Friday, February 8, 2013

Alaungpaya’s Wars of Conquest (1752–1760)

Alaungpaya’s Wars of Conquest (1752–1760)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Alaungpaya, a Burmese village headman vs. the Mon people, various other competing tribes, and French colonial interests


DECLARATION: No formal declaration

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The unification, under Alaungpaya, of the Third Burmese Empire

OUTCOME: Unification of Burma under the Konbaung dynasty



TREATIES: No formal treaty

Until 1751, the history of Burma (Myanmar) was a patchwork quilt consisting of competing tribes, dynasties, and colonial powers. During the mid-18th century Alaungpaya (1714–60), a village headman from the upper Burmese province of Moksobomyo, united these conflicting elements in a series of conquests, which, beginning in 1752,forged the powerful dynasty known as the Third Empire.The unification movement, which started almost accidentally,thrust the provincial leader into the international arena and elevated Alaungpaya to a symbol of Burmese nationalism.In 1751 Burma was essentially split in half. The middle and upper regions were ruled by the unpopular and declining Toungoo dynasty headquartered in Ava. The lower half was controlled chiefly by the Mons, based at Pegu, a dynasty backed by French colonial interests who had plans to invade the north. In 1752 the Mons, led by King Binnya Dala (d. 1774), began to carry out the invasion by taking Ava and capturing the Toungoo king, entirely unresisted. Flushed with this easy victory, Dala returned to Pegu in triumph, taking with him most of his army and leaving behind nothing more than a skeleton force and a military governor assigned the duty of obtain- 18 Agathocles’ War against Carthageing oaths of allegiance from the outlying provinces. Within the provinces was Alaungpaya’s village of Moksobomyo. Confronted with the decision of whether to become a vassal of the Mons, Alaungpaya chose to organize a resistance movement, and a few days later, when the Mon detachment arrived at the village, he met them with bullets, not obedience. Thus began a long and bloody series of wars. Dalaban, the Mon military governor, sent two regiments to take Moksobomyo in 1752, but by the end of the year Alaungpaya had defeated both. These victories, relatively minor in themselves, greatly fueled the resistance,and Alaungpaya capitalized on his triumphs to enlist supporters from all over the region. Invoking the spirit of nationalism and Burmese self-rule, Alaungpaya declared himself king of all Burma and renamed Moksobomyo Shwebo, making it the new capital of the empire. Fully aware that this and his earlier victories would result in a much larger Mon invasion, Alaungpaya dug in and prepared for their return. It did not take long for Dalaban to receive reinforcements from Pegu and proceed to Shwebo, where he surrounded Alaungpaya’s city, attacking it from all sides. For five days and nights the Mons bombarded the city, but Alaungpaya’s forces held strong. Growing impatient, Dalaban selected 1,500 of his best men to storm the walls of the city and open the gates, but before they could carry out their orders, Alaungpaya’s men decimated the elite force from their fortifications inside. After the battle Mon troops withdrew toward the Irrawaddy River. In response Alaungpaya unleased a massive offensive, forcing the Mons to break rank and attempt to float down the river to Pegu. Hundreds drowned, and Dalaban retreated to Ava.By the end of 1752, Alaungpaya had gained control of all of Upper Burma, including the Shan states, except for Ava. The following year he laid siege to Ava itself. Surprisingly,he was met with no resistance; the Mons had slipped out during the night. Alaungpaya left Ava to raise more support in the surrounding Shan provinces. On learning of his absence, the Mons returned, routed the small Burmese nationalist force left outside the gates, and laid siege to Ava. Alaungpaya, however, had anticipated the Mons’ move and returned to Ava with a massive force. Trapped between two Burmese armies, the Mons were defeated, thus paving the way for Alaungpaya’s conquest of Lower Burma. Lower Burma posed many problems for the Burmese leader. First among them was the growing French presence in the region, which included an informal alliance between the local French military commander and the Mons. Second, the British East India Company, which was at odds with the French in India, had become a formidable presence in the Burmese territory of Negrais. In 1755 Alaungpaya attacked the Mons in Lower Burma and forced them to retreat to the fortified cities of Pegu and Syriam. He then captured the port of Dagon, renamed it Rangoon, and interned several French and English ships in the harbor. Hoping to receive arms fromthe ships’ captains in exchange for their release, Alaungpaya was instead rebuffed by them. The colonial vessels managed to sail away at nightfall. Ill-equipped to storm Syriam and Pegu, Alaungpaya returned to Upper Burma to regroup.In 1756 he returned to Rangoon and moved on Syriam. For eight months the Burmese laid siege to the fortified city. Then, fearing the arrival of French reinforcements from India, Alaungpaya decided it was time to attack. Choosing a mere 93 of his best men—later called “The Golden Company of Syriam”—Alaungpaya sent them to scale the walls of Syriam and open the gates. In contrast to Binnya Dala’s fiasco at Shwebo, Alaungpaya’s men succeeded in their mission, and the Burmese troops routed the city, whereupon French military leaders, including oneCaptain Bruno, who had concluded an alliance with the Mons, were executed. Alaungpaya next proceeded to Myanaung to prepare for his conquest of Pegu. While there he concluded a treaty with the East India Company, through which, in return for acknowledging the British right to occupy Negrais, he received much-needed weapons and ammunition. In 1757 he successfully laid siege to Pegu, bringing about the abdication of Binnya Dala. Alaungpaya, already in firm control of Upper Burma, was now accepted as the ruler of Lower Burma as well. By 1759 British indifference to their own 1757 treaty prompted Alaungpaya to reclaim Negrais. The frontier with Siam still posed a threat, and in 1760 Alaungpaya laid siege to the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya. During the siege he was wounded, and he died retreating to Burma. At age 46 Alaungpaya had just begun to reshape the course of Burmese history. His abbreviated reign brought unity to the fragmented empire and established the Konbaung dynasty, which would rule into the next century.

Further reading: Maung Htin Aung, The History of Burma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

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