Could have Burma been French rather than British?
This article is a revised version of an article published under the title of « To stop London: Inquiring into the little-known history of the French in Burma » in The Myanmar Times, Issue 732, June 9-15, 2014, p. 48-49.
For more than a century (1824-1948), Myanmar, a protectorate attached to the British Raj on January 1st, 1886, came under progressively extended British rule. But did the « Golden Land » have no relations with France, Britain’s primary rival in the worldwide colonial competition of the 19th century? The old, almost unbroken and multi-faceted France-Burma relations have, on the contrary, been much richer than usually known.
From time to time you might hear a French person assert – with an edge of bitter, nostalgic regret – that Myanmar was very nearly a French colony rather than a British one. Would France have colonized Burma for better or worse? Would Yangon look like Hanoi today, with an opera house and different city planning? For France and Britain, the stakes were high: Around which language would the region integrate? But did Burma, pulled by the British Raj in the West and French Indochina in the East, have a choice?
Forgotten intrepid characters people the rather poorly known history of the France-Burma relations. The pioneering Franciscan Father Pierre Bonfer is recorded as the first French settler in Pegu Province (Bago Region) among the Mon. Burma was not a united country yet. Father Bonfer served in Pegu from 1554-1557 as the chaplain of a small community of about one hundred Catholic Portuguese, who opened a trading post in 1519 in Martaban (Mottama, Mon State). Indeed, the first Westerners who appeared in the 16th century in Burma were missionaries and merchants, mainly Portuguese: These great sailors crossed Western Asia, Persia and India to reach Burma.
A century later, French Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte, a founding member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, created in 1659 independently from the Jesuits, arrived in April 1662 in Myeik (Tanintharyi Region), which belonged to the Kingdom of Siam. These first steps could have opened a lasting French religious influence in Burma. But the presence of French catholic missionaries in Burma finally remained rather occasional, compared to the more massive Anglo-Saxon Baptist Protestants.
Instead, maritime power topped France’s interests in Lower Burma. Attracted by the harbours along the Burmese coast in the 18th century – Burma is easier reachable by sea then, Joseph-François Dupleix, who arrived in 1720 in Pondicherry, India, as a member of the French establishment in India before being General-Governor of French India (1742-1754), quickly understood the importance of Burma’s harbours in building a wide naval strategy in the Bay of Bengal.
To that end, Chevalier Pierre de Milard (1736-1778), a navy officer called « Captain of the Feringhis » (« Captain of the French ») by the Burmese, significantly increased France-Burma relations through service as an officer in the Royal Burmese Armed Forces. Indeed, Milard fought for the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885) – the last dynasty who ruled Burma after three Anglo-Burmese wars (1823-1885) – against Siam and China. Milard served as well as an unofficial ambassador by reopening political and trade contacts between France’s King Louis XV and the Burmese Kingdom. Indeed, France wanted to counter the British influence in India. In this prospect, a French naval garrison was reinstalled in 1770 in Rangoon harbour and Burma sought weapons for its struggle against threatening neighbours. A mutual interest blossomed. The valiant French chevalier was rewarded with the title of Baron-Governor of Tabe (Sagaing Division) for his efforts, before being buried near the village of Ngayabya (Sagaing Division).
The conflict of interests between France and Britain in Burma ended up in 1759 with the temporary eviction of both the French and the British out of the country. However, whereas the British didn’t reopen negotiations with the Burmese before 1795, the French jumped back as early as 1766. Did France take advantage of this lead?
Two French officers, Admiral Suffren, famous for his successful campaign in the Indian Ocean, and Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, General-Governor of Pondicherry (1783-1785), urged the French court in Versailles to pursue Burma as an opportune field of expansion. But the French establishment in Pegu didn’t reopen after the bloody French Revolution (1789-1799). The France-Pegu relations consequently faded, despite British fears to the contrary.
British diplomat Michael Symes, sent in 1795 on a mission to Burma, obtained from ruling King Bodawpaya, Emperor of Ava, permission for British agents to reside in Rangoon in order to protect the interests of the few British subjects who were living there. He concluded a decisive agreement on Rakhine State’s borders and persuaded King Bodawpaya to close Burmese harbours to French warships (An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava sent by the Governor-General of India in 1795, London, 1800).
Could the Burmese have been tempted to play the « French card » against the British? At this point, British apprehensions about a resurgent French presence in Burma were not absolutely unfounded. Indeed, Myeik had become a gathering place for all the French cruisers operating against the British ships in the Bay of Bengal. Growing French influence in the Indian Ocean was a real cause for the British to worry. At this point the French seemed to be in the best position to have possibly changed the course of history, but they did not, and were soon hindered by an unfavourable domestic situation.
Around 1840 only, the relations between France and Burma, both obsessed by an access to the Chinese market in the background, took up again, after a near break of about thirty years. Burma, as a sovereign nation, didn’t want to get trapped in humiliating bilateral relations with Britain; France, on its side, insisted on the promising geographical situation of Burma. King Tharrawaddy (1837-1846) quietly recommended opening toward France. This target became a permanent feature of the Burmese foreign policy under King Mindon (1853-1878). The Burmese court made clear its wishes to develop more privileged and serious relations with France. Until 1870 at least, French initiators were mainly individual adventurers, traders, travellers or observers sent on secret missions, apart from the official scene. Disorganized, these initiatives nonetheless generated some interesting contacts.
Under the French Second Empire (1852-1870), diplomatic conditions grew more favourable for France-Burma relations. Indeed, France clearly intended to challenge Britain in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. The two European rival powers were sprinting to open dialogue with Yunnan, China’s rich southern province, which the French dubbed the « Chinese Louisiana ». In this context, France sent a mission to explore the Mekong River in 1866 and created the « Indo-Chinese Union » in 1886, the addition of one historic colony, Cochinchina (1867), and four protectorates, successively Cambodia (1863), Annam (1884), Tonkin (1885) and Lao (1893).
At this stage, a famous Frenchman in Burma took part in the negotiation of the treaty ending the second Anglo-Burmese war in 1866: Bishop Paul-Ambroise Bigandet, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Burma (1870-1894) and a close adviser of King Mindon of Burma. Though he didn’t particularly try to favour French ambitions in Burma, he indisputably contributed to the fame of France and the development of francophile feelings there (History of the Catholic Burmese Mission from the Year 1720-1857, Rangoon, 1887). From then on, the France-Burma relations were most fruitful in the cultural field. But had political intrigues really stopped for good?
Burma, a dangerous crossroads where the British and the French zones of influence met in Southeast Asia, pursued two objectives in deliberately opening up to Western European powers in the 1870s: Being recognized both as a sovereign and modernising country, receptive to external influences. Making overtures to European countries, however, was a risky strategy: The Burmese opening toward both Britain and France failed in 1872-1874, as did the liberal reform engaged by the Burmese court at the end of 1878. Yet this did not discourage the Burmese ambition to develop special relations with France: The two countries formally declared in 1874 their willingness to establish bilateral « links of friendship and trade ». Burma and France, sharing common interests for decades before the last British annexation of Upper Burma in 1886, were linked to each other against the same adversary: Britain. They both acted to « stop London », unsuccessfully. The Burmese were driven by one obsession: To enter alliances with foreign countries, and to get weapons and build their military might as long as there was still time to do so.
Still, through the 1880s, British merchants, in Rangoon and Calcutta especially, deliberately exaggerated French military intrigues in Burma. This was self-serving: They wanted London to annex Upper Burma, which finally happened in November 1885. France protested that its activities in Burma were purely commercial. A French-Burmese treaty of friendship and trade was officially concluded in 1885. Yet the British press loudly denounced an offensive treaty of alliance from the crafty French and the would-be concession of a ruby mine to them.
Were French plans for Burma just a British legend? Earl Mahé de la Bourdonnais, a French engineer and explorer, wrote extensive travel diaries from 1878-1886. His first-rate account confirms both France’s appetite for Burmese raw materials – portrayed in nearly mythical terms – and its obsession for China beyond Burma (Un Français en Birmanie [A Frenchman in Burma], Paris, 1886).
But these ambitions were unfulfilled. On January 15, 1885, French Prime Minister Jules Ferry concluded a complementary trade convention with a Burmese ambassador especially sent to France. This convention, however, contained no clause allowing trade of weapons or munitions. Britain’s annexation of Upper Burma later in 1885 was the turning point for France. From then on, controlling Burma was out of the question. It could only express some territorial claims to parts of Shan State in the hope of establishing a neutral buffer zone between Burma and China. But Britain postponed that with a policy of cessions to China. Eventually a solution to the French-British conflict was found in a series of regional agreements, including the protection of Siam’s independency and the definition of the present Burma-Laos border. Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam (1868-1910), a discerning diplomat, played a great role in these tricky negotiations and prevented his kingdom from being colonized either by Britain or by France.
The British-French rivalry continued in Yunnan, China, along Burma’s Northern border. It was notably caused by the construction of the Yunnan Railway by the French as from 1897, an answer to the opening of the British Rangoon-Mandalay railway line in 1889. The Entente cordiale (« Cordial Agreement »), a series of agreements signed on April 8, 1904, between Britain and France, marked the end of the « Burmese issue » – but not of the Burmese interest – for the French government.
Has francophile feeling grown in Myanmar since Father Bonfer’s visit in the 16th century? Diplomatic relations between Burma and France were established soon after independence on January 4, 1948, and France’s role here has been growing since long before then. Although it’s difficult to appreciate how the French legacy has endured in the country, particularly in terms of culture, French citizens today are notably the most numerous European tourists in Myanmar. And the number of French citizens who moved to Myanmar has shot up 65 percent between 2013 and 2014.
Can we connect France’s current interest in Myanmar – notably in oil and gas – to historical ties? France has invested in Myanmar for a very long time, if not as notoriously as Britain. It co-organized the Women’s Forum in Yangon in 2013 and 2014, and the French Myanmar Business Association, today the French Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1996, is the oldest Western business association in the country. Thus, although a hint of French regret lingers, it should not be a mark on French historical pride. Legends of Burma, on the contrary, long have been a fruitful source of inspiration in the imagination of the French – Kessel, Loti and Cocteau, to mention only the most famous writers.
Amaury Lorin, PhD History (Sciences Po, Paris), is a French Yangon-based historian, journalist and consultant. He is the author of Nouvelle histoire des colonisations européennes (XIXe-XXe siècles) (France University Press, 2013) and the founder of Myanmar Challenge.
Captions of the illustrations:
1. « A Sketch of the Burman Empire », London, 1823. Collection: Amaury Lorin
2. « A Street in Moulmein [Mawlamyine] », ink plate, in Earl Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Un Français en Birmanie [A Frenchman in Burma], Paris, 1886. Collection: Amaury Lorin