Family History and the History of the Family in Colonial Burma

Guest post by Dr. Jonathan Saha, University of Bristol (UK). Jonathan’s excellent blog on colonial Burma can be found here: http://jonathansaha.wordpress.com/ Enjoy!

In 1871 Annie Pereira was admitted to the Rangoon lunatic asylum. She was a young woman, in her late teens, the daughter of a Burmese woman and a British soldier. Her mother had died several years earlier and Annie had been cared for by a local church. When her disruptive behaviour became too much, she was taken to the newly opened asylum. This caused some difficulties for the asylum’s management. No thought had been given to how women of mixed British and Burmese parentage should be housed. New accommodation in the asylum had to be found. In addition, Annie destroyed her clothing, adding to the mounting costs of her upkeep. In an attempt to recoup some of the money spent on her, the Government of Burma tracked down her father, who had now returned to England. In dry, dispassionate correspondence he haggled with the authorities over what constituted an appropriate payment.[1]

This sad episode illustrates a number of aspects of the history of Anglo-Burmese families in nineteenth-century Burma. Firstly, it was common for British men to find companionship with Burmese women. The high-raking members of the Indian Civil Service did not approve of these ‘temporary marriages’, as the informal arrangements were referred to. Nevertheless, throughout the duration of British rule, these relationships continued.[2] Burma was a particularly notorious province of the Raj for liaisons that crossed the otherwise ubiquitous racial divide. The lack of European society, the solitude of remote jungle postings, and the eviscerating effects of the climate, were all cited as explanations for what was regarded by many as a ‘lapse’ in moral standards. More concerning for the upper reaches of the Service were actual marriages between British officials and local women. It has been estimated that there were over 400 of such formal marriages between 1880 and 1947.[3] These included some prominent couples, such as the celebrated colonial scholar George Luce and Tee Tee Luce, who is remembered in her own right for her philanthropic activities helping destitute boys. Relationships between British men and local women were certainly not unique to colonial Burma, but they became a focus of prominent administrative concern there, and may have been more common.

Figure 1: Frederick Alexander Charles Trutwein (Advocate at the Chief Court in Rangoon) family portrait. From, Vincent Clarence Scott O'Connor, The Silken East (1904)

Figure 1: Frederick Alexander Charles Trutwein (Advocate at the Chief Court in Rangoon) family portrait. From, Vincent Clarence Scott O’Connor, The Silken East (1904)

Secondly, Annie’s case illustrates the religious communities the Anglo-Burmese population were associated with. The connections between the growing duel heritage population and the Christian churches of was apparent to British observers in 1850s, and their presence was entirely welcome. Despite some misgivings, Church-supported education enabled them to get work in the colonial administration. Finally, the chaos caused by Annie’s apparent breakdown highlights the particular concern about caring for ‘abandoned’ Anglo-Burmese children. In the early twentieth century there were attempts to educate, and Anglicise, these children. Although often left in the care of their Burmese mothers, they were labelled as ‘abandoned’ because of their estrangement from British culture. But however much the children picked up British attitudes and behaviours, they were never accepted as fully British.[4] Just as in the asylum, there wasn’t a clear place for them in colonial society.

What the documentation on Annie’s admission to the asylum does not tell us about is the emotional nature of these family ties. A surface reading of her father’s correspondence with the Government of Burma would make it seem that he was callously indifferent to her fate. This would be an unfair assumption. Very often the nature of bureaucratic paperwork does not allow for much expression of sentiment. The topic of the correspondence was strictly financial; it is unsurprising that the tone of the letters reflected this. This leaves us with a series of unanswered questions. Did Annie’s father choose to leave her behind in Rangoon with her mother, or was this decision forced by the demands and circumstances of his military posting? Either way, did he miss his daughter and suffer from pangs of pain at their enforced distance? This last question may prove unanswerable if we look for answers in the colonial archive.

Here family history and family historians might be able to help. A few months ago I published a blog post about a much celebrated colonial official called Bernard Houghton who on retirement wrote fierce diatribes against British imperialism in India and Burma. To my surprise, his great granddaughter commented on the piece to say that she was related to him through a child who resulted from a liaison he had with a Burmese woman. Although Bernard went on to marry an English woman, he ensured that his Anglo-Burmese daughter was privately educated in Darjeeling. His ties to this earlier, less legitimate family, at least in the eyes of his peers, were not severed. Whatever the emotional toll of this separation, knowing about his continued support for his daughter helps us understand the strength of his impassioned attack on the racist ‘group think’ of British imperialism in Asia.

– Jonathan Saha


[1] I have written about her case previously in Jonathan Saha, “Madness and the Making of a Colonial Order in Burma,” Modern Asian Studies 47, no. 2 (2013): 406–435.

[2] K. A Ballhatchet, Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and Their Critics, 1793-1905 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980).

[3] Chie Ikeya, Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2011), 123.

[4] Penny Edwards, “Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma,” Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 3 (2002): 279–295.

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