Book Reviews

The Kinwun Min-Gyi’s London Diary:

The First Mission of a Burmese Minister to Britain, 1872

by
L.E. Bagshawe

2006. 412 pp., 26 b&w ill., 1 table, index, 24.5 x 17.5 cm., hardcover

ISBN-10: 974-524-021-4 $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-021-6



Book review by Michael W. Charney

(Journal of the Siam Society)
2007 Vol. 95

This book involves two men well known for their contributions to our knowledge of Burma. The first, U Gaung, otherwise known as the Kinwun Mingyi (actually a title, not a personal name), a scholar-official of pre-conquest Burma (and collaborator with the colonial regime afterwards), travelled to the West twice (London and Paris) in the early 1870s, made meticulous notes of his travels, and introduced the Burmese court to Europe. The second, L. Euan Bagshawe, is a former colonial officer (Indian Civil Service from 1941 until independence) and later employee in the Rangoon office of Imperial Chemical Industries until nationalization in 1964 (see the foreword to The Maniyadanabon of Shin Sandalinkd). After a subsequent thesis written on colonial education in Burma at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), Bagshawe embarked on a series of useful translations of some of the most significant texts of the Konbaung period (Shin Sandalinka’s Mani-yadana-bon and U Po Hlaing’s Raza-dhamma-thingaha-kyan) and colonial-era, retroactive compilations of data on it (U Tin’s Myanma-Min Ok-chok-poun-sadan).
   The translation offered in the present volume is that of U Gaung’s diaries of his journey to London and back in 1872-1873, as published in two volumes under the editorship of Pe Maung Tin in 1953-1954 (another edition, used by the present reviewer, was published in 1908 and edited by U Ba Gun). Bagshawe’s is not the first translation. An earlier translation of sorts was made in 1974 by the Burmese nationalist historian Maung Htin Aung in the Journal of the Burma Research Society, but Htin Aung’s version amounts to a summary rather than a formal translation. Bagshawe, who completed his own translation before he read the former, has made use of the very useful introduc¬tory matter provided by Htin Aung in his 1974 publication. In addition to Gaung’s diaries, Bagshawe has collected a number of articles on the embassy, printed in various newspapers in the British Isles, that help to shed more light on the events discussed.

   Gaung’s travels had a major impact on the Burmese court and on Burmese intellectual trends. Until then, the Burmese had only vague notions about the world outside of Asia (and even large parts within it). Newspaper accounts, drawings, information gathered from European visitors, and so on, certainly provided some data, but it was really only with the circulation of Gaung’s reports of his travels that this information could be brought together within a new conceptual framework. This was especially so with distances travelled, giving the court a much more realistic idea of the dimensions of the globe and Burma’s place (and size) on it. Nevertheless, it is easy to overestimate the impact of Gaung’s records, as they would suggest, from the numerous sentences pregnant with intimations of surprise at the scale and organization of Western industry, that this was something completely new to the Burmese mind. It was not. Burmese had become knowledgeable about such things during visits to government installations in Calcutta (and earlier through texts on Western science) over the previous four decades, and indeed the Burmese themselves had already begun to experiment with Western machinery. What the reader might miss in what appears to be evidence of Burma’s backwardness in the face of Western superiority is that this text is really about a quite apposite development—for the first time, Burmese (aside from a few youths taken away by missionaries to Europe for re¬ligious training) had left Asia on their own initiative to build connections with the West and to gain more information regarding it. It was a major moment in Burma’s opening up to the outside world.
   Bagshawe provides a very thorough historical introduction, although focused on British-Burmese relations (however, one would have expected much more on Gaung himself, such as personal contacts with the British on the frontier where he was posted and his personal connections to Mindon), in pp. ix-xlvi. The translation itself represents a significant amount of labour on Bagshawe’s part. The original text is not always easy to translate into English, especially since Gaung was describing many technical subjects for which Burmese terms did not yet exist and attempting to make sense of things whose internal mechanisms he did not understand (the mechanical Turk, for example, on p. 392). It is also a very lengthy text. For these reasons it is commendable that Bagshawe undertook this project rather than focus on many of the shorter texts available from the precolonial period (although these too are important for their own reasons). The result is a very rewarding text, a pleasure to read and informative with every page. As with Bagshawe’s other translations, the original editor’s introductions have been retained and translated
   The only real drawbacks to the book, and these are minor in view of the translator’s greater contribution, are that (1) his footnotes are extremely informal and (2) more research could have been conducted regarding proper names. This reviewer suspects that comments made in the footnotes may be the original, unadulterated jottings one takes down on paper in the process of translation. Footnote 108, “Literally ‘iron head fillet’—don’t know what it means” should not have remained in this form in the published work. Although minor, sentences of this kind pepper the footnotes throughout and it gives the reader less confidence in the translation, as if the whole remains a work in progress. On a similar note, the identification of Western proper names, the people U Gaung met, the companies he encountered, and the places he visited are too frequently given with a parenthetical question mark. Again, the reader hesitates to place much confidence in the identification in question. Yet these questions could have been resolved with a little more effort at the identifications. Perhaps this problem can be rectified in later editions of the work. A problem perhaps attributable to the publisher and not to Bagshawe is the index, which misses key topics in the text and sometimes organizes them in confusing ways (one can only find automata under ‘Crystal Palace,’ not independently, as it should have been).
   The present volume is an enormous boon to scholars working on precolonial Burma, although it may be especially useful to a growing number of scholars, not trained in the Burmese language, who seek to do comparative work on Burma and other South-East Asian societies. The present translation, just as was the case with Bagshawe’s earlier translations, thus provides a bridge into the understudied, yet critical, Konbaung period. The present reviewer highly recommends the volume for scholars and students alike.

[Read a review from The Nation] [Read a review from the Planet Myanmar] [More Orchid Press Reviews]