"The Great Mother cometh over the sea."
When Marco Polo visited China, he brought back news of two other great countries bordering on the land of the Great Khan—Tibet and Burma—both on the Indian frontier. Tibet lies dormant amid its snows, and plays no part at present in the world's history. But a different fate, fortunately, awaited Burma. A glance at the map will show that Burma occupies a remarkable geographical position. Bounded on three sides by India, China, and Siam, it has an unbroken coastline of some 800 miles, reaching to the Malay Peninsula. Running for over a thousand miles, throughout the whole length of the country, is the great waterway of the Irawadi, which rises in snowy Tibet and empties itself into the Bay of Bengal, its many mouths forming natural harbours of great commercial value. The country itself was rich in wealth: it produced rice for food, magnificent timber for building houses and ships, iron, coal, rubies, and precious stones. But the kings of Burma, with this magnificent empire at their feet, wastefully squandered the lives of the people and the treasure of the country in wars of aggression. Let us see how, after 2500 years of misgovernment, the "coming of the Great Queen" in 1885, brought peace and prosperity to a people of surpassing interest in themselves.
Early in the nineteenth century, the Burmese conquered Assam and first came into contact with British power in India, until in 1824, war broke out between the two powers. Knowing little of the country, British troops were landed at Rangoon in May, a few days before the rains, which, from May to October, converted the country into a gigantic swamp. The heavy rain fell incessantly day and night, fever broke out, and hundreds died. A campaign was carried on, until a stray cannon-ball killed the Burmese general, whose soldiers lost heart and allowed the enemy to sail up the Irawadi, almost to the walls of Ava, the old capital, near the present town of Mandalay. To save his capital, the king made peace, by which Assam and most of the west coast was ceded to the British.
Years passed on, but the Burmese were still unfriendly, and after a final protest, by the British, war broke out again. In 1852 British war-ships appeared at the mouth of the Irawadi, and troops made their way up the great river, capturing city after city, until Lower Burma was formally annexed to the British dominions in the Far East.
One of the chief features of this second Burmese war, was the capture of the famous golden Pagoda, or idol-temple, at Rangoon. This had been a goal for pilgrims for over 2000 years: they had come from Siam, Ceylon, the distant Shan hills, and even China, to worship at its numerous shrines. From a broad base, standing on a hill, rises the golden cupola of the Pagoda high into the sunny air to-day—the tapering point at the summit crowned by an umbrella, hung with golden bells set in jewels. Inside are beautifully carved roofs, glass mosaics, statues of Buddha, bronze bells, and precious stones, while crowds of worshippers are ever climbing the flights of steps north, south, east, and west. The capture of this by the British, brought home to the Burmese the fact, that their empire was slipping from them. They had no access to the sea now, save through the lost provinces in British hands.
A long peace followed. It was an era of prosperity for Lower Burma under Great Britain. The neglected land was cultivated, justice administered, and oppression relieved. Once, in 1855, a mission was sent to Calcutta begging for the restoration of the district; but the message from the English was decided. "So long as the sun shines in the heavens, so long will the British flag wave over Lower Burma."
With the accession of a new Burmese king, named Thebaw, in 1878, troubles once more broke out. His accession to the throne was signalised by a massacre of forty princes and princesses of royal descent. It is said that one of the royal princes met his death heroically. Turning to his brother, who was begging piteously for his life, he said: "My brother, it is not becoming to beg for life. We must die, for it is the custom. Had you been king, you would have given the same order. Let us die, since it is fated we must die."
The news of this cold-blooded massacre was received with horror throughout the civilised world.
"The King of Burma, being an independent sovereign, has a right to take all necessary measures to prevent disturbance in his dominion without the censure of others," said the Burmese minister.
King Thebaw, too, resented these criticisms. He insulted the British resident at Mandalay, and began to intrigue with the French, who, by the conquest of Tonquin, had extended their possessions to the borders of Upper Burma.
An incident known as the "Great Shoe Question" brought matters to a crisis. King Thebaw insisted that all Englishmen should take off their shoes on entering the royal palace. This they refused to do, and their position in Mandalay became so perilous, that they had to leave.
In the autumn of 1885, Thebaw issued a proclamation, calling on his subjects to join him, in driving the English into the sea. It was time for the British to take steps. General Prendergast, with 11,000 men, a fleet of flat-bottomed boats, and elephant batteries, received orders to invade Upper Burma.
"The Great White Queen is coming at last," said the Burmans, speaking of Queen Victoria, away in distant England. Still they took no steps to protect either their city or their king. The expedition advanced up the Irawadi.
"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you hear their paddles chunkin'
from Rangoon to Mandalay?"
They reached the royal city with little opposition. The king and his queen had retired to a summer-house in the palace gardens to await the British, with whom they intended to make peace. To distract their minds, the maidens of the Burmese court were dancing, while near at hand stood the royal elephants, laden with treasure and ready for flight.
To the royal palace marched the British, to demand the surrender of the Burmese king and his kingdom within twenty-four hours. The blow had fallen at last. It was too late to think of escape.
Early next morning King Thebaw was hurried into a bullock-cart with little ceremony, his queen into another, and in the presence of a great crowd of weeping and awestruck subjects, they were conveyed to a steamer on the Irawadi. Here a guard of British soldiers was drawn up: they presented arms on the appearance of the royal prisoners. As their bayonets flashed in the sunlight, the king fell on his knees in abject terror.
"They will kill me," he cried wildly. "Save my life."
His queen was braver. She strode on erect—her little child clinging to her dress—fierce and dauntless to the last. So the king and queen of Burma were exiled to Ceylon, where they still live. The great country of Burma was conquered afterwards, but it was some years before it quieted down.
Administered by British officials, the country was then restored to a state of prosperity. Trade increased rapidly, a railway was made from Rangoon to Mandalay, telegraph wires were laid, and with all this, Burmese customs were respected. The great feature of the country is still its pagodas. Still every little village shows its cluster of white cupolas, while the golden umbrellas, which surmount the glistening pinnacles, flash under the fierce Eastern sun. The building of these pagodas, in memory of the great teacher Buddha, is an act of merit among the devout Burmans. Their worship of Buddha is at once real and true. It moulds their view of life, gives motives to their endeavours, and "reveals the Great Hereafter." Their heaven, or Nirvana, is only attained by self-denial and self-sacrifice: to gain Eternal Peace is more to them than the possession of this world's goods.
"The thoughts of his heart, these are the wealth of a man," they affirm with confidence. So life and death are filled with the one great hope, that at the last, each faithful Burman shall enter into the "Great Peace."