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First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826)

Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 5th March, 2024 7 min read

First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826)

On this day (05/03/2024), 200 years ago, Britain declared war on the Burmese empire (also known as the Konbaung Dynasty). The first in a series of three conflicts, the wars—largely driven by the East India Company’s desire to expand its commercial interests—would result in Burma being subsumed as a province of British India in 1886. This effectively marked the beginning of British colonial rule in Burma which lasted until 1948. 

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826) occurred following extended border disputes between Burma and British India. Relations between the two sides had been deteriorating for over two decades [1]. The British had claimed Assam and Manipur in northeast India as protectorates and they objected to Burmese military expansion in these regions. Meanwhile, Burma was becoming increasingly frustrated at British Bengal’s expanding sphere of influence. A good deal of friction had also emerged in the territory between Arakan in western Burma and the British-held Chittagong to the north. After Burmese forces occupied Shapuree island near Chittagong, land that was claimed by the British East India Company, the British despatched troops to eject the Burmese, leading to several skirmishes in the Bengali region. War was officially declared on 5 March 1824, when British forces, financed by the East India Company and under the command of Major General Sir Archibald Campbell, launched a military expedition into Burma.

While the British had obvious reasons to secure the northeastern frontier of India—consolidating their ever-expanding colonial control of the region—crucially, the war also provided the East India Company with the opportunity to open new markets for British manufacturing, as well as to secure lucrative local resources, such as teak and rubber. Additionally, the British wanted to counter French influence in the region which had been growing since the eighteenth century.  

 

7th Madras Infantry in Burma, 1824 

Initial Burmese advances into poorly defended Bengal caused significant panic in the region, leading to the formation of civilian militias in the cities of Chittagong and Calcutta. Despite having a significantly smaller force and inferior armaments than the British, the Burmese proved formidable opponents at the start of the conflict. Well-practiced in jungle warfare, the Burmese were able to advance rapidly into British territory, whereas the British (so it has been argued) “committed error after error…the lessons of hill and jungle warfare during the Nepal War were forgotten with disastrous results.” [2] Quickly reaching Chittagong, the Burmese commander-in-chief, Maha Bandula, ordered his troops to hold off on an all-out offensive to avoid overstretching the Burmese forces. He was unaware of just how poorly defended Chittagong actually was. As Nandalal Chatterji has contended, it was “only the inability of the Burmese to prosecute the war further after their initial successes that saved Bengal from a serious invasion”. [3]

Bandula’s initial plan was to attack the British on two fronts: at Chittagong in the southeast and in Jaintia in the north. By holding off on an attack at Chittagong, Bandula allowed the British to send reinforcements and so bolster their position. Launching a counteroffensive, the British advanced into Burma, laying siege to Rangoon in May 1824, and later to the city of Myohaung in Arakan. British naval superiority played a crucial role here, allowing them to control key waterways, launch thousands of gunboats, and quickly support land operations. 

Capturing Rangoon was a long and bloody affair, lasting from May to December 1824. Having taken the Burmese by surprise, a British naval force of around 10,000 men (5,000 British soldiers and over 5,000 Indian sepoys) was able to enter the city’s harbour and drive out Rangoon’s defenders. While Bandula amassed a larger force of around 30,000 men to retake the city, only half of these troops had muskets. Launching a fatal frontal attack at the city, the British were able to use their superior weaponry (such as the recently invented Congreve rocket) to decimate the attackers. Out of Bandula’s force of 30,000 soldiers, only 7,000 returned to the royal army. [4]

The capture of Rangoon was a significant blow to the Burmese forces. After similar British victories in Arakan (February–April 1825) and at the Battle of Danubyu (March–April 1825), in which General Bandula was killed by a British rocket, Campbell’s men had progressed hundreds of miles up the River Irrawaddy towards the Burmese capital at Ava (now Inwa). With the British approaching their imperial seat of power, the Burmese had no choice but to sue for peace.

 

Battle of Rangoon, 1824


The First Anglo-Burmese War ended in February 1826 with the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo. A total humiliation for the Burmese, the treaty led to the annexation of Arakan, Assam, Manipur and Tenasserim (now Tanintharyi). Burma also had to renounce their claims to several disputed frontier areas, including Cachar and Jaintia. In addition to the huge loss of territory, the Burmese had to pay a large indemnity of one million pounds sterling, sign a commercial treaty, and accept a British resident at the imperial court in Ava. 

Whilst the war had been a military success for the British, financially it had been ruinous. Causing a huge economic crisis in British India, the economic instability that emerged from the conflict played a significant role in the decline of the East India Company’s power. Indeed, the East India Company’s expansionist policies and military conquests were extremely costly endeavours. Combined with political instability in India, regulatory reforms implemented by the British government, and competition from other European powers and private traders, by 1858 the East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Forced to be bailed out by the British government, which then assumed direct control over India, this period effectively marked the end of the East India Company’s influence as a trading and governing entity. 

Some 40,000 British and Indian troops fought in the First Anglo-Burmese War, of whom over 15,000 died. As with most colonial wars fought during this period, the vast majority of British casualties (around 70%) were caused by tropical diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever.[5] Estimates of Burmese casualties vary, with most historians agreeing that the figure was significantly higher than the British. Alongside the thousands of men lost in the conflict, the burden of indemnity left the Burmese royal treasury bankrupt for years. By weakening the Burmese empire and contributing to internal instability within the region, the war set the stage for further conflicts between the two empires and the eventual annexation of Burma by Britain in 1886.  

[1] B.R. Pearn, “Arakan and the First Anglo-Burmese War, 1824–25”, The Far Eastern Quarterly 4, no. 1 (1944), 27–40. 

[2] Nandalal Chatterji, “The Outbreak of the First Anglo-Burmese War on the Chittagong Frontier”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 1, no. 19 (1956), 338–341.

[3] Ibid, 341.  

[4] Maung Htin Aung, A History of Burma, (New York: Columbia UP, 1967), 212–214. 

[5] Thomas Campbell Robertson, Political Incidents of the First Burmese War (London: Richard Bentley, 1853), 252.


Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives


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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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