Britain Annexes Burma

   by Charles Kimball

Siam's recovery and a war with China (1766-69) forced Burma to abandon Siam, but the kings of Burma found other tempting targets to the west: Arakan (annexed in 1785) and Assam (1817). Half of Arakan's population fled to Bengal, the main British colony of India, and the presence of Burmese troops on both the northern and eastern borders of the Bengal colony provoked a British reaction. It was the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), which began with a pre-emptive British raid that captured Rangoon, the Burmese capital. The Burmese returned, besieged the city, and nearly retook it, when disease put 90% of the British and Indian soldiers out of action and killed one in three. However, Siam entered the war on Britain's side, the anti-Burmese Karen minority revolted, and reinforcements arrived just in time; afterwards an invasion up the Irrawaddy broke Burmese resistance. Arakan, Assam, Manipur and the Tenasserim coast all had to be ceded to the victorious British; that was enough to satisfy them for a quarter of a century.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53) was caused by a trivial incident: the governor of Rangoon levied a fine of £100 on two British merchants. Fearing that a meek response would be seen as weakness by others, Britain sent a naval force to demand that the fine be waived and that the governor be replaced. Both demands were met, but the British used the rudeness of native officials as an excuse to attack anyway. Once again Rangoon was occupied and the British struck northward, making for an easy victory. This time the entire southern half of the country, with its valuable teak forests, came under British rule.

The final dissolution of independent Burma had several causes:
1. The growing demands of British merchants to open up Upper Burma for exploitation. Many of them also wanted to open up a trade route into China from the south.
2. Fears that the French would accomplish the same goals first, especially after the French conquest of Vietnam.
3. Reports of corruption, instability, and atrocities at the court of Burma's last king, a drunkard named Thibaw. Britons were shocked by stories that told of a queen being trampled to death by elephants and of Thibaw ordering the execution of eight of his brothers in a single day. Surely, the Britons told themselves, it was their moral duty to protect others from themselves.

The end came with surgical swiftness; the Third Anglo-Burmese War lasted only one week in 1885. On January 1, 1886, Burma was declared part of British India.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball