Belligerent British India: the Anglo-Afghan Wars & the Anglo-Burmese Wars

 It is a much-noted historical fact (not a notion) that countries seeking empires require violent methods to keep them – once formed. Great Britain has not been backward in this respect. She may have been less violent than the Romans, more tolerant than the Spanish, less deluded than Bonaparte, but her 19th century wars in Afghanistan and Burma were, as a contemporary historian said, ‘a disgrace fraught with understandable reasons’.

The Anglo-Afghan Wars were a series of armed conflicts between Afghan rulers and British India. Both sides had hidden agendas, as the British were concerned about increasing Russian influence in this wild and almost ungovernable country; the native rulers did not (and do not) like foreigners being pompous in their wild territory. Britain sent an army to replace the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammad with a more pro-British king, the Shah Shuja al-Mulk.

The Afghans did not like either Shuja or the idea that the British had put him on Dost’s throne, and their bad temper added to faulty British defence policies resulted in a series of uprisings in 1841, inevitably leading led to the destruction of British Indian forces in Kabul. The Resident and his son were murdered, and the entire British contingent in the capital was expelled, ordered to proceed under a safe conduct pass to Jalalabad (1842). The safe conduct pass was ignored by Afghan chieftans, who attacked the retreating British forces, killing many.

Though Kabul was actually re-occupied by the British in the same year, politicians in England decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which caused the Russians to breathe easier and continue their infiltration relatively undisturbed.

In 1878-80, however, the British were back in that hot and rocky country, again in an attempt to stop the Russians, to whom Afghanistan was always a temptation hard to refuse, because of its strategic importance alone. By the Treaty of Gandamack in 1879 (where some of the fiercest fighting had been), Britian acquired more territory and, again, the right to maintain a Resident (a eupemism for governor) in Kabul. Unfortunately, the new Resident, Cavagnari, was promptly murdered in the capital, and many blooody skirmishes and campaigns had to be fought before the second humiliating British withdrawal was completed.

There was a third Anglo-Afghan War fought in 1919, however, when the new amir of Afghanistan, Amanulla, attacked British India itself, thus securing the independence of his country at the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919. As we know, Afghan independence is still fought over today, and has been since its invasion by Alexander the Great (qv.)

The Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-6, 1852-53, 1885) were sanguinary conflicts fought between British India and Burma, now known as Myanmar. In 1824 Burma threatened to invade Bengal,  forcing a counter-invasion that actually happened. Rangoon was captured, and British negotiators secured annexation of Annakan and Tenasserim, as well as payment of very large indemnities. Burma was also forced to renounce any claim to Assam.

A period of relative calm ensued, but aggressive treatment of British traders led to a second invasion by Britain in 1852, after which Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta were annexed.

In 1885 the British suspected King Thibaw (on the throne 1878 – 85) of loving the French too much and a third invasion too place, taking the royal capital at Mandalay, and leading to the retirement into exile of King Thibaw.

Upper Burma then became another province in British India, though guerilla resistance was not suppressed for five years or more. Full independence for Burma was not gained until 1948.

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