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20 September 2022

Two Golden Commissions from the Shan States

This guest blog is by Dr Frances O’Morchoe, Yale University.

In 1882, King Thibaw, the last king of Burma (Myanmar), issued two royal sanads, or commissions, appointing an individual, Twek Nga Lu, as chief of the Shan states of Mong Nai (Mone) and Kengtawng. These golden commissions – thin strips of gold foil embossed with the royal seal – are currently on display in the British Library's GOLD exhibition, which runs until the 2nd of October 2022. With the seals is a hand-written note, likely written by Lady Scott, wife of the below-mentioned George. This note explains: ‘These two strips of gold foil are the sanads or commissions from Theebaw to Twek Nga Lu, the bandit chief who dispossessed Mone of that State and Kengtawng by force (no doubt Theebaw was bribed). George went up with a handful of men when Britain took over and restored the old chief. See “Scott of the Shan Hills”.’

The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities
The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities: ကမ္ပောစဝံသဇေယရာဇာ (Kampocavaṃsajeyarājā) (A) and မဟာသီဟရာဇထိုစံထွား (Mahāsīharāja thui caṃ thvāʺ) (B). British Library, Mss Burmese 211 A and B Noc

Looking deeper into the story behind these commissions gives us a snapshot of what was happening in Burma and the Shan states at a pivotal moment in their history.

The golden commissions tell us first about the complex internal politics of the Shan states in the nineteenth century, as well as the nature of the political relations between the Shan rulers and the Burmese kings. The Shan states in the nineteenth century were a mass of different statelets ruled by Sawbwas (chiefs), varying hugely in size and power. Unlike today’s conception of sovereignty with territorially-defined borders dividing states, chiefs had spheres of influence rather than territorial sovereignty, and sovereign power was exercised through relationships between people.

The Shan states had a complicated relationship with the Burmese kings at Ava. While the Shan are culturally and linguistically different from the Burmese, many of the Shan Sawbwas paid tribute to the Burmese kings. For some this involved hosting a Burmese deputy, or even a garrison of Burmese soldiers, while for others this tributary status was merely nominal. The Salween River, which runs through the middle of the Shan states, is an approximate marker of a cultural divide between the western Shan states, which tended to be influenced by Burmese culture, and the eastern Shan states, which tended to be influenced by China and Siam. Thus Mong Nai, which lay on the western side of the Salween, paid tribute to the Burmese kings in Mandalay, while so-called ‘trans-Salween’ Shan states like Kengtung paid tribute to China. Complicating this, many states paid tribute in multiple directions at the same time.

The Gateway of Mong Nai.
The Gateway of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James Scott George, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(59)

The story of how these Burmese royal sealed commissions came to be held by the British Library also gives us a snapshot of how the British annexation of Upper Burma unfolded on the ground.

The British annexed Burma in three stages, with Arakan and Tenasserim in 1825, Lower Burma in 1852, and Upper Burma in 1885. The annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 and the exile of the last king of Burma, King Thibaw, was followed by a decade-long campaign of resistance to the British across Upper Burma and the Shan, Kachin and Chin hills. This guerrilla war was the longest campaign fought by the Victorian army, yet it has been all but forgotten in Britain today. The British overthrew Thibaw in a month, but it took several years to put down the diffuse rebellions which sprang up all over Upper Burma.

After deposing King Thibaw, the British immediately claimed as British territory all states which had been vassal states to the Burmese kings. This turned out to be more complicated than they had thought. They discovered that many states paid multiple allegiance, e.g. to both Burma and China, or to Burma and Siam. Some even paid triple allegiance. As a result, annexation triggered several years of trying to determine the new colony’s boundaries with China and Siam. Adding to these complications, at the time of the annexation of Upper Burma many of the Shan states were already in open revolt against the Burmese King.

In 1882, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, rebelled against the Burmese King Thibaw. Resenting Thibaw's perceived slights against him, and feeling the burden of hosting the main Burmese garrison in the Shan States, the Sawbwa invited the Burmese resident sitke and soldiers to a feast in the palace, shut the gates and had them all killed. King Thibaw sent a punitive expedition in response, and the Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, fled the town. This punitive expedition was when Thibaw issued Twek Nga Lu with the golden seals which are now on display in the British Library.

Twek Nga Lu was a ‘defrocked’ monk (Twek, in Burmese ထွက်, denotes someone who has left the monkhood) who had been in a feud with Hkun Kyi, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, for several years before this point. After failing to take Mong Nai by force, Twek Nga Lu worked to cultivate a relationship with King Thibaw, at one point visiting him in Mandalay. Thibaw’s punitive expedition installed Twek Nga Lu as ruler of Mong Nai in 1882, but when Mandalay fell in 1885 all the Burmese troops were recalled. Twek Nga Lu was left without support and in 1886 Hkun Kyi recaptured Mong Nai.

In May 1887 the British arrived in Mong Nai and persuaded Hkun Kyi, the newly-reinstated Sawbwa, to surrender. Hkun Kyi surrendered without resistance. Going further, he requested permission to fly the Union Jack in Mong Nai. On 12th May 1887, in the presence of the townspeople and fifty Sikh colonial soldiers, the British solemnly hoisted the Union Jack.

The timing of this declaration of allegiance turned out well for Hkun Kyi. A couple of months later, Twek Nga Lu visited Fort Stedman, the main British garrison in the southern Shan states. He showed the British the golden seals which Thibaw had given him in 1882 and claimed to be the rightful ruler of Mong Nai. He was rebuffed, however, and the British told him they had already recognised Hkun Kyi as Sawbwa.

Twek Nga Lu regrouped and launched another attack, managing to capture Mong Nai for the second time in May 1888. This time the British rather than the Sawbwa were the ones to turn him out. A week after Twek Nga Lu took the town, James George Scott (1851-1935, from 1901 Sir James George Scott) arrived from Fort Stedman. With nine men on horseback Scott galloped into the town in the early hours of 10th of May, and captured Twek Nga Lu while he was asleep in the Haw, or palace. It was most likely at this point that Scott took possession of the golden seals.

A view of Mong Nai
A view of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(68)

Scott was an important figure in the story of the extension of British rule into the Shan States. Formerly a journalist and school master in Rangoon, he made his name with the annexation of Upper Burma. He spent his career working in the British administration of the Shan hills, and became an expert on the country.

The British had had problems recruiting enough people to ‘pacify’ Upper Burma (with ‘pacification’ in practice meaning extracting allegiance at gunpoint and torching noncompliant villages). Finding it difficult to persuade Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers to come from India, the British recruited non-ICS Burma experts then living in Lower Burma. As a result, at the same time as he was marching around the Shan hills burning villages and accepting promises of allegiance from Shan rulers, Scott was studying for his ICS exams.

Scott arrested Twek Nga Lu and sent him to Fort Stedman. On the way to Fort Stedman, Twek Nga Lu tried to escape and a guard shot him dead. His body was buried in a shallow roadside grave. Scott, perhaps believing some of the myths surrounding Twek Nga Lu’s magical powers, decided he had better check that he was actually dead. He went to look but the body had already been exhumed, the head cut off and the rest of his body cooked and sold for its magical powers. Scott retold this Twek Nga Lu story several times in different talks and publications.

Military post at Mong Nai
Military post at Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, c. 1888. British Library, Photo 92/4(24)

As well as being a prolific writer and giver of talks to various learned societies, Scott was also a photographer, and the British Library has a large collection of his photographs of the Shan States. These photographs are a record of the British annexation of Upper Burma, and also show how Scott used photographs to demonstrate the military might of the British. An image of a gathering of Shan chiefs for the Mong Nai Durbar (shown below) demonstrates the number of chiefs who had submitted to British rule – although most did not look particularly happy to be there. His wife Lady Scott included many of his photographs in Scott of the Shan Hills, a book she published in 1936, a year after Scott’s death.

Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889
Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, May 1889. British Library, Photo 92/11(75)

The photos, like the act of taking the sealed commissions, were part of the process of establishing dominance and suppressing resistance in the Shan states. The taking of photographs and the taking of the seals alike tell us about how Scott wanted to present the annexation of Upper Burma to a British audience. The gates and city walls feature prominently in both written and visual depictions of the scene of the British victory over Twek Nga Lu. The walls symbolise the strength, now subjugated, of the Burmese garrison, and the images of wide open gates are symbols of the British entrance into the city, at full gallop, a detail that was repeated in several accounts of the event. The photographs, like the seals, were taken and displayed in order to prove the symbolic and actual domination of the British over the Shans and Burmese. They also give us a chance to see a how a crucial moment in Shan and Burmese history played out on the ground.

Jane Ferguson, Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand and a Nation-State Deferred. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2022.
Patricia Herbert, ‘The Making of a Collection: Burmese Manuscripts in the British Library’, The British Library Journal, 15:1 (1989), 59-70
Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1965.
G.E. Mitton, Scott of the Shan Hills. London: John Murray, 1936.
James Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Rangoon, 1899.

Frances O’Morchoe Ccownwork

Dr Frances O’Morchoe is a Postdoctoral Associate in Myanmar Studies at the Macmillan Center, Yale University. She received her DPhil in History from the University of Oxford in 2019.

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.