Monday, September 12, 2011

Secret Life of a Prince in Indian Garrisons

BURMA's last monarch, King Thibaw and his consort, Queen Supayalat, spent 31 years as prisoners in a hill-top bungalow at Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra, after his country fell to British troops in 1885. The last of the Konbaung dynasty, Thibaw and the royal family lived in utter penury. The Brits who plundered his palaces and coffers, divested him of the gems and rubies and gold, gave him a pittance for his subsistence. Amitav Ghosh, in his modern classic, The Glass Palace, describes how the Queen enforced strict economy at the household, and the princesses huddled around a single oil lamp to do homework.
But the king was, in a way, lucky. His sad life had become an international scandal. The British lost face, though they kept the money. But they successfully maintained that Thibaw was the only state prisoner they had, as the queen had helpfully murdered all members of the royal family in a ruthless operation to finish off rivals.
But this was falsehood. They had at least one more prisoner from Burma’s royal family, Prince Moung Lat, who remained a state prisoner for 54 years in Indian garrisons. The administration, however, never accepted he was in their custody. Yet, evidence of his life in Indian garrisons remains. In Cannanore, an old cantonment town in north Kerala, a brief entry in the burial register at the 19th century English Church says: Egbert Alexander Granville James, died and buried on 19th August 1887, son of Prince Moung Lat, Burmese state prisoner.

Prince Moung Lat escaped the mass murders at royal family because at the accession of Thibaw to throne, following death of King Mindon in October 1878, he was in British custody. The Prince had been leading a guerrilla war against the British and at the time of mass murders, he was already serving out his indefinite term in India.

The Prince and King Thibaw were cousins and both had an equal claim to throne. Moung Lat was born in 1852, son of Hliene Mein, king of Burma, who had succeeded King Tharawaddy. When he was one year old, his father was assassinated by Mindon, his younger brother, who usurped the throne in 1853. King Mindon had a long reign. He is considered the wisest among Burma’s rulers though he was known to be mentally unstable because of debilities due to generations of inbreeding in royal family. Prince Moung Lat was expected to succeed Mindon, as the Burmese dynasties did not follow strict primogeniture in succession and the fact that Mindon had a low opinion of his son Thibaw. ”If Thibaw ever came to the throne,“ he once remarked, “then Burma will pass into the hands of foreigners.”

There are two versions about the childhood of the Prince. According to one, King Mindon allowed the child to live in the palace. Some speculated that he was to be murdered in due course while others said Mindon, in guilt, would appoint him his heir.

Another version is that after the assassination of her husband, the king, his mother Me Eepu Kempoo of Hanthawadi, smuggled the child out of the palace, and secretly brought him up at Pangoon-Yah, a remote part of the country. But at some point, the young prince had returned to the palace. When his mother died in 1860, the Prince was eight years old and was living in the royal palace at Mandalay with a private tutor.

Those were tumultuous days: there were troubles everywhere. Lower Burma was virtually under British rule. A group of princes rebelled in 1866, and the Brits were rumoured to be behind it. They wanted to topple Mindon and install someone more inclined to their interests. As the rebellion failed, many princes fled Mandalay. Colonel Edward Sladen, British political agent in the court, helped Moung Lat to go into hiding in Shan hills in the guise of a Buddhist monk. While a fugitive, the Prince realized the British were behind the 1866 rebellion, and they wanted to capture what remained of the Burma kingdom. Convinced of the need to drive them out, he gathered an army and launched guerrilla warfare, based in the jungles of Toungoo, then under British control.

He was barely 20, and inexperienced in jungle warfare. However, he was known as a terror and was high on the Wanted List. Then Cupid struck: The Prince fell in love with a girl he met during his wanderings in the forests. In the book, The Lord of Celestial Elephant, a biography of the Prince, his grand-daughter Elaine Halton refers to his secret love for this Burmese village girl. He wanted to marry her, but only after the war. Her parents wanted to get her married soon and the Prince, with regrets, wished her well. He even waylaid a cart going through the jungle path with a load of furniture. He took two of the best pieces and sent them to her as wedding gift.

This phase of his life as a fugitive and fighter came to an end when he was arrested in 1873. He was transported to Aden, a British possession, but he refused to live there and even threatened to commit suicide. ”No decent bird would tolerate to live in Aden,” he told his captors.

Soon he was transferred to Cannanore. He arrived in a steamer via Mangalore. The Prince was only 23 when he arrived in the town in 1875. Captain R W Sheffield was in charge of his custody in the cantonment. It was light custody in a remote town, far away from home: he had to report his presence every evening before retirement. He was assigned a house with a garden, and his gates were guarded by 25th and 9th Madras Native Infantry. He spent his time gardening; his garden was famous for its variety of flowers and vegetables.

Then struck Cupid again: Across the road lived an Australian widow and her two daughters. Henrietta was the widow of Thomas William Godfrey, a merchant who involved in trade between Australia and India. He had died at sea over a decade before, while the elder daughter Eveline was four years of age. The couple had four children and two of them-- a boy and a girl--had died in infancy, while they were living at Black Town in Madras. Thomas Godfrey was 11 years senior to Henrietta. They were married on 16 October 1850, at Madras. His father Colonel Samuel Godfrey was in British Army, a person notorious for his violent temper. He was reputed to have had carved off the head of his Indian butler at a dinner party for failing to deliver a dish he was looking forward to.

The Prince fell in love with Eveline, then sixteen. He made several attempts to talk to her at the beach where they went occasionally for exercises. But the girl said she could talk to him only if her mother permitted.

Mrs Godfrey led a very retired life, and she entertained few visitors. She had been in Cannanore for a long time, bringing up her children after the death of her husband, supporting herself with private tuition. She was unusual in this, as English women in that era did not normally have independent careers. She had many children under her care, and with a government grant, she opened a Montessori School in the town, considered the first Church of England school in western India.

The Prince expressed his wish to marry her daughter, and the lady had no serious objections but she raised two points: She could not allow the marriage without permission of the Government as he was a state prisoner; and secondly, there was a problem of religion--he was Buddhist and they were Protestant Christians. The Prince agreed to get permission from the authorities and also to convert to Protestant Christian Faith.

What made the English lady accept a declared enemy of the state, who was described as a “savage given to very violent temper,” as her son-in-law? Evidently, they got on very well from their first meeting. When Captain Sheffield described him as a savage she laughed and said, “He does not look one!” Captain Sheffield also told her about his activities as rebel leader in Burma, asserting that had the British not captured him at the time there would have been a serious outbreak, as almost the entire lower Burma was in his hands.

King Mindon in Mandalay was informed about the intentions of his nephew the Prince, and having received his consent, the Government instructed Bishop Frederick Gell in Madras to take steps for his formal acceptance into the Anglican Church. Rev John Smithwhite, chaplain at St John’s Church, Cannanore, was asked to give the Prince instructions in the Bible, so that he could be ready to receive the sacrament. The formal ceremony took place in the church on 31st March 1878 with Rev. Smithwhite performing the Holy Communion in the presence of witnesses, R W Sheffield and Patrick Fennel, both officers in the army. The Prince took a new name, John William Moung Lat, a name selected by Eveline.

The wedding took place on 29th April 1878, at the same church, a glittering function for the small town. There was full military regalia, the entire town was in attendance and it was declared a holiday for the cantonment. The Prince wanted to wear the traditional Burmese royal dress, but was not allowed and had to do with the western style suit.

The couple spent ten years in Cannanore and they had three children there: Eunice Augusta, Rupert Alexander George, and Egbert Alexander Granville. Egbert, born on 13th August 1887, died six days later.
The Prince had attacks of asthma and on medical advice, he was moved to Bangalore, a town with a more agreeable climate. They spent the next 18 years there. They had five more children and the family grew. In 1906, he was sent to Madras. His health continued to deteriorate and he was, once again, shifted to Bellary. His life was difficult, with a large family to support and a meager income. While in Madras, he petitioned the Government for an increase in his allowance. The request was promptly turned down. Furious about the ill-treatment of the Prince by the Government, whose forces took away his country and plundered its coffers, Eveline wrote about their plight directly to Queen Alexandra, the Empress of India. The queen sent her money from her own personal resources for the children’s education.

The Prince’s financial troubles had been mounting ever since moving to Bangalore and on one occasion he was forced to approach a civil court for some respite from creditors. An item in the New Zealand newspaper, Nelson Evening Mail, in 1892, in its section “Interesting Gleanings”, says: Not all the petty princes in India are rolling in wealth, for a certain Prince Moung Lat recently applied to the civil judge at Bangalore for permission to pay into court five rupees per mensem towards a judgment debt of 280 rupees. The prince explained that his government allowance was not sufficient to enable him to maintain his wife and family, much less to meet his liabilities. This plea had no effect, for he was advised to reduce his expenditure and pay his debt in full.

The cruel irony did not stop there: In 1927, when the Prince was 75 and had spent over half a century as a prisoner, came Colonel Lloyd Jr., son of the officer who had captured him in 1873, to visit. When the visit was announced, it was expected to be an occasion for a late apology on the part of the Government, but what the young officer told him was that the Government never paid his father the bounty for the arrest of the rebel he was due! Was he asking the Prince to pay for his own arrest? No one knows.

Towards the end of 1927, the Government decided to release the Prince; by then he had spent 54 years as prisoner. He arrived in Rangoon on 28th January 1928 with his family, to a country he had left as a 21-year-old, and settled down to a new life at Lynne, in Insein, until his death eight years later, on 20th January 1936. He was buried at Kemendine Cemetery in Insein.

The family once again, had to return to India: as refugees when the World War broke out. They lived in Madras where Eveline Moung Lat, life partner of the Prince, died on 8th January 1945. She was buried at St Thomas Mount Cemetery, Madras.

(My thanks to Dr. John Cantwell Roberts, social anthropologist in New York, for his comments and research support.)

A version of this article is published in Tehelka weekly, issue dated September 17, 2011.