It was March 1824 when the first Anglo-Burmese war began. The Governor General of India had declared war on Burma after they had invaded Assam for the third time. This resulted in Major General Archibald Campbell and Naval Captain Frederick Marryat leading the British Expeditionary Force and Naval regiments, an army of 11,000 strong, to Burma where they descended upon Rangoon (now Yangon) and took position in the fortified Shwedagon Pagoda compound. Rangoon was the principle sea-port of the Burmese Empire and the British had snuck up on it by surprise.
Among the 6,000 British and 5,000 Indian men were Lieutenant Joseph Moore and his comrade R. B. Graham, serving with the 89th Regiment. They decided to document their time by making sketches of the realities of war juxtaposed against the beautiful and exotic back drop of Burma. These sketches were later turned into a series of eighteen aquatints. It was a fairly common practice for soldiers to record their time during war or on expedition, and like centuries of men who had made visual recordings of their moments in battle, little is known about them but these superb prints. These are the first large-scale views available of Burma, a previously unknown area to the British eye. A year after these prints were published, the novelist Captain Marryat published his own series of six plates.
The printing method used in this series is aquatint. The aquatint is a form of copper engraving created by Dutch painter and print-maker Jan van der Velde during the mid 17th century. The process was later developed by French etcher and painter Jean Baptiste Le Prince in the 1760s in Paris, and in 1770, passed on to his understudy Paul Perez Burdett, a British cartographer and printmaker. Burdett taught and sold the process to Paul Sandby who coined the term “Aquatint”. It became a popular method in England amongst artists and followers of the prevalent Romantic Movement between 1800 and 1850. It appealed to those specifically, “in search of the picturesque”. An aquatint offers a high-quality watercolour imitation, complete with all the tonal complexities and grainy textures you would expect of a painting.
These views are a contrast of battle scenes in a seemingly unassuming paradise. The towering golden Pagodas and glorious Temples against the creamy-dusky skies of Rangoon, paired with views of violence, fire-power and the grief of warfare. The prominence of the British Imperial red uniforms and triumphant flags in amongst the smoke of battle give a sense of tension within these idyllic landscapes. The exquisite detailing of these aquatints adds to the dreamy quality of the views overlooking Rangoon – making a truly attractive picture. Aquatints also gave the artist more freedom to detail the sky. Before with methods such as copper and wood engraving, the sky was kept to a minimum as it would only be expressed as cross-hatching and pressurised engraving. The introduction of aquatint lead to a lowering of the horizon, as the artist were able to describe the sky and create an atmosphere more accurately.
Joseph Moore was romanticising the First Anglo-Burmese war, despite the loss of so many men and impending financial turbulence. These aquatints would have been passed around as a collection for the middle to upper class in England, bound within a plate book – with the intention of showing off and creating a particular imaginative atmosphere, in tune with the ‘Cult of the Picturesque’. They will have also given the viewer the impression of security in wars abroad – as they depict British regiments carrying out their duties without impediment.
Many of the scenes are tranquil and offer insight into the soldiers’ experiences, absorbing and appreciating their new surroundings and the cultures of Burma. The serenity of some of the views between scenes of battle offers a calm-before-the-storm affect to the viewing of the pieces. Plate books and print collections like these were the Instagram of their day – glamorising a moment in time for other people to try and simulate in their own minds what it was like to be there.
The British claimed military victory in 1826. Despite this triumph, it was a financially devastating war for both parties. Burma’s huge reparation bill of 1 million pounds effectively bankrupted its Royal Treasury. The British Indian alliance also went into economic turmoil, contributing to the Indian economic crisis of 1833. That in turn led to the removal of the remaining monopoly privileges of the British East India Company’s trade in China. The British-Indian army went on to fight two more wars against a now weakened Burma, in 1852, where they seized the entire lower-half of the country, and in 1885-1886 when the British annexed Burma in its entirety.
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