Twilight at Ava

A Diplomatic Journey

The Irrawaddy River at Mandalay is a broad expanse of brown water. Set back from its banks, monuments and pagodas testify to the power of the Burmese empire that blossomed in the valley. The kings of Ava built a series of capitals in the surrounding plains, first at Ava itself, then across the river at Sagaing, upstream at Amarapoora, and finally when the other sites became symbols of tragedy and defeat, further upriver at Mandalay. From these cities, the Burmans conquered lands as far away as Cambodia, twice sacked the Siamese stronghold of Ayudhya, and resisted the early western powers seeking a foothold in the East. Wandering around the remains, the glory and arrogance of the Burmese dynasties come alive.

Life has no doubt changed along the river, but much of what one sees are anachronisms from the days of empire. Bamboo sheds line the shore as in earlier eras. The banks remain a center of village life, with the women gathering to wash clothes and bathe in the turgid brown flow. Bullocks haul teak up the steep banks. Small wooden boats transport goods and people, now mostly fueled by rusty outboard motors but occasionally pulled by men fastened into harnesses and struggling along paths paralleling the stream.

For centuries, travelers journeyed up the Irrawaddy to pay tribute to the Ava kings. Vassals from their Asian dominions brought silver trees. The Venetion Nicolo Di Conti made the trek overland before the European powers had rounded the tip of Africa. He returned to Italy with tales of a river greater than the Ganges and of sacred White Elephants. The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, entering the service of the king as mercenaries and intriguing in Court politics. The Dutch, British, and French bowed at the monarchs' Golden Feet to solicit trading concessions.

But by the 19th century, Ava was entering its twilight and the British star was ascending. No longer would British envoys come as supplicants…

Arthur Phayre leaned back from his desk and rubbed his eyes. The Governor-General's official instructions for his mission were spread out before him. At daybreak, he would sail out of Rangoon, for the 500 mile journey up the Irrawaddy River to the Court of Ava.

Three years had passed since Commodore Lambert sailed into Rangoon harbor in 1852 and seized a ship of the Ava king, starting the second Burmese war. The fighting had lasted only a few months. By Christmas, the British had conquered and annexed lower Burma and Phayre had arrived in Rangoon as Commissioner of the province. Shortly after year-end, the king's brother deposed him and took the throne for himself. The new monarch quickly sued for peace. Yet while the hostilities had ceased, no conclusive agreement had been reached with his Court.

The pressures to complete a treaty were growing strong. The Home Authorities had directed that Ava be forced to recognize formally British supremacy over lower Burma, under the threat of complete subjugation if necessary. After all, the British empire was supposed to be a money-making venture for the East India Company, and it was investing a sizable sum in the territory. Until the situation with the Burmese stabilized, the trade on which the company depended for its customs revenues would not thrive. The merchant community was clamoring to exploit the native resources, particularly the valuable teak forests and ruby mines. The traders urged the government to open the country to British goods and end the extortion which the Burmese had been exacting for 30 years. Now the press was turning up the noise. The Calcutta papers reported rumors of revolution at Ava and even of attacks on the Commissioner himself. Phayre felt all eyes on him as he led this final attempt at negotiations.

Phayre picked up the demi-official letter he had just received from Lord Dalhousie, in which the Governor-General expressed his private thoughts on what he hoped the mission would accomplish. He was an old India hand, nearing the end of his term leading the company from Calcutta. Phayre considered him a close friend and mentor and valued any advice he had to offer. "Whatever my private opinions as to its value, I beg you to strain every nerve to obtain even a simple Treaty of Amity if nothing more can be got," read the note, referring to the governor's skepticism that the Burmans could be induced to sign anything of substance. "Feel at liberty to revise the draft treaty if it will remove difficulties, but do not change its sense or involve us in any stipulations of detail. Regarding ceremonies of reception, concede no marks of deference to the Court that prior envoys have avoided."

"Remember, I am not optimistic and will have no reproach for failure to secure a treaty," closed the letter. Phayre laughed humorlessly as he remembered the rebuke Henry Burney took when he returned from Ava in 1837, after what could only be considered a remarkably successful Residency at the Court. His friend might understand the odds he faced, but others would not be so forgiving. His career thus far had progressed rapidly. Since his first assignment in Tenasserim 20 years ago, he had become one of the company's preeminent experts in Burmese language and culture, and he had distinguished himself as an administrator. He had achieved much as Commissioner, laying out public works at Rangoon, organizing the militia, extending the telegraph throughout the province. But all that would be forgotten if he returned empty-handed.

He dipped his pen and began his reply to the governor. "I am hopeful for success, but I find it impossible to calculate beforehand how a Burmese will receive any proposition…"

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 30 Mar 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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