Leaving the Glass Palace

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The story of King Thibaw, the last Burmese monarch, is well known. But there was another Burmese prince who spent 54 years in Indian jails. NP Chekkutty traces Moung Lat’s story

Prisoner of birth: Burmese Prince Moung Lat was a British captive for 54 years
Prisoner of birth: Burmese Prince Moung Lat was a British captive for 54 years, Photo Courtesy: Elaine Halton

AFTER HIS country fell to British troops in 1885, Burma’s last monarch King Thibaw and his consort Queen Supayalat spent 31 years as prisoners at a hill-top bungalow in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. The last of the Konbaung dynasty, Thibaw and the royal family lived in utter penury with the British, who plundered his palaces and coffers, giving him a pittance for his subsistence. In his famous book The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh describes how the queen enforced strict economy in the household, and the princesses huddled around a single oil lamp to do their homework. The king’s conditions became an international scandal. The British always maintained that Thibaw was the only state prisoner they had as the queen had earlier murdered all members of the royal family to get rid of her rivals. But this is where the truth departs from the well known narrative of the fall of the Konbaung dynasty.

The British all along had one more prisoner from Burma’s royal family, Moung Lat, who remained a state prisoner for 54 years in Indian garrisons. Though the administration has never admitted that he was in their custody, evidence of his life in Indian garrisons remains. Far away from Burma, far away from Ratnagiri even, 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 19 August 1887, son of Prince Moung Lat, Burmese state prisoner.

Moung Lat escaped the mass murders in the royal family because at the time of Thibaw’s accession (following the 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 the murders, he was already serving his indefinite term in India.

The prince and King Thibaw were cousins and had an equal claim to the throne. Moung Lat was born in 1852, son of Hliene Mein, king of Burma, who had succeeded King Tharrawaddy. In 1853, when he was a year old, his father was assassinated by his younger brother Mindon, who usurped the throne.

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 caused by generations of inbreeding in the royal family. The prince was expected to succeed Mindon, as the Burmese dynasties did not follow strict primogeniture for succession and Mindon himself 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.”

Popular myths offer two versions of the prince’s childhood. According to one, King Mindon allowed the child to live in the palace. Some speculated he was to be murdered in due course, while others said Mindon, in guilt, would appoint him his heir.

Another says that after her husband’s assassination, his mother Me Eepu Kempoo of Hanthawadi took 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 and was living in the royal palace at Mandalay with a private tutor.

Some believed Mindon let the prince live in the palace so that he could be killed in due course. Others felt he would be appointed an heir to the throne

Those were tumultuous days. Lower Burma was virtually under British rule. A group of princes rebelled in 1866, and the British were rumoured to be behind it. They wanted to topple Mindon. As the rebellion failed, many princes fled Mandalay. Colonel Edward Sladen, a British political agent in the court, helped Moung Lat to go into hiding in Shan Hills in the guise of a Buddhist monk. A fugitive now, the prince realised the British were behind the 1866 rebellion and wanted to capture what remained of the Burmese kingdom. Convinced of the need to drive them out, he gathered an army and launched guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Toungoo, then under British control.

The prince was barely 20, and inexperienced in jungle warfare. However, he was a terror and ranked high on the ‘Wanted’ list. It was around this time that the prince fell in love with a girl he met in the forests. In the book, Lord of the Celestial Elephant, a biography of the Prince, his granddaughter Elaine Halton refers to his secret love for this village girl. He wanted to marry her, but only after the war. But her family did not want to wait. The prince and the girl had to part ways.

Sacred spot: The prince’s marriage to Eveline took place at the St John’s Church in Cannanore
Sacred spot: The prince’s marriage to Eveline took place at the St John’s Church in Cannanore

In 1873, he was arrested and taken to Aden, a British possession, but refused to live there, even threatened to commit suicide. “No decent bird would live in Aden,” he told his captors.

Soon he was transferred to Cannanore. The prince was 23 when he arrived in the town in 1875. Captain RW Sheffield was in charge of his custody in the cantonment. The prince had to report his presence every evening. He was assigned a house with a garden, guarded by the 25th and 9th Madras Native Infantry. He spent most of his time gardening; his garden was famous for its variety of flowers and vegetables.

And then cupid struck once again. Right across the road lived two young girls, daughters of an Australian widow, Henrietta Godfrey. The prince fell in love with the elder daughter Eveline, then 16. When the prince expressed his desire to marry her, Mrs Godfrey raised two issues. First, she could not allow the marriage without the permission of the government as he was a state prisoner; and second, they belonged to different religions — he was a Buddhist and they were Protestant Christians. The prince decided to get permission from the authorities and convert to Christianity.

Back in Mandalay, King Mindon was informed about his nephew’s intentions. Having received his consent, the government instructed Bishop Frederick Gell in Madras to do the needful for the prince’s formal acceptance in the Anglican Church. Reverend 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 31 March 1878. The prince took a new name, John William Moung Lat, a name selected by Eveline.

The wedding took place on 29 April 1878 at the same church. The day was declared a holiday for the cantonment. The prince wanted to wear the traditional Burmese royal dress, but was not allowed to do so. He wore a suit finally.

The couple spent 10 years in Cannan – ore and had three children: Eunice Augusta, Rupert Alexander George and Egbert Alexander Granville. Born on 13 August 1887, Egbert died six days later.

The prince had hoped for an apology. But all that Lloyd Jr told him was that the government never paid his father the bounty for the prince’s arrest

This was also the time when the prince began to have severe attacks of asthma. He was moved to Bangalore, which had a more agreeable climate. They spent 18 years there and had five more children. By 1906, the prince’s condition had worsened not just physically but financially as well. In Madras, he petitioned the government for an increase in his allowance. The request was turned down. Annoyed by such ill-treatment of the prince by the Government, Eveline wrote about their plight to Queen Alexandra who sent her money from her personal resources for the children’s education.

The prince’s financial troubles, however, were far from over. On one occasion, he was forced to approach a civil court for some respite from creditors. In 1892, an item in the New Zealand newspaper, Nelson Evening Mail, said: “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 Rs 5 per mensem towards a judgement debt of Rs 280. The prince said that his government allowance was not sufficient to enable him to maintain his wife and family, much less to meet his liabilities. He was advised to reduce his expenditure and pay his debt in full.”

IN 1927, when the prince was 75, Colonel Lloyd Jr, son of the officer who had captured him in 1873, came visiting. When Lloyd Jr’s visit was announced, it was expected to be an occasion for a late apology on the part of the government. But all that the young officer told him was that the government never paid the bounty due to his father for the arrest of the rebel. (In British India, rewards were given to officers arresting notorious rebels). So was he asking the prince to pay for his own arrest? No one knows.

Towards the end of 1927, the government released the prince. By then, he’d spent 54 years as a prisoner. He arrived in Rangoon on 28 January 1928 with his family, to a country he had left as a 21- year-old, and settled down to a new life at Insein, until his death eight years later, on 20 January 1936. He was buried at Kemendine Cemetery in Insein.

The family once again had to return to India as refugees when World War II broke out. They lived in Madras where Eveline died on 8 January 1945. She was buried at St Thomas Mount Cemetery, Madras.

Chekkutty is a senior journalist and the co-author of the forthcoming book Malabar: Christian Burials in Kannur, Thalassery and Mahé

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