On the Irrawaddy
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On the Irrawaddy is a story that takes place within the First Burmese War, published in 1896. George Alfred Henty was a war correspondent and English writer known for including history in his writings. In this novel, Henty writes the story of a young soldier and hero and his epic adventures as a scout after war breaks out. Read this adventure novel that provides a look into history while entertaining with harrowing tales of life in battle.

On the Irrawaddy

A Story of the First Burmese War

G. A. Henty

On the Irrawaddy


With the exception of the terrible retreat from Afghanistan, none of England’s many little wars have been so fatal — in proportion to the number of those engaged — as our first expedition to Burma. It was undertaken without any due comprehension of the difficulties to be encountered, from the effects of climate and the deficiency of transport; the power, and still more the obstinacy and arrogance of the court of Ava were altogether underrated; and it was considered that our possession of her ports would assuredly bring the enemy, who had wantonly forced the struggle upon us, to submission. Events, however, proved the completeness of the error. The Burman policy of carrying off every boat on the river, laying waste the whole country, and driving away the inhabitants and the herds, maintained our army as prisoners in Rangoon through the first wet season; and caused the loss of half the white officers and men first sent there. The subsequent campaign was no less fatal and, although large reinforcements had been sent, fifty percent of the whole died; so that less than two thousand fighting men remained in the ranks, when the expedition arrived within a short distance of Ava. Not until the last Burmese army had been scattered did the court of Ava submit to the by no means onerous terms we imposed.

Great, indeed, was the contrast presented by this first invasion of the country with the last war in 1885, which brought about the final annexation of Burma. Then a fleet of steamers conveyed the troops up the noble river; while in 1824 a solitary steamer was all that India could furnish, to aid the flotilla of rowboats. No worse government has ever existed than that of Burma when, with the boast that she intended to drive the British out of India, she began the war. No people were ever kept down by a more grinding tyranny, and the occupation of the country by the British has been an even greater blessing to the population than has that of India.

Several works, some by eyewitnesses, others compiled from official documents, appeared after the war. They differ remarkably in the relation of details, and still more in the spelling of the names both of persons and places. I have chiefly followed those given in the narratives of Mr. H. H. Wilson, and of Major Snodgrass, the military secretary to the commander of the expedition.

Chapter 1:
A New Career

A party was assembled in a room of an hotel in Calcutta, at the end of the year 1822. It consisted of a gentleman, a lady in deep mourning, a boy of between fourteen and fifteen, and two girls of thirteen and twelve.

“I think you had better accept my offer, Nellie,” the gentleman was saying. “You will find it hard work enough to make both ends meet, with these two girls; and Stanley would be a heavy drain on you. The girls cost nothing but their clothes; but he must go to a decent school, and then there would be the trouble of thinking what to do with him, afterwards. If I could have allowed you a couple of hundred a year, it would have been altogether different; but you see I am fighting an uphill fight, myself, and need every penny that I can scrape together. I am getting on; and I can see well enough that, unless something occurs to upset the whole thing, I shall be doing a big trade, one of these days; but every half penny of profit has to go into the business. So, as you know, I cannot help you at present though, by the time the girls grow up, I hope I shall be able to do so, and that to a good extent.

“I feel sure that it would not be a bad thing for Stanley. He will soon get to be useful to me, and in three or four years will be a valuable assistant. Speaking Hindustani as well as he does, he won’t be very long in picking up enough of the various dialects in Kathee and Chittagong for our purpose and, by twenty, he will have a share of the business, and be on the highway towards making his fortune. It will be infinitely better than anything he is likely to find in England, and he will be doing a man’s work at the age when he would still be a schoolboy in England.

“I have spoken to him about it. Of course, he does not like leaving you, but he says that he should like it a thousand times better than, perhaps, having to go into some humdrum office in England.”

“Thank you, Tom,” Mrs. Brooke said with a sigh. “It will be very hard to part with him — terribly hard — but I see that it is by far the best thing for him and, as you say, in a monetary way it will be a relief to me. I think I can manage very comfortably on the pension, in some quiet place at home, with the two girls; but Stanley’s schooling would be a heavy drain. I might even manage that, for I might earn a little money by painting; but there would be the question of what to do with him when he left school and, without friends or influence, it will be hopeless to get him into any good situation.

“You see, Herbert’s parents have both died since he came out here and, though he was distantly related to the Earl of Netherly, he was only a second cousin, or something of that kind, and knew nothing about the family; and of course I could not apply to them.”

“Certainly not, Nellie,” her brother agreed. “There is nothing so hateful as posing as a poor relation — and that is a connection rather than a relationship. Then you will leave the boy in my hands?”

“I am sure that it will be best,” she said, with a tremor in her voice, “and at any rate, I shall have the comfort of knowing that he will be well looked after.”

Mrs. Brooke was the widow of a captain in one of the native regiments of the East India Company. He had, six weeks before this, been carried off suddenly by an outbreak of cholera; and she had been waiting at Calcutta, in order to see her brother, before sailing for England. She was the daughter of an English clergyman, who had died some seventeen years before. Nellie, who was then eighteen, being motherless as well as fatherless, had determined to sail for India. A great friend of hers had married and gone out, a year before. Nellie’s father was at that time in bad health; and her friend had said to her, at parting:

“Now mind, Nellie, I have your promise that, if you should find yourself alone here, you will come out to me in India. I shall be very glad to have you with me, and I don’t suppose you will be on my hands very long; pretty girls don’t remain single many months, in India.”

So, seeing nothing better to do, Nellie had, shortly after her father’s death, sailed for Calcutta.

Lieutenant Brooke was also a passenger on board the Ava, and during the long voyage he and Nellie Pearson became engaged; and were married, from her friend’s house, a fortnight after their arrival. Nellie was told that she was a foolish girl, for that she ought to have done better; but she was perfectly happy. The pay and allowances of her husband were sufficient for them to live upon in comfort; and though, when the children came, there was little to spare, the addition of pay when he gained the rank of captain was ample for their wants. They had been, in fact, a perfectly happy couple — both had bright and sunny dispositions, and made the best of everything; and she had never had a serious care, until he was suddenly taken away from her.

Stanley had inherited his parents’ disposition and, as his sisters, coming so soon after him, occupied the greater portion of his mother’s care, he was left a good deal to his own devices; and became a general pet in the regiment, and was equally at home in the men’s lines and in the officers’ bungalows. The native language came as readily to him as English and, by the time he was ten, he could talk in their own tongue with the men from the three or four different districts from which the regiment had been recruited. His father devoted a couple of hours a day to his studies. He did not attempt to teach him Latin — which would, he thought, be altogether useless to him — but gave him a thorough grounding in English and Indian history, and arithmetic, and insisted upon his spending a certain time each day in reading standard English authors.

Tom Pearson, who was five years younger than his sister, had come out to India four years after her. He was a lad full of life and energy. As soon as he left school, finding himself the master of a hundred pounds — the last remains of the small sum that his father had left behind him — he took a second-class passage to Calcutta. As soon as he had landed, he went round to the various merchants and offices and, finding that he could not, owing to a want of references, obtain a clerkship, he took a place in the store of a Parsee merchant who dealt in English goods. Here he remained for five years, by which time he had mastered two or three native languages, and had obtained a good knowledge of business.

He now determined to start on his own account. He had lived hardly, saving up every rupee not needed for actual necessaries and, at the end of the five years he had, in all, a hundred and fifty pounds. He had, long before this, determined that the best opening for trade was among the tribes on the eastern borders of the British territory; and had specially devoted himself to the study of the languages of Kathee and Chittagong.

Investing the greater portion of his money in goods suitable for the trade, he embarked at Calcutta in a vessel bound for Chittagong. There he took passage in a native craft going up the great river to Sylhet, where he established his headquarters; and thence — leaving the greater portion of his goods in the care of a native merchant, with whom his late employer had had dealings — started with a native, and four donkeys on which his goods were packed, to trade among the wild tribes.

His success fully equalled his anticipations and, gradually, he extended his operations; going as far east as Manipur, and south almost as far as Chittagong. The firm in Calcutta from whom he had, in the first place, purchased his goods, sent him up fresh stores as he required them; and soon, seeing the energy with which he was pushing his business, gave him considerable credit, and he was able to carry on his operations on an increasingly larger scale. Sylhet remained his headquarters; but he had a branch at Chittagong, whither goods could be sent direct from Calcutta, and from this he drew his supplies for his trade in that province.

Much of his business was carried on by means of the waterways, and the very numerous streams that covered the whole country, and enabled him to carry his goods at a far cheaper rate than he could transport them by land; and for this purpose he had a boat specially fitted up with a comfortable cabin. He determined, from the first, to sell none but the best goods in the market; and thus he speedily gained the confidence of the natives, and the arrival of his boats was eagerly hailed by the villagers on the banks of the rivers.

He soon found that money was scarce; and that, to do a good business, he must take native products in barter for his goods; and that in this way he not only did a much larger trade, but obtained a very much better price for his wares than if he had sold only for money; and he soon consigned considerable quantities to the firm in Calcutta and, by so doing, obtained a profit both ways. He himself paid a visit to Calcutta, every six months or so, to choose fresh fashions of goods; and to visit the firm, with whom his dealings, every year, became more extensive. But, though laying the foundations for an extensive business, he was not, as he told his sister, at present in a position to help her; for his increasing trade continually demanded more and more capital, and the whole of his profits were swallowed up by the larger stocks that had to be held at his depots at Sylhet, Chittagong, and at the mouths of the larger rivers.

Twice since he had been out he had met his sister at Calcutta, and when she came down after her husband’s death, and heard from Tom’s agents that he would probably arrive there in the course of a fortnight, she decided to wait there and meet him. He was greatly grieved at her loss, and especially so as he was unable to offer her a home; for as his whole time was spent in travelling, it was impossible for him to do so; nor indeed, would she have accepted it. Now that her husband was gone, she yearned to be back in England again. It was, too, far better for the girls that she should take them home. But when he now offered to take the boy she felt that, hard as it would be to leave Stanley behind, the offer was a most advantageous one for him.

The boy’s knowledge of Indian languages, which would be of immense advantage to him in such a life, would be absolutely useless in England and, from what Tom told her of his business, there could be little doubt that the prospects were excellent. Stanley himself, who now saw his uncle for the first time, was attracted to him by the energy and cheeriness of manner that had rendered him so successful in business; and he was stirred by the enterprise and adventure of the life he proposed for him. More than once, in the little-frequented rivers that stretched into Kathee, his boats had been attacked by wild tribesmen; and he had to fight hard to keep them off. Petty chiefs had, at times, endeavoured to obstruct his trading and, when at Manipur, he had twice been witness of desperate fights between rival claimants for the throne. All this was, to a boy brought up among soldiers, irresistibly fascinating; especially as the alternative seemed to be a seat in a dull counting house in England.

He was, then, delighted when his mother gave her consent to his remaining with his uncle; grieved as he was at being parted from her and his sisters. The thought that he should, in time, be able to be of assistance to her was a pleasant one; and aided him to support the pain of parting when, a week later, she sailed with the girls for England.

“I suppose you have not done any shooting, Stanley?” his uncle asked.

“Not with a gun, but I have practised sometimes with pistols. Father thought that it would be useful.”

“Very useful; and you must learn to shoot well with them, and with fowling-piece and rifle. What with river thieves, and dacoits, and wild tribes — to say nothing of wild beasts — a man who travels about, as I do, wants to be able to shoot straight. The straighter you shoot, the less likely you are to have to do so. I have come to be a good shot myself and, whenever we row up a river, I constantly practise — either at floating objects in the water, or at birds or other marks in the trees. I have the best weapons that money can buy. It is my one extravagance, and the result is that, to my boatmen and the men about me, my shooting seems to be marvellous; they tell others of it, and the result is that I am regarded with great respect. I have no doubt, whatever, that it has saved me from much trouble; for the natives have almost got to believe that I only have to point my gun, and the man I wish to kill falls dead, however far distant.”

Two days after the departure of Mrs. Brooke, her brother and Stanley started down the Hoogly in a native trader.

“She is a curious-looking craft, uncle.”

“Yes; she would not be called handsome in home waters, but she is uncommonly fast; and I find her much more convenient, in many ways, than a British merchantman.”

“Is she yours, uncle?”

“No, she is not mine, and I do not exactly charter her; but she works principally for me. You see, the wages are so low that they can work a craft like this for next to nothing. Why, the captain and his eight men, together, don’t get higher pay than the boatswain of an English trader.

“The captain owns the vessel. He is quite content if he gets a few rupees a month, in addition to what he considers his own rate of pay. His wife and his two children live on board. If the craft can earn twenty rupees a week, he considers that he is doing splendidly. At the outside, he would not pay his men more than four rupees a month, each, and I suppose that he would put down his services at eight; so that would leave him forty rupees a month as the profit earned by the ship.

“In point of fact, I keep him going pretty steadily. He makes trips backwards and forwards between the different depots; carries me up the rivers for a considerable distance; does a little trade on his own account — not in goods such as I sell, you know, but purely native stores — takes a little freight when he can get it, and generally a few native passengers. I pay him fifteen rupees a week, and I suppose he earns from five to ten in addition; so that the arrangement suits us both, admirably.

“I keep the stern cabin for myself. As you see, she has four little brass guns, which I picked up for a song at Calcutta; and there are twenty-four muskets aft. It is an arrangement that the crew are to practise shooting once a week, so they have all come to be pretty fair shots; and the captain, himself, can send a two-pound shot from those little guns uncommonly straight.

“You will be amused when you see us practising for action. The captain’s wife and the two boys load the guns, and do it very quickly, too. He runs round from gun to gun, takes aim, and fires. The crew shout, and yell, and bang away with their muskets. I take the command, and give a few pice among them, if the firing has been accurate.

“We have been attacked, once or twice, in the upper waters; but have always managed to beat the robbers off, without much difficulty. The captain fires away, till they get pretty close; and I pepper them with my rifles — I have three of them. When they get within fifty yards, the crew open fire and, as they have three muskets each, they can make it very hot for the pirates. I have a store of hand grenades and, if they push on, I throw two or three on board when they get within ten yards; and that has always finished the matter. They don’t understand the things bursting in the middle of them. I don’t mean to say that my armament would be of much use, if we were trading along the coast of the Malay Peninsula or among the Islands, but it is quite enough to deal with the petty robbers of these rivers.”

“But I thought that you had a boat that you went up the rivers in, uncle?”

“Yes; we tow a rowboat and a store boat up, behind this craft, as far as she can go; that is, as long as she has wind enough to make against the sluggish stream. When she can go no further, I take to the rowboat. It has eight rowers, carries a gun — it is a twelve-pounder howitzer — that I have had cut short, so that it is only about a foot long. Of course it won’t carry far, but that is not necessary. Its charge is a pound of powder and a ten-pound bag of bullets and, at a couple of hundred yards, the balls scatter enough to sweep two or three canoes coming abreast and, as we can charge and fire the little thing three times in a minute, it is all that we require, for practical purposes.

“It is only on a few of the rivers we go up that there is any fear of trouble. On the river from Sylhet to the east and its branches in Kathee or, as it is sometimes called, Kasi, the country is comparatively settled. The Goomtee beyond Oudypore is well enough, until it gets into Kaayn, which is what they call independent. That is to say, it owns no authority; and some villages are peaceable and well disposed, while others are savage. The same may be said of the Munnoo and Fenny rivers.

“For the last two years I have done a good deal of trade in Assam, up the Brahmaputra river. As far as Rungpoor there are a great many villages on the banks, and the people are quiet and peaceable.”

“Then you don’t go further south than Chittagong, uncle?”

“No. The Burmese hold Aracan on the south and, indeed, for some distance north of it there is no very clearly-defined border. You see, the great river runs from Rangoon very nearly due north, though with a little east in it; and extends along at the back of the districts I trade with; so that the Burmese are not very far from Manipur which, indeed, stands on a branch of the Irrawaddy, of which another branch runs nearly up to Rungpoor.

“We shall have big trouble with them, one of these days; indeed, we have had troubles already. You see, the Burmese are a great and increasing power, and have so easily conquered all their neighbours that they regard themselves as invincible. Until the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Burmese were masters of Pegu; then the people of that country, with the help of the Dutch and Portuguese, threw off their yoke. But the Burmese were not long kept down for, in 1753, Alompra — a hunter — gathered a force round him and, after keeping up an irregular warfare for some time, was joined by so many of his countrymen that he attacked and captured Ava, conquered the whole of Pegu and, in 1759, the English trading colony at Negrais were massacred.

“This, however, was not the act of Alompra, but of the treachery of a Frenchman named Levine, and of an Armenian; who incited the Burmese of the district to exterminate the English — hoping, no doubt, thus to retrieve, in a new quarter, the fortunes of France, which in India were being extinguished by the genius of Clive. The English were, at the time, far too occupied with the desperate struggle they were having, in India, to attempt to revenge the massacre of their countrymen at Negrais.

“Very rapidly the Burman power spread. They captured the valuable Tenasserim coast, from Siam; repulsed a formidable invasion from China; annexed Aracan, and dominated Manipur, and thus became masters of the whole tract of country lying between China and Hindustan. As they now bordered upon our territory, a mission was sent in 1794 to them from India, with a proposal for the settlement of boundaries, and for the arrangement of trade between the two countries. Nothing came of it, for the Burmese had already proposed, to themselves, the conquest of India; and considered the mission as a proof of the terror that their advance had inspired among us.

“After the conquest by them of Aracan, in 1784, there had been a constant irritation felt against us by the Burmese; owing to the fact that a great number of fugitives from that country had taken refuge in the swamps and islands of Chittagong; from which they, from time to time, issued and made raids against the Burmese. In 1811 these fugitives, in alliance with some predatory chiefs, invaded Aracan in force and, being joined by the subject population there, expelled the Burmese. These, however, soon reconquered the province. The affair was, nevertheless, unfortunate, since the Burmese naturally considered that, as the insurrection had begun with an invasion by the fugitives in Chittagong, it had been fomented by us.

“This was in no way the fact. We had no force there capable of keeping the masses of fugitives in order; but we did our best, and arrested many of the leaders, when they returned after their defeat. This, however, was far from satisfying the Burmese. A mission was sent, to Ava, to assure them of our friendly intentions; and that we had had nothing whatever to do with the invasion, and would do all we could to prevent its recurrence. The Burmese government declined to receive the mission.

“We, ourselves, had much trouble with the insurgents for, fearful of re-entering Burma after their defeat, they now carried on a series of raids in our territory; and it was not until 1816 that these were finally suppressed. Nevertheless, the court of Ava remained dissatisfied; and a fresh demand was raised for the surrender of the chiefs who had been captured, and of the whole of the fugitives living in the government of Chittagong. The Marquis of Hastings replied that the British government could not, without a violation of the principles of justice, deliver up those who had sought its protection; that tranquillity now existed, and there was no probability of a renewal of the disturbances; but that the greatest vigilance should be used, to prevent and punish the authors of any raid that might be attempted against Aracan.

“A year later a second letter was received, demanding on the part of the king the cession of Ramoo, Chittagong, Moorshedabad, and Dacca; that is to say, of the whole British possessions east of the Ganges. Lord Hastings simply replied that if it was possible to suppose that the demand had been dictated by the King of Ava, the British government would be justified in regarding it as a declaration of war. To this the Burmese made no reply. Doubtless they had heard of the successes we had gained in Central India, and had learned that our whole force was disposable against them.

“Three years ago the old king died, and a more warlike monarch succeeded him. Since 1810 they have been mixed up in the troubles that have been going on in Assam, where a civil war had been raging. One party or other has sought their assistance, and fighting has been going on there nearly incessantly and, two months ago, the Burmese settled the question by themselves taking possession of the whole country.

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