A Literary and Historical Review
(by George Webb)
An address to the Royal Society
for Asian Affairs, 16 June 1983
It was a wearied journalist—he left his little bed,These lines, from a piece of nonsense-verse in the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, on 10 December 1886, provide our equivocal first glimpse of Kipling's Burma. Not that its readers knew that. They could not tell that more enduring work would flow from that pen, especially as the verses were unsigned. But those same readers, without our disadvantage of hindsight, with the distortion and disillusion that come with it, saw their world of 1886 with a clarity denied to us, and read the news from Burma that December with an immediacy far beyond our recall. Presumably it was also read by ex-King Theebaw, settling into sulky exile near Bombay: but current affairs had never been his forte.
And faced the Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read;
But ere he took his map-book up, he prayed a little prayer:-
"Oh stop them fighting Lord knows who, in jungles deuce knows where!"
...eternal cuttings-down of unwieldy contributions ... newspaper exchanges from Egypt to Hong-Kong to be skimmed; ... the English papers on which we drew in time of need; local correspondence to vet for possible libels, 'spoofing'-letters from subalterns to be guarded against ... always of course the filing of cables, and woe betide an error then!Distinct from this editorial work with inkpot and scissors, his original writing, audacious and beautifully composed, was by 1886 just beginning to be noticed locally. Since January his paper had published sixty items of his prose and verse, and although many of them were anonymous, and some of them are to this day uncollected, eighteen others had been reissued that June in Departmental Ditties, a bitter-sweet collection of accomplished verses that have never since dropped out of print. In the last four weeks he had produced for his paper six of the brilliant, mordant short stories later collected as Plain Tales from the Hills. But even as he sat writing "The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly", worthier subalterns were in grimmer trouble away in Upper Burma, where the state of brigandage and rebellion had prompted a stiffening visit by Roberts, Commander-in-Chief, and the strengthening of the garrison that December to 25,000 men. There were to be 99 military outposts, and mobile columns patrolled every district. News of their operations kept flooding in by telegram. However, urgent telegrams were not delivered by hand to Kipling's offices: instead, as he later recalled,
[Something of Myself p.48]
I took them down from the telephone—a primitive and mysterious power whose native operator broke every word into monosyllables ...Over such a medium even simple texts became garbled. If they contained obscure names, and were noted down by an Indian clerk, corruptions were almost unavoidable. With active service news this was unfortunate, and it constitutes the serious background to those nonsense-verses that December, entitled by Kipling "A Nightmare of Names":
[Something of Myself p.48]
It was a wearied journalist who sought his little bed,After several more such lines he concluded:
With twenty Burma telegrams all waiting to be read.
Then the Nightmare and her nine-fold rose up his dreams to haunt,
And from these Burma telegrams they wove this dismal chaunt:
"Bethink thee, man of ink and shears", so howled the fiendish crew,
"That each dacoit has one long name, and every hamlet two.
Moreover all our outposts bear peculiar names and strange:
There are one hundred outposts, and, once every month, they change.
If Poungdoungzoon or Pyalhatzee today contains the foe,
Be sure they pass tomorrow to Gwebin or Shwaymyo.
But Baung-maung-hman, remember, is a trusted Thoongye Woon,
The deadly foe of Maung-dhang-hlat, Myoke of Moung-kze-hloon.
Poungthung and Waust-chung are not at present overthrown,
For they are near the Poon beyond the Hlinedathalone;
While Nannay-kone in Ningyan is near Mecacaushay,
But Shway-zit-dan is on the Ma, and quite the other way.
Here are some simple titles which 'twere best to get in writing,
In view of further telegrams detailing further fighting:
Malé, Myola, Toungbyoung, Talakso, Yebouk, Myo,
Nattik, Hpan-loot-kin, Madeah, Padeng, Narogan, Mo. .."
"Oh stop them fighting Lord knows who, in jungles deuce knows where!"Where indeed were those jungles? And whom were they fighting? And why? Can we now conjure back a state of world affairs, a cast of mind, when Englishmen of no ignoble vision saw Burma's conquest by British India as a benefit conferred on a distracted land? When Indians of liberal persuasion questioned the step mainly on grounds of cost to the Indian taxpayer? (Such was the view of the Indian National Congress at its historic first meeting, just after Theebaw's overthrow – that Burma had better become a Crown Colony than a dependency of India.) As Maurice Collis later wrote in "The Journey Outward" (1952) :
What will our descendants think of us when they read that the British banished the King of Burma, annexed his country, and proceeded to govern it by officials of their own race? Historians will add that we saw no harm in this, though we always resisted such a fate to the death when it threatened our own land.The most convincing explanation is in G.E. Harvey's chapter on Burma in the Cambridge History of the British Empire:
[cited in Maurice Collis:Diaries,1949-1969, Heinemann, 1977]
The real reason for imposing direct administration was that it was the fashion of the age, and modern standards of efficiency were the only standards intelligible to the men who entered Upper Burma. Few of them spoke the language, and those who did, came with preconceptions gained in Lower Burma.These were the lofty preconceptions of Harvey's own service, the ICS—the Indian Civil Service—but no amount of dedicated administration, as described in some of Kipling's stories about India, could alter the disqualifying fact that in grafting Burma on to India they were doing something irreconcilably repugnant—to Burmese nationalism. The union was dissolved in 1937, but too late; yet all the way was paved with high intentions.
[Vol.V 1932; also ch.XXI,Vol.VI.]
The British community in Burma was so small and the period of British rale so brief that no comparable Burma connection ever developed. To the average Englishman Burma conjured up one poem and perhaps a short story by Kipling—Kipling, who spent three days in Burma.Constitutionally, of course, Burma formed a part of Kipling's India, the subcontinent of which he drew so clear a picture. But he was employed first in Lahore, later in Allahabad, and though he travelled widely from those places, his India was essentially the north-west and north-centre. His writing touched on his birthplace, Bombay, and on the seat of Government, Calcutta; but just as the south was unknown territory, so was Burma, an exotic eastern extension to which his employers never sent him. India's Burmese dependencies suffered from more than mere distance from the centre. (They were closer to Calcutta than western India was.) Their remoteness lay not in mileage but in mountains, jungles, rivers and the sea. Communications in Burma always ran not towards India but north-south. In cultural as in physical terms the land is intrinsically part of the Indo-Chinese peninsula of south-east Asia.
[Hugh Tinker, The Union of Burma, Oxford University Press 1937, ch.XII.]
... the most glorious moment in their history. . .the exploits of Alaungpaya had given the Burmese an entirely new estimation of themselves. They had become a conquering race and feared no one on earth. .These triumphs however had a darker side. The empire won by ruthless violence could only be held down by oppression, enslavement, genocide. Endless rebellions shook it; massive deportations impoverished it; down in the Delta the fertile rice land of the Mons lay depopulated. Up in Ava, the world's centre, amid the splendours of an introverted court, attitudes of blinkered arrogance characterised the rulers. Given the divine right of kings in south-east Asia, this was not surprising: wholesale cruelty too was a recognised instrument of policy. But it was an unpropitious basis on which to guide their medieval kingdom into safe relations with the emerging Europe- dominated world of the nineteenth century, that inexorable new dynamic of which the kings of Ava were pitifully ignorant.
[D.G.E. Hall, Burma, Hutchinson, 3rd Edition 1960.]
'the course of Burmese history had now been radically altered. The British had gained possession of two large provinces ... and must either ultimately relinquish them or go on till they occupied the whole country.'British attitudes too were formed by the experience. For Calcutta and London, Burma was inaccessible, economically dubious, misgoverned by an anachronistic tyranny—a head-in-the-sand regime, recalcitrant in diplomacy, obsessive in applying humiliating protocol, hopelessly obstructive to trade. For the soldiers, Burma meant: dense forest, heavy rain, deadly disease, and a dangerous enemy who would torture and mutilate his prisoners.
[D.G.E. Hall, Burma, Hutchinson, 3rd Edition 1960 ch. XII]
The best boy of them all—who could have become anything—was wounded in the thigh as he was leading his men up the ramp of a fortress. All he said was, "Put me up against that tree and take my men on" ... when his men came back he was dead.Fifty years later Dury's grave at Minhla was still identifiable. It may be so today.
"An English School" (1893), collected in Land and Sea Tales, 1923.]
... thrying to catch dacoits. An' such double-ended divils I niver knew! Tis only a dah [knife] an' a Snider that makes a dacoit. Widout thim, he's a paceful cultivator, an' felony for to shoot. . .Eventually a prisoner, "persuaded" with a cleaning-rod, tells them of a bandit-ridden village, and after a night march and a swim in the dark they force a ludicrous entry:
whether they tuk us, all white an' wet, for a new breed av divil, or a new kind av dacoit, I don't know. They ran as though we was both. . .Mulvaney clearly distinguishes between the dacoits, whom they slaughter without compunction, and the inoffensive and readily reconcilable villagers:
...we spint the rest av the day carryin' the Lift'nint on our showlthers round the town, an' playin' wid the Burmese babies —fat little, brown little divils, as pretty as picturs...In real life, the facts about pacification would seldom be so clear-cut, but Kipling seems to have found difficulty in being quite logical about dacoits. The worst were barbarous terrorists, whose elimination was a prerequisite of peace. Others, perhaps, were an endemic breed of picturesque ruffian, who certainly shared in the national charm of character. This dichotomy, and Kipling's own blend of romance and realism, makes for some inconsistency of treatment. In January 1888, by now transferred to the Pioneer at Allahabad, he wrote "The Grave of the Hundred Head", a grim poem which does not conceal the ruthless undertones of a counter-insurgency campaign now in its third bitter year:
A Snider squibbed in the jungle –The other verses describe, approvingly, the terrible mass reprisal exacted from a rebel village by the Indian troops avenging their British officer's death.
Somebody laughed and fled,
And the men of the First Shikaris
Picked up their subaltern dead,
With a big blue mark in his forehead
And the back blown out of his head.
He shot at the strong and he slashed at the weakA similar attitude to the war recurs much later in Kipling's fullest prose description of campaigning in Burma. This is in "A Conference of the Powers", a short story published in 1891 after Kipling's return to England. The atrocities committed by dacoit gangs are still mentioned, but the captured dacoit leader is given a wry dignity, like the loser in a protracted sporting event: indeed, the young officer is made to give his account of the pacification in the tiresome inarticulate argot of the public schools. It is difficult now to judge the authenticity of this, but the nonchalant understatement is very British, and the frivolous narration may well be appropriate, given that by 1891 the fighting was mostly over, and the crueller memories had faded, and the scene is set in London, where Kipling was twenty-five and on a pinnacle of sudden fame.
From the Salween scrub to the Chindwin teak:
He crucified noble, he scarified mean,
He filled old ladies with kerosine:
While over the water the papers cried,
"The patriot fights for his countryside!"
But little they cared for the Native Press,
The worn white soldiers in khaki dress,
Who tramped through the jungle and camped in the byre,
Who died in the swamp and were tombed in the mire.
No race, men say who know, produces such good wives and heads of households as the Burmese ... When all our troops are back from Burma there will be a proverb in their mouths, "As thrifty as a Burmese wife" ... English ladies will wonder what it means.Years later, in "The Ladies", Kipling's time-expired soldier remembers a Burmese girl:
Funny an' yellow an' faithful –By then, Kipling had been to Rangoon and seen Burmese girls for himself 'and when I saw them I understood much that I had heard about – about our army in Flanders, let us say.' He went there as a steamer passenger in transit. It was March 1889, and, still unknown outside India, he was abandoning the editorial slog of a newspaper to make his fortune by his pen elsewhere. He embarked at Calcutta, for Japan and America, and his first call was Rangoon. From there, and at every stage of his journey, he wrote for the Pioneer long accounts of what he saw. These were eventually collected in From Sea to Sea, twenty pages of in Letter II, which constitute his delightful travel sketches of Rangoon and Moulmein. On leaving Calcutta his mood had been one of exhausted relief:
Doll in a teacup she were,
But we lived on the square, like a true-married pair,
An' I learned about women from 'er!
A glorious idleness has taken entire possession of me. . .all India dropped out of sight yesterday, and the rocking pilot-brig. . .bore my last message to the prison that I quit. We have reached blue water – crushed sapphire – and a little breeze is bellying the awning. Three flying-fish were sighted this morning. . .The only real things in the world are crystal seas, clean-swept decks, soft rugs, warm sunshine, the smell of salt. . .Eventually they steamed up-river towards Rangoon, still out of sight:
as we gave the staggering rice-boats the go-by, I reflected that I was looking upon the River of the Lost Footsteps – the road that so many, many men of my acquaintance had travelled, never to return. . .They had gone up the river in the very steamers that were nosing the yellow flood and they had died since 1885. At my elbow stood one of the workers in New Burma. . .and he told tales of interminable chases after evasive dacoits. . .and of deaths in the wilderness as noble as they were sad.He stayed at Jordan's Hotel, which he condemned for bad board and bad lodging. But he dined at the Pegu Club, and enjoyed that, and met men who gave him vivid yet understated accounts of the war, accounts which must have subsequently coloured "A Conference of the Powers". He even found someone who had been with Dury at the taking of Minhla Fort. The Club was full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon. . .a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. . .the golden dome said: "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about."
... all men were agreed in saying that under no circumstances will the Burman exert himself in the paths of honest industry. Now, if a bountiful Providence had clothed you in a purple, green, amber or puce petticoat, had thrown a rose-pink scarf-turban over your head, and had put you in a pleasant damp country where rice grew of itself and fish came up to be caught. . .would you work?. . .When I die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King's Silk, that has been made in Mandalay, about my body. . .I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest. . .as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor. . .tramp behind me when I walk, for these are the customs of India.He was on his way up the stairway to the platform of the Shwe-Dagon pagoda, wondering 'how such a people could produce the dacoit of the newspaper', when he was shaken to meet a man passing by, whose features looked startlingly sinister and cruel. Kipling wrote a detailed description of the face, and felt it was of a man who 'could crucify on occasion'. It was the only jarring note he found in Burma. Otherwise the attractiveness of the people overwhelmed him. Immediately after the disconcerting dacoit-figure had swaggered past:
a brown baby came by in its mother's arms and laughed, wherefore I much desired to shake hands with it, and grinned to that effect. The mother held out the tiny soft pud and laughed, and the baby laughed, and we all laughed together, because that seemed to be the custom of the country, and returned down the now dark corridor where the lamps of the stall-keepers were twinkling and scores of people were helping us to laugh. . .I had not actually entered the Shway Dagon, but I felt just as happy as though I had.After Rangoon his next call was at Moulmein:
As the steamer came up the river we were aware of first one elephant and then another hard at work in timber-yards that faced the shore. A few narrow-minded folk with binoculars said that there were mahouts upon their backs, but ... I prefer to believe in what I saw—a sleepy town, just one house thick, scattered along a lovely stream and inhabited by slow, solemn elephants, building stockades for their own diversion.Ashore, much impressed by the surrounding greenness and beauty, he climbed to a large white pagoda on a hill:
I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever ... Leaving this far too lovely maiden I went up the steps.. .The hillside ... was ablaze with pagodas—from a gorgeous golden and vermilion beauty to a delicate grey stone one just completed. . .Far above my head there was a faint tinkle as of golden bells, and a talking of the breezes in the tops of the toddy palms ... I climbed higher ... .till I reached a place of great peace dotted with Burmese images. Here women now and again paid reverence. They bowed their heads and their lips moved because they were praying. I had an umbrella – a black one—in my hand, deck-shoes upon my feet, and a helmet upon my head. I did not pray—swore at myself for being a Globe- trotter, and wished that I had enough Burmese to explain to these ladies that I was sorry...Kipling sailed on his way, and never saw Burma again. But a year later, lonely in lodgings off the Strand, and missing the sunlit world he had left behind him, he published "Mandalay", the most famous of his poems and one of the best-known in the English language. Its theme was a former soldier's longing recollections – of dawn watched from a troopship's deck in the Bay of Bengal, of the pathway to war and romance that he calls 'the road to Mandalay', and of a girl he fell in love with at a pagoda in Moulmein. It was a lament for the East in general, but for Burma in particular.
... On the road to Mandalay,Those verses, strangely potent in their evocation, their rhythm, their regret, leapt into instant prominence, where they have since remained, as the most haunting lines ever written in English about that cleaner, greener land.
where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thuder outerf Chna 'crost the Bay!