Arakan: The Mrohaung Era
In the 14th century Arakan was a pawn that frequently changed hands in the struggles between Ava and Pegu. Things began to look up, however, when King Narameikhla (1404-34), aided by the sultan of Bengal, recovered his throne from a pro-Burmese usurper. At the end of his reign he built a splendid new capital, Mrohaung, and Arakan's golden age began.
The next important king was Minbin (1531-53), who fortified Mrohaung with massive earthworks and a deep moat, just in time to ward off an attack by the Burmese king Tabinshweti. During his reign a number of Portuguese sailors, called Feringhi by the Arakanese, became pirates and started terrorizing the Bay of Bengal. Minbin persuaded them to join his navy as mercenaries, and together they became an important regional power. The Feringhi raiders plundered far and wide, especially in the Ganges delta, and brought back thousands of slaves to their market in the port of Dianga every year. In 1625 they even captured Dacca, the Bengali capital; by this time the raids of the Feringhi armada had been so thorough that there was not a house left inhabited between Dacca and Chittagong.
Under Min Razagri (1593-1612) there was a temporary falling out between the Feringhi and their employers. Both had taken part in the burning of Pegu in 1599, and the Feringhi captured the port of Syriam, in the Irrawaddy delta. Min Razagri apparently expected the Portuguese to hand over Syriam to him, but instead they kept it for themselves, defeating the Arakanese flotilla sent to dislodge them. Min Razagri now decided that his mercenaries had grown too powerful; in 1607 he made an all-out attack on Dianga, killing six hundred of its inhabitants without mercy. Those who escaped declared war on Arakan, making raids up to the very walls of Mrohaung, but the capital's defenses saved it again; even a Portuguese fleet of 14 ships, sent by the Viceroy of Goa, could not prevail. After 1620 Arakan and Portugal renewed their previous alliance, when India's Mogul Empire became a threat to both.
During this time Dutch merchants started visiting Arakan, buying up all the slaves and rice the Arakanese were willing to sell. On several occasions a V.O.C. warehouse was set up in Mrohaung, but politics kept it from running smoothly. The king of Arakan wanted a military alliance with the Dutch, to keep his enemies away and to provide an alternative to the unpredictable Feringhi. The Dutch refused, since warfare would be bad for business, and often they would close shop when the king became too overbearing. They never gave up on Arakan, though, and always reopened the warehouse a few years later.
Relations with the Mogul Empire went from bad to worse as the 17th century progressed. The first Mogul attack retook Dacca, but the invading fleet was smashed before it could get out of the Ganges delta (1629). In 1660 a Mogul prince, Shah Shuja, fled to Mrohaung when he failed to keep his brother, Aurangzeb, from usurping the Mogul throne. Shah Shuja asked for ships to convey his family and retinue to Mecca, but none were supplied. Then the Arakanese king, Sandathudamma, asked for one of Shah Shuja's daughters in marriage and was indignantly refused. Fearing he would be handed over to the Moguls, Shah Shuja tried to escape; on the second attempt he was killed in a riot and his treasures were confiscated.
When Aurangzeb heard the news, he demanded the surrender of Shah Shuja's children; Sandathudamma refused and war broke out. At first the war went well for Arakan, with the Feringhi making two devastating raids on the Bengal coast. But at a crucial moment they quarreled with the Arakanese, and when the Moguls offered employment most of the Feringhi switched sides. The result was an overwhelming Mogul victory at the battle of Dianga (1666), where the Arakanese fleet was destroyed and Chittagong (held by Arakan since 1459) was taken back.
The piratical habits of the Arakanese survived long after their fleet and Portuguese teachers were gone. Between 1682 and 1785, 25 kings rose and fell in Mrohaung. Political chaos now became the national hobby, and Arakan was no longer a threat to anybody.
©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball