Wednesday, September 24, 2014

An audience with Alaungpaya

Alaungpaya, one the three greatest kings of Burma, and the founder of the Konbaung dynasty, was born three centuries ago today. He forced out the French and the British, unified the country, and founded Yangon. But, before driving out the British, he negotiated a treaty with the East India Company through its ensign, Robert Lester. Lester’s diary written during that mission has survived, and it provides a first hand account of his meeting with the king.

Alaungpaya (Aung Zeya at birth) was born on 24 September 1714 at Moksobomyo (now Shwebo), a village in the Mu River Valley about 60 miles northwest of Ava (now Inwa), then the Burmese capital. He was the second son of a family that had administered the Mu Valley for generations, his father being a hereditary chief while his uncle was lord of the valley district. In 1730, he married Yun San daughter of the chief of a nearby village, and they went on to have seven children.

The mid-1700s were a period of turmoil in Burma, with the Toungoo dynasty in its dying days. Binnya Dala, prime minister at the time, rebelled against his Toungoo rulers, and rallied the Mon-speaking people. In 1747 they elected him king. It took Binnya Dala until 1752 to capture Ava from the Toungoo, but Alaungpaya refused to become a vassal to the new authority. He organised a resistance movement, declared a new capital at Moksobomyo, and announced his aim to be king. Within a year or so, he had retaken Ava, driven Binnya Dala out of Upper Burma, and established a new dynasty, Konbaung.

However, because Binnya Dala was still strong in Lower Burma and had allied with the French, Alaungpaya concluded a treaty with the British through the East India Company: land (including the island of Negrais) and settlement rights in exchange for a cannon and gunpowder. The treaty did not last long. The British, already at war with the French in India, were reluctant to open a second front in Burma. Alaungpaya, thus, came to suspect them of supporting a Mon revolt. He attacked the Negrais settlement, massacring many of the merchants there. By 1759, Alaungpaya had driven out the British and the French, and re-unified the country. Relations between the British and the Konbaung dynasty would not to be resumed for thirty years.

In 1760, Alaungpaya led a campaign to invade Siam, but, during a siege of the capital, he was wounded. He died during the retreat to Burma. Within a decade, his heirs had subdued much of Laos (1765), defeated Siam (1767), and defeated four invasions by China. The Konbaung dynasty lasted more than a century. From the 1820s, though, it began began losing war after war against the British who finally annexed the last party of the country in 1885. The Konbaung king and ruling family were exiled to India. Further information is available online from Wikipedia, the Burma Library, or indeed from The History of Myanmar by William J. Topich and Keith A. Leitich (ABC-CLIO, 2013) which can be read at Googlebooks.

Several British accounts of meetings with Alaungpaya have survived to this day. The most bona fide diary account, though, was written by Ensign Robert Lesser, Ambassador Extraordinary, who, in 1757, negotiated the treaty (for the East India Company) which provided armaments to Alaungpaya in return for settlement and merchant rights. Lesser’s diary was first published in Alexander Dalrymple’s Oriental Repertory (eight volumes between 1791-1797). This can be accessed freely at Internet Archive. However, it is easier to read a reprint published in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, (Spring 2005), also to be found through Internet Archive (and elsewhere on the internet). Here are several extracts from Lesser’s diary, including the day of his audience with Alaungpaya.

22 July 1757
‘This Morning, at break of day, we left the above Town, and now we are come into a wide River, we meet with great numbers of Boats, loaded with Plunder, belonging to the King of Ava, taken at Pegu, and I am informed going up to Prone, Ava, &c. and that the King is not far from us. At 3 this Afternoon, we came to a small Town, on the bank of the River, where we found the King, in his Barge, with great numbers of other Boats attending him: Antonio waited on the King, to acquaint him I was come, and, at 5 o’clock, a Messenger came from Antonio to acquaint me, that the King would give me Audience to-morrow morning and that it was the King’s Desire I should send the Present by the Messenger, which I delivered.’

23 July 1757
‘This Morning, at 7 o’clock, Antonio came to me, and told me, that the King would give me Audience, at the same time he told me, that on going into the King’s Apartment in his Barge, I must leave my Sword and Shoe behind, and on approaching near the King, to the Place appointed for me, I must kneel; I used all the Arguments I could, and told him as an Officer in the Honourable Company’s Service, I could not consent to the above, he then, as likewise other Great Men with him, told me, that no Person, let him be of the highest Rank, could have Audience given them by the Great King of Ava, Pegu, &c. &c. (Allaum Praw, next to GOD) if they did not conform to the above, and that all Ambassadors, from the Negrais before, had done it.

As I hope it will be a means of getting the Treaty of Alliance, with the above King and The Honourable Company, settled, I agreed, and went with Antonio to the King’s Barge, and after congratulating him, on his late conquest of so potent a Kingdom, with other Compliments on the Occasion I delivered him my Credentials. [. . .]

I then desired the Interpreters to inform the King, [. . .] that the English were strongly attached to His Interest; and if His Majesty would now be pleased to consent to the fixing His Chop [seal] to the above, it would be a means of uniting the two Nations together for ages to come. The King then said, that he had sent a Sloop some Months ago to Madrass, with Goods to purchase Powder, &c, and he was informed by the Captain of another Sloop, now arrived at Dagon from the Coast, that the Governor of Madrass had detained his Sloop there, I answered that we had received no Letters, or News of any kind, from Madrass, but I was positive if the Sloop was detained, that the Governor of Madrass did not know that she belonged to His Majesty.

As I had not room to stretch my legs out, and I was somewhat uneasy, I saw a small Stool behind me, which I took, and sat on, this caused a laughter among the Great Men about me, the King asked the reason, and was informed, on which he rose up and came close to me, and laughed very heartily, and asked me what was the reason that Englishman could not kneel? I told him we were not accustomed to it; on which he pointed to the Yard of the Boat, which was close by, and told me I might set there, I told His Majesty I was not insensible of the Honour he did me, he then pointed to the Prince of Persaim, and told me he had given him a new Name (Mungee Narataw) on account of his good behaviour, the King then asked me several Questions, through the above Interpreters, viz. Does your King go to the Wars and expose his Person as I do? Do you understand the use of Ordnance, &c? Could you point a Gun to kill a Man at a great distance? Is there as much Rain in your Country as in this? What is the reason you wear that at your Shoulder, (my Shoulder Knot)? How much Money does The Company pay you [per] Month? Why don’t you black your Bodies and Thighs as we do (at the same time rising up, and shewing me his Thigh)? Let me feel your Hand, feeling my Fingers and Wrist, and said we were like Women, because we did not black as above. Is there Ice in your Country as in mine, small Creeks froze over?

I answered to all the above Questions, which seemed to please them, and to the last Question I told him that I had seen a River, as broad as this His Majesty is now in (meaning London River) frozen over, and an Ox roasted whole, upon the Ice; to which the King, as likewise all the Great Men about him, laughed heartily; the King asked me, what was the reason we did not leave the Negrais, and come all to Persaim, and settle there? I told him that the Negrais was a Key to that River, if we lost it entirely, that the French, who I believe we were now at War with, would likely come there, but that we should come with a firm resolution to settle at Persaim, if His Majesty would indulge us in settling the Treaty, and leave a small Force at the Negrais; The King then said if all the Powers in The World was to come, he could drive them out of His Country; he then asked me, if we were afraid of the French; I told him that the English and French had no great liking for each other but there never was that Englishman born, that was afraid of a Frenchman; the King then told me, that he had taken great quantities of Guns, Bombs, &c. with all kind of Warlike Stores at Pegu, and that he was now going up triumphant (with the former King of Pegu, and his Daughter, the Uppa Rajah, and other Great Men, Peguers, prisoners) to his great Cities, Prone, Ava, &c. and that he would put his Chop, to our Treaty of Alliance, and give us Liberty to trade in any part of his Kingdom; he then ordered me to follow him to the Mouth of the River, which leads to Ava, where there is a House, as above-mentioned, for the King’s reception, and I am informed, he intends to stay two or three days, and he would send me Provisions and settle the above; I desired the Interpreter to return His Majesty my hearty thanks for the Honour done me, and as His Barge was getting in readiness to proceed, I was desired to take my Leave, which I did and came away.

I have made Presents to the Prince of Persaim, King’s Brother, Prime Minister, and other six Great Men, about the King’s Person, of the following things, viz. Scarlet Cloth 30 Yards, 2 Pieces Seersuckers, 1 Piece Pullicat Handkerchiefs, 1 Kittysall, 1 Bottle Lavender Water, 1 Ring, Bristol Stone, with a Brilliant Spark on each side, 1 Black Feather, from my Hat, 1 Piece of Silk Handkerchiefs; this I have done, hoping it may be a means of getting my business done, on The Company’s Account, the sooner; the remainder part of this day we have been following the King to the Place above mentioned, the Fresh in this River is excessive rapid, and we could not come to the Place where the King was, at Night, I believe, at a moderate computation, there’s in Boats, on this River, on this Occasion, One hundred thousand Men, Women, and Children.’

26 July 1757
‘At 10 this Morning we came to the Place, where the House, beforementioned, is built for the King’s reception; the King’s Barge lay close to it, and numbers of other Boats all about it, there being four foot Water, all round it; occasioned by the swelling of the River since it was built; at Noon Antonio came, and told me that the King wanted me, I dressed myself and went with him to the said House, or Island but found the King was gone into His Barge, on which the Prince of Persaim let him know I was come, his answer was I must follow him to Lunzee, a Place much farther up the River, and the King went away immediately. But now the Promise made to Antonio on the 20th instant (as I expected) won’t do, he now tells me that Mr. Brooke, former Chief of the Negrais, promised the Prince, of Persaim, thirty Viss of Silver, and himself twenty; if the King’s Chop was fixed to our Treaty; and that I must give them from under my Hand, in the Name of The Company, that those Sums must be paid, otherwise no Chop should be affixed to our Treaty; I told them, The Company was at a great expence, and must be at a much greater, before they could bring the Negrais, and Persaim, to any Perfection, and this was a very large Sum.

Now, I am certain that nothing can be done without the Interest of the above Men; this Affair has subsisted a long time, and is of the utmost Consequence; there has been many Embassies before, on this head, and attended with a great Expence to The Company, and if I don’t finish now, there must be another Embassy (with a Present) on the same Account, I therefore concluded, within myself, to make them an Offer, and put the finishing stroke to this long Affair, which I did of Twenty Viss, which was not accepted, and on their going into their Boats I made them an Offer of Twenty-five, which was likewise refused; so we parted: the remainder part of this Day we have been following the King, but did not come up with him at Night.’

6 August 1757
‘I this Day had a Meeting with Antonio, and settled the Treaty with him, in the following manner, viz. That we are to have two hundred Bamboos square, (each Bamboo containing seven Cubits) at Persaim, and the King’s Promise of more Ground, after our settling at that Place. That we are to present to the King annually, for the Grant of the Island Negrais, and Spot of ground at Persaim, one Piece of Ordnance to carry a twelve Pound Shot, with two hundred Viss of good Gunpowder, as an acknowledgment, &c. &c. as specified [by] Article the 6th, in the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. After this we exchanged Treaties, he presented me the Treaty with the King of Ava, Pegu, &c,’s Chop fixed thereto, and done in the above King’s Presence, I presented him with the other, to which Lieut. Thomas Newton, Chief of Negrais, had signed his Name, and fixed the Arms of The Honourable Company.’

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