Reading the Raj

George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, set in the country in which he had been a police officer from 1922 to 1927, was regarded by the book trade as so controversial that it was not published in the UK at first. It was published in the USA in October 1934.

Image: Wikipedia

After much checking and editing of names it was finally published in Britain on June 24th 1935.

On another June 24th, Orwell Society member, Carol Biederstadt, an American with a long knowledge of Burma and other countries in the Far East,  considers Nascent Nationalism and the Popular Uprising against British Rule as it appears in the novel.


Reading the Raj in George Orwell’s Burmese Days:

Nascent Nationalism and the Popular Uprising against British Rule

by Carol Biederstadt


George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, provides an early literary glimpse of nascent Burmese nationalism, a movement that would continue to grow until the country ultimately declared its independence from Britain on 4 January 1948. In the novel – initially published in the United States in 1934, well after the nationalist movement had begun to gather strength in Burma – Orwell ties a central element of the story-line to the theme of peasant rebellions. While the narrative minimizes the significance of the fledgling political protests, a surprising amount of historical and perhaps even semi-autobiographical detail is reflected in the novel, demonstrating that Orwell was well aware of the context for the nationalist movement in Burma, even if he was yet to fully grasp its gravity.

One incident, which leads a mob of villagers to besiege the Club, is of interest on several levels. Itching for retribution for the murder of an Englishman, the odious Ellis unintentionally triggers the riot by attacking one of the Burmese schoolboys he encounters while walking to the office one day. The passage characterizes the strained British-Burmese relations that marked the period:

Ellis saw them coming, a row of yellow, malicious faces – epicene faces, horribly smooth and young, grinning at him with deliberate insolence. It was in their minds to bait him, as a white man. Probably they had heard of the murder, and – being Nationalists, like all schoolboys – regarded it as a victory. They grinned full in Ellis’s face as they passed him. They were trying openly to provoke him, and they knew that the law was on their side. Ellis felt his breast swell. The look of their faces, jeering at him like a row of yellow images, was maddening. (252)

Goaded by their perceived cockiness, Ellis strikes one of the boys in the face with a cane, ultimately blinding him, which then prompts a group of armed villagers to surround the Club, demanding Ellis be handed over.

The episode involving Ellis is curiously similar to one Maung Htin Aung claims involved the young Eric Blair. Htin Aung, then a student at University College in Rangoon, alleges to have been one of a group of schoolboys that encountered Blair at the Pagoda Road Station in November 1924. While clowning around, Htin Aung says, one of the boys accidentally bumped into Blair, causing him to tumble down the stairs. As he tells it, “Blair was furious and raised the heavy cane which he was carrying, to hit the boy on the head, but checked himself, and struck him on the back instead. The boys protested, and some undergraduates, including myself, surrounded the angry Englishman.” Htin Aung appears to partially absolve Blair of guilt, however, saying: “Blair was, of course, merely reflecting the general attitude of his English contemporaries towards Burmese students, especially those from the National Schools,” underscoring the fact that “most of the leaders of the national movement for freedom after about 1930 were products of those schools.” He concludes that the idea for the scene in Burmese Days had its origins in this real-life incident (23-24).

Whether or not the confrontation did in fact occur is impossible to know. Jeffrey Meyers, for example, has rejected the validity of Htin Aung’s oft-cited anecdote, arguing: “this apparently eyewitness account seem[s] more like nationalist propaganda than an actual event.” Meyers further contends he was “pleased to have this belief confirmed by [his] learned Burmese friend, who said that Aung, an old colleague and rector of the university, was an unreliable historian who refused to give sources for his assertions” (11). (Oddly, Meyers does not identify the source for his assertion, either.) Still, the account is certainly not inconceivable as in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell himself confesses to striking Burmese “servants and coolies” in “moments of rage,” explaining that “orientals can be very provoking” (147-48). As these were indeed tense times marked by fervent anti-European sentiment, a theme Orwell would revisit in his 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant,” Maung Htin Aung’s account is, at the very least, of interest.

More important, however, is a passage in the novel that demonstrates Orwell’s familiarity with the budding nationalist movement and the wider context in which it arose. Long before the Club uprising occurs, talk of an impending rebellion in Thongwa village comes to the attention of the European community: “ . . . there had been a whole crop of rumours about a projected native rising in the district . . . A weiksa, or magician, was said to have appeared from nowhere and to be prophesying the doom of the English power and distributing magic bullet-proof jackets” (114). While the threat is not taken very seriously, the narrator indicates that Deputy Commissioner Macgregor “had asked for an extra force of Military Police,” adding: “It was said that a company of Indian infantry with a British officer in command would be sent to Kyauktada shortly” (114-15). This passage – likely overlooked by many – is particularly significant in that it is undoubtedly based on the intermittent revolts that began occurring in the late 1800s, coming to a head in the early 1930s.

Nativist, anti-alien protests aimed at both the British and the Indian community became increasingly frequent in early twentieth century Burma for a number of reasons, and Orwell’s narrative alludes to many of them. First of all, thousands of Indians had come to Burma each year under the British administration. In 1931, for example, immigrants, mainly from India and China, accounted for 65% of the population of Rangoon (Ikeya 21-22). Furthermore, as Michael Adas points out: “the prominent positions of Indian and Chinese merchants and moneylenders [Chettyars or Chettys] and the competition of Indian laborers” caused resentment among the Burmese that helped fuel nationalist sentiment (38). Indeed, in Burmese Days, Flory’s only “native” friends are Indian physician Dr. Veraswami and Chinese shopkeeper Li Yeik, both prominent members of the community. The story also touches on the influence of merchants and moneylenders in a passage wherein Flory gives Ma Hla May a cheque, and the narrator explains: “Li Yeik or the Indian chetty in the bazaar would cash cheques” (116). Yet another cause of enmity was the unpopular capitation tax, which is also referred to in the novel: Westfield, District Superintendent of Police, and his “Gurkha boys,” patrolling Thongwa village for signs of a rebellion, find “only the annual attempt, as regular as the monsoon, of the villagers to avoid paying the capitation tax” (116). Furthermore, when repercussions of the Great Depression in the US caused the price of rice to plummet in Burma, many debt-ridden rural families lost their land, often to the aforementioned Indian Chettyars (Cady 308-09). Perhaps of key importance, however, the disruption of this traditionally Buddhist society by the colonial government had fractured its time honored social and cultural structures, creating an environment conducive to revolt. It was no surprise, then, when politically motivated monks began seizing on popular discontent in the early 1920s, claiming that Buddhism was under attack by the alien British overlords (Cady 231-32). A series of minor pretenders to the throne emerged during this period, the most significant of whom was a former monk called Saya San, who proclaimed himself King of Burma and led a rebellion that lasted from 1930-1932. The Thongwa rebellion described in Orwell’s novel is likely based on the Saya San rebellion or similar rebellions that preceded it.

Saya San

An image of Saya San on a Burmese 90 kyat note: The 90 kyat note was introduced in 1987 by General Ne Win, who wanted all Burmese banknotes to be divisible by nine, his lucky number.

A charismatic Burman prophet, Saya San’s uprising was steeped in mysticism. A series of devastating earthquakes had occurred in the early 1930s, one of which had destroyed a pagoda housing relics of the Buddha, and many Burmese interpreted this as “an omen that the end of British rule was near” (Thant Myint-U 208-09; See also Aung-Thwin and Aung-Thwin 220-21). [Similarly, an earthquake occurs in the novel, after which the butler describes the earthquake of 1906: “. . . big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is a Buddhist bishop . . . which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease” (189).] Harnessing metaphysical conditions that seemed to portend the advent of a divine leader, Saya San awakened and articulated the growing discontent with British rule, and as Adas says, “aroused deep yearnings in both peasants and Buddhist monks for the return of an idealized world of the past” (38). A member of the politically-oriented Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) as well as a local Buddhist organization that functioned under the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), Saya San “used the attributes and symbols of a future leader (mìn làung) found in the cosmology.” His followers believed that he would “re-establish the order of dhamma [dharma] in the universe and prepare for the coming of the next Buddha” but not until “foreigners and non-Buddhists” were “driven from the land” (Gravers 34). Using rituals traditionally associated with royalty, Saya San legitimized his reign by:

presid[ing] over impressive coronation ceremonies, which were conducted insofar as possible in accordance with customary Burman court protocol. Four queens and chief ministers were present; one each for each point of the compass, symbolizing his dominion over all of the regions of the earth. Saya San mounted a lion throne, modeled after that of the Konbaung monarchs, and brandished the traditional regalia of a Burman ruler, including a white umbrella and the crown and sword of victory. (Adas 142)

Perhaps most importantly, Saya San was believed to possess powers that would render the rebels invulnerable to bullets, and this enabled him to amass a sizeable following (Aung-Thwin and Aung-Thwin 220-21; See also Cady 311).

Events in the novel take place against a similar backdrop, but Orwell downplays the notion that a native uprising might pose any real danger to the colonial authority, intertwining the theme of rebellion with the machinations of the villainous magistrate U Po Kyin instead. In describing the Thongwa rebellion, for example, he draws on historical fact, yet makes light of the details, some of which at times border on the comical. Hearing about the planned rebellion, U Po Kyin’s kindhearted wife, for instance, fears for the rebels: “‘They are very foolish, those villagers. What can they do with their dahs and spears against the Indian soldiers? They will be shot down like wild animals’” (142). U Po Kyin, however, callously dismisses the issue: “‘But they are only a pack of superstitious peasants. They have put their faith in these absurd bullet-proof jackets that are being distributed to them’” (142). Revealing his own role, he then boasts: “‘That magician [weiksa] whom I brought from Rangoon is a clever fellow. He has toured all over India as a circus conjurer. The bullet-proof jackets were bought at Whiteaway & Laidlaw’s stores, one rupee eight annas each. They are costing me a pretty penny, I can tell you’” (143). Similarly, after the revolt is put down, we learn that it had involved a mere seven rebels who had been armed with “one shotgun with a damaged left barrel,” “six home-made guns” that “could be fired, after a fashion, by thrusting a nail through the touch-hole and striking it with a stone,” “thirty-nine twelve-bore cartridges,” “eleven dummy guns carved out of teakwood,” and “some large Chinese crackers which were to have been fired in terrorem” (234).

Unlike the meager crowd U Po Kyin was able to assemble, however, Saya San’s 1930 insurrection seriously threatened the colonial regime and resulted in widespread rioting and looting, much of which directly targeted Indians (Adas 38; Christian 244). Primitive perhaps, it was still a force to be reckoned with, and as Thant Myint-U notes, “[b]y June 1931 the government had to deploy over eight thousand troops, and by that summer, seven new battalions, six Indian and one British, had been added” (209). Nevertheless, Saya San and his followers, protected only by crude weapons, sacred amulets, and magical tattoos, eventually proved to be no match for British bullets. The rebellion and the brutal manner in which it was quelled would mark a turning point in the relationship between the Burmese and the British.

Saya San was eventually arrested, and volunteering to defend him were two youthful politicians who later went on to play major roles in the Burmese political scene: Dr. Ba Maw and U Saw. Although their efforts were in vain and Saya San was eventually found guilty of sedition and hanged, both gained personally from their association with the Saya San rebellion, and both eventually held the position of Burmese Premier. Says John F. Cady:

Dr. Ba Maw exploited [the situation] skillfully for personal ends. It afforded him a springboard to a colorful political career, first as education minister, then as first head of the cabinet after 1937, and finally as chief of state during the Japanese occupation. (317)

Likewise, U Saw, whom Cady describes as “a meagerly educated but politically cunning third-grade pleader from Tharrawaddy,” a district that had been a hotbed of dissent throughout the 1920s and also the seat of the Saya San rebellion, later appropriated from the Saya San rebellion the galon (mythical bird) symbol, which he used as the symbol of his own political party (317-18). U Saw was later to achieve notoriety when he was convicted of and executed for the assassination of de facto Prime Minister Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1947. The leap from peasant uprisings to the end of British rule was thus not as great as Orwell likely imagined it would be.

Due to concerns that Burmese Days was based so closely on actual people and events that it might be deemed libelous, the novel was not published in Britain until almost a year after it was published in the US, and today, June 24, 2018, marks the 83rd anniversary of the novel’s publication in Britain. Seventy years have now elapsed since Burma, now officially Myanmar, gained its independence, yet sadly, the country in many ways continues to reel from the after-effects of over 120 years of British imperialism. The nation has just recently begun to emerge from a self-imposed isolation, and it has been only two years since a newly elected civilian government has been in place, though in reality, its role is still much constrained by a powerful military. While known for his prescience, it is unlikely that even Orwell could have foreseen the trajectory of the nascent nationalist movement he saw beginning to gain momentum while in Burma. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is intriguing to look back and see how Orwell’s novel alludes to many of the events that were taking place in the country in the 1920s and early 1930s. Perhaps even more striking, much about the country’s future – including issues that continue to play out in Burma today – were foreshadowed in Orwell’s Burmese Days.



Works Cited


Adas, Michael. Prophets of Rebellion: Millenarian Protest Movements against the

European Colonial Order. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979, Print.

Aung-Thwin, Michael and Maitrii Aung-Thwin. A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times. London: Reaktion, 2012. Print.

Cady, John. A History of Modern Burma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1958. Print.

Christian, John LeRoy. Burma and the Japanese Invader. Bombay: Thacker & Company, 1945. Print.

Gravers, Mikael. Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma: An Essay on the

Historical Practice of Power. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999. Print.

Ikeya, Chie. Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma. U of Hawai’i, 2011.

Maung Htin Aung. “George Orwell and Burma.” Asian Affairs 1.1 (1970): 19-28. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Life and Art. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. Print.

Orwell, George. Burmese Days. 1934. London: Penguin, 1989. Print.

—. The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958. Print.

Thant Myint-U. 2006. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.


Uploaded 24 June 2018



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