Thibaw being escorted from the palace December 1885 – NAM

Advice for invaders: when planning to take over a sovereign state, it’s a good idea to frame it as a ‘rescue mission’. At the height of the imperial era, the British knew this well.

By 1885, when they were getting ready to take over Upper Burma, a narrative was in place that provided a large enough fig leaf to justify what was in reality naked aggression. The Rangoon merchants in the south of Burma, which was already under British control, wanted free access to the teak forests and mines of the secret kingdom of Upper Burma, and there were fears that the French might step in first if the British delayed.

The popular view of Thibaw in the west fits all the cliches about eastern despots

The cover story was simple: King Thibaw was a ‘gin soaked tyrant’ straight out of the Arabian Nights and his ‘harridan queen’ was even worse. Every Burman ‘lived in the utmost abhorrence and terror’ (J George Scott). The young royals’ nadir of depravity was the massacre that took place soon after he came to the throne in 1878. As the 41st of the 48 sons of King Mindon, Thibaw’s legitimacy was far from certain: about 70 his rivals, male and female, were slaughtered in a night of utter savagery.

Nearly 70 years later that cover story was still in place: ECV Foucar (They Reigned in Mandalay, 1946.) relished the gory details of Thibaw’s reign – ‘as bloodsmeared a page as any in the history of the human race, not excluding the troubled story of our own century.’ (Had he forgotten the massacre at Amritsar in 1919?) ‘The madness of the House of Alompra was at its height. It was almost as if Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat, who was also his step-sister, had come to realise that they were doomed, and with this foreknowledge entered upon a wild orgy of unbridled licence and bloodshed … (his dots)’

Foucar liked his contrasts: ‘The river steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company carried travellers, staid merchants and bagmen [bit missing], from the stolid security of Queen Victoria’s realm to the fabled city where torture and sudden death were meted out at the whim of a drink inflamed youth and his dainty bejewelled Queen …!’

All those phlegmatic Brits aghast at the excessive orientals in ‘Mandalay the golden’:

He goes on: ‘Royal eunuchs and concubines, telegraph clerks and Manchester merchants all moved within the shadow of the palace that was styled the Centre of the Universe. Music and carnival there were in full measure’ but the music and the shrill voices of the dancing girls were often mingled with the screams of tortured victims and the hoarse laughter of the executioners. 

 In fairness to Foucar, he admitted he had given his imagination free rein in writing this account, but even so, Maurice Collis, who had lived in Burma for some years in the 1920s and 30s, did not challenge any of it when he reviewed the book in the TLS. The myth was simply too useful to be revised. Whatever the errors of those staid Brits who ran the country after 1885 they paled into insignficance next to Thibaw and his ghastly bride. 

And so it continues. The Kipling Society website offers the following on the last king of Burma: ‘the nonentity Theebaw, a shallow-brained alcoholic youth, dominated by his ignorant, greedy and vicious wife Soopaya-Lat, already his evil genius and soon to be a byword’. This vicious couple had 80 members of the royal family slaughtered though ‘to avoid the shedding of royal blood, these were clubbed or strangled, and thrown dead and alive into a trench which was then covered over and trampled by elephants. Theebaw and his court were surprised and resentful at the horror this aroused abroad, in the day of the electric telegraph.’

‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ – as the man said in the film

The legend has become fact. Until very recently, everyone was agreed in their condemnation.

 Not quite everyone. Right from the first, Harold Fielding Hall was sceptical. He was exactly the same age as Thibaw – both born in 1859 – and he had been working in Upper Burma for six months before the annexation. Employed by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in the teak forests south of Mandalay, he heard the rumours. He could hardly avoid them, since the company he was working for provided the trigger for war. But he had his doubts: ‘As I got to know the people I became sure that these tales could not be true.’

He returned to Upper Burma the following year, this time as the lowliest of the low in the Indian civil Service, a position so low it did not even have an English name: for those first years he was a ‘myook’. When he wrote about it later, he called himself a ‘subdivisional officer’ which sounds grander, but the India List is blunter – and also shows that most myooks were Burmese; in fact many of his superiors assumed all myooks were natives of Burma. 

While learning Burmese, getting to know the people with an informality that was only possible in the first two or three years after the annexation, he kept trying to find out the truth about King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and the night of the massacre. Eventually his persistance was rewarded. He met a young woman who had been an attendant to Queen Supayalat and gradually she told him all she could remember about her years in the famed palace of Mandalay. She had only come to court a few years later, but his conversations with Ma Thein Me gave Harold enough information to know what to ask those who remembered the night of the massacre. 

It was a frequent topic of conversation among the villagers and minor officials who were his companions while he was a lowly myook. ‘I have heard it spoken of many and many a time in the villages when work was over and cigars were lit in the warm dusk.’ The massacre was terrible, a violation of every Buddhist teaching in that most Buddhist of countries, but it saved them from a battle for supremacy in which many thousands would have died. Ma Thein Me said, ‘Would it have been better that the king should have seventy children, as (his father) Mindon had, to raise up trouble in future? Have English queens never killed their rivals, or English kings allowed their wives to be executed?’

Besides, the general consensus among the Burmese, and now among historians who take the trouble to examine the evidence, is that Thibaw and Supayalat had no advance knowledge of the massacre, which was ordered by the last of King Mindon’s four principle queens: Sinpyumashin who was Supayalat’s mother. When King Thibaw heard of the slaughter, he wept.

As for that ‘gin-soaked’ accusation, there’s no evidence for it at all. Queen Supayalat’s maid of honour, who had heard all the gossip, was certain that he only once tried alcohol, soon after coming to the throne when ‘he was so giddy at the sudden change that he hardly knew where he was. One evening he was led away by some of his pages and drank some beer, and disgraced himself. But he only did it once, and he was dreadfully ashamed of himself for long afterwards, that all the teaching of his days in the monastery were broken so quickly’. In all the long years of his exile, years of boredom and frustration that might have driven anyone to drink, there is no mention that he ever touched even beer.

Harold never claims that Thibaw was a model king. How could he have been? For one thing he had been happily living in a monastery when he was catapulted onto the throne while still a teenager. A swift transition from dutiful obedience and study to great wealth and the trappings of power was disastrous. The picture that Ma Thein Me paints is of two young monarchs, much in love, who didn’t have the first idea how to rule, who never left the palace and were often badly advised.

When the British were advancing up the Irrawaddy, one of the chief ministers tried to get King Thibaw to focus on the approaching catastrophe, but without success. ‘The kingdom is in the hands of children,’ he told a friend, ‘There is no hope at all.’

An illustration from Thibaw’s Queen, from a painting by one of Harold’s cousins. Swift justice was understood by the Burmese.

The British form of justice seemed to most Burmese to be a lingering cruelty. Prisoners working on the treadmill in a British gaol.

And the cruelty charge? Rivals to the queen might disappear suddenly and the maids of honour often had ‘frights’ but ‘when the danger was past, we quickly forgot about it’. This was not the British way. After the annexation, the imperial grip established a vast and complex machinery of ‘justice’ – a machinery that for the most part appeared arbitrary and incomprehensible to the Burmese.

Ma Thein Me was in no doubt about what the Burmese had lost when Thibaw was deposed: ‘Perhaps he was a bad king; but he was our own king, and we understood his ways, while those of the English Government are to us as strange as the ways of the gods, for no one can tell what they will do next, or why.’

Yet still many Westerners prefer the myth of the alcoholic despot and his evil queen. The mud so merrily chucked at the last king, seems likely to stick for a while longer.