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Modern India : The First Burmese War

Modern India : The First Burmese War

  India's History : Modern India : The First Burmese War - 1824-1826

Burmese War

On September 23, 1823 an armed party of Burmese attacked a British guard on Shapura, an island close to the Chittagong side, killing and wounding six of the guard. Two Burmese armies, one from Mariipur and another from Assam, also entered Cachar, which was under British protection, in January 1824. War with Burma was formally declared on the March 5, 1824. On May 17 a Burmese force invaded Chittagong and drove a mixed sepoy and police detachment from its position at Ramu, but did not follow up its success.

The British rulers in India, however, had resolved to carry the war into the enemys country; an armament, under Commodore Charles Grant and Sir Archibald Campbell, entered the Rangoon river, and anchored off the town on May 10, 1824. After a feeble resistance the place, then little more than a large stockaded village, was surrendered, and the troops were landed. The place was entirely deserted by its inhabitants, the provisions were carried off or destroyed, and the invading force took possession of a complete solitude. On May 28 Sir A. Campbell ordered an attack on some of the nearest posts, which were all carried after a steadily weakening defence. Another attack was made on the June 10 on the stockades at the village of Kemmendine. Some of these were battered by artillery from the war vessels in the river, and the shot and shells had such effect on the Burmese that they evacuated them, after a very unequal resistance.

It soon, however, became apparent that the expedition had been undertaken with very imperfect knowledge of the country, and without adequate provision. The devastation of the country, which was part of the defensive system of the Burmese, was carried out with unrelenting rigour, and the invaders were soon reduced to great difficulties. The health of the men declined, and their ranks were fearfully thinned. The monarch of Ava sent large reinforcements to his dispirited and beaten army; and early in June an attack was commenced on the British line, but proved unsuccessful. On June 8 the British assaulted. The enemy were beaten at all points; and their strongest stockaded works, battered to pieces by a powerful artillery, were in general abandoned.

With the exception of an attack by the prince of Tharrawaddy in the end of August, the enemy allowed the British to remain unmolested during the months of July and August. This interval was employed by Sir A. Campbell in subduing the Burmese provinces of Tavoy and Mergui, and the whole coast of Tenasserim. This was an important conquest, as the country was salubrious and afforded convalescent stations to the sick, who were now so numerous in the British army that there were scarcely 3,000 soldiers fit for duty. An expedition was about this time sent against the old Portuguese fort and factory of Syriam, at the mouth of the Pegu river, which was taken; and in October the province of Martaban was reduced under the authority of the British.

The rainy season terminated about the end of October; and the court of Ava, alarmed by the discomfiture of its armies, recalled the veteran legions which were employed in Arakan, under their renowned leader Maha Bandula. Bandula hastened by forced marches to the defence of his country; and by the end of November an army of 60,000 men had surrounded the British position at Rangoon and Kemmendine, for the defence of which Sir Archibald Campbell had only 5,000 efficient troops. The enemy in great force made repeated attacks on Kemmendine without success, and on December 7, Bandula was defeated in a counter attack made by Sir A. Campbell. The fugitives retired to a strong position on the river, which they again entrenched; and here they were attacked by the British on the 15th, and driven in complete confusion from the field.

Sir Archibald Campbell now resolved to advance on Prome; about 100 m. higher up the Irrawaddy river. He moved with his force on February 13, 1825 in two divisions, one proceeding by land, and the other, under General Willoughby Cotton, destined for the reduction of Danubyu, being embarked on the flotilla. Taking the command of the land force, he continued his advance till March 11, when intelligence reached him of the failure of the attack upon Danubyu. He instantly commenced a retrograde march; on the 27th he effected a junction with General Cottons force, and on April 2 entered the entrenchments at Danubyu without resistance, Bandula having been killed by the explosion of a bomb. The English general entered Prome on the 25th, and remained there during the rainy season. On September 17, an armistice was concluded for one month. In the course of the summer General Joseph Morrison had conquered the province of Arakan; in the north the Burmese were expelled from Assam; and the British had made some progress in Cachar, though their advance was finally impeded by the thick forests and jungle.

The armistice having expired on November 3, the army of Ava, amounting to 60,000 men, advanced in three divisions against the British position at Prome, which was defended by 3,000 Europeans and 2,000 native troops. But the British still triumphed, and after several actions, in which the Burmese were the assailants and were partially successful, Sir A. Campbell, on December 1, attacked the different divisions of their army, and successively drove them from all their positions, and dispersed them in every direction. The Burmese retired on Malun, along the course of the Irrawaddy, where they occupied, with 10,000 or 12,000 men, a series of strongly fortified heights and a formidable stockade. On the 26th they sent a flag of truce to the British camp; and negotiations having commenced, peace was proposed to them on the following conditions:

The cession of Arakan, together with the provinces of Mergui, Tavoy and Ye the renunciation by the Burmese sovereign of all claims upon Assam and the contiguous petty states the Company to be paid a crore of rupees as an indemnification for the expenses of the war residents from each court to be allowed, with an escort of fifty men it was also stipulated that British ships should no longer be obliged to unship their rudders and land their guns as formerly in the Burmese ports

This treaty was agreed to and signed, but the ratification of the king was still wanting; and it was soon apparent that the Burmese had no intention to sign it, but were preparing to renew the contest. On January 19, accordingly, Sir A. Campbell attacked and carried the enemys position at Malun. Another offer of peace was here made by the Burmese, but it was found to be insincere; and the fugitive army made at the ancient city of Pagan a final stand in defence of the capital. They were attacked and overthrown on February 9, 1826; and the invading force being now within four days march of Ava, Dr Price, an American missionary, who with other Europeans had been thrown into prison when the war commenced, was sent to the British camp with the treaty (known as the treaty of Yandaboo) ratified, the prisoners of war released, and an instalment of 25 lakhs of rupees. The war was thus brought to a successful termination, and the British army evacuated the country.

Abolition of Sati

  India's History : Modern India : Prohibition of Sati - 1829

Sati Stigma

Within the Indian culture, the highest ideal for a woman are virtue, purity, and allegiance to her husband. From this tradition stems the custom in which a wife immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband as proof of her loyalty. This custom in which a woman burns herself either on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband or by herself with a momento after his death is now referred to as sati or, in England, as suttee. In the original meaning, "Sati" was defined as a woman who was "true to her ideals". A pious and virtuous woman would receive the title of "Sati." Sati was derived from the ancient Indic language term, sat, which means truth. Sati has come to signify both the act of immolation of a widow and the victim herself, rather than its original meaning of "a virtuous woman".

The term"sati" is associated with the Hindu goddess Sati. In the Hindu mythology, Sati who was the wife of Lord Shiva, consumed herself in a holy pyre. She did this in response to her father's refusal to invite Shiva to the assembly of the Gods. She was so mortified that she invoked a yogic fire and was reduced to ashes. Self-sacrifice, like that of the original Sati, became a "divine example of wifely devotion". The act of Sati propagated the belief that if a widow gives up her life for her husband, she will be honored. Socially, the act of sati played a major role in determining the true nature of a woman. Self-sacrifice is considered the best measure of judging the woman's virtue as well as her loyalty to her husband. The following applies to the ideal wife: "if her husband is happy, she should be happy; if he is sad, she should be sad, and if he is dead, she should also die. Such a wife is called a Patrivrata". The upbringing of many Indian girls emphasized the concept of Patrivrata as the only way for a woman to merit heaven.

This concept of meriting heaven through self-sacrifice became embedded within the minds of many as the only assurance for a female to gain salvation. A female's life must be lived in full devotion to her husband; otherwise she will be doomed for eternity and will live a cruel existence as a widow. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy: "Women were socially dead after the death of their husbands and were thought to be polluting". Only a woman who is sexually and legally possessed by a husband is respected within the Indian society.

By sacrificing herself a widow saves herself from the cruel existence of widowhood and ends the threat she possesses for society. She is considered a member of society who has unrestrained sexual vigor, and thus may harm society with immoral acts. A widow was seen as having irrepressible sexual powers and could be a danger to her society. Remarriage in India was not favored. A widow was not allowed to remarry, nor was she able to turn to religious learning, and hence lived a bleak and barren life. The pain that a sati endures on the pyre was less painful of an experience than the torture she must endure physically and emotionally as a widow. If a widow decided not to join her husband, she was separated from the social world of the living and considered to be a "cold sati". She was only allowed to wear rags and was treated by her family and members of society as an impure, polluted being. The prohibition, in which she is unable to adorn herself, was considered justifiable, done for the widow's "own interest".

The British government in 1829 prohibited the custom of sati. British India declared the practice of sati as illegal and punishable by criminal courts. Such a law revealed much about the British thought and opinion of India and its customs.

East India Company takes over the Administration

  India's History : Modern India : Raja of Mysore deposed and its administration taken over by East India Company : 1831


The old province of Mysore comprised the areas of Mysore, Talakad, Kodagu and Srirangapatnam. The Wodeyar dynasty, which was founded by Yaduraya in 1399 AD, has dominated most of Mysore history. Chikkadevara Wodeyar was the man who expanded the Mysore Empire while Kantareeva Narasimha Raja Wodeyar recaptured Mysore from the Dalavayis. The interim period saw the rise to power of two of India's most famous personalities-Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan was the first to build an army on scientific lines and took on the might of the British. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, his acts of courage, bravery are renowned. This brave heart died at Srirangapatna fighting till the last.

The modern phase of Mysore began from 1800 with the ascent to the throne of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III. Governor William Bentick took over Mysore in 1831 and in 1881 restored it back to Chamaraja Wodeyar.

Company's Charter renewed

  India's History : Modern India : Renewal of Company's Charter; Abolition of company's trading rights : 1833

Renewal of Charter

After the separation of the Company’s commercial and political financial accounts, tracking charges to Indian territorial revenues became somewhat easier. Company accounts distinguished a class of territorial expenses incurred in Britain that were chargeable to the Indian revenues. After the 1833 Charter Renewal that abolished the Company’s commercial operations, calculating what were called Home Charges become straightforward anything spent by the Company in Britain was an expense for the Indian treasury. Whether all these charges represented a transfer of wealth from India as a drain or tribute or whether some or all should be considered payments for services rendered is a difficult question and one that this paper cannot really answer. However, the impact of the Home Charges upon Indian budgets between 1815 and 1859 is clear.

It was only after passage of the Charter Act of 1833 had closed India Company trading operations that a shift occurred. After that date, the regime began a systematic policy of building and improving public works. For example, the regime invested 2.2 million sterling in improving three grand trunk roads: Peshawar-Delhi-Calcutta; Calcutta to Bombay; and Bombay to Agra. In the 1850’s the state began work for the first time on new irrigation projects. The Ganges Canal that tapped into the perennial water flow of the Himalayan river sources, finished in 1854, cost 1.4 million sterling. The Kaveri, Godavari and Krishna river systems in the south were also completed.

These long-term East India Company fiscal data reveal several characteristic features of the Company’s fiscal approach: First, decision-makers at home and in India were bent on creating a usable revenue surplus each year suitable for commercial investment (until 1833) and paying dividends to the holders of East India Company stock. To do so, they raised their revenue demands in each territory acquired to levels equal to the highest assessments made by previous Indian regimes. Second, those surpluses produced were never adequate to meet the combined administrative, military and commercial expenses of the Company. Third, the Company resorted to borrowing on interest-bearing bonds in India and at home in steadily rising amounts to meet its obligations. Fourth, the escalating cost of the East India Company armies and of incessant warfare formed the greatest single fiscal burden for the new regime. Finally, the Company allocated negligible funds for public works, for cultural patronage, for charitable relief, or for any form of education. The Company confined its generosity to paying extremely high salaries to its civil servants and military officers. Otherwise parsimony ruled. These characteristics marked the East India Company fiscal system from its inception to its demise in 1859.

Abolition of Slavery

  India's History : Modern India : Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire - 1833

Slavery Act

The common law of England did not recognize anyone as a slave (although in Scotland, which does not have the common law, bondage still existed until the late eighteenth century, when it was abolished by legislation). Slavery, however, existed in a number of British colonies, principally in the West Indies.

The Slavery Abolition Bill 1833 was passed by the House of Commons and by the House of Lords.

It received the Royal Assent (which means it became law) on 29 August 1833 and came into force on 1 August 1834. On that date slavery was abolished throughout the vast British Empire.

The Act automatically applied as new possessions (principally in Africa) subsequently became part of the British Empire.

There were a number of exceptions.

First, its application to the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope (now the Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa) was delayed for 4 months and its application to the Colony of Mauritius (now the Republic of Mauritius) was delayed for 6 months.

Secondly, section 64 excluded Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), St Helena and the territories in the possession of The Honourable East India Company, namely in British India, but the section was subsequently repealed. The Honourable East India Company, in theory, administered large parts of India as an agent for the Mogul Emperor in Delhi.

Subsequently, section 1 of 5 & 6 Vict c 101 was enacted which prohibited certain officers of The Honourable East India Company from being involved in the purchase of slaves, but it did not actually abolish slavery in India. It was the provisions of the Indian Penal Code 1860 which effectively abolished slavery in India by making the enslavement of human beings a criminal offence.

Purposes of the Act

The purposes of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 were described in the preamble to the Bill as:

  1. “the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies”;

  2. “for promoting the industry of the manumitted slaves”; and

  3. “for compensating the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves”.

The second purpose was achieved by providing for a period of apprenticeship.

The third purpose was achieved by appropriating £20 million — a huge sum in those days — to compensate slave owners.

Tripartite Treaty

  India's History : Modern India : Tripartite treaty between Shah Shuja, Ranjit Singh and the British : 1838

The Treaty

The debacle of the Afghan civil war left a vacuum in the Hindu Kush area that concerned the British, who were well aware of the many times in history it had been employed as the invasion route to India. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, it became clear to the British that the major threat totheir interests in India would not come from the fragmented Afghan empire, the Iranians, or the French, but from the Russians, who had already begun a steady advance southward from the Caucasus.

At the same time, the Russians feared permanent British occupation in Central Asia as the British encroached northward, taking the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. The British viewed Russia's absorption of the Caucasus, the Kirghiz and Turkmenlands, and the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara with equal suspicion as a threat to their interests in the Indian subcontinent.

In addition to this rivalry between Britain and Russia, there were two specific reasons for British concern over Russia's intentions. First was the Russian influence at the Iranian court, which prompted the Russians to support Iran in its attempt to take Herat, historically the western gateway to Afghanistan and northern India. In 1837 Iran advanced on Herat with the support and advice of Russian officers. The second immediate reason was the presence in Kabul in 1837 of a Russian agent, Captain P. Vitkevich, who was ostensibly there, as was the British agent Alexander Burnes, for commercial discussions.

The British demanded that Dost Mohammad sever all contact with the Iranians and Russians, remove Vitkevich from Kabul, and surrender all claims to Peshawar, and respect Peshawar's independence as well as that of Qandahar, which was under the control of his brothers at the time. In return, the British government intimated that it would ask Ranjit Singh to reconcile with the Afghans. When Auckland refused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammad turned his back on the British and began negotiations with Vitkevich.

In 1838 Auckland, Ranjit Singh, and Shuja signed an agreement stating that Shuja would regain control of Kabul and Qandahar with the help of the British and Sikhs; he would accept Sikh rule of the former Afghan provinces already controlled by Ranjit Singh, and that Herat would remain independent. In practice, the plan replaced Dost Mohammad with a British figurehead whose autonomy would be as limited as that of other Indian princes.

It soon became apparent to the British that Sikh participation—advancing toward Kabul through the Khyber Pass while Shuja and the British advanced through Qandahar--would not be forthcoming. Auckland's plan in the spring of1838 was for the Sikhs--with British support--to place Shuja on the Afghan throne. By summer's end, however, the plan had changed; now the British alone would impose the pliant Shuja.

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