In December 1905, the governor of Bombay, Charles Cochrane-Baillie, better known as Lord Lamington, received a letter in Burmese from the most high-profile exile in the presidency.
“I have now been at Ratnagiri for a number of years and formerly I had nothing to complain of; but now my daughters have grown up, I require more accommodation for them as I find the house I am at present occupying quite inadequate for the requirements of my family,” wrote Theebaw Min, the last king of Burma, requesting the government to build him a house away from the main town.
In his missive, Theebaw also pleaded for an increase in his monthly allowance, claiming that the Rs 4,150 he was getting was “insufficient” for his needs despite his “careful” spending. “The Collector, the Officer in charge and the Civil Surgeon can all certify to the inconvenience and anxiety I suffer on this account,” Theebaw wrote.
The letter, preserved in a docket in the Indian National Archives, highlighted the circumstances of a man who until two decades earlier had lived a life of complete luxury and little financial accountability in his kingdom.
Abdication and exile
Theebaw was born into the the Konbaung dynasty in 1859, six years after his country was defeated by the British in the Second Anglo-Burmese War and lost Lower Burma to the East India Company.
He became the king in 1878 after a royal massacre orchestrated by his mother-in-law eliminated all other potential successors to the deceased King Mindon. His rule did not last long, though.
The clouds of war began gathering over Burma soon after his ascension. One of his first actions was to ask the British Resident, Colonel Edward Bosc Sladen, to leave, essentially cutting off diplomatic relations. To ward off a threat from the British, his advisor suggested Burma turn to France. But when London got wind of this possible political alliance, war became inevitable.
The third and final Anglo-Burmese War began in November 1885 and lasted just over three weeks with Major-General Harry Prendergast’s British and Indian troops making easy work of the Burmese resistance.
On November 30, 1885, the India Office in London received a telegram from the Chief Commissioner in Rangoon: “On 26th, royal barge with flag of truce met flotilla thirty miles below Mandalay, with letter begging for armistice. Prendergast replied demanding surrender of King’s Army and Mandalay. Next morning envoy returned with orders from King to accede to demand. Army surrendered Ava forts, twenty-eight guns and laid down its arms. General proceeds to Mandalay tomorrow.”
Two days after the surrender, the British and Indian soldiers arrived in Mandalay and surrounded the palace. As the conquering army entered the city, all of Theebaw’s ministers fled, and along with them 284 of the 300 maids attending to Queen Supalyat.
Sladen, who was fluent in Burmese and knew Theebaw from the time he was a prince, arranged for the king’s surrender and escort to Rangoon in a steamer. A reporter of The Times of London accompanied Sladen into the palace when the colonel negotiated the surrender and abdication.
“I have given everything over to the English,” Theebaw told the journalist. “I want Sladen to govern the country now and in the future. If Sladen had remained as resident and not left, this war would have never occurred. I have been badly advised.”
Till date, Sladen is a reviled figure in the country now called Myanmar, where his act of walking into the Mandalay palace with his shoes on is neither forgiven nor forgotten.
The British, who had forced the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon, exiled Theebaw to Ratnagiri. In Mandalay, the last king of Burma left behind a luxurious palace with a host of treasures.
“Many of the regalia were shipped to Britain, but some royal treasures simply disappeared,” Craig Campbell, Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records of the British Library, wrote in a blog. There were rumours, Campbell says, of rogue British soldiers stealing treasures and burying some of the loot in the palace compound since they could not sneak it past the guards at the gates.
“Amongst the missing treasures was a gold calf weighing several hundredweight, a crown studded in rubies and diamonds surmounted by a peacock, quantities of precious stones, and an enormous and valuable ruby formerly on the forehead of a giant golden statue of Gautama Buddha,” Campbell said.
Festivals and charity
In 1886, Theebaw was given a monthly allowance of Rs 3,900, a figure that would be revised twice over the course of 20 years. Moving to Ratnagiri with his two wives and two daughters (the third and fourth were born in the coastal town), Theebaw maintained an army of servants (130 in 1906) and spent lavishly on Buddhist festivals in addition to donating money to relatives, charities and temples in Burma.
As the years went by, it became increasingly difficult for him to meet these expenses. “The present allowance of Rs 4,150 has never been sufficient for the requirements of His Highness, and for years he has supplemented his income by (1) sale of jewellery, (2) legacies and proceeds from the sale of his share in certain oil wells in Burma,” NB Divatia, the acting collector of Ratnagiri, wrote in a letter in February 1906 to the chief secretary of the government of Bombay. “The jewellery which he had in his possession has all been disposed of and there is nothing more due to him from his property in Burma so he is now solely dependent on his allowance from Government.”
Divatia stressed that Theebaw and Supalyat were “very generous and charitable to the poor,” and spent benevolently on festivals. Local accounts from Ratnagiri suggest that Theebaw handed out money in the town for Diwali celebrations. Buddhist and Burmese festivals were marked by the family too.
“The bulk of his present allowance is expended in festivities on the usual feast days connected with the Buddhist religion, namely: (1) Buddhist New Year; (2) Beginning of Lent; (3) End of Lent; (4) Full Moon of November (called in Burmese Tazaungdaing),” Divatia wrote. “In addition to these festivals, there is the (1) ex-King’s birthday; (2) ex-Queen’s birthday; (3) Second Queen’s and a ceremony on the birthday of each princess.”
Divatia explained this was a custom among the well-to-do in Burma and the family looked forward to these occasions. “It is the only little pleasure they have in making the arrangements personally in connection with these festivals, which passes away the time and gives them something to do and think about,” he added.
Theebaw and his family members almost never left home, living an isolated existence. “As Government are probably aware, none of the family has left the compound for years, except for the ex-King on the occasions of visits of His Excellency the Governor to Ratnagiri, and anything that would induce him to go out, and take his family would be of benefit for their health,” the Political Department wrote in a note on March 20, 1906.
The plague that spread across the Konkan after breaking out in Bombay in 1896 was a major worry for the family. “During the last four or five years, plague has been rife in the village, which is in close proximity to my bungalow and has caused me much anxiety and inconvenience,” Theebaw wrote in his December 1905 appeal to Lord Lamington.
The medical officer in charge of looking after the erstwhile Burmese royals, Major H Bennett, warned the authorities about the unhygienic conditions around the family. “The compound of the present residence is bordered on by a collection of huts kept in the most insanitary condition,” Bennett wrote. “During the recent plague epidemic, cases occurred among the occupants of these huts and acted as the source of infection for the case happening among the servants of His Highness ex-King Theebaw. Infected rats gained access from this quarter to the house throughout this period.”
Bennett added, “During plague epidemics, the people evacuating the town have to a great extent from time to time erected sheds in close proximity to the compound wall to the great inconvenience and danger from infection of His Highness ex-King Theebaw.”
During a visit to Ratnagiri, Lord Lamington went to see the house the former royals were living in. “I inspected their room; it was a dreary barrack-looking place, and very dark,” Lord Lamington wrote in a letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Minto II. “The outside verandah of the house is all dilapidated.”
Theebaw was scared of the plague, Lord Lamington said, with two cases appearing in his compound.
Lord Lamington called on the viceroy to meet Theebaw’s demands. “In short, I don’t think there can be any question that he is being most shabbily treated, particularly when it is remembered how remunerative an acquisition Burma has proved,” he wrote. “It would be necessary for Government to build him a house, and in my opinion your Government should at once call for plans and estimates.”
It was finally decided to build a new house for Theebaw and his family and to raise their allowance to Rs 1 lakh a year. After some quibbling over the costs, construction began on the three-floor structure with sloping roofs. The family moved into the house in 1910 and the last king of Burma lived there until his death six years later. His family was allowed to move back to their country after his death.
Theebaw’s eldest daughter Myat Phaya Gyi entered into a relationship with a Maharashtrian gatekeeper named Gopal Sawant and had a daughter with him. Mother and daughter moved to Burma with rest of the family in 1916, but chose to return to Ratnagiri. Gyi died in penury in 1947 as Sawant allegedly took her allowances. Their descendants are believed to be living in Ratnagiri in penury.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.