Kipling’s Burma

An address to the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, 16 June 1983

by George Webb

It was a wearied journalist—he left his little bed,
And faced the Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read;
But ere he took his map-book up, he prayed a little prayer:-
“Oh stop them fighting Lord knows who, in jungles deuce knows

These lines, from a piece of nonsense-verse in the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, on
10 December 1886, provide our equivocal first glimpse of Kipling’s
Burma. Not that its readers knew that. They could not tell that more
enduring work would flow from that pen, especially as the verses were
unsigned. But those same readers, without our disadvantage of
hindsight, with the distortion and disillusion that come with it, saw
their world of 1886 with a clarity denied to us, and read the news from
Burma that December with an immediacy far beyond our recall.
Presumably it was also read by ex-King Theebaw, settling into sulky
exile near Bombay: but current affairs had never been his forte.

1886 – the year of King Solomon’s Mines and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Tennyson and Browning were the grand old men of poetry, and Sickert
and Sargent the coming young men of art. In that year the Statue of
Liberty was completed. So was the Canadian Pacific Railway. In
British politics, Irish Home Rule was an inflammatory prospect:
Gladstone and Salisbury changed place in office three times.

In far Peking, an obscure Anglo-Chinese Convention was signed in
July. Britain acknowledged Chinese interests in Tibet. China withdrew
all claims to the still partly unmapped and unexplored country which
the Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin, had annexed in January as Upper
Burma. On its absorption, the Indian Empire had grown to about its
maximum extent, but the victorious troops, after a swift formal
conquest, now faced an unending prospect of irregular warfare and
police-work over difficult terrain, to suppress an epidemic of banditry.
To keep a semblance of order since January had required an average
strength of 14,000 troops. Now, in this December, they had to be

In the same month, in Lahore, fifteen hundred miles from Mandalay,
a very young man sat writing in the office of the Civil and Military
, the leading newspaper of the Punjab. If he was chronically
overworked, he was also precociously well-informed, and engrossed
by the indescribable complexity of India. He was twenty. Into the four
years that he had been Assistant Editor, with no home leave, he had
crammed a remarkable range of experience and an alarming amount of
writing, quite apart from the routine editorial labour of reducing to
shape the incoherent work of others, under the unforgiving restraints of
time and space. In old age he was to recall days filled with:

…eternal cuttings-down of unwieldy contributions … newspaper
exchanges from Egypt to Hong-Kong to be skimmed; … the
English papers on which we drew in time of need; local
correspondence to vet for possible libels, ‘spoofing’-letters from
subalterns to be guarded against … always of course the filing of
cables, and woe betide an error then!

[Something of Myself p.48]

Distinct from this editorial work with inkpot and scissors, his original
writing, audacious and beautifully composed, was by 1886 just
beginning to be noticed locally. Since January his paper had published
sixty items of his prose and verse, and although many of them were
anonymous, and some of them are to this day uncollected, eighteen
others had been reissued that June in Departmental Ditties, a
bitter-sweet collection of accomplished verses that have never since dropped
out of print. In the last four weeks he had produced for his paper six of
the brilliant, mordant short stories later collected as Plain Tales from
the Hills
. But even as he sat writing “The Arrest of Lieutenant
Golightly”, worthier subalterns were in grimmer trouble away in Upper
Burma, where the state of brigandage and rebellion had prompted a
stiffening visit by Roberts, Commander-in-Chief, and the strengthening
of the garrison that December to 25,000 men. There were to be 99
military outposts, and mobile columns patrolled every district. News of
their operations kept flooding in by telegram. However, urgent
telegrams were not delivered by hand to Kipling’s offices: instead, as
he later recalled,

I took them down from the telephone—a primitive and mysterious
power whose native operator broke every word into
monosyllables …
[Something of Myself p.48]

Over such a medium even simple texts became garbled. If they
contained obscure names, and were noted down by an Indian clerk,
corruptions were almost unavoidable. With active service news this
was unfortunate, and it constitutes the serious background to those
nonsense-verses that December, entitled by Kipling “A Nightmare of

It was a wearied journalist who sought his little bed,
With twenty Burma telegrams all waiting to be read.
Then the Nightmare and her nine-fold rose up his dreams to haunt,
And from these Burma telegrams they wove this dismal chaunt:
“Bethink thee, man of ink and shears”, so howled the fiendish crew,
“That each dacoit has one long name, and every hamlet two.
Moreover all our outposts bear peculiar names and strange:
There are one hundred outposts, and, once every month, they change.
If Poungdoungzoon or Pyalhatzee today contains the foe,
Be sure they pass tomorrow to Gwebin or Shwaymyo.
But Baung-maung-hman, remember, is a trusted Thoongye Woon,
The deadly foe of Maung-dhang-hlat, Myoke of Moung-kze-hloon.
Poungthung and Waust-chung are not at present overthrown,
For they are near the Poon beyond the Hlinedathalone;
While Nannay-kone in Ningyan is near Mecacaushay,
But Shway-zit-dan is on the Ma, and quite the other way.
Here are some simple titles which ’twere best to get in writing,
In view of further telegrams detailing further fighting:
Malé, Myola, Toungbyoung, Talakso, Yebouk, Myo,
Nattik, Hpan-loot-kin, Madeah, Padeng, Narogan, Mo. ..”

After several more such lines he concluded:

“Oh stop them fighting Lord knows who, in jungles deuce knows where!”

Where indeed were those jungles? And whom were they fighting? And
why? Can we now conjure back a state of world affairs, a cast of mind,
when Englishmen of no ignoble vision saw Burma’s conquest by
British India as a benefit conferred on a distracted land? When Indians
of liberal persuasion questioned the step mainly on grounds of cost to
the Indian taxpayer? (Such was the view of the Indian National
Congress at its historic first meeting, just after Theebaw’s overthrow –
that Burma had better become a Crown Colony than a dependency of
India.) As Maurice Collis later wrote in “The Journey Outward” (1952) :

What will our descendants think of us when they read that the
British banished the King of Burma, annexed his country, and
proceeded to govern it by officials of their own race? Historians will
add that we saw no harm in this, though we always resisted such a
fate to the death when it threatened our own land.

[cited in Maurice Collis:Diaries,1949-1969, Heinemann, 1977]

The most convincing explanation is in G.E. Harvey’s chapter on Burma
in the

Cambridge History of the British Empire:

The real reason for imposing direct administration was that it was
the fashion of the age, and modern standards of efficiency were the
only standards intelligible to the men who entered Upper Burma.
Few of them spoke the language, and those who did, came with
preconceptions gained in Lower Burma.

[Vol.V 1932; also ch.XXI,Vol.VI.]

These were the lofty preconceptions of Harvey’s own service, the
ICS—the Indian Civil Service—but no amount of dedicated administration,
as described in some of
Kipling’s stories about India, could alter the disqualifying fact that in
grafting Burma on to India they were doing something irreconcilably
repugnant—to Burmese nationalism. The union was dissolved in 1937,
but too late; yet all the way was paved with high intentions.

The incompatibility of India and the Burmese heartland had lacked a
“Burma lobby” to explain it in Britain. Another historian of Burma,
Professor Tinker, compared this lacuna with the relative awareness in
Britain regarding the affairs of India proper:

The British community in Burma was so small and the period of
British rule so brief that no comparable Burma connection ever
developed. To the average Englishman Burma conjured up one poem
and perhaps a short story by Kipling—Kipling, who spent three days
in Burma.

[Hugh Tinker, The Union of Burma, Oxford University Press 1937, ch.XII.]

Constitutionally, of course, Burma formed a part of Kipling’s India, the
subcontinent of which he drew so clear a picture. But he was employed
first in Lahore, later in Allahabad, and though he travelled widely from
those places, his India was essentially the north-west and north-centre. His
writing touched on his birthplace, Bombay, and on the seat of Government,
Calcutta; but just as the south was unknown territory, so was Burma,
an exotic eastern extension to which his employers never sent him.
India’s Burmese dependencies suffered from more than mere distance
from the centre. (They were closer to Calcutta than western
India was.) Their remoteness lay not in mileage but in mountains,
jungles, rivers and the sea. Communications in Burma always ran not
towards India but north-south. In cultural as in physical terms the land
is intrinsically part of the Indo-Chinese peninsula of south-east Asia.

Burma’s apartness from India was paradoxically among the complex
causes of the Third Burmese War. Certainly external strategic
considerations, prompted by French expansionism in the region, played
a part. This was illustrated by a Punch cartoon published on 31 October
1885 while Dufferin’s ultimatum to Theebaw was still on its way up-
river by steamer to Mandalay. The Viceroy is portrayed, a little
prematurely, vigorously kicking out a repulsive toad which represents
the king. In the background a similar reptile, labelled “France” and
significantly armed with sword and rifle, draws no doubt salutary

Certainly also there was a persistent commercial illusion of a
practical trade route along which British goods might flow through
Upper Burma to the imagined markets of Chinese Yunnan. This excited
the Chambers of Commerce and influenced the annexation. It was a
myth, resembling the monomanie du Mékong from which the French
suffered. It was also reflected in Punch, where in January 1886 the
Viceroy, shown as a soldier in Field Service Marching Order, is putting
up his trading sign, “Burmese Warehouse Co., late Theebaw”, to the
patent delight of his new neighbour, “John Chinaman”.

Such wider motives of strategy or commerce apart, Theebaw’s
cruelties and follies were enough to make Burma an intolerable
adjacent state for an outward looking Indian Empire rising to the zenith
of its power and self-respect. Here was one of the casualties of the
nineteenth Century, knocked over by a momentum beyond its
understanding. By processes familiar to Imperial historians, static
Burma and dynamic British India had become provocatively
incompatible. When the irresistible force was applied, the object in its
path was too fragile to survive.

Burma’s tragedy, through every stage of British penetration from
1826 to 1948, was on the one hand to be self-centred, traditionalist,
conservative, desiring only to be left alone; and on the other hand to be
so situated as to be exposed to external pressures which she was
powerless to repulse. This dilemma has contributed to a national frame
of mind well known today for its determined preference for
non-involvement and a “Burmese Way” in politics.

It was not always so. In the eighteenth century it was not Burma’s
isolationism but her almost manic imperialism, ruthlessly asserted
against her neighbours and in the end suicidally over-extended, that
brought her up against the East India Company. The three wars that
ensued led by stages to the ultimate surrender in 1885 at Mandalay.
Kipling’s view of Burma was acquired in the aftermath of that
surrender, and must be understood in the light of preceding historical
events, today largely forgotten.

Theebaw, deposed in 1885, was the last of the Konbaungset dynasty
of the Kingdom of Inwa, or Ava. The founder of the line, Alaungpaya,
emerged in 1752 as a national resistance leader against the Mons to the
south. Within fifty years he and his successors had defeated and in
many cases subjugated most of the adjacent peoples, creating in the
process an expanded nation-state with frontiers resembling those of
modern Burma but in the north-west more extensive. It was an
extraordinary explosion of military effort, though it exhausted the
country. The Mons first, who in 1752 had occupied Ava itself, were
expelled and smashed. Next to be defeated were the Shans in the east.
In the south-east the Siamese were repeatedly invaded: Ayudhaya, their
capital, was destroyed. In the north-west Assam, in the west Manipur,
in the southwest Arakan, were devastated and annexed. Even China, in
diplomatic theory suzerain of Burma, suffered some ignominious
defeats and sued for terms. The Treaty of Kaungton in 1770, in
Professor Hall’s words, marked for the Burmese:

… the most glorious moment in their history. . .the exploits of
Alaungpaya had given the Burmese an entirely new estimation of
themselves. They had become a conquering race and feared no one
on earth. .
[D.G.E. Hall, Burma, Hutchinson, 3rd Edition 1960.]

These triumphs however had a darker side. The empire won by ruthless
violence could only be held down by oppression, enslavement,
genocide. Endless rebellions shook it; massive deportations
impoverished it; down in the Delta the fertile rice land of the Mons lay
depopulated. Up in Ava, the world’s centre, amid the splendours of an
introverted court, attitudes of blinkered arrogance characterised the
rulers. Given the divine right of kings in south-east Asia, this was not
surprising: wholesale cruelty too was a recognised instrument of
policy. But it was an unpropitious basis on which to guide their
medieval kingdom into safe relations with the emerging Europe-
dominated world of the nineteenth century, that inexorable new
dynamic of which the kings of Ava were pitifully ignorant.

On the British side, there was at first no wish to tackle Burma, a
profoundly mysterious country, alleged to have a huge population,
certainly able to raise great armies. For generations, British merchants,
like their military and commercial rivals the French, had dealt with the
Burmese; but this was peripheral trafficking by outsiders, only
tolerated for their wares. Not till 1784, when Ava annexed Arakan, was
a clash with adjacent Bengal possible; not till forty years later, when
intermittent British attempts to establish a diplomatic relationship had
foundered, did it take place—mainly owing to Arakanese refugees, who
persistently raided Burmese Arakan from British Bengal. Ineffectual
British handling of this nuisance, during years when the Calcutta
government was heavily committed in urgent campaigns elsewhere, exasperated
the Burmese and convinced them that in a showdown the British would
prove no more formidable than any other neighbour had been.

In this mistaken spirit their general, Bandula, advanced into Bengal
from Arakan in 1824. He planned to march on Calcutta, on England if
need be. He took with him golden manacles with which to confine Lord
Amherst, the Governor-General, and fetch him captive to Ava. But the
invader had picked a bad moment for what we call the First Burmese
War. The Company now had resources spare to mount a crushing
response. The Burmese, with no concept of naval operations, could not
anticipate a counter-plan which relegated Arakan to the strategic fringe
and concentrated on a powerful invasion of Lower Burma from the
Andamans by sea. Total surprise was thus achieved.

Rangoon fell without a blow. If only subsequent British handling of
commissariat and transport had been other than disgracefully
inefficient, the war could have been quickly ended, but it dragged on
for two years, cost thirteen million pounds, and involved terrible losses
from fever and dysentery. Of 40,000 British and Indian troops
altogether sent in, 45% never came out. Of the deaths, 96% were not
from battle but from disease.

After Bandula’s death in action, the Burmese army’s showing, at
least against European troops, was only mediocre, though their
musketry was accurate and their stockades were formidable. The
British performance, handicapped by appalling logistic shortcomings,
was yet enough to beat the enemy. The main advance to Ava was almost
there when the king capitulated. Earlier, down at the coast, combined
operations under the future novelist Captain Marryat were effective,
though Marryat formed a high opinion of the Burmese—intelligent,
brave, cheerful, the finest race in Asia. Incidentally, this remote naval
theatre provided the scene for something new, an augury had men
realised it. Among the ships involved was a small steamer, the Diana.
1824 was early for a practical display of the potential of steam in war
at sea.

By the peace treaty of 1826, Ava agreed to pay an indemnity,
abandoned claims to Assam and Manipur, and ceded Arakan and
Tenasserim. The old aggressive Burma had been broken, never to
recover. In Hall’s words:

‘the course of Burmese history had now
been radically altered. The British had gained possession of two large provinces … and must
either ultimately relinquish them or go on till they occupied the
whole country.’
[D.G.E. Hall, Burma, Hutchinson, 3rd Edition 1960 ch. XII]

British attitudes too were formed by the experience. For Calcutta and
London, Burma was inaccessible, economically dubious, misgoverned
by an anachronistic tyranny—a head-in-the-sand regime, recalcitrant in
diplomacy, obsessive in applying humiliating protocol, hopelessly
obstructive to trade. For the soldiers, Burma meant: dense forest, heavy
rain, deadly disease, and a dangerous enemy who would torture and
mutilate his prisoners.

Arakan and Tenasserim, though they could be seen as pre-emptive
extensions towards our crucially-sited port of Singapore, were at first
in economic terms worth little. Arakan would soon develop into a rice
granary, but Tenasserim failed for some time even to meet the expense
of its administration—a criterion of those days—and Moulmein was a
village of fishing huts. In 1831 the restoration of Tenasserim to Ava
was considered, but rejected since the local people would be exposed
to calculated retribution, as had been terribly demonstrated in the Delta
when we pulled out in 1826.

In the next twenty years the state of the monarchy in Ava was hardly
reassuring. King Bagyidaw went melancholy-mad; Tharawaddy
became a sadistic maniac who had to be restrained; Pagan indulged in
a horrific bloodbath. It all underlined Burma’s incongruousness as a
mid-nineteenth century neighbour. The British Residency, established
by treaty, could seldom curb the excesses of the regimes or even protect
itself from repeated and calculated gestures of contempt, and it was
eventually withdrawn. Only one incumbent, Fanny Burney’s nephew
Colonel Burney, had managed for a time to exert a useful influence.

Burma’s chronically uncomfortable relations with (in particular)
one powerful neighbour, British India, had twice led to war (1824 and 1852)
before the unacceptable excesses of hopeless King Theebaw provoked, in 1885, the
decisive Third Burmese War. That campaign, initially a dash by a flotilla of great paddle
steamers up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay, degenerated into endless, exacting, hazardous
counter-insurgency work on the ground.

However, seemingly interminable guerrilla operations to ‘mop up’ the lightly armed
but highly mobile dacoits did eventually bring the whole country under the effective
governance of India, as well as under the fascinated and romantic scrutiny of young
Kipling in Lahore and later in Allahabad.

The Second Burmese War in 1852 was sparked by trivial incidents in
Rangoon, specifically complaints by two British sea captains of
extortions by the Burmese authorities. War might have been avoided,
but the Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, believed the security of
Britain’s position in India made it essential to react unequivocally to
conspicuous affronts. His firm reaction was to despatch warships to
Rangoon to demand reparations. This was open to the criticism of
being too peremptory, particularly when Commodore Lambert
exceeded his instructions: his acts of blockade and bombardment,
whether provoked or not, brought about the war. In England, Cobden
wrote a scathing pamphlet: “How Wars are Got Up in India”. However
Dalhousie’s view, approved by London and probably realistic, was that
war with Ava, albeit unsought, had become so inevitable that the
eventual casus belli hardly mattered.

1852 was a little too early for “Burma telegrams”. The first
successful submarine cable, linking Dover and Calais, had only just
been laid. Professor Wilson, bringing out a classic history of the First
Burmese War in May, did not know that the Second had broken out a
few weeks earlier. He had ended his book with a sober reference to a
probable further war with Ava, but expressed confidence in ‘the
application of the powers of steam’, and ‘reasonable certainty that,
should a contest be unavoidable, it will be brought to a speedy and
honourable termination without any disproportionate sacrifice of life or
treasure’. [Professor H.H. Wilson, The Narrative of the Burmese War in 1824-26, W.H. Allen,
London 1852.]

He was right. This time the logistics were well handled. In an
expeditionary force of 8,000, confronting 30,000 Burmese troops, battle
casualties were under 400, and mortality from disease—though this
included the naval commander, Jane Austen’s brother—was below the
Indian peacetime average. Against mainly slight opposition the
occupation of Pegu went steadily ahead; but after annexation it took
three more years to mop up a proliferation of dacoits, ranging from a
few real resistance leaders to gangs of bandits whose brutality
antagonised the countryside they battened on. This foreshadowed the
aftermath of the next conflict. However in 1852 a third war did not
seem necessary, and Dalhousie, though authorised to occupy all
Burma, forbore to do so, trusting that by the loss of Pegu Ava would be
boxed in and neutralised.

To some extent he was right. The next war was thirty-three years
away, and for twenty-five the omens were not bad. Pegu, administered
on Indian lines with imported sepoys, police, clerks and manual
labourers, developed into a great exporter of rice. Rangoon grew into
a world-class port, especially after the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.
The telegraph cable arrived in 1870; British India Line steamers called regularly from
1871; by 1877 a railway ran up to Prome. From this infrastructure for
prosperity Upper Burma also benefited. British firms had concessions
there, and by the 1870s the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was plying
from Rangoon to Mandalay. (Kipling’s “old Flotilla”, which never
recovered from the Second World War, deserves a word of requiem. It
became one of the world’s greatest fleets, with six hundred vessels. The
sight of a 300-foot leviathan, with lighters lashed alongside, ploughing
at speed along the great rivers was one of the unforgettable spectacles
of Asia.)

That the kings of Ava would permit such economic penetration was
not to be assumed, but a fortunate coup in 1853 replaced Pagan by his
brother. Mindon, who moved his capital from inauspicious Ava to
Mandalay, was a great king, the wisest of his line, a moderate and
peace-loving statesman who like his Siamese contemporary Mongkut
though with less eventual luck, did much to awaken his country to the
modern age. But though he maintained magnanimous relations with
Britain, causes of friction grew in step with British influence, and even
Mindon could not always remove them. He could not bring himself to
acknowledge by treaty the loss of Pegu. He could not abolish the
system of royal monopolies which vitiated free trade with India. He
could not relax the rigid etiquette under which even the British
Resident had to kneel shoeless in his presence—from which stemmed
the emotive “Shoe-Question” which soured our diplomatic relations.

The British too cherished their illusions. One was that a route
through Burma to China waited to be opened up, and that since the
French were consolidating in Tongking haste was essential, to beat
them to the markets of China – haste too, to forestall the Americans,
whose transcontinental railway, completed in the same year as the Suez
Canal, would surely facilitate their trade across the Pacific. British
fears of French designs on Burma itself had some foundation. After
France’s defeat in 1870 a vocal imperialist lobby was pressing for
compensating glories in any vacuum overseas. In Britain there was
therefore some support for pre-emptive annexation of Upper Burma,
which could then, it was supposed, conveniently enough be made into
another Indian province. The distinctiveness and tenacity of traditional
institutions in the Burmese heartland was just not recognised.

Mindon died in 1878, with no clear successor. Court intrigue now
propelled to the throne a minor prince, the nonentity Theebaw, a
shallow-brained alcoholic youth, dominated by his ignorant, greedy
and vicious wife Soopaya-Lat, already his evil genius and soon to be a

In 1879, invoking historical precedents for eliminating rivals,
he had eighty members of the royal family massacred: to avoid the
shedding of royal blood, these were clubbed or strangled, and thrown
dead and alive into a trench which was then covered over and trampled
by elephants. Theebaw and his court were surprised and resentful at the
horror this aroused abroad, in the day of the electric telegraph. The
atrocities went on, and as Upper Burma slid into anarchy and
brigandage, powerful appeals came from commercial interests,
humanitarians and missionaries, for urgent British intervention.

The British Government, however, heavily committed in 1879 in
Afghanistan and Zululand, was extremely reluctant to take on Upper
Burma as well, and only did so in 1885 after French greed and duplicity
had forced the pace. Jules Ferry, France’s actively imperialist Prime
Minister, had entered upon an injudicious intrigue with the Burmese. In
January 1885 he gave a misleading assurance to Salisbury that a new
Franco-Burmese commercial treaty contained no military or political
clauses, while he was actually promoting secret agreements on
sensitive issues including armament supplies. Such a blatant threat to
British interests in Burma would have provided adequate grounds for
an Anglo-French war, but by the time the facts leaked out in July,
Ferry’s forward policy had gone wrong in China and Madagascar and
brought about his fall. The new French government was challenged by
Britain and backed down. Theebaw was left exposed and vulnerable.

He chose this unsuitable moment to display intransigence in a legal
dispute with a major British firm. The time was ripe. Dufferin
despatched an ultimatum. Meanwhile he prepared an expeditionary
force in Lower Burma: 9000 fighting men, 3000 followers, 67 guns, 24
machine-guns. The ultimatum was offensively rejected. War followed.
The great paddle-steamers, crowded with troops, thrashed up-river.
Before they could reach Mandalay it surrendered. Burmese resistance
had crumbled. It might have been true of Theebaw’s ill-led soldiery,
as Lady Dufferin unfeelingly confided to her diary, that ‘they cannot
stand fixed bayonets for a second’ [Cited by Harold Nicolson in Helen’s Tower,
Constable 1937, chapter IX], but they now melted away with
their small-arms to infest the country as dacoits. Theebaw had left no
acceptable princes of the blood alive, so he was quietly exiled. His
kingdom was annexed, on 1 January 1886.

This, then, was “Kipling’s Burma”. The Third Burmese War provided
the kind of drama that would feature later in his prose and verse. As it
happened, the first officer casualty of the war was someone he had
known and admired at school, Lieutenant Dury, Indian Army, killed in
the capture of Minhla Fort, one of the positions on the Irrawaddy that
the Burmese hoped would somehow block an advance on Mandalay.
In a sharp action, infantry stormed the fort while the ships gave
covering fire. Eight years later, in a magazine article about his old
school, Kipling was to describe Dury’s death:

The best boy of them all—who could have become anything—was
wounded in the thigh as he was leading his men up the ramp of a
fortress. All he said was, “Put me up against that tree and take my
men on” … when his men came back he was dead.
“An English School” (1893),
collected in Land and Sea Tales, 1923.]

Fifty years later Dury’s grave at Minhla was still identifiable. It may be
so today.

The pacification of the new province went on busily through 1886
but Kipling’s only published comment was in December, in the
humorous verses already quoted. He had not yet discovered his soldier
medium. His first Mulvaney story had not yet appeared. Also his best
descriptions would always come direct from life, or from accounts by
participants in similar events, and 1886 was too soon for him to meet
many men already back from Upper Burma.

However, in April 1887 came “The Taking of Lungtungpen”. It was
the second Mulvaney story, and the one Burmese episode in Plain
, and was allegedly based on a true event, when some British
troops stripped and swam a river to reach a dacoit stronghold,
whereupon, entering it naked they effectively surprised it. Parts of this
neat and mildly hilarious tale, displaying the casual chauvinism of the
nineteenth century private who narrates it, read oddly, even brutally,
today, but its flavour is not without authenticity. Mulvaney, invalided
back with dysentery, describes the work of a platoon on outpost duty:

… thrying to catch dacoits. An’ such double-ended divils I niver
knew! Tis only a dah [knife] an’ a Snider that makes a dacoit.
Widout thim, he’s a paceful cultivator, an’ felony for to shoot. . .

Eventually a prisoner, “persuaded” with a cleaning-rod, tells them of a
bandit-ridden village, and after a night march and a swim in the dark
they force a ludicrous entry:

whether they tuk us, all white an’ wet, for a new breed av divil, or a
new kind av dacoit, I don’t know. They ran as though we was both. . .

Mulvaney clearly distinguishes between the dacoits, whom they
slaughter without compunction, and the inoffensive and readily
reconcilable villagers:

…we spint the rest av the day carryin’ the
Lift’nint on our showlthers round the town, an’ playin’ wid the
Burmese babies —fat little, brown little divils, as pretty as picturs…

In real life, the facts about pacification would seldom be so clear-cut,
but Kipling seems to have found difficulty in being quite logical about
dacoits. The worst were barbarous terrorists, whose elimination was a
prerequisite of peace. Others, perhaps, were an endemic breed of
picturesque ruffian, who certainly shared in the national charm of
character. This dichotomy, and Kipling’s own blend of romance and
realism, makes for some inconsistency of treatment. In January 1888, by
now transferred to the Pioneer at Allahabad, he wrote “The Grave of the Hundred Head”, a grim poem which does not conceal the ruthless
undertones of a counter-insurgency campaign now in its third bitter year:

A Snider squibbed in the jungle –
Somebody laughed and fled,
And the men of the First Shikaris
Picked up their subaltern dead,
With a big blue mark in his forehead
And the back blown out of his head.

The other verses describe, approvingly, the terrible mass reprisal
exacted from a rebel village by the Indian troops avenging their British
officer’s death.

Nine months later, in “The Ballad of Boh Da Thone”
two hundred and twenty lines of ingenious light verse, the touch is gentler, and
the undignified end of a brigand chief is handled with generosity
and humour, although there is no fudging the ultimate right and

He shot at the strong and he slashed at the weak
From the Salween scrub to the Chindwin teak:

He crucified noble, he scarified mean,
He filled old ladies with kerosine:

While over the water the papers cried,
“The patriot fights for his countryside!”

But little they cared for the Native Press,
The worn white soldiers in khaki dress,

Who tramped through the jungle and camped in the byre,
Who died in the swamp and were tombed in the mire.

A similar attitude to the war recurs much later in Kipling’s fullest prose
description of campaigning in Burma. This is in “A Conference of the
, a short story published in 1891 after Kipling’s return to
England. The atrocities committed by dacoit gangs are still mentioned,
but the captured dacoit leader is given a wry dignity, like the loser in a
protracted sporting event: indeed, the young officer is made to give his
account of the pacification in the tiresome inarticulate argot of the
public schools. It is difficult now to judge the authenticity of this, but
the nonchalant understatement is very British, and the frivolous
narration may well be appropriate, given that by 1891 the fighting was
mostly over, and the crueller memories had faded, and the scene is set
in London, where Kipling was twenty-five and on a pinnacle of sudden

His last full year in India, 1888, had been his most productive, with
one hundred and sixty pieces of published work, including “The Man who would be King” and much of his finest work. None of it was more
moving than “Georgie Porgie”, its title
a corruption from Burmese—the story of a District Officer who insensitively abandons the adoring
Burmese girl he has lived with in Upper Burma, and breaks her heart.
The tragedy is that her very devotion precipitates and heightens the
disaster. In his praise of Burmese girls in this story Kipling was, as
always, unequivocal:

No race, men say who know, produces such good wives and heads
of households as the Burmese … When all our troops are back from
Burma there will be a proverb in their mouths, “As thrifty as a
Burmese wife” … English ladies will wonder what it means.

Years later, in “The Ladies”, Kipling’s time-expired soldier
remembers a Burmese girl:

Funny an’ yellow an’ faithful –
Doll in a teacup she were,
But we lived on the square, like a true-married pair,
An’ I learned about women from ‘er!

By then, Kipling had been to Rangoon and seen Burmese girls for
himself ‘and when I saw them I understood much that I had heard
about – about our army in Flanders, let us say.’ He went there as a
steamer passenger in transit. It was March 1889, and, still unknown
outside India, he was abandoning the editorial slog of a newspaper to
make his fortune by his pen elsewhere. He embarked at Calcutta, for
Japan and America, and his first call was Rangoon. From there, and at
every stage of his journey, he wrote for the Pioneer long accounts of
what he saw. These were eventually collected in From Sea to Sea,
twenty pages of in Letter II, which constitute
his delightful travel sketches of Rangoon and Moulmein. On leaving Calcutta his mood had been one
of exhausted relief:

A glorious idleness has taken entire possession of me. . .all India
dropped out of sight yesterday, and the rocking pilot-brig. . .bore
my last message to the prison that I quit. We have reached blue
water – crushed sapphire – and a little breeze is bellying the
awning. Three flying-fish were sighted this morning. . .The only
real things in the world are crystal seas, clean-swept decks, soft
rugs, warm sunshine, the smell of salt. . .

Eventually they steamed up-river towards Rangoon, still out of sight:

as we gave the staggering rice-boats the go-by, I reflected that I
was looking upon the River of the Lost Footsteps – the road that
so many, many men of my acquaintance had travelled, never to
return. . .They had gone up the river in the very steamers that were
nosing the yellow flood and they had died since 1885. At my
elbow stood one of the workers in New Burma. . .and he told tales
of interminable chases after evasive dacoits. . .and of deaths in the
wilderness as noble as they were sad.

Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon. . .a shape
that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. . .the
golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any
land you know about.”

He stayed at Jordan’s Hotel, which he condemned for bad board and
bad lodging. But he dined at the Pegu Club, and enjoyed that, and met
men who gave him vivid yet understated accounts of the war, accounts
which must have subsequently coloured “A Conference of the
. He even found someone who had been with Dury at the taking of
Minhla Fort. The Club was full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but
an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.

He took a ticca-gharri, and marvelled at the people and colours in

… all men were agreed in saying that under no circumstances will the
Burman exert himself in the paths of honest industry. Now, if a
bountiful Providence had clothed you in a purple, green, amber or
puce petticoat, had thrown a rose-pink scarf-turban over your head,
and had put you in a pleasant damp country where rice grew of
itself and fish came up to be caught. . .would you work?. . .When I
die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King’s Silk, that
has been made in Mandalay, about my body. . .I will always walk
about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and
jest. . .as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her
head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind
it, nor. . .tramp behind me when I walk, for these are the customs
of India.

He was on his way up the stairway to the platform of the Shwe-Dagon
pagoda, wondering ‘how such a people could produce the dacoit of the
newspaper’, when he was shaken to meet a man passing by, whose
features looked startlingly sinister and cruel. Kipling wrote a detailed
description of the face, and felt it was of a man who ‘could crucify on
occasion’. It was the only jarring note he found in Burma. Otherwise
the attractiveness of the people overwhelmed him. Immediately after
the disconcerting dacoit-figure had swaggered past:

a brown baby came by in its mother’s arms and laughed, wherefore
I much desired to shake hands with it, and grinned to that effect.
The mother held out the tiny soft pud and laughed, and the baby
laughed, and we all laughed together, because that seemed to be the
custom of the country, and returned down the now dark corridor
where the lamps of the stall-keepers were twinkling and scores of
people were helping us to laugh. . .I had not actually entered the
Shway Dagon, but I felt just as happy as though I had.

After Rangoon his next call was at Moulmein:

As the steamer came up the river we were aware of first one
elephant and then another hard at work in timber-yards that faced
the shore. A few narrow-minded folk with binoculars said that
there were mahouts upon their backs, but … I prefer to believe in
what I saw—a sleepy town, just one house thick, scattered along a
lovely stream and inhabited by slow, solemn elephants, building
stockades for their own diversion.

Ashore, much impressed by the surrounding greenness and beauty, he
climbed to a large white pagoda on a hill:

I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen
deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of
the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next
noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever … Leaving
this far too lovely maiden I went up the steps.. .The hillside … was
ablaze with pagodas—from a gorgeous golden and vermilion
beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed. . .Far above my
head there was a faint tinkle as of golden bells, and a talking of the
breezes in the tops of the toddy palms … I climbed higher … .till I
reached a place of great peace dotted with Burmese images. Here
women now and again paid reverence. They bowed their heads and
their lips moved because they were praying. I had an umbrella – a
black one—in my hand, deck-shoes upon my feet, and a helmet
upon my head. I did not pray—swore at myself for being a Globe-
trotter, and wished that I had enough Burmese to explain to these
ladies that I was sorry…

Kipling sailed on his way, and never saw Burma again. But a year later,
lonely in lodgings off the Strand, and missing the sunlit world he had
left behind him, he published “Mandalay”,
the most famous of his poems and one of the best-known in the English language. Its theme
was a former soldier’s longing recollections – of dawn watched from a
troopship’s deck in the Bay of Bengal, of the pathway to war and
romance that he calls ‘the road to Mandalay’, and of a girl he fell in
love with at a pagoda in Moulmein. It was a lament for the East in
general, but for Burma in particular.

… On the road to Mandalay,
where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thuder outerf Chna ‘crost the Bay!

Those verses, strangely potent in their evocation, their rhythm, their regret, leapt into instant
prominence, where they have since remained, as the most haunting
lines ever written in English about that cleaner, greener land.


©George Webb 1983 All rights reserved