On 29 November 1885, a political earthquake struck the Kingdom of Burma (now Myanmar.) 10,000 British Imperial troops stormed up the Irrawaddy River on the orders of Sir Randolph Churchill, crossed unopposed through the fortified walls of the royal city of Mandalay, and overnight brought an end to a millennium of monarchy.
It’s a tale captured in the famous poem Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling, and it’s one indelibly imprinted on the Burmese national memory. The impact of the annexation is still rippling through Burma’s troubled politics, culture and society today.
But curiously for such a seismic moment in Burma’s past, it’s a moment few in Britain today have ever heard about. Similarly, the fate of the man who would go down in history as the last King of Burma is a tale almost lost to history.
Submission or war: King Thibaw’s difficult decision
Aged just 26, trained in the monkhood, and with barely any experience outside the gilded walls of Mandalay, King Thibaw faced an impossible choice: accept the terms of British treaty that would leave him King in name only, or take on the world’s mightiest army.
He chose the latter, and after his defeat in a war lasting just two weeks, he would spend the remaining 30 years of his life in exile thousands of miles from home in Ratnagiri, a small fishing village on the west coast of India. Now, more than a century after his death in 1916, Thibaw remains buried in a ramshackle tomb in a neglected corner of this remote town.
Immediately after his defeat and capture by British forces, Thibaw laboured under the illusion he was being taken to India for negotiations on his future role in a British protectorate of Burma.
He surrendered his most precious belongings – including the famed Nga Mauk ruby, a personal possession of the Burmese kings said to be worth a kingdom – to Colonel Edward Sladen, a former British emissary to Mandalay.
But Thibaw never saw his ruby, or his kingdom, again, and the whereabouts of the Nga Mauk remains a mystery to this day.
Following Thibaw’s exile, Britain would spend the following five decades dismantling centuries old monarchical society, and rebuilding Burma’s institutions and infrastructure in its own image, and for its own purposes, in the face of rumbling rebellions and revolts.
Submerging Burma into British India, it would also supercharge the Burmese economy, transforming Rangoon from a sleepy backwater to one of the world’s busiest seaports.
But in doing so it would exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions in this mindbogglingly diverse corner of the world, and establish a highly militarised, centralised and autocratic system of governance, much of which remains in place to this day.
Despite an uptick in interest around the centenary of his death in 2016, his body still lies in India, far from his royal ancestors in Mandalay. His royal descendants, scattered across Burma and India, remain divided over when and if to bring him home.
Although his body may remain in the wrong country, the old king’s ghost looks set to haunt his beloved Burma for many years to come.
Alex Bescoby is an award-winning filmmaker, historian and presenter. After focusing on Burmese history at Cambridge University, he has spent the last decade working on Myanmar. His debut documentary, We Were Kings – winner of the inaugural Whicker’s World Funding Award – follows Thibaw’s descendants in their quest to bring the last king home.