Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The First Burmese War

Although Lord Hastings had come out to India with the determination not to fight, he had been obliged to fight in order to win peace and justice for India. His rule will be remembered as great, however, not merely because he added many lands to the Empire, but because he brought peace to these lands.

Lord Hastings was the first Governor-General who took any interest in the teaching of the people. Before his day the Company had been inclined to think that it was just as well that the people should remain ignorant, as they would then be more easily ruled. Lord Hastings did not think so, and he helped to found native schools, and in many ways tried to make the lives of the Indian peoples better and happier.

The change to free trade, which had taken place at the beginning of Lord Hastings' rule, had proved a great success, and the affairs of the Company had never been better than when he gave up his post and went home in 1823.

Lord Hastings left India in peace, and it was hoped by all that the peace would last. But very soon after Lord Amherst, the new Governor-General arrived, he was forced into another war.

Beyond Bengal, and stretching in a long, narrow strip down the bay, lies Burma. The Burmese, about this time, had great wars among themselves, and some of the rebels had fled into Bengal, asking protection from the British. The King of Burma ordered the British to give these fugitives up. But they refused, knowing well that the poor wretches would be put to death with terrible tortures. This made the king angry, and, having conquered Assam, he next began to attack British possessions.

Even then Lord Amherst tried to arrange matters peacefully. But it was in vain. The king mistook the wish for peace for fear. He haughtily commanded one of his generals to drive the British out of Bengal, and to bring the Governor-General back in golden chains, so that he might be put to death.

Lord Amherst saw, at length, that war was not to be avoided, and began to collect ships and men. He meant to send his army across the Bay of Bengal in ships, and attack the Burmese in their own land. But the Calcutta sepoys refused to go, for their caste rules would not allow them to sail upon the "black water," as they called the sea. So Lord Amherst was obliged to send part of his army round the bay by land, where they endured terrible hardships, for the roads were almost impassable. The sepoys of Madras were not so particular, however, and soon a little fleet set sail for Rangoon.

When the Burmese saw the British fleet they were both astonished and frightened. They had never expected that the enemy would come by sea, and they had made no preparations. What frightened them most was a small steamship called the Diana.  It was the first steamer which had ever been seen in the East, for the power of steam was only being discovered. The Burmese had an old saying that they should never be conquered until a ship came up the Irrawaddy without sails or oars. Now the ship had come, and it struck terror into their hearts.

After firing a volley into the town, the British landed at Rangoon. But when they reached the town they found it empty, silent, and deserted. Men, women, and children had fled. The only human beings were eleven Europeans who were found tied and bound, ready for death. As soon as the fleet had appeared, they had been seized and condemned to death. They were seated upon the ground, and the executioner stood over them sharpening his knife, when a cannon ball burst into their midst. In terror the Burmese fled, leaving their prisoners behind them, to be found and set free again by the British.

The Burmese were cowardly, ignorant, and puffed up with foolish pride. Their army were a mere rabble, without order or courage. They were badly armed and worse drilled. The British ought to have crushed them in a few weeks. But instead of that the war dragged on for two years. From the first to last there seemed only to be mistakes and misfortunes.

In those days Burma was almost an unknown country. The British knew little of the people and less of the land which they had come to conquer. They found it full of impassable forests and deadly swamps. All round Rangoon the land was a desert. It was swept bare of grain or food, and there was not a human being to be seen.

Soon the rains began. The whole country became a reeking marsh from which rose foul mists, bringing sickness and death. Although the rain poured in torrents, the weather was stifling and hot, the men always hungry. In vain the country was scoured for food. There was none to be found. The soldiers had to live on biscuits and tinned meats sent from Calcutta, and these were bad.

The British commander had hoped to sail up the Irrawaddy and attack the king in his capital of Ava. But the rains made the river a rushing torrent, upon which it was impossible for sailing vessels to go. So, for six months the army remained at Rangoon. Man after man was stricken down. The hospitals were quickly filled to overflowing. The men died in hundreds, and when the rains ceased, it was found that every tenth man was dead.

Now Bundula, the great Burmese general, marched against the British with sixty thousand men.

The Burmese had a curious way of fighting. Instead of attacking the enemy in the open, they built high fences of interlaced bamboo. Then they dug holes in the ground behind the fences and burrowed in them like moles or rabbits, and from behind these ramparts they fired upon the enemy.

In this way they now surrounded the British, who watched them curiously as they made their preparations. The Burmese worked so fast that it seemed as if their entrenchments rose by magic, and in a few hours the British were quite surrounded.

Then fighting began and lasted for a fortnight. Bundula, himself, was brave, and his army was twenty times as large as that of the British But at last the British charged the Burmese in their burrows, and they fled in disorder.

The British now marched up the river to Ava. Bundula was killed, and with him died all the courage of the Burmese. The king began to tremble for his throne. He offered his soldiers great rewards to encourage them to fight, for by this time fearful stories were told of the might and cruelty of the "white demons." But the British swept all before them, and the king was ready to make peace.

Then there came to him a boasting warrior called the Lord of the Sun-Set. He begged leave to lead the army, and swore to the king that he would save his capital from the white demons, and scatter them in flight. So the last army which the king could collect was given him to command.

But the Lord of the Sun-Set, too, was defeated, and his army fled. Then the king, in wrath, gave orders that he should be trampled to death by wild elephants, as a reward for his boasting and his failure.

Now peace was made, and, by the treaty of Yandaboo, the King of Burma gave up Assam, Aracan, and Tenasserim to the Company, and promised to pay a large sum of money.

When the news of the war reached home, the directors were, as usual, very angry about it. It had cost thirteen times more than the Pindari and the last Maráthá wars. All the money that Lord Hastings had gathered had been used. The Company was once more in debt. They had lost twenty thousand men, and all that they had in return were three swampy, forest-covered provinces.

But these same swampy provinces have turned out to be among the most important of British India. In places, where in 1826, there were only a few bamboo huts, prosperous towns and harbours have sprung up. The foul swamps have been changed into the most fertile of rice-fields. Aracan has become the granary of Bengal. The tea-gardens of Assam are famous the world over. More than half the tea we drink at home comes from Indian tea-gardens, besides which much is sent to the Colonies and to the Continent.

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