The monsoon kingdoms: a languid afternoon read

Swedish west coast

Across the globe from the monsoon kingdoms, the Swedish west coast.
Text & Photo © JE Nilsson, CM Cordeiro, Sweden 2015

2015. History was not a subject of particular interest to her. But the thick book, bound in green, fell into her hands, with its pages opening to the chapter entitled The Coming of the Europeans. This was his book. She sat and proceeded to read. She smiled when she encountered a paragraph that described the city in which she was raised, Singapore, in the 1500s, compared to the great emporium of Malacca, Java and the Spice Islands, as known for ‘nothing much’. Malacca in the Far East was the flourishing main trading port where every year, between eighteen to twenty ships were laden with numerally Sumatran pepper bound for China. It was a gem of a trading port, politically guarded and threatened to be usurped by the various powers at their determination for their own trading rights and influence in the region. She mused that it was the same period of time when the Portuguese, due to their long crusade against the Moors had built up a formidable naval power and superior knowledge in ship building that complemented them as a race of mariners, took to the eastern seas, setting their sights on the very same gem of a port that laid in the Straits of Malacca. She noted whilst reading, that her own Spanish family heritage had not yet differentiated from the highlands of Andalucía. She leafed through the pages, her green-gold eyes flickered across the words of the pages, turning a deep amber hue as she registered information of interest, her fingers turning pages as turning time in history.

1839. The day was warm but the view, standing along the newly built warehouses and godowns by the dockside, was brilliant and economically encouraging. Dressed in ‘local casual’ of what the Europeans considered inner wear that, due to the tropical weather were now out of practical reasons worn as outer wear, the thinnest possible white linen shirt and britches, he stood surveying the scene before him. He had just arrived in Singapore after a short visit to Macau where he had his other holding base. It seemed like individuals from as far away as China had made themselves at home in this recently established port of trade that was Singapore. Just farther inland, the row of money changes seemed to have flourished from a handful to now counting, more than five hundred present on a single street. Individuals were abuzz with the loading and off-loading of goods for trade. But trade was today, not foremost on his mind.

For years, he had witnessed on the sideline, the shift in economic and political influence of the various Companies in the region. The Dutch Monopoly had been broken with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1784 and he understood how Raffles wrestled a port of influence for the British Company by sheer diligence and clever reading of clauses, recognizing the true Sultan of Johor where the Dutch did not and thus signing a treaty with the rightful persons. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of the Residential system in Malaya had been signed just about a decade ago had little effect on the order to society, and corruption in the settlements were rife, the atmosphere far from stable and safe. The meteoric rise of Singapore as a trading hub, coupled with Dutch efforts to revive their trading influence in Java attracted plenty of pirate activities whom the Malays saw as an honorable profession and to some, a religious devotion to drive out barbarians from the region, and reclaim what was rightfully theirs. With arms akimbo at dockside, he turned to the woman that stood beside him that afternoon and contemplated her. He had been spending time with her in the past weeks and enjoyed her company ever more at each meeting. Dressed also in ‘local casual’, she wore her dark curls of hair piled in a loose bun, strands trailing down the side of her nape. Her dress was long, made of a white gauzy muslin imported directly from India. He thought her fetching in that dress that bound her just above her waistline. The dress was modest but left nothing to his imagination nonetheless. This afternoon, he had invited her to walk with him along dockside, hardly a romantic getaway of sorts, but he wanted to speak with her of personal matters. The increasing presence of warships and gunboats in the Singapore harbour dispatched in the direction of Malay and Lanun pirate centres brought a certain unease over him. Singapore’s economic activity was without doubt, growing with astonishing rapidity, but even as he was first and foremost a businessman, a Supercargo, he saw that the trading port was assigned of naval and political motives. He did not like being involved in politics, but politics and lawfulness often came hand in hand. Despite the diligence of the individuals, the contesting wills of many others meant that the threat of an outbreak of civil unrest was a constant reality. Looking at her, he had wanted to reach out for her hand as a measure of surety, but decided against it. “This place has economic promise, but there is difficulty in cultivating heart and soul here.” He voiced. At the grave tone of his voice, she turned to look at him, her green-gold eyes turning a deep amber in concern, “How do you mean?” she asked. “I mean to say,” he said, keeping his gaze steady on hers, “I set sail in the next monsoon winds to Europe. I can take you away from all this, if you would only come with me.”

2015. Her deep amber eyes followed the words her long, slender fingers traced on the page, on The Creation of the Province of British Burma.”:

“Was war now inevitable? Benson, like Burney, warned Calcutta that nothing short of invasion would bring the Burmese government to its senses. But the Afghan War made it impossible to take a firm line with the Court of Ava. On the other hand, the British disasters in that war were seized on by the war party at Tharrawaddy’s Court as arguments in favour of a more energetic policy. Two rebellions – one in Lower Burma in 1838, and the other in Shan country in 1840 – gave the king an excuse to get rid of all the people he had intended to put out of the way in 1837 when Burney had intervened to save their lives. The ex-queen was trampled to death by elephants, and her brother, the Minthagyi, even more barbariously executed. A significant outbreak of dacoity in the Salween neighbourhood gave rise to wild rumours of a Burmese plan to invade Tenasserim. A royal visit to Rangoon in 1841, which was of the nature of a military demonstration, caused so much apprehension that the British garrisons in Arakan and Tenasserim were reinforced.

Nothing came of these incidents. Tharrawaddy was playing with fire, but was shrewd enough not to push things too far. Blundell, the Commissioner of Tenasserim, warned the Government of India that the dacoities in the Salween area were officially instigated in order to spread alarm on the British side of the frontier; and that no matter how forcibly he might stamp them out, action of a far more comprehensive kind was really called for. But the Government of Inida, having brought the Afghan War to an end, had its attention fixed on Sind and the Sikhs and was unwilling to risk adventures in Burma.

How long the uneasy peace would have continued had Tharrawaddy continued to direct affairs is a matter for surmise. But like his brother he became insane. His madness showed itself in fits of ungovernable rage, during which he committed abominable cruelties. These became so serious that in 1845 his sons put him under restraint. The struggle for power which then ensued was won by Pagan Min, who killed off those of his brothers whom he considered dangerous, together with every single member of their households.

In 1846 Tharrawaddy died and Pagan Min became king. His tyranny and atrocities were far worse than those of Thibaw and Supayalat which so shocked a later generation of Britishers. His first chief ministers, Maung Baing Zat and Maung Bhein, carried out a systematic spoliation of his richer subjects by procuring their deaths on trumped-up charges. During their two years of power more than 6,000 people are said to have been put out of the way, and the public fury at last rose to such a pitch that to save himself the king handed over his favourites to be tortured to death. He rarely attended to business, and local officers could do much as they pleased so long as the due amount of revenue was paid regularly to the capital. Local officers like Guang Gyi of Tharrawaddy, later a famous dacoit leader against the British régime, were as independent as a mediaeval marcher lords in Europe.

It was the breakdown of central control which was finally instrumental in bringing on the long-threatened war with the East India Company.” [1]

It had been a long and languid read in the afternoon. She closed the green-bound book and set it aside. “…if you would only come with me.” She rose from the seat in search for him, to whom the book belonged. She wanted to speak with him.


Reference

[1] Hall, D.G.E. 1981. A History of South-East Asia, 4th edition. Macmillan Asian Histories Series, The Macmillan Press, pp. 647-649.

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