The three Burmese Wars were the result of frictions between the British East India Company, which ruled a growing British dominion in India, and the kingdom of Burma, or Ava. The First Burmese War was fought from 1824 to 1826 over long-standing frontier disputes that the East India Company inherited from the Mughal dynasty of India.
At the same time that the British East India Company was expanding in India, Burma had regained unity as the kingdom of Ava in 1752. The first king of a reunified Burma is considered to be Alaungpaya, who reigned from 1752 to 1760. Even before Alaungpaya had reunited Burma, there had been friction between the British and the kingdom of Pegu.
In the 1730s the British established a diplomatic resident in Syriam in Pegu to help its trade and gain access to valuable timber. But in 1743 internal unrest caused Syriam to be sacked, and the British representative returned to India. The reign of King Bagyidaw began in 1819. He annexed Assam in 1819 and went on to claim Manipur in 1822.
Faced by the Burmese invasion, the local rulers preferred protection under the British East India Company and sought its help. The Burmese struck first on September 23, 1823. In March 1824 the East India Company declared war on Burma and the governor-general Amherst executed a three-pronged assault on the kingdom of Ava. During the British invasion, some Karens, a Burmese ethnic group, actively supported the British, serving as guides.
By 1825 British forces had captured the ancient city of Pagan and the king decided to make peace with the British. The war ended with the Treaty of Yandabo in February 1826 that ended the First Burmese War, with Britain gaining valuable coast territory in southern Burma.
Peace between the East India Company and the kingdom of Ava lasted until 1852 when Governor General Dalhousie, wishing to gain complete control of the sea lanes between India and Singapore, sent an ultimatum to King Pagan Min of Ava, threatening that hostilities would begin unless the company’s demands were met by the Burmese within one month.
The demands made by the British stemmed from the Treaty of Yandabo. While the Burmese were quick to appease the British, England found enough reason to attack. Facing no real opposition, Dalhousie’s forces annexed the main towns of southern Burma. With the end of the Second Burmese War, the British were masters of southern Burma.
Pagan Min died in February 1853, succeeded by Mindon Min. The British, unsure of the determination of the new king to fight and reluctant to be drawn deeper into fighting in the jungles of Burma, were content with the gains they had already made.
Mindon Min proved to be an astute diplomat in the competition for empire between France and Britain in Southeast Asia. In 1878, Mindon Min was succeeded on the throne by Thibaw Min, who continued to play off the French against the British. Thibaw Min, however, lacked the diplomatic skill of his predecessor and eventually ended up in war against the British.
In 1885 the Third Burmese War began when a British force numbering 9,000, with 2,800 local levies under the command of General H. N. D. Prendergast, attacked the Burmese capital at Mandalay. The official reason for the war dated back to 1878 when King Thibaw came to the throne and sought to erode British influence.
In early 1885 he insisted that British representatives remove their shoes when entering his palace. With rising tensions, Thibaw began to support tribesmen in Lower Burma who were opposed to British rule.
The true reason for the war was more likely that the British were worried about increasing French influence in the region—the French foreign minister Jules Ferry having begun meetings with a Burmese delegation. This coincided with a French consul taking up residence in Mandalay, although he was withdrawn for “health reasons” by the French in a diplomatic retreat soon afterward.
On October 22, 1885, the British issued an ultimatum to Thibaw demanding that the Burmese accept a British resident in Mandalay and that the British control all foreign relations of the kingdom, thereby making it a protectorate.
There were also minor issues such as the matter of a fine imposed on the Bombay Burmah Trading Company because the company had underreported its logging of teak and had been underpaying its local staff.
Another influence was undoubtedly British interest in the oil deposits there. On November 9 the Burmese refused to consider the British demands, and war became inevitable, with the British mustering their forces at Thayetmo.
The British advanced up the Irrawaddy River from Thayetmo on November 14. They used flat-bottomed boats manned by the Royal Navy, taking with them 24 machine guns and many ships containing supplies and ammunition. The British land forces took control of the redoubt at Minhla, where the Burmese put up some resistance on November 17.
On November 26, with the flotilla close to Mandalay, envoys from Thibaw met with General Sir Harry Prendergast and offered to surrender. The British reached Ava on the following day and accepted the Burmese surrender.
On November 28, the British started sacking Mandalay, and then a number of them were sent to Bhamo, which they reached on December 28. The war ended with the British annexation of Burma on January 1, 1886. The war was conducted with little loss of life to the British and was a further example, after the Anglo-Zulu War, of what became known as the British Forward policy.
The governor-general had been replaced by a viceroy, who ruled India directly in the name of Queen Victoria, who by now was the queen-empress. At the time of the Third Burmese War, Viceroy Frederick HamiltonTemple-Blackwood (later, first marquis of Dufferin and Ava) was able to martial Crown forces that Thibaw could not match.
As expected Thibaw refused the British ultimatum. After an astonishing attack, Thibaw finally told his men to lay down their weapons and acknowledged British victory.
Mandalay fell, and King Thibaw was imprisoned, although his rank as king would have been respected. After Mandalay was captured, the British went on to capture Bhamo on December 28, 1885. The British wanted to overawe the Burmese and thwart any Chinese move into Burma.
On January 1, 1886, the rump state of Thibaw’s Kingdom of Ava, or Upper Burma, was also annexed to British India. The final act took place when Upper and Lower Burma were united as Burma and placed firmly within the British Raj, or Indian empire.
Sir Frederick Roberts, the hero of the Second Afghan War, completed the pacification of Burma, using Indian cavalry regiments and locally raised troops to subdue remaining pockets of Burmese resistance, although guerrilla warfare would last until at least 1890.