British Architecture: Colonial Burma
By Kevin Murphy
The 19th century colonial British architectural presence can be easily be found while walking down the streets of New Delhi or Mumbai. Many of the former British buildings have been renovated and now are occupied as offices, residences and retail outlets. Similarly, much of the same colonial architecture can be found in neighbouring Burma or Myanmar as it is called today. As Myanmar has come out of its isolation and expands its economy the former colonial properties are being re-purposed to accommodate the housing and office shortage mainly in the former capital and port city of Rangoon (Yangon).
Britain’s presence in Myanmar began in 1615 and began annexing the three provinces that would eventually merged into one country, Burma. In the 1880’s Burma became a part of the British Empire and it was at that time the architectural style known as Indo-Saracenic Revival that could be found in other locations of British colonies such as India and modern day Pakistan made its presence in Rangoon.
The Origins of British Burma
The British conquest of Burma, valuable for its natural resources, had its first war in 1825 when East India Company forces under the leadership of General Sir Archibald Campbell took over Rangoon under the rule of king Ava. This was to be the first of the three Anglo-Burmese wars for unifying the country. In this conflict the territories of Tenasserim and Arakan were seized by 1826.
In 1852 the second Anglo-Burmese war led by Commodore Lambert took control of the delta area of Lower Burma. This region was thus merged with Rangoon and by 1862 was known as a Chief Commissionership, British Burma, of British India.
The Mandalay region known as Upper Burma fell to British forces in 1885 and was the third Anglo-Burmese war. It is reported that the king Thibaw and his queen were sent to live in exile in India and were carried out in an oxcart. With this the province known as Burma in British India was formed and in 1897 was made into a major province, a Lieutenant-Governorship. This lasted till 1937 when the Burma Office was created to administer the affairs under the Secretary of State for India and Burma.
With the British in control the exploitation of the natural resources, especially in the Irrawaddy delta, for global export intensified. Like cotton was to the American south the main crop in Burma was rice which benefitted in exports to Europe with the opening of the Suez Canal.
Discontent grew amongst the Burmese as the British introduced industrialisation in transportation and exploiting the natural resources for British owned enterprises thus making and distributing goods for the Burmese more expensive. Additional tension occurred as cheaper labour flooded in from India and left Burmese workers unemployed. Much of the wealth made by British companies did not make its way to the local population.
In 1937 the British the Burma Province was no longer a part of British India allowing for a new constitution and national assembly.
In World War II Britain's involvement in Burma began when the Japanese invaded the country eventually taking control of Rangoon. The fighting was fierce with Britain suffering setbacks on the battlefield. In 1943 the Allied command structure was changed having Lord Louis Mountbatten who was able to get increased air support and supplies for the British 14th Army and by 3 May 1945 Rangoon was liberated.
With the war over Britain looked to Burma which was undergoing political unrest to restore pre-war ties but eventually gave Burma its independence on 4 January 1948 to be named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. The country did not become a member of the Commonwealth like other former colonies.
Life in Burma for British residents was not, in the beginning at least, a pleasant experience. The climate with its monsoons, sickness by cholera, malaria, heat stroke, malaria, small pox and even cobra bites caused many of the mostly male British residents to die in the first six months living in the country. Many of the British males were single and attended routine parties with local women and indulging in food, drink and opium. As a result outbreaks of syphilis were common. In the early years because of this and the distance migration by British nationals was low but this changed when the Suez Canal opened in 1868. This made the journey shorter and attracted more women and families.
As family life and commerce progressed communities became more self-contained and distant from the Burmese locals. One popular escape in the summer for those who could afford it was to go to Hill Stations in the mountains to enjoy the cooler air and lavish party atmosphere.
As a result the British ex-pats brought with them their way of life, architecture and urban planning all of which made day to day activities more tolerable and still can be found today.
Historian David Cannadine stated in his book ‘Ornamentalism; How the British Saw Their Empire’ described the British Empire “was about antiquity and anachronism, tradition and honor, order and subordination; about glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony, plumed hats and ermine robes; about chiefs and emirs, sultans and nawabs, viceroys and proconsuls; about thrones and crowns, dominion and hierarchy, ostentation and ornamentalism.”
In the 1960’s the Burmese began its socialist period and for nearly 50 years the country became isolated from most of the world. As a result of low commercial output and wages many of the buildings from the British remained and unused. Much of the original architecture from the British period remains but in a derelict condition. One organization the Yangon Heritage Trust is working with public and private entities to restore and preserve these properties for commercial and residential use.
Key buildings from the colonial era that have been restored or are planning on being saved are:
The Strand Hotel: Built in 1901 by the Sarkiess Brothers this classic colonial period on the Yangon River is a popular accommodation for tourists. While the property remained open during the socialist period the buildings deteriorated. In 1990 Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha in partnership with the Burmese authorities began renovation of the hotel and The Strand reopened in 1993. The hotel has 32 rooms, restaurants and bar. Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Mick Jagger have been previous guests.
High Court Building: This was the seat of justice during the British colonial rule. Designed by the architect John Ransome (built in 1911) in the Queen Anne style with a clock tower whose four faces are lit up at night. Plans call for the High Court building to be managed by Tun Foundation Bank Ltd for K 240 million per year. The building will become an art museum and a national cultural theatre.
Custom House : Located on the Strand Road this is considered one of the best preserved British colonial buildings in Yangon.
Myanmar Port Authority : This original building from the colonial period has seen some restoration.
The General Post Office : This heritage site is known for its arched windows, double-winged staircases, brick red structure and portico.
Small Causes Court, former Police Commissioners Building: Myanmar company JL Family Group plans to work with an unnamed Singaporean partner to turn the building into a five-star hotel called The State House at a cost of US$50 million. The hotel will have more than 240 rooms as well as restaurants, meeting rooms, a swimming pool and other facilities.
Accountant General's Office and Currency Department : This is where administrators and clerks managed the collection of colonial revenue raised from salt, custom duties, railways, post offices, telegraphs, opium and major irrigation works.
Secretariat Buildings : Built in the late 19th century this Victorian u-shaped building was the seat of the rulingBritish administration for Burma till 1948. An earthquake in the 1930’s damaged two of the four corners of the property and were not rebuilt. The building had remained sealed off to the public and left vacant for decades. Restoration is planned.