French Burmese Relationships During 18th C
The French Burmese Relationships During 18th C began when the French East India Company attempted to extend its influence in Southeast Asia. In 1729 in the city of Syriam (the former name of Thanlyin), where the French built a shipyard (situated on the Yangon River, opposite Yangon), but were forced to abandon the shipyard in 1742 due to the Mon rebellion fighting against the Burmese.
In 1751 the Mons requested French assistance to defend themselves against the Burmese, whereupon the French diplomat Sieur De Bruno was sent to evaluate the situation Between the Mons and the Burmese, he then requested some warships and a few hundred French troops to help the Mons defeat the Burmese, but it was all in vain.
The Burmese King Alaungpaya, (1714- 1760) also known as U Aung Zeya reigned between 1752 – 1760) and founded the Konbaung dynasty in 1756. He unified Burma by conquering the independent Mon kingdom of Pegu, taking many French prisoners who were later incorporated into the Burmese army. There were 9 kings after King Alaungpaya’s rule with King Mindon being the 10th in succession.
Kinwun Mingyi (1822- 1908), a Burmese diplomat also known as U Gaung became a member of King Mindon’s household in 1850, he was a chief minister during his reign and was Burma (Myanmar)’s leading reformer in the 1870s and early 1880s. He was a scholar, diplomat, and the author of numerous works of literature, history, and jurisprudence. Like many in his generation, his vision was of a modern, independent Burma, that would mix the best of the old and the new, importing the latest ideas and technology, whilst also protecting and preserving centuries-old traditions.
After returning to Burma from his missions abroad King’s Mindon’s confidence in him grew and his influence in the Court pre-eminent, and his reputation was strengthened with his new title of Thettawshei which in theory gave the holder a guarantee of personal immunity, whatever unpalatable advice he might give to the King.
“Rajadhammasangaha” by Yaw Mingyi U Hpo Hlaing
Kinwun Mingyi’s mission to the Court of Versailles in 1874
The paper written by Maung Htin Aung 1909 – 1978), a researcher and scholar of Burmese culture and history ( gives an interesting account of Kinwun Mingyi’s involvement in the drawing up of treaties with the French and the British.
The French Foreign (Quai d’Orsay) records showed that the French Government was curious but not interested when Kinwun Mingyi and his mission passed through France towards the end of May 1872, on their way to the Court of St. James’s. Kinwun Mingyi’s LONDON Diary showed that he was also curious but not interested in France, which was still licking her wounds inflicted by Prussia two years before.
However, in November following, Kinwun Mingyi was disappointed with the Court of St. James’s, so he went back to France with the hope of negotiating a treaty of goodwill and commerce. Two such treaties had been signed with England, the second one in 1870, and a similar treaty signed with Italy only a few weeks before. The French Foreign Office was not too enthusiastic, and it feared England’s anger, it recognized that Upper Burma was entirely at the mercy of the British. Even after a series of negotiations and discussions with the Burmese the French government was still lukewarm.
Finally, on January 24. 1873, the approved draft was signed by Kinwun Mingyi. But the French Foreign Minister, Charles de Remusat did not dare to sign and discussed that draft with the special commission appointed to deal with the matter. De Remusat had been giving full information of the negotiations to Lord Lyons. the British Ambassador in Paris, and he now sent him a copy of the report of the special commission:
Copy of the report
The richness of the country and its proximity to Cochin-China justified the acceptance of the proposal of one of the King of Burma’s ministers (Kunwin Mingyi) who was sent as ambassador extraordinary to study European civilization and to conclude treaties with England, Italy, and France. Our proposed treaty is very similar to those in England and Italy: it gives freedom and security to French missionaries, merchants, and travelers and French products will receive the same treatment as similar products of other most favoured nations.
These are vague provisions, but we cannot make them more specifically as we have little to no relations with a country surrounded on three sides by British possession which shut her off from the sea.
Should the relations established by his treaty justify and the budgetary position allow it, we can take more detailed clauses — the treaty is renewable annually which allows easy revision as practical experience requires and appoint a consul. But for the present, this bare treaty of goodwill must suffice (India Office, Government of India, Home Correspondence, Vol. 75, 1873).
On February 19th, 1873 Lord Lyons sent the following despatch:
De Remusat said he would send me a copy of the treaty with Burma, confidentially as it is not yet submitted to the assembly or made public: its main stipulation was religious toleration; not that it could have any effect as he doubted whether there were as many as 10 native converts.
On March 5, 1873, Lord Lyons duly sent a copy of the treaty to London. On March 12, Sir John Kaye, who notwithstanding his earlier prejudices, had learned to admire Kinwun Mingyi, (birth name Maung Chin, renamed to U Kaung by King Mindon) and wrote the following minutes:
‘The treaty speaks for itself… The Burmese had an unquestionable right to conclude treaties with whomsoever they pleased ‘
Kaye thought the treaty harmless, but the Duke of Argyle took a different view, and with his usual contempt for the Burmese he wrote on the Margin:
‘This is a rather serious matter. If the French choose to import arms under the treaty into Burma, can we prevent it, and can we permit it ‘
The noble Duke knew very well that he had been refusing to permit the import of arms into Upper Burma even from English manufacturers.
The treaty was duly ratified by the French Assembly and in October 1875, a French embassy left Marseilles for the Court of Mandalay to exchange ratification. It was not a very high-powered Mission so far as seniority and diplomatic experience were concerned. It was headed by Count de Rochechouart, a mere first secretary at the French Legation at Peking to which post he was returning to take charge of the mission as charge d’affaires, in place of the chief envoy proceeding to leave.
Count de Rochechouart was accompanied by five young men, namely Count Maresccalchi who was attached to the French Foreign Office, Monstier and d’Imecourt who were going as Third Secretaries to the Legation at Peking after completing their assignments on the mission to Burma, and two army captains, Fau and Moreau, who had obtained permission from the Burmese King to travel through the Shan States to Tongkin afterward. (During the 17th and 18th centuries (Tongkin was the name given to the northern region of Vietnam).
The last two Fau and Moreau were fated to die of malaria while crossing the Shan States. According to a letter written by the French Consul-General to the lieutenant-Governor of Bengal on November 18th, 1873, reporting the arrival of the mission at Calcutta “these several young gentlemen undertook the voyage as a pleasure trip but without any political character.
All five diplomats were hand-picked by Duke Louis Charles Elie Amanien Decazes de Glucksbierg, the new Foreign Minister, who had been a member of the special commission which reported on the treaty, and all belonged to the aristocracy; Count de Rochechouart was a member of a well-known family of administrators and politicians, Count Marescalchi was the nephew of no less a person than the French President Patrice de MacMahon, Moustier was the nephew of a former Foreign minister and de d’Imecourt a cousin of the Duke de Broglie.
Because of the aristocratic family connections, undue attention was paid to the mission by the Indian and Rangoon press, and English language newspapers in Calcutta and Rangoon published alarmist articles about the anti-British purposes of the mission.
On arrival at Calcutta via Ceylon, the mission was invited to visit the Governor General who was at Agra, and his invitation was accepted with alacrity as Rochechouart wanted to clear the air. The Government of India reported to the Secretary of State in London:
De Rochechouart stayed at Agra, relations with Viceroy mere courtesy social relations but finally requested a formal interview with the Viceroy at which he explained objects of his mission to Mandalay were purely commercial; he offered to show Viceroy his treaty with Burma but Viceroy had already received a copy from London.
Rochechouart sent the following report to Quai d’Orsay on December 4th, 1873
‘Ridiculous articles in Rangoon and Calcutta press. Lord Northbrook’s charm and friendliness itself, he understood perfectly were only taking an opportunity of taking out a ratified treaty and such a harmless treaty to see a little-known country and it was nonsense to suspect us of anti-English intentions ‘.
After Mendon’s death, Kinwun Mingyi lost much of his influence in the royal court. He was later criticized for ordering the Burmese troops not to attack the invading British, pleading to Thibaw that it would not benefit the Burmese to fight the British. Through his experiences living in England and France, he knew the might of the British army and saw no good end to a war with the British.
Under British colonial rule, Kinwun Mingyi served as a civil servant in the British administration. He was awarded the Companionship of the Order of the Star of India in 1887. And in 1897 became one of the first two indigenous Burmese to be appointed to the Legislative Council of Burma.
NOTE: From old archived Burmese photographs taken during the 19th century the most esteemed older High Officials and Ministers appear to wear a headpiece with a high domed centerpiece with prongs circling the forehead similar to a crown and wearing regalia, similar to this Crowned Alabaster Statue . Secretaries and ministers during the Kongbaung period also wore a helmet similar to the one seen on this Nat riding on a horse.
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