E. Belfort Bax


(May 1886)

Burmah, Commonweal, 8th May 1886, pp.44. ).
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The mill of the gods grinds slowly but it grinds exceeding, small,” says the old proverb. Unfortunately in some cases the grinding would seem to he very slow indeed. The British crime in Burmah has been followed by the first instalment of Nemesis in the shape of cholera. But, unhappily the form chosen by the goddess for her visitation does not affect those who profit by, and are responsible for, the cowardly plunder and invasion. What matters it that a few hundred soldiers rot on the banks of the Irawady? Are there not hundreds more at home to supply their places, and further hundreds of unemployed men who, though not now soldiers, would be ready at any time to join the army for the sake of bread? No truly, in our present society, there will never be a lack of mercenary troops – cholera or no cholera. But the annexation, nevertheless, has not been accomplished with the ease and comfort to the official and the taxpayer that were expected. The “dacoits” have turned out to be the whole population, and “dacoity” only another type for the patriotic impulse of a people “bravely struggling to be free” – free from the intolerable yoke of British place-hunters, swindlers and traders. Mandalay has been burnt, a patrol of five and twenty British defeated and slain – “massacred” of course in the current newspaper slang. (A British force is always “massacred,” and a native or “rebel” force “driven off with great loss,” according to the despatches.) Every honest Burmese heart burns with zeal to deliver his country from the ruffians in British uniform, whose conception, of “order” consists in the hanging and shooting of brave men who would snatch their country from the claws of that accursed civilisation that threatens it, whose instruments are Prendergasts and provost-marshals

No man who has even so much as the expiring embers of feeling for real heroism. left in him, can watch the unequal struggle now going on in Burmah and not be moved to pity. The struggle for justice and right is here as in all similar cases such a forlorn hope. The harpy had only too long been eyeing its prey. Already in 1880 Colonel Laurie could descant thus with brutal frankness on the desirability of completing the annexation of Burmese territory: “If we can get a controlling as well as a commercial power in a country we conquer ... annexation is unnecessary. If we cannot get these requisites to civilisation (to further which Destiny impels us forward) without annexation, then what remains to be done?” (Our Burmese Wars, p.417.) The answer is obvious from Colonel Laurie’s point of view. “Upper Burrnah” strikes him “most forcibly” as “just one of those countries” where, without an annexation “our obtaining any controlling or commercial power of a lasting, useful, and productive character, would be simply impossible.” The difficulty, he says, is increased by the fact that Pegu is already a British possession. The annexation being thus half accomplished, the rest must follow as a matter of course.

Thus it will be seen that the Burmese expedition was long in contemplation, and that the terrible pictures painted of King Theebaw by the British press were not without a very definite purpose. According to the latest accounts the property “looted” by the British troops is to be sold to defray the expenses of the expedition. This is interesting news. The sacredness of “private property,” so jealously respected in European warfare, it appears does not apply to Asiatics. British capitalists require Burmah as a market and a trade-route. Their governments lay in wait (after having previously prepared the public mind by imaginary and exaggerated horrors) for the first opportunity of pouncing upon it. The opportunity is rather long in coming;, so a bogus quarrel has to be concocted to keep up appearances. The country is invaded and its capital plundered. Not content to pay for his market himself, the so-honourable Briton seeks to realise the cost on the goods he has stolen. Such honesty is in commercial souls. The public opinion which sanctions this, be it remembered, is the same public opinion which as represented by its lackeys of the press, is so revolted at Irish dynamite outrages, at West End riots, and which can shed tears over the injustice of “confiscation,” when practised on landlords or capitalists nearer home.



Last updated on 26.3.2004