Beasts of Rebellion

On Monday I had a couple of hours spare in London, either side of a meeting, so I did some lightning research in the British Library. I’d ordered some of the Public and Judicial Records on the Hsaya San rebellion of 1930-2. For those unfamiliar with the rebellion, it was the biggest one to hit the colony in the history of British rule, and among the largest uprisings in British India since the Indian Revolt of 1857. Figures vary, but roughly 1,000 rebels were killed in the fighting, a further 9,000 were captured or surrendered, nearly 1,400 were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment, and over a hundred were hanged. Extra troops had to be brought in from elsewhere in British India to contain and suppress the uprising, despite the state’s technological superiority when it came to weaponry. There are three bound volumes, running to roughly 1000 pages each, containing the judgements, appeals and sentences passed on the suspected rebels captured by the British when the rebellion was eventually quashed (the self-marks are: IOR/L/PJ/6 2022-2024). I was looking out for animals.

I have written previously on this blog about an episode in which some rebels captured 30 elephants from a timber firm. In the short time I had, I only managed to scan through about 500 pages , but elephants again came up. In an attack on a government post in Kinpandi village, rebels “commandeered” an elephant from a local farmer. In the end, having the elephant did not help much:

On this elephant two of the Bos [rebels] were seated, and with the elephant leading they came down from the Reserve and attacked the post. As might have been expected, their attack was utterly unsuccessful. No casualties occurred on the Government side, whereas both the Bos on the elephant were killed, together with a certain number of minor rebels. The elephant with its mahout was turned back into the forest.

(Judgement in Special Tribunal case no. 3 of 1931, L/PJ/6 2022 p. 44 )

The file does not go on to say whether the elephant and rider were later captured. In another case, the rebels who raided the bungalow of a British forest official, decapitating him, also took off with his elephants—although the number is not given.

The rebellion has often been viewed as millenarian, with poorly-armed rebels spurred recklessly into an uneven fight against heavily-armed soldiers. The attempt to capture and deploy elephants, along with weapons, suggests that there was more strategic thinking going on than has been credited to the rebels. In addition, it suggests another small but overlooked constituency of support for the rebellion—elephant riders. Elephants were not autonomous, consenting fighters, nor could an inexperienced cultivator easily coerce or convince an animal to join the rebellion. Elephants had to be drafted into the battle through their drivers.

Animals also appear, in the few pages that I skimmed through, in relation to tattoos. Tattooing was believed by the British to be central to the rebellion. They thought that the rebels engaged in atavistic oathing ceremonies where they were tattooed with a pattern of dots, the number “1000” or the Galon—a mythical bird-like creature. As a result, some judges argued that the presence of these tattoos on the body of the accused meant there was “a strong prima facie presumption… that the bearer of them is or was a rebel” (Judgement in Special Tribunal case no. 4 of 1931, L/PJ/6 2022, p. 115). A common defence made by captured suspected rebels was that these were not invulnerability tattoos inked to inspire them into revolt, they were instead tattoos to ward off snake-bites. Unless further evidence was provided, judges were dismissive of this line of defence. But there might be a false distinction at work here. The mortal enemy of the Galon was the Nāga, a serpentine-dragon creature. If the Galon represented the rebels, the British were the serpents.

The other species that cropped up were cattle. At Tharrawaddy two Indian cattlemen were murdered by rebels. The evidence came from one Sein Kun, a witness who had agreed to give King’s evidence in exchange for a lighter sentence.

According to Sein Kun, the members of the gang returned to their villages after this, but later San Dwa (14) said that the gang had not done much in the hills, and proposed that some Indian cattlemen, living near Yedwingon should be murdered… The numbers who took part in the murder is variously described as between 14 and 18. They marched to the hut, put two Indians to the sword, set fire to their hut, and let loose their cattle.

(Judgement in the court of the special judge, Tharrawaddy, 31 December 1931, Special Trial No: 6 of 1931, L/PJ/6 2022, p. 543)

These murders were treated as evidence of involvement in the rebellion, in part because of the wider characterisation of the uprising as anti-Indian—and certainly Indians figured highly among those killed by rebels. However, the rebellion was not so uniformly Bama in its ethnic composition. In one case the suspected leader of a rebel group was a southern Indian man called Mutu Krishnan (Appeal from the Order of the Special Judge of Tharrawaddy dated the 8th September 1931,L/PJ/6 2022, p. 145-153). Recent scholarship has shown that thinking of the rebellion as a single, unified event is unhelpful. There were many local rebellions influencing one another and interacting. Tensions existed between Burmese cultivators and Indian cattle-herders in villages across the colony’s rice frontier. These two unfortunate men may have been killed not solely because they were Indian but because they were also cattlemen.

Currently these are just some stray thoughts, but they make me hopeful that going through these records more systematically will draw out more animals, and, through a focus on these nonhuman actors shed, new light on the rebellion.


[NB. The featured image is from a book of Burmese watercolour paintings from 1897 digitized by the Oxford Digital Library]

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