British India and Burma (Myanmar) developed a common frontier at the close of the 18th Century when both were expanding powers. During the 19th Century, the British conquered the independent kingdom of Burma through three successive wars. The conflict between British India and Burma was initiated by the border clashes and fanned by expansionist urges.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, Burma was an independent country and wanted to expand westward. On the other side, the expansionist urges of the British were fueled by the lure of forest resources of Burma and the market for British manufacturers in Burma. The British also wanted to keep a check on the spread of the French’s political and commercial influence in Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia.
All of this resulted in three Anglo-Burmese Wars. In the end, the British finally annexed Burma in 1885.
By the 1820s, almost half of the Indian sub-continent came under British rule. They conducted successful military campaigns against the Siraj-uj-daulah & Mir Kasim in Bengal (in 1764), Hyder Ali & Tipu Sultan in Mysore (1767-1799), Gurkhas in Nepal (1814-1816), and Marathas in Central India (1775-1818). The British gained these territorial gains by force of arms, with the assistance of Indian sepoys. After the surrender of all Maratha powers in 1818, the British East India Company became the supreme paramount power in India.
However, the problem occurred up from the east in 1822, when the Burmese kingdom conquered Assam and threatened the British possession in Bengal. From the middle of the 18th century, the Burmese dynasty at Ava wanted to expand westward. After gaining control of the Irrawaddy delta and Tenasserim coast, the Burmese invaded the then independent state of Arakan in 1784 and made it part of their kingdom. This annexation of the border state Arakan brought the Burmese kingdom in direct contact with the eastern frontier of Bengal, which was under the control of the British.
First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826)
From 1752 to 1885, Burma was under the Konbaung Dynasty. After centuries of internal strives, King Alaungpaya, the founder of the Kobaung Dynasty, united Burma between 1752 and 1760. His successor, Bodawpaya, ruling from Ava on river Irrawaddy, repeatedly invaded Siam and repelled many Chinese invasions. Bodawpaya annexed the border states of Arakan in 1785, bringing Burma’s border up to that of British India.
In 1813, the Burmese seized the kingdom of Manipur, forcing the ruler to seek refuge in the neighbouring state of Cachar. The Burmese westward expansion and occupation of Arakan and Manipur and threat to Assam and Brahmaputra valley led to continuous friction between Bengal and Burma along the ill-defined border.
In 1818, they invaded Assam and installed a ruler who agreed to accept Burmese suzerainty. In 1822, the Burmese finally conquered Assam.
The conflict between the British and the Burmese began over the refugees from Arakan. The British permitted these refugees to occupy the waster tracts in the Chittagong district. When the Burmese demanded to return the refugees, the British refused after they found that the few who went back died of starvation. Buoyed by their success, the Burmese laid claim to Dacca and Chittagong and threatened to attack and capture Bengal if the British would not meet their demands.
In September 1823, the Burmese occupied the small island of Shahpuri at the mouth of the river that divided Chittagong and Arakan, overpowering the small British guard stationed there. This action led to the declaration of war with Burma.
In February 1824, during Governor-General Lord Amherst, the British officially declared war on Burma. The British plan for operations against Burma consisted of a sea-borne expedition to Rangoon. From Rangoon, they would be transported up to the Irrawaddy to attack the Burmese capital of Ava.
In April 1824, the British forces, containing European and Indian troops, left ‘Port Cornwallis‘ to travel to Rangoon. In May 1824, the British expeditionary forces by sea occupied Rangoon (Yangon) and reached within 72km of the capital at Ava.
Meanwhile, in May 1824, the Burmese forces, under the command of Maha Bandula, advanced toward Chittagong and defeated a small British garrison at Ramu (near Chittagong). The Burmese killed most of the British officers, captured the sepoys and sent them as prisoners to the Burmese capital.
This Burmese annexation and massacre of a small British unit at Ramu made the matter more alarming. Rumours quickly spread about the march of Burmese general Maha Bandula towards Calcutta, sending the East India Company in Bengal into a panic.
After the sea-borne expedition to Rangoon, the British government decided on an overland advance into Burma. The excursion was planned from Chittagong across the Arakan into Irrawaddy valley, where it could link up with the Rangoon force.
In October 1824, the colonial government ordered the 26th, 47th, and 62nd Regiments of the Bengal Native Infantry to march from Barrackpore to Chittagong in preparation for entering the Burmese territory.
However, in November 1824, the 47th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry refused to march toward Chittagong. The British insensitivity towards Indian cultural sentiments, combined with negligence and poor supply arrangement, caused resentment among the Indian sepoys of these regiments, which led to the Barrackpore Mutiny of 1824. But, the British suppressed the Barrackpore rebellion.
On 4 November 1824, the 47th regiment was disbanded, and all the British officers of the 47th regiment transferred to a new 69th regiment.
The British forces marched from Bengal and drove the Burmese out of Assam, Arakan, Cachar, and Manipur.
During the First Anglo-Burmese War, the British fought Battle of Yangon (May-December 1824), the Arakan campaign (February-April 1825), Battle of Danubyu (March-April 1825), and Battle of Prome (November-December 1825), with the Burmese kingdom.
The Burmese Commander-in-Chief Maha Bandula died in April 1825 in the battle of Danubyu (a small town near Yangon) in the Irrawaddy delta. The victory of the British in the Battle of Prome effectively left the Burmese force in disarray, and it was in constant retreat from then on.
On 26 December 1825, the Burmese sent a flag of truce to the British camp. Negotiations having commenced, the Burmese capitulated to the British terms to end the war, signing the Treaty of Yandabo in February 1826.
Treaty of Yandabo (1826)
After the decisive victory of the British, the peace came in February 1826 with the treaty of Yandaboo, signed between the British and the Government of Burma, in which the Government of Burma agreed to the following conditions:
- Agreed to pay rupees one crore as war compensation.
- Cede its coastal province of Arakan and Tenasserim.
- Abandon claims on Assam, Cachar, and Jaintia.
- Recognize Manipur as an independent state.
- To negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain.
- Accept British Resident at Ava while posting Burmese envoy at Calcutta.
By the treaty of Yandaboo, the British acquired a firm base in Burma for future expansion. Burma was deprived of most of its coastline.
Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852)
The Second Burmese War was almost wholly the result of British commercial greed and the imperialist policy of Governor-General Lord Dalhousie. The British merchants were keen to hold the timber resources of upper Burma. Moreover, Burma’s large population appeared to be a vast market to the British for the sale of British cotton goods & other manufactures. The British already occupy the two coastal provinces of Burma. Now, they wanted to dominate the commercial relations with the rest of the country. The British also wanted to strengthen their hold over Burma by peace or by war before their competitors, the French & the Americans, could establish themselves there.
The Second Burmese War broke out in 1852. The British expedition was despatched to Burma in April 1852, and they annexed Pegu, the only remaining coastal province of Burma. However, there was intense guerrilla resistance for 3 years before the British establish complete control of Lower Burma. The British now had effective control of the whole coastline of Burma, including its sea trade.
Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885)
Relations between British India and Burma remained peaceful for several years after the occupation of Pegu. But, the British continued their efforts to open up Upper Burma. In 1878, Burmese King Mindon died and was succeeded by his son, Thibaw.
King Thibaw, from the beginning, was hostile toward the British. In 1885, a purely commercial treaty was signed by King Thibaw with France, providing for trade. The French also planned to build a rail link from Mandalay to the French Territory. With the growing influence of the French in Burma, the British feared that the rich Burmese market would be captured by their French and American rivals. Further, King Thibaw imposed a humiliating fine on a British timber company. The British merchants in Rangoon and the chamber of commerce in Britain now pressured the British government in India for the immediate annexation of Upper Burma.
In 1885, Governor-General Lord Dufferin ordered the invasion of Upper Burma. The British forces invaded Burma on 13 November 1885. King Thibaw surrendered on 28 November 1885, and his dominions were annexed to the British Indian empire. Therefore, the third Anglo-Burmese War saw the loss of sovereignty of an independent Burma under the Konbaung dynasty.
The ease with which Burma had been annexed proved to be deceptive. The patriotic soldiers of the Burmese army refused to surrender and vanished into jungles, from where they carried out guerrilla warfare. The people of Lower Burma also rose in rebellion. The British employed a strong army for nearly 5 years to suppress the popular revolt. In 1897, both Upper Burma and Lower Burma were merged.
Freedom Struggle of Burma
After the First World War, a strong modern nationalist movement arose in Burma. The Burmese nationalist organized a widespread campaign of boycotting the British goods & administration and put forward the demand for Home Rule. These Burmese nationalists soon joined hands with the Indian National Congress.
To weaken the Burmese struggle for independence, the British separated Burma from India in 1937. During the Second World War, the Burmese nationalist movement further intensified under the leadership of U Aung San. On 4 January 1948, Burma finally won its independence.