The forgotten lost tribe of Myanmar

By Win Sein

WE, in the olden days, have often come across a community of people, who have a fair complexion and then likewise, witnessed another community that has rather a darker complexion. All these people are actually halfbreed Eurasians that

brought about by the British people, Europeans, and Portuguese mercenaries and adventurers that came to Burma in about 1600 and 1700.

To speak about the originality of these Portuguese adventurers, mercenaries in the services of the Arakanese Kingdom of MraukU, and later of the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Filipe’s name is also recorded with the French spelling as Philippe de Brito, governor of Syriam, Burma. (Now Myanmar)

Filipe de Brito. was born to a French father in Lisbon, Portugal. He first travelled to Southeast Asia as a cabin boy and eventually served under Min Razagyi, King of Arakan and later became the governor of Syriam (now Thanlyin), in 1599, commanding three frigates and 3,000 men. He encouraged more Portuguese to settle in Syriam and constructed forts for defence, eventually sieging control of Syriam and announcing his freedom from Arakan, He captured Min Khamaung, crown prince of Arakan, but when Taungoo and Arakan were attacked, he was captured, keeping him as hostage until granted freedom from the Burmese in 1603. de Brito then married the daughter of Banya Dala of Martaban, becoming a subject of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (Siam, present-day Thailand).

King Ekathotsarot of Ayutthaya mobilized Banya Dala and de Brito to come to the aid of Toungoo when attacked by Ava, however, Toungoo had submitted to the King of Ava. Banya Dala and de Brito then burnt down Toungoo and brought back any remaining property and people, including Natshinnaung to Syriam, de Brito also took the opportunity of sieging objects of worship of the Buddha” and committed sacrilege to the point of forcibly demolishing Buddha images, sacred shrines and pagodas. In 1608, de Brito and his men, using elephants and forced labourers removed the Dhammazedi bell from the Shwedagon Pagoda and rolled it down Seinguttara Hill to a raft on the Pazundaung Creek. The bell and the raft were lashed to de Brito’s flagship for the journey across the river to Syriam, where the bell was to be melted down and made it into cannons. The load proved to be too heavy and at the confluence of the Bago and Yangon River, off what is now known as Monkey Point, the raft has broken up and the bell went down to the bottom, taking the de Brito’s flagship with it.

In 1615, de Brito’s Syriam was besieged by the Burmese forces of King Anaukpellun. After the fall of the city. de Brito was executed along with Natshinnaung, he was impelled brutally, his entrails spilt out in front of him, and it took him three days to die. More than 400 Portugueses were taken as prisoners of war back to Ava. These descendants of Portugueses have embraced 400 years of the history of the Catholic religion in Sagaing. Often, we heard news passed among people who happened to take a brief visit to the vicinity of nearby villages of Shwebo Township, to their surprise, some blueeyed and fair skin children greeted them with smiling faces. These children even reprimanded the visitors not to call them descendants of de Brito, but to address them as relatives of Mister Filipe de Brito. These children most probably might have been the remnant Portuguese soldiers fleeing from fighting a losing war and seeking a hiding place at nearby Shwebo Township, later on, they assimilated with the residents.

The loss of independence was painful enough for the Burmese people, worse still was the British decision to eliminate the monarchy --in the process of sending King Thibaw into exile, and to detach the government from religious affairs, thus depriving the Sanghas (monkhood) of its traditional status and official patronage, moreover the British eliminated the office of the patriarch of the Buddhist clergy. The demise of monarchy and the monkhood, these twin pillars of the society of Burma, was perhaps the most devastating aspect of the colonial period. Many refused to accept this situation.

The British colonists, first of all, established modern companies and large-scale Western enterprises for the purpose of future export of Burmese products, and then they engaged very much of their interest in the transportation sector. They founded the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, the railroads and most important of all, the teak extracting business in Upper Burma and rice milling industries in Lower Burma. We could see the Scottish people have contributed a major part in the development of Burma’s economy, even Burma was sometimes referred to as “the Scottish Colony” owing to the heavy role played by the Scotsmen in colonizing and running all the businesses in the country.

After Filipe de Brito wrestled control of Syriam from the Toungoo king, he brought in many Portugueses to permanently settled in Syriam, making the population of Portugueses increase tremendously in a few years so that the community of Portugueses mingled greatly with the English, Europeans and the Burmans, thus resulted finally to produce mixedblood Portuguese descendants, who have drawn into them the good characteristics of mannerism of the Europeans’ blood from their veins, and they all adopted English as the spoken language. And later on, making Syriam the biggest modernized town in Burma with the greatest number of mixed-blood Portuguese descendants and for the sake of prestige, they called themselves as Anglo - Burmans.

The Syriam’s Anglo-Burmans were not only gaining a respectable place among the population of Rangoon in their endeavour in the economic activities in Burma but were also delighted by the British Raj for their nature of quick adaptability to a new surrounding to suit a new purpose, so much so, the British Government have recruited many Anglo- Burmans into the Burma Rifles of the British colonial army. The Burma Police Force and the Burma Custom Department. And not least, almost all the engines of the famous Burma Railways were driven by these fair complexion European descendants.

During the outbreak of World War II, when the main army of the British had to evacuate from being captured by the advancing Japanese Army, many of the Anglo-Burman soldiers together with the ethnic races of Karen, Kachin, Shan and Rakhine soldiers distinguished their bravery in retreating to India and again had shown the same daring spirit in coming back for recapturing of Rangoon City. Many Anglo-Burmans, according to their education standard and could speak fluent English well, were mostly employed by the then Street (now Bo Aung Kyaw Street) to attend the Sunday Sermon given perhaps mostly by a Portuguese priest.

To mention a few distinguished persons of Anglo-Burman descendants who have contributed many efforts to Burma during the time of the British colonial era and post-war period of U Nu as Prime Minister, they were: -

1. Maha Thray Sithu James Barrington was a Burmese diplomat born on 4 August 1911 in Mawlamyineand died on 31 March 1992 in Edmonton, Canada. He was educated at the University of Oxford, and the University of Rangoon. After the Independence Day of Burma, he was appointed as Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office (Myanmar) from 1950 to 1955. He was Ambassador in Washington DC and concurrently Permanent Representative to the Headquarters of the United Nations and in May 1961, he became a member of a delegation to Geneva on the Conference on the subject of Laos country.

2. Lieutenant-General Smith Dun was the Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army. In actual fact, he was an ethnic Karen, it was said to be the first person belonging to the ethnic group to hold such a highest military office.

3. David Oliver Abel was a Myanmar economist, holding the military rank of a Brigadier-General in the Myanmar Army and has served with distinction as the Minister of the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Finance and Revenue and Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. And commonly appreciated by the Myanmar people as the country’s economic Czar throughout 1990.

The Anglo-Burmans and their descendants are typically a community of Eurasians, having derived a blood mixture from the blood veins of English, European, Portuguese and Myanmar. They are socially adaptable to any surroundings to suit their delights. They are independent and believe in freedom of choice, religion independent and law-abiding citizens, their Portuguese forefathers have paid allegiance to the country to which they were born or migrated. However, maybe, when after the 1962 coup-d’état in Myanmar, the exodus of Portuguese descendants scrambled like a lost tribe group of people left Myanmar and most of them settled in Perth in Australia for good.