FEATURE PRINCE BURMA IN KANNUR
|NP Chekkutty …
By NP CHEKKUTTY
A DECADE ago, while researching on European burial sites along the Malabar coast, I came across a surprising entry in the Death and Burials Register at the old garrison church in Kannur: “Egbert Alexander Granville James. Died and buried on 19th August 1887. Son of Prince Moung Lat, Burmese state prisoner.”
The brief entry at the burial register of the St. John’s Church said the boy died on the sixth day of his birth due to ‘tetanus’.
The British East India Company that had come to possess the entire Malabar region from the late 18th Century had established the garrison at Cannanore (Kannur) in 1810, as part of efforts to protect the large areas seized from Tipu Sultan and promote their vast trade interests. Over the years, the garrison had seen hectic military activity in a highly volatile region that experienced revolts including the Pazhassi Rebellion of 1790s to the Moplah Revolt in 1921. The barracks were home to almost all the major regiments of the British Army, from the HM 74th Highlanders to the Royal Fusiliers. The English had established the church as also a cemetery nearby.
Among the tombs of traders and soldiers from various European nationalities was this singular grave of a Myanmar prince.
The mention of a Burmese prince as state prisoner in the garrison town’s church records came as a surprise to me. The British had maintained that the only state prisoner from the Burmese royal family, after the conquest of Burma in the third Anglo-Burma war in 1885, was King Thibaw, who was followed by his consort Queen Supayalat (who was also his half-sibling) and their daughters. They were lodged in a hill-top house called Outram at Ratnagiri, a coastal town in the Konkan region of Maharashtra.
After spending more than 30 years in penury and isolation at Ratnagiri, the king passed away in 1916, while in captivity. The queen and her three daughters were allowed to return home, leaving behind one of her daughters, the eldest, who had married a commoner in India. She later returned to Ratnagiri to be with her husband Gopal Sawant, who was once the family’s driver.
WITH THE death of King Thibaw, the royal lineage of Burma practically eclipsed. Queen Supayalat had ensured the murder of as many as 80 members of the royal family after Thilbaw’s ascension to the throne. For, she didn’t want anyone to challenge her husband or, in future, her own children’s claims to the throne. She, however, took special care not to spill royal blood. The victims were covered in carpets, suffocated, and whacked to death before their bodies were thrown unceremoniously into rivers.
IT TOOK me a long time to find out who this prince was and how he had ended up in the distant garrison town set along the west coast of India. Finally the story emerged from a small book named The Lord of The Celestial Elephant, written by Elaine Halton and published in London in 1999. The author was a descendant of the prince whose parents had migrated to Britain after the World War II. From this book, as well as from researches in various libraries and archives, this story of a wonderful man whose life remained buried in the footnotes of colonial history, could be pieced together.
Prince Moung Lat was lucky to escape the planned royal annihilations at King Thibaw’s palace after his ascension to the throne. He escaped, because by the time King Mindon Mein died in October 1878 and his son Thibaw held the crown, the prince was already a prisoner in Cannanore. He had been arrested for rebellion against the British forces in Burma in a bid to free his native land from foreign occupation.
The Prince had, in 1872, gathered an army and was leading a guerrilla war against the British when he was arrested by Major Lloyd in 1873 and transported to solitary confinement in Aden. Two years later, he was relocated to Cannanore in a secret move at a time of great upheavals in Burma. It was there that he was to begin serving his indefinite term as state prisoner.
Prince Moung Lat and King Thibaw were cousins. Both had equal claim to the throne. Moung Lat was born in 1852, as son of Hliene Mein, King of Burma, who had succeeded King Tharawaddy of the Konbaung dynasty. A year after this birth, his father was assassinated by his younger brother, Mindon, who then went on to usurp the throne in 1853.
King Mindon Mein had a long reign. He was considered the wisest among Burma’s rulers although he was mentally unstable as a consequence of generations of inbreeding in the royal family. Prince Moung Lat was expected to succeed Mindon. Burmese dynasties did not strictly follow the system of primogeniture in succession. Also, Mindon had a low opinion about his son Thibaw. ”If Thibaw ever ascended the throne,“ he once remarked, “then Burma will pass into the hands of foreigners.”
THERE ARE two versions about the childhood of Prince Moung Lat, the son of the slain King. According to one version, King Mindon allowed the child to live in the palace. There were speculations that he was to be murdered in due course of time. There were also those who thought Mindon, out of a sense of guilt, would anoint him as his heir.
Another version is that his mother, Me Eepu Kempoo of Hanthawadi, after the assassination of her husband the king, had smuggled the child out of the palace. She secretly brought him up at Pangoon-Yah, a remote part of the country near Thayetmyo, a British post on the River Irawaddy in lower Burma. At some point, the young prince managed to return to the palace. When his mother died in 1860, the prince was eight years old and was living in the royal palace at Mandalay, receiving private education.
THOSE WERE tumultuous days for Burma and the royal family. Lower Burma was virtually under British rule, the aliens administering their fiefdom from Rangoon. A group of princes rebelled in 1866. The British were rumoured to have had a hand in it, with a view to toppling King Mindon and installing someone who would protect their interests. Speculations were that the King himself might inadvertently have encouraged rebellion, as he held the belief that “Might is right.”
In the aftermath of the failed rebellion, many princes had to flee Mandalay. Prince Moung Lat received the protection of Colonel Sladen, the British spokesman and political agent in the court of Mandalay. He helped him into hiding in the Shan Hills for three years in the guise of a Buddhist monk. While fleeing, the only possession he took along was his jewel-studded sword, a magnificent weapon, which he had kept hiding as he spent his days in the guise of a monk in the forests.
COLONEL SLADEN was an important figure among the British officials in the Burmese court, having a long career in the country. He spoke the Burmese language and had excellent contacts in the royal court. He enjoyed the trust of the King. He was among the very few English officers honoured with the Tsalve, a decoration of great merit in the court. In 1869, the honour was conferred on Edward B Sladen for special personal services performed in the King’s interest as a political agent at the court during 1864-1869.
While a fugitive in the Shan hills, the prince came to the conclusion that the British instigated the 1866 rebellion with a view to installing a puppet in the throne after removing Mindon and annexing what remained of the Burmese kingdom. Hence, he was convinced about the need to drive the British out. He organised an army and launched his guerrilla warfare against the foreign forces in lower Burma, based in the jungles of the Toungoo region under British control.
Not much information is available with us on the encounters of the Prince’s guerrilla army with the British forces. The young Prince appears to have had a love affair with a young girl he met while in the forests. In her short biography of her grandfather, Elaine Halton refers to his secret love for a Burmese village girl he met in the jungles. He wanted to marry her, but his first priority was securing his kingdom.
Meanwhile, girl’s parents decided to get her married to someone else. The Prince, with regrets, wished her well. He waylaid a cart-man who was travelling through the jungle path with a load of furniture and got two of the best pieces unloaded. He sent them to her as a wedding gift.
This phase of his life as a fugitive and warrior came to an end when he was tracked down and arrested by Major Lloyd in 1873. He was soon transported to Aden, a port on the mouth of Persian Gulf in the Arabian Sea. He refused to live there and threatened to commit suicide if he was forced to continue living in the arid deserts of south Yemen: ”No decent bird would tolerate to live in Aden,” he told his captors.
It was then that the British decided to move the Prince to Cannanore, the garrison town in south India, set on the Arabian Sea coast. He arrived in a steamer via Mangalore. On board, he met two Roman Catholic priests. He discussed with them aspects of theology. He was keen to know how Christianity differed from his own Buddhism.
THE PRINCE was only 23 when he arrived in Cannanore in 1875. On his arrival at the port, records say that he was received by senior officials of the garrison, including Brigadier Cadell, General Kempster, Major Conningham, and the cantonment’s magistrate, Captain Ketcham. Captain R W Sheffield was the officer in charge of his affairs in the cantonment.
It was light custody for the prince at Cannanore. He was required to report his presence in the cantonment every evening. He had been assigned a house with a garden, and his gates were guarded by the 9th and 25th Madras Native Infantry. He spent his time gardening. His garden acquired fame across the entire cantonment for its variety of flowers and vegetables. In the mornings and evenings, he took long walks on the beach or in the lush green hinterland. He also had a tutor, who gave him English classes.
ACROSS the road from his bungalow lived an Australian widow and her two daughters. Henrietta was the widow of Thomas William Godfrey, a merchant who once controlled trade between Australia and India. He had died at sea a decade ago when the elder daughter Eveline was four. The Godfreys had four children and two of them — a boy and a girl—died in infancy while they were living at Black Town in Madras.
The prince fell in love with Eveline, the elder girl, who was around 16. He made several attempts to have a chat with her while at the beach where they went for their exercises. The girl was hesitant. She made it clear that she could talk to him only if her mother permitted her to do so. She suggested him to talk to her mother.
Lady Godfrey led a quiet, retired life. She hardly entertained visitors. Though most of her family was in Australia, she had been in Cannanore for a long time, bringing up her children all alone after the death of her husband. She supported herself and the family with income from private tuition for children in the cantonment. This was a rare case, as women were generally not taking up independent careers in the English society. Later, with a government grant, she opened the Montessori School in the town, considered the first Church of England school in western India.
One fine morning, the Prince approached her and expressed his wish to marry her daughter. The lady had no serious objection but she raised two major points: She could not allow the marriage without the permission of the Government of India as he was a state prisoner. Two, there was the problem of religion. He was a Buddhist and they were Protestant Christians. The Prince agreed to get permission from the authorities and also to convert himself to the Protestant Christian faith to solemnize the marriage as per the customs of the church.
IT WOULD be interesting to speculate what made the lady accept a declared enemy of the state—a state prisoner—and a “savage given to very violent temper” as her son-in-law. Evidently, they got on very well from their first meeting. When Captain Sheffield described him as a savage, she laughed and said, “He does not look one!” Captain Sheffield also told her about his past activities as a rebel leader in Burma.
The Government of India, through some semi-official channels, had informed King Mindon in Mandalay about the intentions of his nephew the prince. Having received his consent, the government instructed Bishop Frederick Gell in Madras to take steps for his formal acceptance into the Anglican Church. He, in turn, asked Rev John Smithwhite, chaplain at St John’s Church, Cannanore, to give the prince lessons in Bible, so that he would be well prepared to receive the sacraments. The ‘first communion’ took place in the church on 31 March 1878 with Rev. Smithwhite performing the service in the presence of witnesses—R W Sheffield and Patrick Fennel, both officers in the rank of captain in the cantonment. The prince took a new name, John William Moung Lat, a name selected by Eveline.
THE WEDDING took place on 29 April 1878, at the same church. It turned out to be a glittering function for the small town. There was full military regalia. The entire town was in attendance and it was declared a holiday for the cantonment. The prince however had one regret–that he was not allowed to wear the traditional Burmese royal dress and instead had to make do with the western style suit and trousers.
THE COUPLE spent ten years at their bungalow in Canannore, raising turkeys and looking after their garden and vegetables. They sired three children there: Eunice Augusta born on 7February 1882, Rupert Alexander George, born on 2 May 1886 and Egbert Alexander Granville, born on 13 August 1887. Egbert, born on an ‘unlucky’ date, died six days later and was buried at St John’s cemetery the same day.
Soon after the death of the child, the Prince had a severe attack of asthma. Following medical advice, the authorities decided to move him to Bangalore, a town with a more suitable climate. They spent the next 18 years there and sired five more children.
In 1906, he was again relocated to Madras for health reasons. His health continued to deteriorate and he was again moved to Bellary in the ‘Ceded Districts’. Since the Prince had spent many decades in captivity, he was in poor health. Reports in newspapers said the Government was considering his release. He was no longer perceived a threat, an old man weighed down by the burdens of a large family and in poor health with no income except the meagre allowance given by the government.
A PRINCE without a country, his financial condition had become precarious. He had a large family to support and many children to educate. While in Madras, he petitioned the government for an increase in his allowance. The request was turned down. Furious over the denial of his request by the government, whose forces took away his country and plundered its treasury, Eveline wrote directly to Britain’s Queen Alexandra about his plight. The queen promptly responded by sending him money from her personal resources, to help also in the children’s education.
The prince’s financial troubles had been mounting ever since he was in Bangalore. On one occasion, he had approached a civil court, seeking some respite from creditors. A news item appeared in the New Zealand newspaper, Nelson Evening Mail, in 1892, in its section ‘Interesting Gleanings’. It said, “Not all the petty princes in India are rolling in wealth, for a certain Prince Moung Lat recently applied to the civil judge at Bangalore for permission to pay into court five rupees per mensem towards a judgement debt of 280 rupees.”
The prince explained that his government allowance was not sufficient to enable him maintain his family or meet his liabilities. This plea had no effect, for he was advised to reduce his expenditure and pay his debt in full.
The cruel irony of his troubles with a meagre allowance and the strictures from the civil judge about his alleged profligacy became evident when Colonel Lloyd Jr, son of the officer who had captured him many decades ago, paid a visit in 1927. By then, the prince was already 75. When the visit was announced, it was expected to be an occasion for a late apology on the part of the government. But what the young officer had told him was that the government never paid his—the officer’s—father the bounty for the arrest of the rebel – which he said was his due.
Towards the end of 1927 came the news that Government of India decided to release the Prince. By then, he had spent 54 years in India as a state prisoner.
The prince arrived in Rangoon on 28 January 1928 with his family; a country he had left five-and-a-half decades ago as a 21-year-old youth. He settled down to a new life at Lynne, in Insein, until his death eight years later, on 20 January 1936. He was buried at the Kemendine Cemetery, a Protestant Christian cemetery at Insein.
SOON, WAR clouds engulfed the whole of Europe and Asia. The Japanese invaded Burma. The family left Rangoon and fled to India once again as refugees. During the war, they were in Madras where they had relatives. It was here that Eveline Moung Lat, the life-long companion and partner of the prince, breathed her last on 8 January 1945. She was buried at the St Thomas Mount Cemetery, Madras. Some 55 years ago, her mother was also buried in the same city. The children took up jobs in the government and the armed forces and soon got integrated into the world of commoners, eventually spreading their wings into various parts of the world.
The Prince, as a young man, took up arms to fight the British who had come to conquer his country. He gave 54 years of his life yearning for freedom from forced confinement. It appears no one back home had any inkling about his solitary life in India. I made several attempts to locate his son’s grave in the cemetery in Kannur, but failed. Guess is, the boy was buried in an unmarked grave as the poor prince could not have managed to provide for a decent headstone for his son. IHN-NN