Thibaw being escorted from the palace December 1885. Image Courtesy of the National Army Museum, London

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)’ And much more of the same.

 In fairness to Foucar, he admitted he had given his imagination free rein in writing this account. 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.’

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 the teak forests of Upper Burma before the annexation. He heard the rumours. But he had his doubts: ‘As I got to know the people I became sure that these tales could not be true.’

A teak forest camp. This photograph was taken by Ben Squires’ great grandfather, who also worked in the teak forests of Upper Burma.

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’. Most myooks were Burmese natives.

In the first two or three years after the annexation, he got to know the ordinary Burmese in a way that would soon be impossible. He kept trying to find out the truth about King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and the night of the massacre. Eventually his persistance was rewarded. A young woman who had been an attendant to Queen Supayalat gradually told him all she could remember about her years in the famed palace of Mandalay. 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 his companions while he was a lowly myook. ‘I have heard it spoken of 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 principle, but it prevented  a struggle in which many thousands would have died. Ma Thein Me said, ‘Have English queens never killed their rivals, or English kings allowed their wives to be executed?’

The consensus among the Burmese, and serious historians now, is that  the massacre was ordered by the last of King Mindon’s four principle queens: Sinpyumashin (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. Ma Thein Me said he only once tried alcohol, soon after coming to the throne. ‘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 that all the teaching of his days in the monastery were broken so quickly’. In all the long years of his exile there is no mention that he touched even beer.

Harold never claims that Thibaw was a model king. How could he have been? He had been 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.

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. This photograph shows 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 baffled the Burmese.

‘Perhaps he was a bad king,’ said Ma Thein Me, ‘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.’

Even so, the mud so merrily spattered over the last king, seems likely to stick for a while longer.

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