When a number of well known people were seen on national television recently looking at their ancestry some of them who had assumed they were pukka Brits discovered foreign persons in their family trees. So this might be a good time for more of us to clear our attics and look at our own family traditions, legends and personal memoirs, and put them on record, to help our children and succeeding generations understand their own identities, wherever born or wherever they make their own homes and have their families. This essay, set against the historical period of the last five hundred years is concerned primarily with the Portuguese, French and British infiltration of India and Burma: centuries of trade and control by Europeans and their eventual withdrawal, and the descendants of those who had settled in those territories. The majority of these descendants saw themselves as British, although bearing names from all over Europe.
Vasco da Gama led the Portuguese who first landed at Calicut in 1497, occupied Goa by 1510 and retained a presence for over four hundred years, finally obliged to leave a few years after the British in the middle of the nineteenth century, When they colonised Goa and adjacent territories they did so intending to stay and sought to establish their occupation by intermarriage with Indian women, generally Muslim or Hindu who were obliged to accept Catholic baptism first: and it is understood that native Indians who wished to remain in the new Portuguese territories were also obliged to become baptised. The Inquisition had travelled East.
The Portuguese territorial ambitions were not widespread but they and the Dutch set up trading stations in India and further eastwards in territories now known as Malaysia and Indonesia. Their commerce prospered and before long came to the notice of the adventurous Elizabethans who, determined to savour and exploit these treasures for themselves set up the East India Company in London by Royal Charter in 1599. These English adventurers were however outmatched by the Dutch in the East Indies, and wisely kept their interests centred on the trading stations in India. More relaxed personally than the Portuguese they made no religious demands on the Indians, and for nearly two centuries lived without inhibitions, consorting freely and naturally with their hosts, setting up stations by negotiating with local rulers, first at Surat and then onwards and eastwards to Madras and Bengal. Factories which comprised forts, buildings for warehousing and accommodation for workers were erected, and in due course by tacit agreement with the Mughals men were employed specifically to protect the Company’s burgeoning enterprise zones: soldiers British and Indian officered by Englishmen who came out for this purpose.
As Portuguese ascendancy waned many Indo Portuguese enlisted as mercenaries, their families living in the Fort and socialising with the English employees of the Company. Factors, writers, and soldiers without the company of women: many formed alliances with these Christian families and marriages followed. Eventually there were just not enough Eurasian women to go round and recognising the needs of the growing number of new arrivals from England the London Directors encouraged them to marry Indian women and bring their children up as Christians. Bounties were paid for this. In accordance with natural order a distinct community of Eurasians emerged in the eighteenth century, respected at every equivalent level of European society. But the London Directors imagined a threat of sedition from Eurasians who might seek to emulate the mulattoes of some Carribean polities and rise up against the European colonists, as had occurred in Haiti for example. The growing number of people of dual descent led to an awkward relationship with the British, but Eurasians have never been a seditious group; in India at any rate loyalty to the “Home” country has always been an essential ingredient of their psyches.
Even so, specific legislation was enacted against them; by 1791 they were excluded by edict from the Company’s military and civil service above subordinate grades, next from social events at Government House and ultimately from marriage with officers of the Company. But the community carved its own niches; many acquired prosperity and status independently of the Honourable East India Company. Their loyalty never faltered, always preferring their European heritage, language, culture and costume. Invariably Christian, whenever a testing situation arose they were to be seen in support of the British, generation after generation could tell of a hero of a war, an uprising or a mutiny.
Burma, so called by the British, was the kingdom of Myanmar just East of British India separated by forests and mountains to the north and by mountains and the sea to the south, for centuries isolated, as it is again now, from European trade and culture. The Portuguese had an embassy from Goa to Pegu in 1554 and there were some individuals from France and England as well in the succeeding centuries but there was little exchange of trade or commerce. The Burmese kings had spells of conquest and settlement in Manipur and Arakan and by the end of the eighteenth century Burmese incursions to territories uncomfortably close to British India began to irritate the Raj. Gunboats were sent to Rangoon in 1824 and achieved an easy victory over the Burmese. General Bandoola had been directed to Rangoon from the Arakan but had been overcome by the long march and wholesale loss of troops and was himself killed just as he was nearing his goal. Burma was undone. The British had no great urge to advance northwards as the Burmese had lost most of their sea frontage, having been allowed by the 1826 Treaty of Yandabo only to retain Rangoon, Bassein and Martaban. The kings were virtually isolated in Ava; two of them succumbed to manic depression.
Ava representatives in Rangoon tried British patience repeatedly so Lord Dalhousie seized the opportunity when an explosive incident occurred between a volatile British commodore and the Burmese Governor of Rangoon. Gunboats again. Not entirely without criticism in London. No resistance was forthcoming from the Burmese side and Dalhousie proclaimed a new British province of Pegu in 1852. Then followed a period of quiet diplomacy and the British settled in, once again true to form, by establishing sound and stable bases. By 1862 British Burma was proclaimed, by the amalgamation of Pegu, Arakan and Tenasserim.
Mindon, king of Ava, was a wise statesman and a sincere Buddhist, not quite an Anglophile but wholly correct in his dealings with British representatives, enabling them to secure concessions and a strong foothold of legal protection for British residents in Burma. Mindon astutely built relations with the French and Italians who attended his court as well.
The activity surrounding the court in the nineteenth century led to many European representatives, diplomatic and commercial, consorting with Burmese ladies of the court, royal and aristocratic, giving rise to a small Eurasian elite who flourished until the turbulence of the mid twentieth century. The writer’s maternal ancestry is included in that period, which featured descendants of French / Maratha unions from Pondicherry and British / Indian unions, who subsequently intermarried with descendants of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Burmese unions.
The tranquillity of Mindon’s reign was disturbed by the mid 1870’s. Chinese trade routes, clamourous demands for independence from the Karens, supported by Lord Dalhousie – perhaps with an eye to the teak forests which endowed the Karenni hills – were exacerbated by the re-appearance of slights and insolence as reported by both the British and Burmese, doubtless in some cases caused by deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s culture. The final straw was Mindon’s death in 1878 without a designated heir from among his sons. The ensuing intrigue resulted in the throne passing to Thibaw who was totally dominated by Supayalat his queen. Murders, intrigues, massacres real and alleged multiplied. Thibaw tried playing one European courtier off against another, and finally France against British India. In the end, British India sent a gunboat up the Irrawaddy and Mandalay was taken by General Prendergast. The king surrendered without any serious opposition or bloodshed on 28 November 1885. Thibaw and Supayalat were banished to Ratnagiri in Western India, with their daughters, and very little was ever heard of them again.
The British might once have hoped to establish an informal empire in Upper Burma and thereby complement their existing hold on the South, but the Burmese Kings and government wished to remain open to influences from all over Europe, denying the British exclusive access to the Court of Ava or the monopoly of foreign trade and commerce. No successor to Thibaw could be found who might collaborate as head of a nominally independent state. Shortly after his departure the social structure was reorganised and for the most part remained quite stable, in soi disant British Burma, the last jewel in the Crown, and even called Further India.
What has all this got to do with Britishness? It helps to put into perspective experience and abstract impressions of the last two decades of the Raj and the following years of residence in England.
The people of the lowlands lived mostly in the Irrawaddy valley, having evolved early in the last century into a heterogenous comprisal of immigrants and their descendants, originating from territories to the north-east and north-west of Burma. From the mid seventeenth century, others arrived from the Deccan in South India, and from Persia Armenia, Portugal France Italy Spain and Britain, lured by trade and commerce, piracy and war, first to mine the country’s treasures and then they stayed. Buddhists were quickly and easily assimilated and even Christians, many remembering their European forbears, were eventually quite indistinguishable from the rest.
The wars of the nineteenth century were brief encounters ending in bloodless victory for the India based British. The old constitution was set aside and after a brief period of military occupation a civil administration was established. Trade and commerce followed a stable pattern for nearly fifty years. The opening of secondary education and a new University enhanced the opportunities on offer to young people in the new twentieth century. Forty years on and a new society appeared to have taken shape, narrow Victorian behaviour was eased, with the British Empire now confidently established. It was almost as if Macaulay’s dream had come true: the new generation of educated middle class Burmese people, many with ancestral roots in the old aristocracy were groomed to administer the government alongside the Heaven Born from Britain.
The British Raj was not perfect but it seemed stable; and brought many advantages in its later stages especially to the children of Empire. We did not know then that we were the last generation in those far off tranquil years. With the advantage of a dual culture and University education many Eurasians became prominent in the design and development of the infrastructure of modern Burma, railways, forestry, mining, oil, as well as the professions of law, medicine and civil administration.
Few of us took the Japanese design for Asia at all seriously until it was too late. When Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbour on7th December 1941 Winston Churchill, who had felt trapped between Nazism and Communism, cried out in relief that “once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled and mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history will not come to an end.” This because he had tried and failed to draw America into the European war but it was now bound to happen, seriously provoked as America was by Japanese aggression.
In the hope of staying the Japanese from entering the war and conflict spreading further eastwards Churchill had sent the “ Prince of Wales” and the “Repulse” to the Far East. Japanese bombers torpedoed both on 10th December 1941. In January 1942 Churchill was shocked when he realised Singapore had no fixed defence from attack by land from the north. – “I ought to have known – I should have asked.” By 15th February 1942 130,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered. The Empire in the Far East was undone. A long time ago now so there is not much point in retailing the heartbreak and hardship which British communities lived through in those cruel years, as the Japanese swept through Burma, having first destroyed most of the towns from the air, virtually unopposed. Most Europeans, Eurasians, Indians and some Burmese with prevailing British loyalties fled towards India. Not all arrived there. Those of us who reached India by air or on foot were received most generously and many of us have the happiest memories of a three year exile. We made strong friendships, some married into their host families, and some have even successfully made and spent their lives in India.
Most of us who had fled from Burma returned after hostilities ceased, embarrassed sometimes when we encountered wandering Japanese soldiers staying on or left behind because their homes and families had vanished in Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Yokohama. But we were all glad to be back. We thought that Burma would now join the Commonwealth and many of us prepared to repair, rebuild and build anew the golden land we had left in such a hurry. We looked forward to civil rehabilitation and the thrill of creating a new society, a new country, and we were blissfully young and able. But we had misread the runes. The cabinet elect of the proposed new legislature were all felled in an armed attack from a dissenting group in 1947: a coup de grace for a tired post war British Government, the Prime Minister declared immediate independence for Burma as a Republic. This was to date from 4th January 1948.
When that occurred there would be no political or social institutions to enable a tranquil transition from fractured colonial to republican constitution. The period since the end of the Kingdom of Ava and the arrival of the Japanese lasted barely fifty years and the ravages of the recent war had not yet begun to be repaired. Burma’s immediate future seemed fragile indeed. But there was an outburst of optimism especially among young officers of a new army that was formed on the basis of the erstwhile Burma Army of British times.
Sadly, this army was already showing signs of inter-ethnic divisions and growing animosity to and from groups who originated in the territories surrounding the Irrawaddy Valley. The animosity spilled over into the Eurasian community, particularly those with more marked Indian origins, and a number of us looked abroad for solutions. Before long there was an exodus to the Dominions and the United States and a few left for England in 1948.
Nearly sixty years later we are ensconced as denizens in England as elsewhere; endogamous no longer, our descendants are English - Australian – Scots – New Zealanders – Canadians even Americans. They have no distinguishing tribal marks.
But what is Britishness? There is no easy definition and there are hardly two
people who would both agree on the subject. There are times when one feels keenly
British and is suddenly jolted back by an unthinking or insulting remark, usually
from strangers. But on reflection, settled in London and the South East the
cosmopolitan make up of metropolitan and rural life of the region has been good.
A successful career, marriage, making a home, bringing up children are basic
ingredients of success in all civilised societies. We’ve had the good
fortune to get all these things after a less than promising start to adult life.
And all these things we have received because of one special British characteristic
and that is tolerance.