French Indochina, Part I


Episode 25 is available!  Actually it has been up since July 16.  I didn’t announce here it until now because I was not happy with the sound quality, after I uploaded it.  For some reason my computer added static in some places.  Also, after uploading I discovered that one of the sources I used for Cambodia was in error.  Therefore I re-recorded the episode, with the static gone and the error corrected.  If you already listened to the episode, go ahead and download and listen to it again; it won’t cost you anything, after all.  And sorry for the inconvenience.

Anyway, for this episode the podcast moves to the east side of the Southeast Asian mainland.  This is the first in a two-part series on how the French conquered Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  If you are interested in what I may say in the future about the twentieth-century Vietnam War, this episode is an important stepping stone, setting the stage for that conflict by bringing in the French.


(Transcript, added 05/16/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Florian H. And Yumeng W., who made donations a week before this episode went online. I believe both of you live outside the United States, so your donations show that the podcast has international appeal. Thank you very much for your support. To everyone else listening, let’s give Florian and Yumeng a hand!


You, the listener in Alabama, I didn’t hear you. Try clapping harder next time, okay? Now let’s go to the show.


Episode 25: French Indochina, Part I

Greetings, dear listeners! Or as Robin Williams used to say,


No, we are not going to talk about the Vietnam War yet. At the rate this narrative is going, I expect to reach World War II in November 2017; that’s four months from the time of this recording, for those of you who aren’t listening soon after I uploaded this episode. And after that, we will cover the Vietnam War sometime in early 2018. However, the events in this episode and the next lead up to that conflict. France was one of the key players, and now we will see how the French became the rulers over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a position they held until their defeat at the battle of Dienbienphu.

This will be our fourth episode to concentrate on the history of Vietnam. If you haven’t listened to all the previous episodes yet, Episode 4 covered Vietnam in ancient times, Episode 8 covered Vietnam’s medieval era, and Episode 19 covered the early modern period. For most of the early modern period, Vietnam was divided between rival families that each wanted one of their members to be emperor of the whole country, and that rivalry ended in 1802 with the victory of the Nguyen family. The faction leader at that time, Nguyen Anh, changed his name to Gia Long to symbolize the beginning of a new era, and ruled as emperor until his death in 1819. That is where Episode 19 broke off, so the narrative resumes here.

Gia Long saw the job of emperor as a balancing act. He won with the help of a French bishop, who provided him with modern arms, advice, and a voice to the French government, and he returned those favors by giving Christians and their missionaries a free hand in Vietnam. However, France did nothing to help him after the death of that bishop, so he felt he owed nothing to the nation of France. Therefore, he saw French activity in the Far East as a potential threat. Maybe the French were friendly now, but who could promise that they wouldn’t change, and try at some point in the future to take over? After all, a French agent had tried to control the king of Siam in the 1680s – we saw that in Episode 18 – and in other parts of Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines and Indonesia, European missionaries and merchants were followed by invading groups of armed men. By leaving the missionaries alone, Gia Long had let Europeans, especially the French, get their foot in Vietnam’s door, and he was determined that they would get nothing more than that. For example, he allowed a small amount of trade with the West so he would know about the outside world’s inventions, but he refused to sign any sort of trade agreement that would give the French an advantage. Eventually this attitude could be seen in the other things he did, like when he launched a building project in Hue, the Vietnamese capital, to make his palace look more like the Forbidden City in China.

We have seen previously that Cambodia used to rule the Mekong delta, but starting with Saigon in 1697, the Vietnamese moved into the delta, settling it and taking it from the Khmers bit by bit. The Khmer kings were reduced to paying tribute to both Vietnam and Siam, hoping that they could stop further advances from their big neighbors by buying them off. One king who followed this policy was Ang Chan II, and in 1811 his brother, Ang Sgnuon, got Siam’s King Rama II to support him in a coup by promising to pay tribute to Siam only, should he succeed in seizing power. Siamese troops marched into Cambodia, and Ang Chan fled to Saigon, where he requested aid from Gia Long to get his throne back. One year later he returned with a Vietnamese army, and because the Siamese didn’t want to fight the Vietnamese, they withdrew after some minor skirmishes. Ang Chan was reinstated as king, and the policy of paying tribute to two countries was resumed.

For Gia Long, the imperial succession was a problem because his crown prince, Nguyen Canh, had died in 1801, eighteen years before he did. In Episode 19 we saw this prince go with the first Vietnamese embassy to France, when he was just seven years old. Then when he grew up, he proved himself a competent general, so I believe he would have made a good emperor, had he lived to rule. Since his priority was keeping foreign influence from growing too strong, Gia Long eventually chose his fourth son, Nguyen Phuc Dam, to succeed him, because this son was the most xenophobic. The new heir changed his name to Minh Mang when he became emperor, and he ruled from 1819 to 1841.

Those who knew Minh Mang personally described him as a mild-mannered scholar, but because he wasn’t friendly to foreigners, the outside world saw him as a cruel tyrant. He believed in imitating the government of China to the letter, so under him Vietnam was run by a Confucian-style bureaucracy, with himself as another “Son of Heaven.” His cabinet had the usual departments to handle affairs like defense and finances, but there was no ministry of foreign affairs, because he felt foreigners didn’t deserve that much attention, and he distrusted all religions but Confucianism, because they did not teach submission to the emperor’s authority. This included Christianity, so he did not give missionaries the tolerance that his father had. And like his father, he rejected the treaties that foreigners offered. One of the rejected proposals came from Captain John White of Salem, Massachusetts, who sailed his clipper ship to Saigon in 1820. Captain White was the first American to visit Vietnam, so if you’re keeping track of when the complicated relationship between the United States and Vietnam began, this is an event to remember, though nothing came of it.

On the frontiers, Vietnam continued its expansion to the south and west. We saw back in Episode 18 that Vietnam supported Chao Anou, the last independent Laotian king, in his unsuccessful rebellion against Siam in 1828, and because of that, Minh Mang claimed eastern Laos as Vietnamese territory for a while. At one point, Minh Mang sent an ambassador with a retinue of one hundred men to Bangkok, and the general in charge of putting down the Laos rebellion only allowed one man from that party to go home alive – this told the emperor that there could not be a peaceful solution to the conflict. And like his father, Minh Mang had to send troops into Cambodia, because the Siamese were back in that country. The Siamese had moved in troops from the north, nibbling away at Cambodian territory, and when they defeated the Cambodians at the battle of Kompong Chang in 1832, Ang Chan fled to Vietnam again. Now the all-out war between Siam and Vietnam, which had been avoided in 1812, took place. Siamese forces invaded the Mekong delta provinces of Chau Doc and Vinh Long, but they were turned back by Vietnamese counter-attacks in 1833. The same year saw anti-Siamese revolts break out in eastern Laos and Cambodia, followed by a Vietnamese army of 15,000 men marching to Udong, the Cambodian capital at the time. The war ended in 1834, with Ang Chan as king once more and Cambodia as a Vietnamese puppet state. Incidentally, Vietnam annexed Soc Trang province, where the Mekong River meets the sea, in 1840, and with that, Vietnam’s conquest of the delta was complete.

Vietnam and Siam had a rematch in 1841, when Cambodia’s pro-Vietnamese government was overthrown and the rebels called on Siam to support their candidate, a pro-Siamese prince named Ang Duong. Ang Duong had spent his whole adult life in Bangkok, so when he went to Cambodia to become the new king, a Siamese army went with him. Because the Vietnamese were taken by surprise, they evacuated Cambodia, and Siam responded by invading the Mekong delta in 1842. Here the Siamese goal was to capture Saigon, and they got as far as Cô Tô Mountain. But now that the Vietnamese were back on familiar ground, they won a victory three months later that halted the offensive, took back the mountain, and captured a large number of Siamese prisoners. Then in 1845 came a Vietnamese counter-invasion of Cambodia, which took Phnom Penh and brought Udong under siege; at this point, the Siamese commander sued for peace. We call this war a draw, because Ang Duong remained king afterwards, neither Siam nor Vietnam gained any territory, and they agreed to have Cambodia resume paying tribute to both countries.

Now tracking the interaction between Vietnam, Siam, Laos and Cambodia is helpful in understanding where those countries stood on the eve of the French invasion, but most history texts breeze over these events quickly, only saying a few words about them, because what the Europeans did mattered the most, and everybody knew it. And it was Minh Mang’s crackdown on Catholicism that offended Europeans the most. At first he tried to stop the missionary work by offering jobs to the priests. He summoned the French clergy to Hue and told them that they had several useful skills, especially their ability to translate between Vietnamese and French; if they would work for him, he would give them the title of mandarin, meaning they would be high-ranking officials in the government. But the priests would have to give up converting the Vietnamese if they accepted, and the offer did not prevent new priests from coming into the country. Therefore the emperor decided to get tougher. In 1825 he issued his first anti-Christian edict, forbidding any new missionaries from coming to Vietnam because, as he put it, quote: “The perverse religion of the Europeans corrupts the hearts of men.” End quote. After that, when revolts broke out in various parts of the country, Minh Mang suspected that Catholics, both foreign and native followers of the faith, were involved in stirring up discontent.

The emperor did not catch any priests behind the revolts until he put down a particularly bad one in 1833, led by his adopted son, Le Van Khoi. This time he ordered the arrest of all French and Vietnamese priests who did not leave the country immediately, and though many escaped, one of those captured was Father François Isidore Gagelin, who had once worked at the imperial court as a cartographer. He was brought to Hue in irons, condemned to death for quote “preaching the religion of Jesus,” unquote, and slowly strangled by six guards as he knelt on a scaffold. The emperor knew the story of the resurrection of Jesus, so three days later he ordered the body of the priest dug up, to make sure he was still dead.

During the next seven years, ten more foreign missionaries were executed. As awful as this sounds, keep in mind that in the history of Western civilization, plenty of religious persecutions were worse. Just look at the Albigensian Crusade, or the wars of the Reformation, both of which pitted Christians against other Christians. In France there were calls for military action against Vietnam to protect missionaries and their converts, but the current French king, Louis Philippe, wasn’t in the mood for an overseas adventure that far from home, so the French didn’t act in the 1830s. However, at the end of the decade the notorious Opium War broke out, between Britain and China, over the question of whether the British East India Company had the right to sell drugs to the Chinese. When Minh Mang saw how easily the British Navy beat the Chinese ships in each battle, he decided that he’d better negotiate with the Europeans, or Vietnam might become the next target. Accordingly, he sent two mandarins to France. But Catholic activists loudly protested the arrival of these diplomats from a country that persecutes Christians, and when the Vatican found out, it voiced its disapproval of them, too. King Louis Philippe chose to play it safe and refused to grant the mandarins an audience. This was the first time the Western nations missed an opportunity to fix poor relations with Vietnam, and it would not be the last.

Soon after this mess-up, Minh Mang died and was succeeded by his son, Thieu Tri. The new emperor shared his father’s anti-foreign and anti-Christian sentiments, but during his short reign, he executed no foreign missionaries. Thieu Tri knew that harming the missionaries could provoke Europe – after the Opium War, European ships were patrolling Pacific waters at any given time – so he was happy if all the missionaries did was get out of the country. The problem was that the missionaries were passionate about their calling to win souls for Jesus, and once they left Vietnam, they looked for a way to sneak back in.

The most troublesome of these missionaries was a Frenchman named Dominique Lefèbvre. Lefèbvre first came to Vietnam in 1835, when he was 25 years old, and managed to keep from getting arrested by doing much of his preaching in secret. However, in 1844 he got involved in an unsuccessful plot to replace Thieu Tri with an emperor who would be friendlier to Christians. Thieu Tri first condemned Lefèbvre to death, but later, to avoid trouble, he had the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, supposedly because the missionary was ignorant of the laws against Christianity. Not long after that, an American warship, the USS Constitution, dropped anchor in Da Nang harbor. Yes, this was the famous ship that has been called Old Ironsides, for winning battles in the War of 1812! Lefèbvre was locked up in nearby Hue, but managed to get a message smuggled to the Constitution, where the captain, John Percival, was entertaining three Vietnamese mandarins. Percival tried to get the missionary freed by holding the mandarins hostage, but the emperor refused to compromise, until the captain gave up trying and released the mandarins. The United States government denied Percival was acting on orders from Washington and eventually apologized, while Thieu Tri tried to defuse the matter when a French admiral, Jean-Baptiste Cécille, showed up on the scene; the emperor gave him Lefèbvre and some gifts for the king of France.

The admiral took Lefèbvre to Singapore, and that should have been the end of the story, but instead the pesky missionary re-entered Vietnam in 1846. What happened next was a repeat of what happened the first time: Lefèbvre was arrested again, sentenced to death again, pardoned again, released again, and put on a ship headed for Singapore again. Unfortunately, while that was going on, Admiral Cécille sent two warships to Dan Nang. The French did not know that Lefèbvre had already been set free, so when the ships arrived, a letter was sent to the emperor, demanding the release of Lefèbvre and another missionary, and for the Vietnamese government to grant freedom of worship to all Catholics in the country. Eighteen days later a letter with the emperor’s response came back. The French and the local mandarins got into an argument over whether the Vietnamese should deliver the letter to one of the ships. The Vietnamese feared being taken hostage if they went on the ships, while the French feared being ambushed if they went ashore to pick up the letter. Instead of settling this impasse peacefully, on April 15, 1847, somebody – we don’t know who – ordered the French to fire, and the French ships bombarded the harbor, sinking three Vietnamese ships, and killing more than a hundred natives. Then the French sailed away, without checking to see if the missionaries were safe.

Afterwards, Admiral Cécille recommended that in the future, France should talk to Vietnam, quote: “Only with guns.” End quote. Likewise, Thieu Tri ordered the killing of all missionaries and their Christian followers, but his subordinates didn’t carry out the order, and the emperor’s death later in the same year meant nobody had to obey it after all. As for Lefèbvre, he went to Vietnam once more, and this time hid so well that he was not captured a third time. He died a free man, in the French city of Marseilles in 1865.

The next Vietnamese emperor was Thieu Tri’s son, Tu Duc, who ruled from 1847 to 1883. Thieu Tri had passed over his eldest son and chose Tu Duc as his successor, because he believed that Tu Duc would do the most to maintain traditional values and keep foreign influences out. Tu Duc did just that, but ironically, when he took the throne, there was a revolt from the more conservative mandarins, who thought Confucianism was best observed when only the emperor’s eldest son got to rule. Tu Duc put down the revolt, and the elder brother in question committed suicide in prison, but I think you’ll agree this isn’t the best way to begin a reign. Tu Duc’s opponents tried again in 1865, when they joined a revolt led by a pretender, who claimed descent from Vietnam’s fifteenth-century rulers, the Le dynasty. It certainly didn’t help that Tu Duc had 104 wives but fathered no children, because he was rendered sterile by a case of smallpox.

From the Christian point of view, Tu Duc was definitely bad news. Like his father and grandfather, he saw Christianity as a threat to the country’s Confucian-style order, and Catholics as potential or actual French agents. But to keep the French from attacking again, he acted when he thought the French were too busy with affairs at home to respond. For example, he issued his first anti-Christian edict in 1848, when revolution swept France and forced King Louis Philippe to abdicate. Then the second anti-Christian edict was issued in 1851, right after the new French president, Louis Napoleon, staged a coup to make himself president for life. These edicts ordered all Vietnamese Catholics to renounce their faith; those that didn’t were branded on the cheek with two Chinese characters meaning “infidel,” and any property that they owned was confiscated. As for the clergymen, Tu Duc ordered Vietnamese priests to be cut in half and European priests to be drowned; bounties in silver were paid for priests turned in to the authorities. Tu Duc’s strategy didn’t work as planned because Louis Napoleon soon declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, and both he and his wife Eugenie were devout Catholics, so they could not ignore the persecution of Catholics.

Intervention in Southeast Asia had to wait until events in Europe no longer got in the way. One of those events was the Crimean War, where France teamed up with Britain to attack Russia in the mid-1850s. After the Crimean War was done, France sent two more ships to Vietnam, commanded by Louis Charles de Montigny, the former French consul in Shanghai. But Montigny also had another assignment, to negotiate a treaty with Siam, and though this was successful, the negotiations took so long that Montigny told the ships to go ahead without him, after writing a letter for them to deliver to the emperor. On the way a storm struck the ships, damaging one, but the other made it to Da Nang in September 1856. The result was the same as when French ships came calling in 1847: the local mandarins refused to accept the letter, the ship captain ordered the harbor forts destroyed with the ship’s guns, and after the bombardment the ship’s marines came ashore to occupy the town citadel. Now the frightened mandarins were willing to talk, but the ship captain thought it would be best to wait for Montigny. After a few weeks of waiting, the second ship straggled into Da Nang harbor, but Montigny wasn’t onboard, and supplies were running low, so both ships withdrew. Then Montigny showed up in early 1857, but without warships backing him up, the Vietnamese found it easy to reject everything he demanded.

The bad timing and failure of that expedition did not discourage the French. On the contrary, it made them want to act even more, and now the priests calling for French intervention pointed to the treaty signed between France and the Nguyen family in 1787, because it said France could have Da Nang. We talked about that treaty in Episode 19, and in the seventy years since then, nobody had kept the treaty, or even thought it was worth much attention. Napoleon III delayed responding until news arrived that a Spanish missionary had been beheaded in Vietnam, and finally gave the navy orders to invade in July 1857. After more delays, a task force of 14 ships and 5,000 men, commanded by Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, reached Da Nang on August 31, 1858. And they weren’t all French; about half the soldiers were Spaniards, sent from Manila to avenge the slain Spanish priest. The objective was to grab Da Nang and as much surrounding territory as needed to make Tu Duc agree to a treaty that would turn Vietnam into a French protectorate.

It only took a day to occupy Da Nang, and the French renamed it Tourane, a name it would hold for the rest of the French colonial era. However, the French could not threaten the Vietnamese capital, because they lacked the shallow-draft boats needed to go up the Perfume River to Hue. Nor did they have the animals, carts and porters that would be needed for a march to Hue on dry land. Worse than that, no reinforcements arrived–they went to join the British in the Second Opium War against China, and the French expected Vietnamese Catholics to rise up in revolt against the emperor, but that did not happen. On top of all that, French casualties from tropical diseases were mounting; we have reports of slight scratches getting infected and requiring amputation. Then when the rainy season started in October, the army was completely immobilized, both by the weather and by surrounding Vietnamese forces. By the end of the year the quick victory at Tourane was looking more like a disaster.

I know what some of you are thinking. No, the French did not surrender to get out of that mess. I have heard the jokes about today’s French surrendering at the drop of a hat, like this one from The Simpsons:


Well, in the 1850s the French were nothing like that. The French army was first-rate at the time, it fought well in the Crimean War, and the commander-in-chief was a Napoleon. Instead of surrendering, or waiting for new orders from Paris, Admiral Rigault pulled most of his ships and men out of Tourane, and sent them south, into the Mekong River delta. After two weeks of fighting in February 1859, they took the most important city in the delta region, Saigon. Because the delta was one of the richest parts of the country, this REALLY hurt. But Vietnamese guerrillas soon appeared on the scene, keeping the French from taking any of the territory around Saigon. Some guerrillas even made raids into Saigon itself. For those of you who know anything about the twentieth-century Vietnam War, this should remind you of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Back in Tourane, the situation continued to deteriorate; now for every soldier killed in combat, twenty were getting killed by disease. Therefore, Admiral Rigault soon got tired of the stalemate in Saigon, and returned to Tourane, again bringing most of the troops with him. From Tourane he tried to contact the emperor, but Tu Duc refused to negotiate, since it appeared that nature was fighting on the side of the Vietnamese. The admiral resigned and went home, leaving to his successor the inglorious job of evacuating French forces from Tourane.

Back in France, many people called on Napoleon III to finish what had been started in Vietnam. In the history of Western civilization, we are up to the age of imperialism, when the nations of Europe sent their armies and navies overseas to conquer as much of the non-European world as possible. Many factors encouraged this aggressive behavior. Merchants wanted to find new customers overseas, and secure resources for the factories at home; military men looked for adventure; those who believed in the superiority of Western civilization thought it should be introduced to the rest of the world, thereby bringing a better way of life to primitive peoples. Those voices grew loud enough to prompt the sending of reinforcements in 1861. By now the Second Opium War in China was over, and the French troops returning from that expedition were sent to Saigon, instead of bringing them home right away. The French commander in Saigon now had two thousand soldiers available, and he went on the offensive, using those soldiers to spread out and capture three of Vietnam’s six provinces in the Mekong delta. Tu Duc was unable to resist the modern military technology of the West, and without the delta provinces, his army was in danger of starving. You can see how desperate he was because he sent a request for military aid to US President Abraham Lincoln; of course with the American Civil War having just begun, this plea went unanswered. In 1862 he finally gave up. The war ended with the signing of a treaty that gave France the three conquered southern provinces, and Con Son Island in the South China Sea. And that wasn’t all; three ports in the rest of Vietnam were opened to trade with Europe, Catholic missionaries were allowed to preach freely again, and Vietnam promised not to give any of its territory to another nation besides France. I wonder why?

The Lost City in the Jungle

While the war was going on in southern Vietnam, a different kind of expedition took place in neighboring Cambodia, and this got the French interested in that country, too. Since 1858, a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot had been exploring the jungles of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. He was mainly in Southeast Asia to collect rare butterflies and shells, but in 1860 he stumbled upon the ruins of Angkor, the spectacular former Cambodian capital. I talked about Angkor back in Episode 7 of this podcast series; go listen to it if you haven’t already, and you’ll know why this is a big deal. Mouhot returned to France to report on what he found, and then went on another expedition in the following year. This time he died of a jungle fever in Laos, and was buried near Luang Prabang. The French built a small monument over his grave in 1867, which was lost when the jungle grew around the site, and then it was just re-discovered in 1989.

Mouhot was subsequently called the discoverer of Angkor and the Khmer civilization, but the truth is that Angkor was never truly “lost.” The Khmers still knew about it, after all, even if they didn’t live there anymore, or remember the details about the city’s history. My online sources report that Portuguese merchants were in the neighborhood of Angkor as early as 1550, and a Portuguese monk named António da Madalena visited the ruins in 1586. Apparently Europe did not pay attention to pre-1860 reports of Angkor because those who wrote the reports weren’t as eloquent as Mouhot. Here is a sample from the book Mouhot published on his travels. Quote:

“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings . . . It makes the traveler forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as would be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in a sandy desert. Suddenly, and as if by enchantment, he seems to be transformed from barbarism to civilization, from profound darkness to light.”

End quote.

When I was a kid in school, my American history textbooks claimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We know better now. Somebody else crossed the oceans separating the Old World from the New World before 1492; the Viking Leif Ericson did it, and maybe some others as well. Still, Columbus got the credit because once he made the journey, America stayed “discovered”; the Old World didn’t forget what he found, the way it had forgotten Ericson’s “Vinland.” Likewise, I believe Henri Mouhot got the credit for discovering Angkor because we have remembered it ever since.

Cambodia and Cochin China

Now let’s go back to Vietnam. When the previously mentioned war between Vietnam and France ended, the Spanish troops supporting the French withdrew from Saigon, since their mission had been accomplished. However, the French were not finished yet. In 1863 a naval officer, Admiral Pierre Paul Marie Benoît de La Grandière, was appointed governor of Saigon, and right before he took the job, he acted boldly to expand the French Empire some more. Because Cambodia had been a vassal state of Vietnam in recent years, the admiral now claimed that the latest war had transferred Cambodia’s vassalage from Vietnam to France.

The new king of Cambodia, Norodom, disagreed and tried to flee to Siam, but Admiral de La Grandière caught up with him at Udong; with the guns of French warships pointed at the king’s palace, the admiral forced the king to sign a treaty declaring Cambodia a French protectorate. Siam wasn’t out of the game, though. King Norodom had not been crowned yet because the Cambodian royal regalia, meaning the king’s crown and sword, were in Bangkok. The Siamese had been holding onto these items since the death of the previous king, Ang Duong, to keep the Vietnamese from crowning the next king. To get the royal stuff back, Norodom would have to go to Bangkok and let the Siamese stage his coronation, a move which would make it look like Siam was still in charge. In March 1864 Norodom tried to do just that, and sneaked out of Udong to begin the journey to Bangkok. But of course the French were not going to allow this. As soon as they heard that Norodom had fled, fifty French soldiers went into Udong, raised the French flag over the city, and fired a 21-gun salute to the flag. Their message was that Cambodia would become a directly-ruled French province, if Norodom left the country. Rather than lose his kingdom, Norodom returned immediately, and after a round of negotiations between France and Siam, all sides reached a compromise. The coronation was finally held in Udong on June 3, 1864, where Norodom crowned himself while French and Siamese representatives watched the ceremony.

In 1867, de La Grandière acted again without notifying Paris first. This time he annexed the three Mekong delta provinces that were still under Vietnamese control, claiming that the Vietnamese in the area were a threat to French interests in Cambodia. With that move, the whole southern third of Vietnam, a territory Europeans called Cochin China, was now under French rule. Also caught by surprise was Phan Thanh Giang, the Vietnamese governor over the annexed provinces. Phan had been helpful in the past – he was the chief negotiator on the Vietnamese side when the previous treaty was drawn up, and in 1863 he led a 70-man embassy to France to meet with Napoleon III. Now he felt so shamed that he committed suicide, after making his sons pledge to never cooperate with the French.

The same year, 1867, saw the French compel Siam to sign a new treaty, which ended Siam’s protectorate over Cambodia, but allowed the Siamese to annex two provinces in the northwest, Battambang and Siem Reap. This area included the Angkor ruins, and we’ll be coming back to that in the next episode, since Cambodia without its ancient city was an incomplete country. Imagine the United States without Virginia and Massachusetts, two of the oldest states, and you’ll get the idea. But bringing the rest of Cambodia under French rule wasn’t all bad. In 1865 France moved the capital from Udong to Phnom Penh, where it has been ever since. Also, when the French took over, King Norodom was facing a serious rebellion from the country’s Cham minority, and in 1885 Norodom’s half brother launched another revolt against him; he probably couldn’t have gotten the upper hand against these rebels without French help. Finally, Vietnamese and Siamese expansion in the early nineteenth century had been a threat to the very existence of the Cambodian people. If the French hadn’t intervened when they did, it is likely that the Cambodians would have been absorbed into one of their larger neighbors, and they would not exist as a separate ethnic group today.

On that note, I am breaking off the narrative here. Originally I was planning to devote one episode to French expansion in Southeast Asia, since one episode was enough to cover the British conquest of Burma. But as I found in other cases, the amount of available information is growing exponentially as the narrative covers events closer to the present. Now that I have a year of podcasting experience behind me, I could record a multi-hour episode like Dan Carlin does, but with the way I record and edit, that would have made this episode late for sure. Therefore, in the next episode we will cover the rest of the French conquests, in the period between 1867 and 1907. How about that, only forty years! There won’t be any more episodes in this podcast series where the narrative jumps across centuries in one sitting! Heck, we only have a century and a half to go, from 1867 to now!

We’ll finish with the usual requests from me. As I have said before, write a review of the podcast on the website where you listen or download it. Last week I was notified of a review on I didn’t even know the podcast was on Podbean; my thanks to whoever added it to their fine list of shows! So reviews not only tell other people where the podcast is, they tell me, too. Now there are nine places online (that I know of) where you can access the episodes:

Google Play

If you think this episode was worth a donation, you can make one by clicking on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s page. It can be either a one-time donation, like what has come in so far, or you can be the first to set up Paypal to make a monthly donation of whatever amount you wish, starting at $1. If you are on Facebook and haven’t done so already, “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page. And if you like the podcast enough, tell your friends in the real world; word of mouth advertising is free, after all. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


On the Road to Mandalay


Okay, since the latest episode went up today, we are back on schedule.  And that’s not all; today the podcast is one year old.  This time we look at the history of Burma/Myanmar from 1782 to 1890, when Britain conquered the country and made it part of British India.  You will also hear me read a poem by Rudyard Kipling; listen and enjoy!


(Transcript, added 05/09/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Paul D., who made a generous donation a week before this episode went online. I am always grateful when people show in this way and in other ways that my work is appreciated. What’s more, your donation shows that you are not only interested in hearing what comes next in the podcast narrative, you also want to make sure that others get a chance to hear it, too. As in the past, I’ll let Frank Bartles from the Bartles & Jaymes commercials say thank you for that.

<Bartles sound clip>

We now return you to your regularly scheduled podcast.


Episode 24: On the Road to Mandalay

Mandalay, a poem by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! ”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

Greetings, dear listeners! Let the record show that this is a cultured podcast; you just heard one of the classics of English literature. When I was a kid, I knew Kipling wrote stories for children, like The Jungle Book, but after growing up I learned he also wrote a lot about life in the British army during the age of imperialism, to the point that he has been called the “Bard of Empire.” Much of it came from his own experience; he was stationed in Burma at the age of 24, and one year later, in 1890, he published the poem you just heard. “Mandalay” echoes a theme heard in other times and places: a soldier goes to an exotic land, and after leaving he wishes he could go there again, and see the girl he left behind. Here are a few things to help you understand it better:

1. The road to Mandalay isn’t a road on dry land, but the Irrawaddy River. You may remember that in the early days of this podcast I said Southeast Asians have preferred traveling by water most of the time. The references to flying fishes should be a hint to that.

2. We have mentioned Moulmein before. It is the old name for a city on the coast of southern Burma, the largest city of the Mon state. Nowadays it is called Mawlamyine. It looks like Kipling arrived in Burma there, and then went upstream to Mandalay.

3. “Whackin’ white cheroot” means the girl was smoking a cigar. Not a Havana cigar, but a homemade one, probably tobacco wrapped in a cornhusk.

4. “Theebaw” was the last Burmese king. More about him later.

Also, today is an anniversary. The day this episode was uploaded, July 1, 2017, marks exactly one year since I launched the podcast. So let’s sing “Happy Birthday” to celebrate!

<sound effects>

If you haven’t figured it out from the poem, this episode is about Burma, modern Myanmar, in the nineteenth century. Kipling’s poem was written right at the end of the period we will be talking about today, as we look at how Burma became part of the British Empire. So let’s get into the narrative.

<Burmese music>

In Episodes 15, 16 and 20 we covered a centuries-long feud between Myanmar and Thailand, or as they were called before the twentieth century, Burma and Siam. For those of you who listened to those episodes, I don’t know if you caught any patterns to the conflict, so here is one: of the two kingdoms, Burma was usually larger (when it was united, anyway), but Siam was better organized. By better organized, I mean that Siam had fewer problems with its ethnic minorities revolting; there were several times when Burma was in danger of falling apart, either because of the minorities or because of struggles within the royal family. Each Burmese monarch usually had to eliminate his rivals when coming to power, while Siam stopped having that problem when their most recent dynasty, the Chakri dynasty, took over in 1782. Another sign of instability was that in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every king chose to move the capital to a new location. Indeed, just twelve years ago, the Burmese government moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw without warning. As the saying goes, the more history changes the more it stays the same.

Anyway, we saw the last Burmese dynasty, the Konbaung dynasty, take charge under King Alaungpaya in 1752, and our narrative broke off when Bodawpaya became king in 1782. Bodawpaya was the fourth son of Alaungpaya, the last son of that great king to rule, and the dynasty’s sixth king, with a reign stretching from 1782 to 1819; longer than average, by Burmese standards. One of the first things he did was abandon the current palace at Ava, because he believed an evil spell had been cast on it. To replace Ava, he built a whole new capital at Amarapura, six miles away. You could say he was simply keeping the family tradition of moving the capital. He also built a new pagoda at Sagaing, to atone for the bloodshed that occurred there when he became king.

Next, Bodawpaya looked at going on a military expedition to prove he had what it takes to be a conquering hero. Because of Siam’s recovery from the wars of the 1760s, he started by sending an army west, against the kingdom of Arakan. We saw in previous episodes that above the Irrawaddy delta, the west coast had been an independent state, despite its close location to the Burmese heartland. Go back to Episode 18 to hear about Arakan during its best years, but since 1731, when a king named Sandawizaya was murdered, Arakan had been in a state of anarchy, with its princes, kings and pirates fighting constantly. Thus, Arakan was finally an easy target. The king’s son led an army over the mountains separating Arakan from Burma, the Arakan Yoma, in October 1784. On the last day of the year they captured Mrohaung, modern Mrauk U, the Arakanese capital, and after the capture of the last king in February 1785, Arakan, or Rakhine as it is called today, was proclaimed a Burmese province. 20,000 Arakanese captives were taken back to Burma as slaves. Arakan’s national symbol, an image called the Mahamuni Buddha, was taken away as well; today it sits in a pagoda in Mandalay. Another player has been eliminated from our narrative; Arakan R-I-P. Directly west of Arakan was Bengal, the most important British colony in India, so Burma now shared a border with British India; make a note of that.

The success of the Arakan campaign encouraged Bodawpaya to invade Siam in the same year, 1785. This has been called the Nine Armies War because the Burmese troops were divided between nine units. Unlike Arakan, Siam had a competent leader, King Rama I, and he defeated the invasion. Then in 1787 Siam turned the tables with a counter-invasion of southern Burma. This war continued on-and-off until 1792, and the Burmese waged a successful defense. The two sides signed a treaty ending the war in 1793, in which Siam recognized Burmese rule over Tavoy and the Tenasserim coast. If you are looking for these places on a map, Tavoy is now called Dawei and Tenasserim is now called Tanintharyi. It has to do with all the name changes that took place when Burma was renamed Myanmar, you know. Over the course of his reign, Bodawpaya fought three more minor wars with the Siamese, and they all ended in draws, so we don’t have to talk about them in any detail.

At home Bodawpaya conducted two economic surveys of the entire kingdom, in 1784 and 1803. These works have been compared with the Domesday Book, the famous complete appraisal of the land and livestock of England that William the Conqueror ordered in the late eleventh century. Although these weren’t the first such surveys done in Burmese history, it had been about 150 years since the last one, and these were the oldest surveys for which any part has survived, giving us valuable insight into the resources Burma had on the eve of Britain’s invasions.

We saw in previous episodes that the Burmese kings were strong promoters of Buddhism, but Bodawpaya went one step further – he thought he was a living Buddha, destined to conquer the world, though most of the monks disagreed with this idea. He persecuted the sects he saw as heresies, made drinking, smoking opium, and killing animals crimes punishable by death; and like his predecessors, he built pagodas.

Six miles northwest of Mandalay, Bodawpaya tried to build the world’s largest Buddhist shrine, the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. If it had been completed, this pagoda would have stood 490 feet high, making it a bit taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, and it would have been visible from Shwebo, the ruling dynasty’s original capital, about 42 miles away. But the project was unpopular, because the king put thousands of slaves and prisoners of war to work on it, from 1790 to 1797. Soon a prophecy went around, predicting that if the pagoda was completed, either the king would die, the dynasty would be overthrown, or the country would fall. Whichever version of the prophecy was told, it played into the king’s superstitious attitude; he no longer was in a hurry to get the project done, construction slowed to a crawl, and when the king died, construction stopped altogether. If you go to Mingun today, you will see the pagoda’s stump; it is still 172 feet high, and my sources call it the world’s largest brick pile. Because the Old Testament Book of Genesis describes the Tower of Babel as being made of bricks and mortar, I like to think of Mingun as Burma’s version of that famous failed project.

In 1838 a major earthquake, the enemy of all Burmese architecture, severely damaged the ruins; you can see a huge crack from the earthquake that split the main arch in two. A 90-ton bronze bell was cast for the pagoda, but it could never be installed in the structure, so now it is displayed separately. Until a larger bell was cast in China in 2000, it was the world’s largest uncracked bell. Also nearby is a 15-foot-high model of what the pagoda would have looked like if it had been completed, called the Pon Daw Pagoda. Finally, in 1816 the grandson of Bodawpaya, Bagyidaw, built a beautiful white pagoda of regular size, called the Hsinbyume Pagoda, next to the Mingun ruins.

Meanwhile in the west, Burmese rule over Arakan was so oppressive that a revolt broke out in 1794, and the rebels managed to capture Mrohaung. This was put down, but thousands of Arakanese fled across the border into British India, and this prompted the British to send an embassy, to investigate the situation and negotiate with Bodawpaya. Late in Bodawpaya’s reign, a civil war took place in the east Indian state of Assam, and he was invited by one of the faction leaders to intervene on that faction’s side; Bodawpaya did so in 1817, and the faction leader in question became the next prime minister of Assam. But then the prime minister was assassinated in 1819, and Bodawpaya sent troops again; this time they did not return home when the fighting ended, but added Assam to the growing Burmese empire. The annexation of Assam put Burmese troops on the northern and eastern frontiers of Bengal, and you can bet your last dollar that the British would see this as a threat. Fortunately, open conflict was narrowly avoided while Bodawpaya lived.

Bodawpaya was succeeded by his grandson, Bagyidaw, because the elder king outlived his son. Bagyidaw ruled from 1819 to 1837, and in 1823 he moved the capital from Amarapura back to Ava. On the western frontier, Manipur had been an annoyance to Bodawpaya; for most of his reign, that state acted like it wasn’t part of the Burmese empire. Then when Bagyidaw became king, Manipur’s prince didn’t bother to attend the coronation, so Bagyidaw sent troops to occupy Manipur and establish a permanent garrison there. This was just four months after the conquest of Assam, so I believe the same troops were used for both campaigns.

Burma’s successful campaigns in the west over the past generation made a showdown with the British likely, because any more gains in this direction would come at British India’s expense. George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs described Burma at this time as follows. Quote: “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 center, 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.” End quote.

The British took an interest in Burma because the British East India Company wanted to open new markets east of Bengal, and because their longtime rivals, the French, were now active in Southeast Asia; it had only been a few years since the defeat of Napoleon, so the British wouldn’t let the French make any gains overseas, through diplomacy or force of arms, if they could help it. However, the First Anglo-Burmese War was touched off by two other issues. First, the borders between the British and Burmese-ruled areas were poorly defined, so it wasn’t always clear who owned what. Second, refugees from the Burmese conquests based themselves in Bengal and staged raids into their homelands; the Burmese thought the British were not doing enough to stop this behavior. Bagyidaw responded by authorizing his best general, Maha Bandula, to pursue the rebels, thinking that the fuzzy borders would allow the troops to get away with this as long as they avoided places containing British troops and civilians. Instead, in September 1823 the Burmese occupied an island near Chittagong, which was claimed by the British East India Company. Soon Burmese and British troops clashed in Assam and along the Arakan border, and war was declared on March 5, 1824. Unlike previous conflicts in Southeast Asian history, the Europeans weren’t attacking a small, primitive state that had no real chance of winning – this was the closest any Western nation in Southeast Asia came to picking on an opponent its own size.

The Burmese had the advantage on land, with 10,000 soldiers and 500 horses immediately available on the Bengal frontier, commanded by Maha Bandula. All this general had to do to win was strike across the frontier and capture Bengal, and his advancing force got too close to Calcutta for comfort. However, the British were famous for winning wars with sea power, and instead of simply trying to throw back the Burmese, they used the Royal Navy to make their first move. Using warships and 10,000 British and Indian soldiers, the British commander, Sir Archibald Campbell, launched a pre-emptive strike across the Bay of Bengal that captured Rangoon, Burma’s main port. This was achieved bloodlessly, for when the Burmese heard the British were coming, they abandoned the city and built fortified positions on its outskirts.

In Bengal, Maha Bandula called off his offensive, and rushed the troops through Arakan so they could join the forces trying to take back Rangoon. This meant a forced march across mountains, jungles and swamps, in the middle of monsoon season; later on, in World War II, the same terrain and weather would make twentieth-century armies equally miserable. Consequently the Burmese were sick and exhausted when they arrived at Rangoon; that may explained why their augmented force failed to retake the city, even after disease put 90% of the British and Indian soldiers out of action and killed one in three. As part of their defensive strategy, the British converted Rangoon’s main attraction, the Shwedagon Pagoda, into a fort; I’ve sure that will outrage any lovers of the humanities listening to this.

Finally in December, British reinforcements arrived, and they brought rockets, a weapon against which the Burmese had no defense. These proved to be very effective against war elephants as well as infantry. The siege of Rangoon was lifted, and in April 1825 Maha Bandula was killed by an artillery shell, in a battle at the Irrawaddy delta town of Danubyu. However, General Campbell had to wait until the 1825 monsoon season was over before he could advance upstream. In the meantime, another British force entered the war zone and conquered Arakan; Siam declared war on Burma, though Siamese troops did not get involved in the fighting; and the anti-Burmese Karen minority revolted. A truce agreed to in September 1825 only lasted for one month, because Burma would not accept the harsh peace terms Britain offered; then a British invasion up the Irrawaddy broke Burmese resistance. Burma sued for peace at the end of the year, when British forces reached Yandabo, a few days march from the Burmese capital. When the two sides signed a peace treaty in February 1826, Burma had to give up Arakan, Assam, Manipur and the Tenasserim coast to the victorious British; they also had to pay a fine of one million pounds sterling before the British would pull their troops out of the Irrawaddy valley and Rangoon.

This had been the longest of the wars between Britain and Burma, lasting almost two years. It was also the costliest; 15,000 British and Indian lives were lost, and estimates of the war’s expense range as high as thirteen million pounds sterling, or £985 million in today’s pounds. As in other jungle wars, most of the deaths, perhaps as many as 96 percent of them, were caused by disease, not combat. The number of Burmese casualties is unknown, but believed to be higher, since they lost the war.

Most importantly, the war broke Burmese power; the next time Britain and Burma fought it out, there was no question about who would win. Bagyidaw never got over his defeat, and it took him until 1832 to pay the fine. Possibly mentally ill, he became a recluse, and it fell upon the queen, Nanmadaw Me Nu, and her brother, to run the kingdom when the king wouldn’t perform his duties. In 1837 the king’s brother, Tharrawaddy, launched a revolt, and forced Bagyidaw to abdicate. Another purge followed, in which Bagyidaw’s son and queen were executed, and then Tharrawaddy spent the rest of his reign preparing for a rematch against Britain, but he died in 1846, before the conflict took place. He was succeeded by a son, Pagan Min.

The new king was more interested in fulfilling his religious duties, but tensions with the British remained high anyway. Thus, a minor incident became the excuse for the Second Anglo-Burmese War: the governor of Rangoon levied a fine of £100 sterling on two British merchants, for not paying the taxes they owed. I found a currency calculator online, which estimated the value of £100 in 1851 as $13,566.42 in today’s American dollars. That’s a lot for an individual to pay, but for a government it’s a trivial sum. Unfortunately for the Burmese, the British governor-general of India at this time was Lord Dalhousie, the most aggressive governor-general of them all. Dalhousie believed that the British Empire could expand, would expand, and should expand, and he never missed an opportunity to help that process along. In this case, fearing that a meek response would be seen as weakness by others, Dalhousie sent three ships to demand that the fine be waived and that the governor be replaced. Both demands were met, but the British commander, Commodore George Lambert, was a hot-tempered fellow; in a private letter, Dalhousie once described Lambert as the “combustible commodore.” Lambert now claimed the new governor was rude to him, blockaded Rangoon, destroyed the native ships that tried to get through the blockade, and seized the king’s royal ship. And thus, the war was on.

The Second Anglo-Burmese War lasted eight months, from April to December in 1852. This time 8,000 British soldiers were pitted against 30,000 Burmese, and everything went in favor of the British, because they had all the supplies and river transports they needed. The port of Martaban was taken on the very first day of the war, April 5; Rangoon fell on April 12, and the Shwedagon Pagoda was captured on the 14th. After the fighting ended, British forces looted the Rangoon pagodas of their gold, silver, and statues of the Buddha. Then, facing only disorganized resistance, they advanced up the Irrawaddy, far enough to occupy the country’s valuable teak forests. In October the British took the city of Prome. Although London authorized Dalhousie to occupy all of Burma, he didn’t think he had the manpower and resources to take the capital, so the army did not go beyond Prome, and the fighting simply stopped. Since King Pagan Min refused to sign a treaty that would make him give up half his kingdom, no treaty ended the war; instead Dalhousie proclaimed on December 20, 1852 that all of southern Burma, henceforth called Lower Burma, had been annexed and given to the East India Company. Rangoon now became the capital of all British-ruled Burmese territory. For the British, battle casualties were less than 400, and deaths from disease were down, too. Among the disease victims was the naval commander during the war, novelist Jane Austen’s brother; you may remember we mentioned him in the previous episode, when he helped suppress piracy around Borneo.

In the part of Burma still under Burmese rule, a revolution in February 1853 forced Pagan Min to abdicate, and his half brother Mindon Min became the next king. Mindon Min ruled for the next twenty-five years, until 1878, and was probably the wisest king of the Konbaung dynasty. He had two priorities: recover the teak forests, and modernize the country. He sent scholars to England, France, Italy and the United States, to learn everything they could about the industrial revolution. One of those scholars was the king’s younger brother Kanaung, and today’s Burmese remember him for going to the factories on cold winter mornings, with a blanket wrapped around himself, so he could ask the workers questions about their machines. At home Mindon launched a number of reforms to centralize the government and make it more efficient, like a strict salary system to keep the bureaucrats from becoming too rich and powerful, fixed judicial fees, a new code of penal laws, the removal of trade barriers, and a completely modernized army and police force. In 1857 he founded the city of Mandalay and moved the government there; Mandalay would be the country’s last royal capital.

While the Second Anglo-Burmese War went on, so did the last of the Burmese-Siamese wars. In 1849 the king of Siam, Rama III, began raiding eastern Burma, with the intention of taking Kengtung province; we mentioned in previous episodes that the residents of this area, the Shans, were a Thai tribe, so the Siamese saw this as a campaign to liberate their distant relatives. The Siamese invasion included war elephants; this is probably the last time war elephants were used in battle anywhere. But for both sides, their heart wasn’t really in this conflict, because they knew the Europeans had become the greater enemy. Rama III said as much when he died in 1851; his last words to his countrymen included this admonition. Quote:

“Our wars with Burma and Vietnam were over, only the threats of the Westerners [are] left to us. We should study their innovations for our own benefits but not to the degree of obsession or worship.” End quote.

Burma could not effectively fight Britain and Siam at the same time, of course, but once the war with Britain was over and Mindon Min had become the new Burmese king, he was able to send enough soldiers east to drive the Siamese out of Kengtung. Then the two sides made peace in 1855. There will be no more wars after this, because the British conquered Burma first, and for the same reason, I won’t say there was an ultimate winner in the Burmese-Siamese rivalry that we have covered since Episode 15. The new king of Siam, Rama IV, was Siam’s counterpart to Mindon Min, also eager to modernize his country. In fact, he was even more successful at that, as we shall see when I do another episode on Siam.

Mindon Min’s most unusual project was the creation of the world’s heaviest book – literally. The Bible of Therevada Buddhism is a collection of scriptures called the Tipitaka, written in Pali, an ancient Indian language. Mindon had the entire Tipitaka carved onto 729 slabs of marble. Each slab is five feet tall, three and a half feet wide, five inches thick, and covered with text on both sides, and each slab is housed in a separate shrine to protect it from the weather. Originally the inscriptions were written in gold ink, but that has worn off in the 150 years since the stones were carved, so you will see hardly any gold on the stones today. All the shrines were placed next to the Kutho Daw, the pagoda Mindon built for Mandalay. Mindon topped off the project by holding the Fifth Buddhist Council, a Therevada Buddhist convention, in Mandalay in 1871.

Mindon made Kanaung his crown prince rather than one of his sons, and though Kanaung was popular, he never got to rule. In 1866 the passed-over sons staged an unsuccessful coup that killed Kanaung and three of his sons, but Mindon managed to escape. The king gave Kanaung a funeral fit for a king, and built the Sandamuni Pagoda over the graves of Kanaung and his sons. Today’s Burmese think their history would have been very different if Kanaung had become king, for Mindon did not name another successor, out of fear that this could cause a civil war, and the king that did come after him was no good. This was Thibaw, Mindon’s son by a lesser queen, and the husband of the chief queen’s daughter, Supayalat. As soon as she heard Mindon had died, the chief queen ordered that 83 members of the royal family be seized and executed, so that Thibaw would take the throne without opposition. The unfortunate royal victims were strangled, tied in sacks and beaten with clubs, or thrown into a trench and trampled upon by elephants. With that grim start, Thibaw ruled as Burma’s last king, from 1878 to 1886.

When Thibaw became king, diplomatic relations with Britain were severed, and over the next few years, the British decided it was time to finish what they had started in the last two wars. Several things motivated them to do this:

1. The growing demands of British merchants to open up Upper Burma for exploitation. Many of them also believed they could establish a trade route to southwest China, by passing through Upper Burma.

2. There were fears that the French would establish the trade route first, beating the British to it. Both Mindon and Thibaw had cultivated good relations with France, to offset British pressure on their country. Britain saw these moves as a threat. Although Britain and France fought no more wars after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, they were still rivals, and would not get along very well until after the twentieth century began. The British were especially scared of French activity in Southeast Asia after (spoiler alert!) the French completed the conquest of Vietnam in 1884.

3. Shocking reports of corruption, instability, and atrocities from the Burmese royal court. Outsiders also knew that Thibaw couldn’t be part of the solution; he was a drunkard, dominated by Queen Supayalat. In much of the Western world at this time, people combined feelings of imperialism with idealism. Surely, the Britons told themselves, it was their moral duty to protect other peoples from themselves. They reasoned that the Burmese would welcome British rule if it treated them better than their own monarchy was treating them.

Britain found the excuse it needed to launch the Third Anglo-Burmese War when the Burmese government levied a fine on a Scottish lumber company, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, for underreporting the amount of teak wood it harvested. London issued an ultimatum in October 1885, which demanded that all legal action and fines against the company be dropped. It also called for the Burmese to accept a new British resident in Mandalay, like the residents they were establishing in the Malay states at this time, that Burma submit to British control over its foreign relations, and that Britain be allowed to develop the previously mentioned trade route with China. Burma could not accept these terms and remain independent, so Mandalay rejected the terms, and you can guess what happened next.

While waiting to hear the Burmese response to the ultimatum, Britain assembled an expeditionary force in Lower Burma, for the march up the Irrawaddy. This force was made up of 9,000 soldiers, 67 artillery pieces, 24 machine guns, and 55 riverboats, led by a general with the kind of name you would expect an imperialist commander to have, Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast. Because of those preparations, once the decision was made to launch the Third Anglo-Burmese War, it was carried out with surgical swiftness. The actual fighting lasted for only two weeks in November 1885, before Mandalay surrendered. On the first day of 1886, Britain declared the annexation of Upper Burma, though sporadic resistance from armed natives would continue until 1890. The king and queen were exiled for the rest of their lives, and Burma was reorganized to become the easternmost part of British India.

I will finish today’s narrative by referring the listeners to a picture I scanned from one of my source books and posted on the podcast’s Facebook page, as well as on this episode’s page. In 1886, one year after Mandalay was taken, somebody took a photograph of a Burmese family in front of the Mandalay pagodas, and sent it back to England with Christmas greetings. No snow or sleigh in this scene. No cardinals perched near misteltoe or holly – one of my favorites. And no picture of the Holy Family or Father Christmas (that’s Santa Claus for the American listeners). You know you’re in an empire when you put scenic views that have nothing to do with Christmas on a Christmas card.

Okay, what can you look forward to in the next episode? Well, today we covered events on the west side of the Southeast Asian mainland in the nineteenth century, so next time we will look at what happened on the east side. Here France will conquer Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the French will finally get a colonial empire of their own in the Far East, as they turn those three countries into French Indochina. If you are looking forward to hearing what I may say in the future about the Vietnam War, you definitely must listen to this episode, because the French were fighting communism in Indochina before the Americans did, and to understand why, you need to know how the French got involved there in the first place.

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