[June 16 1983]
It was a wearied journalist—he left his little bed,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 reinforced.
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 Gazette, 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!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 ...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 Names":
It was a wearied journalist who sought his little bed,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.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.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.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 conclusions.
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. .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.'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 byword.
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.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 Tales, 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 –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 wrong:
He shot at the strong and he slashed at the weakA 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 Powers", 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 fame.
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 –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.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 Powers". 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 Rangoon:
... 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,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