Three wars were fought between Burma and the British colonial empire during the nineteenth century.
THE FIRST ANGLO-BURMESE WAR OF 1824-1826
From the end of the eighteenth century the Burmese king Bodawpaya (r. 1782-1817), steadily expanded his realm westward. At the same time the British gained territorial control over Bengal and elsewhere in India. In 1784 Bodawpaya attacked and annexed the kingdom of Arakan on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and brought his frontier to what would become British India. Arakanese rebels operating from within British territory created a tense situation on the Anglo-Burmese border, resulting in frequent border clashes. The Burmese threatened invasion if the British failed to stop rebel incursions from their territory.
From the late eighteenth century the kingdom of Assam to the North of British Bengal was in decline. The kingdom covered the Brahmaputra valley from the Himalayas to the entry of the river into the plains of Bengal. Rival groups at the Assamese court turned both to the British and the Burmese for assistance, leading to a British expedition in 1792. In 1817 turmoil at the Assamese court led to another request for assistance and this time Bodawpaya sent an invading army. The Assamese were defeated and a pro-Burmese premier was installed.
Two decades earlier Bodawpaya had invaded Manipur, a kingdom set in a small valley to the west of the Chindwin River, and installed a puppet prince. In 1819 the Manipur Prince asserted his autonomy from the Burmese court by not attending the coronation of Bagyidaw, Bodawpaya’s successor. The Burmese invaded again and stationed a permanent garrison in Manipur. Manipur would now form a base from which further Burmese military expeditions into Assam would be conducted. In 1821, following years of local unrest, Bagyidaw sent general Mahabanula with a 20,000-person-strong army across the mountains to consolidate Burmese rule in Assam. In 1823, with Assamese resistance largely broken, Mahabandula set up his base at Rangpur and began his attacks on Cachar and Jaintia. The British in turn declared Cachar and Jaintia a protectorate. British Bengal was now hemmed in on its northern and eastern borders by the Burmese Empire.
In January 1824 Mahabandula assumed command in Arakan and started on a campaign against Chittagong with the ultimate goal to capture Bengal. In response, on March 5, 1824, the British declared war on Burma from their headquarters at Fort William in Calcutta. The British plan was to draw away Mahabandula’s forces from the Bengal frontier by performing a large-scale sea-borne invasion of Lower Burma. The attack on Rangoon, lead by Sir Archibald Campbell, completely surprised the Burmese and the city was taken on May 10, 1824 without any loss to the invaders. The news of the fall of Rangoon forced Mahabandula to a quick retreat. The British force in Rangoon had meanwhile been unable to proceed upcountry because it did not have adequate river transports. After having been resupplied after the monsoon Campbell continued the operations and in 1825 at the battle of Danubyu Mahabandula was killed and the same year Arakan, Lower Burma, and Tenasserim were conquered.
After a second battle the way to the Burmese capital, Amarapura, lay wide open. Campbell now possessed adequate river transport and rapid progress was made up the Irrawaddy. British peace terms were so staggering that not until the British army arrived at Yandabo, a few days’ march from the Burmese capital, did the Burmese accept the terms. After the peace of Yandabo the Burmese had ceded to the British Arakan, Tenasserim, Assam, and Manipur. An indemnity in rupees, equal to 1 million pound sterling, was paid to guarantee removal of British troops from Lower Burma.
THE SECOND ANGLO-BURMESE WAR OF 1852
The inglorious defeat of the Burmese in the first war did not provoke a change in attitude toward the British. Successive Burmese kings went so far as to revoke the treaty of Yandabo and treated representatives of the governor-general with contempt. After quelling rebellions in Lower Burma in 1838 and 1840, King Tharrawaddy staged on a visit to Rangoon in 1841 a military demonstration that caused great alarm with the British in Arakan and Tenasserim. King Pagan, who had succeeded Tharrawaddy in 1846, concentrated his energy on his religious obligations and left the day-to-day government to his ministers. In Rangoon this meant that an unbending Burmese administration combined with profit-hungry British traders created a volatile atmosphere. In 1851 tension erupted and a minor incident between the governor of Rangoon and two British traders resulted in the Governor-General Dalhousie sending three warships with a request for reparations to Rangoon.
King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat of Burma. The king and queen of Burma are pictured along with the queen’s sister at their palace in Mandalay, Burma, in the 1800s. Thibaw reigned from 1878 to 1885, when the British forced him from the throne.
Although the Burmese complied with Dalhousie’s demands, the situation in Rangoon spiraled out of control when the British commodore leading the naval squadron felt the new governor of Rangoon had treated him unjustly. The commodore blockaded the port, destroyed all warships in the vicinity of Rangoon, and took a ship belonging to the Burmese Crown. War was now imminent. Dalhousie sent the Burmese a further ultimatum demanding compensation for the preparations for war. When the ultimatum expired on April 1, 1852, the British had already landed in Lower Burma.
This time the British arrived well prepared, with adequate supplies and sufficient river transports. In a few days ‘time Rangoon and Martaban were taken. When the Burmese offered no further resistance
Dalhousie decided to occupy large areas of Lower Burma, mainly comprised of the former province of Pegu, in an effort to link up Arakan and Tenasserim and create a stable and viable new colony. Without waiting for a formal treaty with the Burmese, Dalhousie proclaimed the annexation of Lower Burma on December 20, 1852. At the Burmese court a peace party overthrew King Pagan, and a few months following the annexation of Lower Burma a new king, Mindon, was crowned. In peace talks King Mindon tried in vain to recover the rich teak forests that had been taken by the British.
THE THIRD ANGLO-BURMESE WAR OF 1885
During the late 1870s, at a time when France was consolidating its hold over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, politicians and officials in Britain and India began considering intervention in what was left of the Burmese kingdom. They feared French influence in Burma and viewed with suspicion Burmese missions to European capitals. At the same time the British became increasingly interested in the possibility of trading with China via Burma. Some officials even viewed Burma as a ”highway to China.” The Burmese economy, once jealously guarded by mercantilist kings, was laid open to British trade.
The unbridled expansion of British commerce meant, however, that Burmese concessions to British merchants never went fast and far enough. British traders developed great interests in the trade of rubies, teak, and oil from northern Burma. In commercial treaties of 1862 and 1867 an informal empire was imposed in Burma. The Burmese Crown, in the last years before the start of the third war, adopted a policy aimed at developing friendly relations with Britain’s European rivals, including France and Italy. In 1878, following the death of King Mindon, his son Thibaw succeeded to the throne. After another commercial dispute in 1885 and amidst fears of growing French influence in Burma, Lord Randolph Churchill, secretary of state for India, decided to invade Upper Burma and depose Thibaw. The war began on November 14, 1885, and a fortnight later, after an almost bloodless campaign, the capital Mandalay was surrounded and the king surrendered. Thibaw was sent into exile in India and the British took control of Burma.