This week I visited the London Metropolitan Archives to consult the records of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Ltd. From the late-nineteenth century, this company was the biggest and most influential timber company operating out of Burma. Throughout the colonial period and into the mid-twentieth century, Burma was widely recognised as the world’s principal source of teak, and the Corporation was the leading exporter of Burmese teak.
One of the files that I consulted related to labour unrest and rebellion. Among a number of documents relating to industrial action in the colony during the inter-war years, it contained the Corporation’s correspondence during the Hsaya San rebellion of 1930-32. This was the biggest peasant revolt during British rule in Burma. It resulted in the deaths of over a thousand peasants and the capture of thousands more. The imperial government in India had to deploy additional troops and enact emergency powers in order to suppress the uprising.
Reading about the rebellion through the lens of the Corporation revealed that as well as being a threat to the colonial state, the rebellion was a threat to the interests of imperial capital. The company’s buildings were raided for weapons and supplies. A smaller Burmese firm, well connected to the Corporation, had over thirty working elephants captured. And some of the Corporation’s employees were attacked. Although the Corporation had not always seen eye-to-eye with the government in Rangoon, particularly around the management of forests, when faced with rebellion they cooperated. The government sent military forces to protect commercial forestry work in the Pegu Yomas (a mountainous region in central Burma). The Corporation sent their experienced forest officers to aid government’s attempts to quell fighting in the Shan State. The timber companies operating in the colony also banded together, raising their own irregular forces to protect the the extraction of teak.
In amongst the correspondence through which these arrangements where frantically organised, was an extract from Mahatma Gandhi’s publication Young India. The Corporation’s managers in Burma had copied it and sent it to the Wallace Brothers in London, who had set up the company in 1863 and retained a controlling interest in it. The extract singled out the Corporation’s privileged access to forests as an arrangement that was contrary to the interests of the nation. The unnamed author argued for the nationalisation of the company. The managers forwarding the article used it to argue that shareholders and politicians in India could not be trusted to protect their long term interests. They asked Wallace Brothers to lobby Westminster politicians to defend their property rights.
A year ago I taught a class on nationalism and resistance in India and Burma. It was only when I was teaching this class that I actually thought about the fact that just as the Hsaya San rebellion was rocking Burma, the Civil Disobedience campaign was unfolding in India. In 1930, the government of India was being challenged by two very different movements, both with backing from sections of the peasantry. Together, they threatened the stability of British colonial rule in Asia. The archives of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation show that both movements were also perceived to be a threat to the interests and security of imperial capitalists.
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In Burmese Days, Orwell included a peasant rebellion in his plot. The story goes, “The rebels’ entire stock of weapons had been captured. The armoury with which, when their followers were assembled, they had proposed to march upon Kyauktada, consisted of … one shot gun with a damaged left barrel, stolen from a Forest Officer three years earlier; six home-made guns with barrels of zinc piping stolen from the railway ,,,; eleven dummy guns …; some large Chinese crackers …” Considering Orwell was serving in Burma just about the same time of the Hsaya San rebellion (the Burmese text books usually refer to it as “farmers’ rebellion”), I wonder if this fictional rebellion was inspired by the Hsaya San affair.
The apocryphal story I’ve heard growing up — reinforced by the Burmese history teachers and elders who recount this incident — was that when Hsaya San was brought out to be executed by hanging, he asked the crowd of onlookers not to close their eyes or to flinch, because he wanted the white officers to witness Burmese courage. I’d never seen verifiable text confirming this.