view.
Symes also learnt that three or four years previously an emissary had been sent to Mergui to invite the French cruisers which happened to be there to come to Rangoon, with promises of security, liberty of commerce and every sort of provisions and when two privateers arrived in the river, the King had given them exemption from the usual dues and a gratuitous supply of provisions.
The proposal for a grant of land at Negrais moreover, caused, by Symes’ own statement, a good deal of consternation and confirmed the Court in it suspicions of English intentions. All possible steps were taken to show the inferiority of the English and Rangoon now saw the curious sight of an American, named Bevan, supercargo of one of the French ships, a Frenchman names Desbroulais who had recently been released from a Calcutta gaol and two French-Burmese youths, being dressed up as ambassadors of the French Government and sent in state to the Capital as a set-off to the English mission.
After three months during which he had succeeded in completing no business at all, Symes returned to Rangoon, where he arrived on the 11th January 1803. The interim between this date and the departure of Symes on the 20th was full of excitement for the inhabitants of Rangoon.
The Yewun, who was at this time in charge of Rangoon, sent a message to Symes as his boats neared the town that “he would not suffer the ship to salute, as there were several persons sick in the fort, whom the noise of the guns would disturb.” Symes was not content to accept this order and his ship fired the usual seventeen guns as he approached. But when he landed he found the gates of the stockade shut against him.
Fortunately for him, a house had been engaged by his subordinates outside the stockade, near the water’s edge. In response to a demand that he should attend the Yondaw in person, he sent one of his subordinate, a Mr Campbell. The Yewun, when Campbell appeared, asserted that the ship had fired shot against the Fort and in proof of this statement he produced the wadding of some of the guns. Campbell endeavoured to explain the mistake, but the Yewun refused to be pacified and Campbell withdrew in alarm. The next day the Akunwun came to Symes and urges him to send a shot and a wad to the Yondaw so that the Yewun might perceive the difference and this was done, the interpreter, Mr Roland, accompanying the messenger.
The Yewun was still not satisfied, however and asserted that he would detain Roland until one of the ship’s officers came to answer for the insult offered to the Fort. Symes sent Campbell with a military officer to the Yondaw to rescue Roland and this they did, suffering no harm other than abusive language accompanied by the threat that the ship would be detained until orders had been received from the Court. Symes therefore directed the ship to be prepared for defence and sent for Messrs. Taylor and Murray, the principal English merchants and agree with them upon a signal which should be a warning to the European inhabitants to leave the town and take refuge on the Mornington.
That night the sepoys slept on their arms, while much tumult was heard from the town. The next day passed without incident except that Symes’ men were allowed to bring away some of his property that remained in a house within the stockade and that the Yewun again asserted that he would not allow the ship to depart.
On the 15th the gates were opened and a Portuguese interpreter to Capt. Frost of the Mornington was liberated after being hung up by his heels in prison. A Muslim’s ship which lay between the Mornington and the stockade had dropped higher up the river on the tide at Symes request, at midnight by the Yewun’s order she had resumed her former station. Symes therefore now directed Capt. Frost to send an armed boat’s crew to moor her elsewhere, with the statement that is she came back her cables would be cut. There was meanwhile still more excitement in the town, for the Yewun had issued a warning that the English intended to made a night attack and cut everyone’s throat.
The 16th was quiet. On the 17th a party of Burmans came and assured Symes that many of their people opposed to the Yewun and on the 18th a messenger came to apologise on the Yewun’s behalf, bringing presents which were declined. On the 19th the excitement had subsided. Two Gaungs came to Symes and stated that the Yewun was at dagger’s drawn with the Myowun that each had his party in the town and that the Myowun’s party was ready to break out in open rebellion at any time. Thus the Yewun could not afford to commence hostilities. On the 20th Symes embarked on the Mornington and set sail, the battery firing a seventeen gun salute as he left. So ended Symes second and last mission to Burma.
Relations with the Burmese being thus strained and with the prospect of renewed war with the French before it, the Company had no desire for a definite rupture. Therefore Lt. John Canning was in the same year, 1803, despatched to Rangoon as agent on the part of Col. Symes, to assure the Burmese Government of the goodwill of the Company and at the same time to observe the development of French influence. So Canning, who had accompanied Symes’s last mission, arrived in Rangoon on the 31st May 1803 in the ship Henry Addington, Capt Robertson. The weather being threatening when the ship neared the bar, it was thought prudent not to wait for a pilot but to proceed up the river. The ship stopped at the Chokey, where Canning learnt to his relief that the Yewun had been recalled to the Capital and that the Akunwun Jaunsi was in charge of the province.
On the 1st June, Canning went shore and was greeted on the wharf by Jaunsi, “in his robes of ceremony “a green velvet great coat with a profusion of gold lace” and taken to the Customs House where carpets were spread and tea and sweetmeats were waiting for him. The Sitke and Baba Sheen, the Akunwun, also came to greet him, as did a number of the European inhabitants, “the Customs House being a place of public resort.” After some conversation he went to look at a house within the stockade, which he rented. He was informed that though all his baggage must go to the Customs House, nothing would be taken, but his promise was not kept, for all his trunks were opened and the presents he had brought for the officials were removed.
Canning, however, was well pleased at his friendly reception, which was unexpected after the circumstances of Syme’s departure. The reason for it appeared to be that the Siamese had won some success in their war with Burma and that trouble with the Company was therefore to be avoided. It appeared that conditions in Rangoon had latterly improved somewhat for Canning learned that “everything had remained perfectly quiet” and “that the Raywoon showed more justice and leniency to foreigners than he had been accustomed to,” since Symes departed.
Nevertheless, the local officials displayed a not unnatural curiosity about the object of Canning’s visit and were evidently suspicious, failing to credit his statement that he had been sent to Rangoon only to act as a regular means of communication between the two Governments but he was relieved to learn from the Roman Padre Don Vincenzo (Sangermano) that it was highly improbable that the French would be allowed to effect any territorial settlement in Burma. Trade he found to be poor, for the difficulties imposed by the Government tend to drive foreign merchants away and also a large quantity of trade was going by coastal shipping along the Arakan coast to Bassein and thence by the Delta creeks inland, whilst the officials at Cheduba and Ramri were attracting trade to their ports by passing goods free of duty in return for bribes, whereas in Rangoon the regular 12 ½ per cent was extracted. Few ships were on the stocks, only five in number. Further, the rains were late in breaking and many cattle had been lost for want of water.
But the complexity of political affairs was soon changed by the arrival in September of the French brig Jeune Africaine, bringing forty-six chests each containing twenty-five muskets, many bales of cloth and liquors and specie besides, the whole cargo said to be for sale. The ship had left Bordeaux about a year before. It was stated that most of the muskets were purchased by Jaunsi for the Government but in reality one thousand of them were brought as presents for the King and the officials were presented with two muskets each as well and the Captain stated that another ship with even more valuable presents was due within a couple of months.
Soon afterwards the Yewun returned from the Court, evidently quite in favour with the King and resumed in charge of the Government. He was civil to Canning at first, but a few days later issued an order that all foreign correspondence must be censored. Two days later after this order was issued, letters arrived for Canning by the Captain of the Company’s armed brig Waller, which had anchored at the mouth of the river to avoid the difficulty occasioned by the rule that guns must be landed.
The Akunwun demanded that these letters be opened and read to the Yewun, but Canning firmly refused to agree and in the end the Yewun gave way. Canning was the more determined in his attitude since any casual expression in a letter which annoyed the Yewun might evoke his violent temper, with very likely serious consequences to Canning and all other British subjects in the town.
It may be observed that Canning was technically only a private agent to Symes and had not any public capacity, his attitude therefore seems irregular. However, he sent a letter to the Yewun warning him that persistence in the demand would lead him to return to Bengal, but the messenger who took the letter to the Yondaw had his umbrella taken from him and thrown into the street, a stone was cast after it and he was himself then thrown into the street after his umbrella and when a letter was sent back by the Captain of the Waller from the mouth of the river, it was at once taken to the Yondaw and opened. Canning promptly addressed the Yewun informing him of his intention of sailing forthwith but did not put his threat into execution. Further letters arrived and were detained at the Yondaw, but were then sent on to Canning after a day’s delay, unopened.
But yet another letter was opened and so on the 13th November Canning went down the river and boarded the Waller for Bengal. It was from the Company’s point of view unfortunate that Canning should have had to leave Rangoon at a time when the commander of the French Jeune Africaine, who had been three months in the place and showed no signs of leaving it, was about to visit the Capital. However, the next month the Hanthawaddy Myowun who had regained the Royal favour, resumed charge of the province and he was generally regarded as more favourably disposed to the English than was the Yewun. But the practice of opening foreign letters did not cease.
On the resumption of war between Great Britain and France, the depredations of the French privateers were renewed and caused a good deal of alarm to the merchants in Rangoon. The career of the privateer Pariel is instructive. The Pariel was a small brig of 45 feet keel, commanded by one Quenet and manned by thirty Europeans. She left Mauritius in March 1804 and reached the coast of the Delta in June. Soon afterwards she captured the Trial, a sloop sailing from Madras to Rangoon and the Trial being better suited to his purpose, Quenet took her to Rangoon where she was refitted and then set sail in her, having renamed her Pariel, leaving the original Pariel in the port to be sold.
Early in July he seized one of the pilot-boats and then lay concealed behind Elephant Point “a projecting point of land covered with high trees,” as it was at that period. He had not long to wait, for there arrived the Cartier from Penang and when one of her passengers, a ship’s master named Turnbull, put off in a boat to procure a pilot, the occupants of the pilot-boat which he met fired on him and made him prisoner. The pilot-boat then went to board the Cartier but her Captain seeing that something was wrong, prevented the enemy from boarding and stood out to sea, pursued by the privateer which he was able to out sail after the exchange of a few shots.
On the 11th July, a few days after taking Turnbull, Quenet captured the Harriot, of Chittagong, to which he again transferred, renaming her also the Pariel. The late Harriot was a largish ship of 450 tons, armed with four 12 pounders. Her lascars crew Quenet kept, but he put Turnbull and his other English prisoners on board the late Trial, which had been damaged and sent them to Rangoon.
Unlike most privateers-men Quenet treated his prisoners well and did not deprive them of their personal property. The prisoners were released at Rangoon and Turnbull purchased the original Pariel and renamed her the Ann, he was still commanding her on the Calcutta-Rangoon passage in 1807.
The Pariel could not, it was considered, have continued her career without the assistance of the Rangoon officials, whose partiality for the French caused them to lend her assistance despite the fact that the port depended principally on its trade with British India. When the vessel first appeared off the coast her officers were received in state by the Yewun, who offered them every assistance and wished them success in their conflicts with the English and despite a protest from the English merchants of the port, the privateers-men were allowed to stay for five days in the harbour equipping the Trial. The Yewun, it was reported, was quite willing for the French to make Rangoon a regular base, but other officials pointed out that the revenue would suffer by the loss of customs dues, so he contented himself with authorising the privateer to take provisions in the port provided she left expeditiously and afterwards, though there is no evidence that he supplied her with stores of a military nature, he sent her frequent supplies of provisions. In consequence the Pariel was able to linger off the mouth of the river and the merchants found that their business was seriously incommoded, for the ships in the port dared not go to sea for fear of immediate capture.
One ship, the brig Sally, tried to avoid the Pariel by making a passage through the Bassein Creek to Negrais, and off the mouth of the China Bakir her Captain found that five of the Frenchmen and eight lascars were ashore trading. He resolved to take the boat in which they had landed and a conflict ensued, fought on Burmese territory, as a result of which the leader of the French was wounded and the rest surrendered. The Captain of the Sally thereupon returned to Rangoon with his prisoners to explain the circumstances. The hostility generally felt towards the English was shown at China Bakir village, where the people demanded that the French should be given up and had to be deterred from rescuing them by threat of forcible resistance.
The officials now became alarmed at the probability of serious trouble with the English and therefore sent a number of war-boats down the river to take the Pariel, but they returned without having made an attack. A Chuila vessel was plundered by the Pariel soon afterwards and as much of the cargo belonged to Burmese traders the excitement was so great that the French in Rangoon were in danger of their lives for a time. The Pariel remained off the Pegu coast till the end of July and then withdrew to Mergui, a favourite haunt of privateers.
These happenings led to a protest to the Company’s Government from two ship’s Captains against “the unparalleled injustice of the Birmah Government to the British commanders and merchants trading to the port of Rangoon” which had “arrived at that pitch that it is incumbent on those concerned to state the same.”
It does not appear that any action was taken by the Company, nor is it easy to see what action, short of a demonstration in force, was possible. But the circumstances clearly indicate the difficulties with which the commerce of Rangoon was attended.
The problem of neutrality caused much trouble at this period. A Capt. Purser in the same year, 1804, seized a ship lying off the Danot watch-post evidently because it was French, an episode which led to the reduction of the Akunwun from his office for a time, presumable because the Government held him responsible for what occurred in the port and the river.
Again in the following year, 1805, H.M.S. Albatross arrived in the river and demanded the surrender of the Betsy which had been taken by the French and brought to Rangoon. This demand was refused and in consequence the Albatross detained a vessel, the Regina, sailing from Mauritius to Rangoon under Burmese colours, whereupon the British subjects in Rangoon were imprisoned and threatened with death. Subsequently the Regina was given up to its owners, its destination being disapproved by the Company’s Government.
The privateer danger continued for some years and to make matters worse, early in 1809 a blockade of the French Islands was declared by the British. Naturally trade was bad in that and the succeeding year, for the French Islands, almost completely cut off from communications with Europe they had been drawing extensive supplies from Burma. The taking of Mauritius and Reunion in 1810 eased the situation to some extent, but the internal condition of Burma was bad. The war with Siam continued and the whole country was reported to be in a state of confusion. On the 13th January 1810, moreover, a disastrous fire broke out and destroyed most of the town of Rangoon, with considerable loss of life. Nearly all the merchants were ruined, while the poorer inhabitants were in some cases driven to robbery out of sheer desperation. There was indeed reason to believe that the fire had been deliberately started by incendiaries as a protest against the heavy taxation and the conscription for the Siamese war, for letters threatening this had been found one morning lying at the door of the Yondaw a month or so before the fire occurred.
The Siamese war, moreover was causing consternation in Rangoon, for it was at one time feared that the enemy would be victorious and would occupy the town. There was famine in Burma in these years, the price of food doubled and dacoity became common. “The misery of the people is beyond description,” wrote an observer in December 1809. “Children of various ages were repeatedly brought to me, whose fathers had been driven to the war and whom their mothers begged me to accept in hopes of procuring for their offspring that sustenance they were unable to afford. The wretched inhabitants dragged from their homes or publicly sold if unable to pay the exorbitant requisitions of the Government, to avoid famine and disease in a camp or the miseries of slavery, have in numerous bands had recourse to open rebellion.”.....
In 1809 when the Blockade of the French Islands was established Canning was once more sent to Rangoon to convey a warning that any vessel communicating with the French territories would be detained and at the same time to explain the nature of the blockade, which to the Burmese was unfamiliar, he was also to endeavour to soothe their undoubted annoyance at the certain diminution of the Rangoon trade and he was further directed to observe the extent of French influence in the country.
... At the same time, he had difficulty in explaining why a war between French and English should interfere with the trade of Burma....
Burma-British relations were made worse by the recrudescence of Magh invasions on the Arakan frontier in the year 1811 and in October of that year Canning once more arrived in Rangoon in the Company’s Amboyna with the object of removing from the minds of the King and his ministers the suspicions which they entertained that the Company had instigated or encouraged the Magh’. The Burmese authorities, convinced that the Company was supporting the Magh’s, had indulged in reprisals against the English subjects in Rangoon by placing an embargo upon such ships as were in the port, through the Myowun had released them after an interview with the British merchants. However, Canning, who appears to have been on good terms with the Myowun, was at first able to persuade him of the Company’s innocence and for a time all was well. The Myowun even presented to Mrs Canning a house on an island in the Kandawgale for which she expressed admiration. Meanwhile Rangoon was made a base for the force which was to be sent against the Magh’s and a special tax, one of those impositions to which Rangoon was liable, was levied on the town to meet the cost.....
But unfortunately in February 1812 a Burmese force in pursuit of the Magh’s crossed the frontier and entered Chittagong and Canning received instructions to lodge a strong protest. He was about to proceed to the Capital when news arrived of a second incursion of Burmese troops into the Company’s territory and since the situation was obviously critical and he feared he might be held a hostage for the good behaviour of the Magh’s he declined, despite the Myowun’s earnest requests to leave for the interior. So far relations with the local officials had been friendly, for example on the 14th February when a fire broke out which seemed likely to consume the whole town, Canning had sent a party of his followers to assist in suppressing the outbreak, which was fortunately got under control. The first fire-engine known in Rangoon was used on this occasion for the suppression of the fire was largely due to “the timely use of the engine sent as a present by Government to the Heir Apparent.” The Myowun expressed his thanks to Canning for his assistance.....
But now relations became decidedly strained, both officials and townsfolk were suspicious and alarmed and Canning fearing for the safety of the English residents made arrangements that on an agreed signal they should come aboard his ship the Amboyna. The signal was given in April. The Myowun made an attempt to seize Canning by force, but though Canning escaped to his ship, the unexpected arrival of another Company’s vessel which came up the river without permission and without waiting for a pilot, threw the populace into an uproar as they feared this was the preliminary to an attack on the town.
The English residents managed to get away safely, but among them was the Baptist missionary Carey, who brought with him his wife, mother-in-law and his sister-in-law. These three women were all Burmese subjects and their departure from the town was a breach of the law regarding the export of females. Yet motives of humanity forbade Canning to refuse them refuge, lest they suffer a vicarious persecution in place of Carey. Moreover, he was informed, the law in this particular had often been disregarded. The Myowun, fearing that further of the Company’s ships might arrive, had batteries thrown up along the lower reaches of the river and at various places round the stockade and also had masonry gateways erected instead of the old wooden gateways.
For these purposes he gave orders that all tombs of whatever race or religion should be demolished and their bricks used in the new defences. For three days the townsfolk laboured, even children being called on to carry bricks, until every tomb in the place had been destroyed. Among the tombs thus demolished were those in the English cemetery, which “contained the remains of several respectable Europeans with handsome monuments and tombstones,” including the tomb of the missionary Brain and that of Richard Thomas Burney, half brother of the novelist Fanny Burney, who had died while on a visit to Rangoon in 1808.
An acrimonious correspondence took place between Canning and the Myowun on the subject of the destruction of these tombs and also on the subject of Carey’s family, until an outbreak of actual fighting seemed the certain outcome. Neither party wished to proceed to extremities, however, and after nearly two months of strain, during which Canning never went ashore without a detachment of troops, an agreement was arrived at. Carey returned to the mission-house with his family, as he desired to do, being confident of his ability to keep on good terms with the Myowun and at the same time the Myowun gave an undertaking in writing that Carey and his family should not be in any way ill treated. So the matter was settled to everyone’s relief.
Canning took advantage if this episode to address the Company’s Government with the proposal that the whole question of the emigration of the children of Europeans be taken up with the Burmese Court, but the Governor-General in Council felt that interference was not possible in so essentially a domestic matter of the Burmese Government.
Canning also protested strongly against the desecration of the English cemetery but the Myowun declared that it had not been done by his order and that in any case the tombs of all races had been treated alike. Canning admitted that there had been no discrimination but asserted that the Myowun had in fact authorised the proceedings .
Carey however, stated that the desecration was due to the populace who had vented their fury in this manner and he praised the Myowun for the restraint which he had shown throughout the affair, holding that with almost any other Burmese official war would certainly have broken out.
But while relations in Rangoon became easier and Canning was able, along with other Europeans, to resume residence ashore, though he stayed at a house by the river and not within the Fort, the Royal Court was still demanding that he should be sent to the Capital. The Myowun, alarmed for his own head, begged Canning to excuse himself on the grounds of sickness and to send an officer with presents in his place. After some argument Canning sent his assistant-interpreter with presents and gave a letter to the Myowun stating that he was unable to proceed to the Capital on account of the sickness of many of his followers.
Yet a further order for his attendance at Court arrived and the Myowun, finding that Canning was about to return to Bengal, again begged him to feign sickness and suggested further that Canning should agree to a few shots being fired at his ship as he departed, so that the Myowun might claim to have endeavoured to detain him by force.
Canning however, dissuaded him on the ground that the Company’s Government would take such an action as if it had been meant seriously and not in a friendly spirit. Yet again orders came from Amarapura for Canning’s attendance, authorising him to be brought “by force and well secured, if necessary,” but force could clearly not be used against two well-armed vessels and the very officials who had brought the orders paid a friendly visit to the ship Malabar and expressed themselves much interested in her equipment. So on the 18th October Canning took a friendly farewell of the Myowun, but before he actually sailed for Calcutta the Myowun was replaced by another officer who issued orders that the mission was on no account to leave the port. Canning however, sailed on the 16th and no attempt was made to stop him, beyond some reluctance to allow him pilots.
When the King heard of Canning’s departure he was greatly enraged and ordered the Myowun to be crucified on a raft which was to be set adrift at the mouth of the river so that it might float to Bengal to show the Governor-General what happened to those who disobeyed the Royal command, but Rogers, the Akunwun, appeased his wrath by producing some valuable presents and the Myowun suffered no punishment beyond that of being reduced to the less important province of Dalla.
No further missions to Burma followed Canning’s third embassy and relations between the two Governments became steadily worse until war was the culmination in 1824.
In 1813 trade received some impetus from the announcements of a considerable reduction in port dues at Rangoon, many vessels forthwith proceeded to the port, but as soon as trade showed signs of flourishing again the old dues were re-imposed with an additional of two per cent, even ships which had already left the port were declared liable for the increased charge and security was taken for its payment from the merchants who had shipped goods.
In March 1814 occurred another disastrous fire which almost wiped out the whole town. The Baptist missionaries who had gone to reside at the house of the Akunwun Rogers within the stockade for fear of the robbers who infested the suburbs, related that “today, as usual, we came out to the mission-house, that we might enjoy the Sabbath in a more quiet way. We had but just arrived, when one of the servants informed us that there was a fire near the town. We hastened to the place whence the fire proceeded and beheld several houses inflame, in a range which led directly to the city and as we saw no exertions to extinguish it, we concluded the whole place would be destroyed. We set off immediately for our house in town, that we might remove our furniture and things that were there but when we came to the town gate, it was shut. The poor people, in their fright, had shut the gate, ignorantly imagining they could shut the fire out, though the walls and gates were made entirely of wood. After waiting, however, for some time, the gate was opened and we removed in safety all our things into the mission house. The fire continued to rage all day and swept away almost all the houses, walls, gates etc.”
At this period there was a severe outbreak of cholera in the town. In the hot weather on 1818 its “dreadful ravages made in Rangoon filled everyone with terror and alarm. It was in the midst of the hottest season of the year and there was no prospect of the disorders subsiding until the commencement of the rains. The beating of the death drum and other instruments used at funerals sounded all day long, a melancholy dirge in our ears.”....
Nor was the political situation any more pleasant than the sanitary condition of the town. In June 1819 there was great alarm when news was received of the death of King Bodawpaya, it was feared that there would be a contest for the throne which would throw the whole country into confusion, but his grandson, Bagyidaw, who had been declared Einshemin on the death of his father in 1808, succeeded to the throne without any serious opposition. Until definite news reached Rangoon of the peaceful accession of the new King, there was much concern in the town, which was “in the utmost anxiety and alarm.” It was stated that “the whole place is sitting in sullen silence, expecting an explosion,” But thought this fear was un-grounded, there were other political circumstances which gave cause for alarm. Relations between the Burmese Government and the Government of India were strained and rumours were current that an attempt would be made by the British to invade and annex Burma, so grave was the situation that at some periods shipping between Rangoon and the Indian presidencies was almost at a standstill and it was clear that an outbreak of hostilities was sooner or later inevitable.
The First Anglo-Burmese War 1824-1826
The book continues with Tharrawaddy's Rangoon and sets the scene for the 2nd and 3rd A-B Wars. In conclusion it describes, after the deposition of King Thebaw and the Court of Ava, the construction work and population problems of Rangoon up to 1938.