“Land of Laughter”: British and American views of Burma, 1812-2012

When we read about Burma in history books, we read about war.  However, the first representatives of the English speaking nations to that part of the world were Baptist missionaries who saw Burma as “the land of laughter.”

Adoniram Judson, the son of a New England preacher (and America’s “first foreign missionary”), chose to go to Burma because Adoniram felt it most needed the Christian gospel. (Everywhere else had British missionaries, apart from the countries that would kill him for trying to talk about his faith.)

So in February of 1812, just days after getting married, Adoniram Judson and his wife Anne Hasseltine Judson said goodbye to their loved ones and sailed away.

The journey to Burma was a dangerous one when the world was at war.  After being detained as illegal aliens by the East India Company, the Judsons were eventually allowed to continue to their final destination.

picture of anne judson sitting at a desk, bible open, in front of palm trees with buddhist temple in background
Anne Hasseltine Judson, engraving by F. Halpin

The only other westerners in the country in 1813 were an English missionary who was married to a Burmese, and a small congregation of Catholics (of mainly Portuguese descent.)  The majority of the country was Buddhist, and its leaders had a reputation for ruthlessness.

Apparently, the king of Burma thought of himself as one of the most powerful leaders in the world at the time, on par with, or perhaps even superior to, the emperor of China.

(Note: I hope some Burmese speakers can enlighten me on the Burmese view.  Most of what I read is by English speaking observers from outside.)

They Judsons had heard that at one time, the king was so angry at an alleged betrayal, that he had 200 members of the royal family buried up to their necks in sand (and presumably left to rot.)

However, despite rumors about the King’s ruthlessness, the Judsons found the Burmese they met to be very welcoming and friendly people.

Ann Judson was a tall woman, with a charming personality, and she especially liked the cheerful way the Burmese women.  Ann disliked what she saw as women being treated like animals, or the fact that girls were not taught to read and write. But she loved their warmth and laughter, which she found refreshing, compared to the reservedness of women in other parts of Asia (and perhaps compared to her native New England.)

Adoniram didn’t have much luck with his job of finding converts.  It took him six years to get one Burmese to consider converting to Protestantism.  Perhaps it was because the Burmese were strong in their own religion, or maybe that’s because Adoniram spent so much time writing a Burmese-English dictionary and attempting to translate the Bible into Burmese (and make Burmese language religious tracks.)

Adoniram had a Burmese secretary, and his wife helped a lot too, but he really took on too much work for one man.

As there were so few foreigners in Burma at the time, the war of 1812 didn’t really hurt the relationship between the kingdom’s British and American residents.  They were united by a common language, by a common religion, and by the fact that everyone else was so different.And eventually, when the Burmese felt the western world was ganging up on it, they were all thrown into prison together.

Adoniram himself was thrown in irons.

While being thrown in irons may not seem like a big deal for the time (sailors in the British navy met with worse punishments for minor infractions), there was a lot at stake for Adoniram and his wife.

The Judson’s had a newborn baby, which Mrs. Judson was too ill to produce milk to feed.

Adoniram’s jailers took a degree of pity on him, and allowed him to travel, with the baby, daily.  Adoniram’s partial freedom consisted of begging from door to door, legs enchained, looking for a wetnurse who could feed his young baby. Though the war meant that other mothers were out of milk, he was able to find many Burmese women willing to help.

It was the British time in Burma, however, that our history books talk most about.  Maha Bandula, the Burmese hero of the war which saw the start of the British takeover, had once spoken to Mrs. Judson.  She apparently gave him some advice on how to treat prisoners, and how to deal with the British.

Unfortunately, the Burmese under-estimated their British adversaries, and the country was soon under the grip of British power.

The British point of view here seems to be that the Burmese king got big headed, and tried to claim British (or East India Company) territory as his own.  In any case, there are records of Mrs. Judson speaking to officers in the East India Company, and helping to mediate between the two sides.

Apparently, thanks to Mrs. Judson’s efforts, the war was less bloody than it might have been otherwise.

At this point, Burma seemed to be treated as an extension of British India.  It was administered by the Company, and it wasn’t treated as a politically independent country by the Western World until World War II.

However, when English speaking visitors went to Burma, they saw the difference between it and “India”, especially in its culture.

“The women of Burma” wrote the San Francisco Call on September 1, 1912 “give mighty testimony to the fact that emancipation of its women brings happiness to a people.” The paper continued that “India, of all the nations of the world, is the one land where the condition of woman is degraded to a place lower than that of beasts.”

Of India, the paper complained of child brides, of women being “slaves to their husbands”, of the repression of widows  “doomed to a life of wretchedness”, and who would have, under the old regime “been burned alive on their husband’s funeral pile.”

Women, according to the Call, were held in lower esteem than the beasts, and the beauty of the Taj Majal, dedicated to a woman of beauty, was seen as an ironic contrast to the real treatment of India’s women.  Less than one half of one percent of the 144 million women in India, the article claimed, could even read and write.

Not so in nearby Burma “the land of laughter and sunshine, of happy childhood and free womanhood.”  Burma was “perhaps the happiest land in all the mysterious, glittering east.”

I wonder if that writer read the letters of Mrs. Judson when speaking of the “frank, open, kindly life of the Burmese people, free from caste, light hearted, laughter loving, friendly disposed toward all living things.”  It sounds like what she said too.

The Javanese were equally charming, the writer continued, but the Burmese were more frank.  Despite being so light hearted and cheerful, or perhaps because of it, the Burmese were tied with the Japanese and Javanese as having “the honor of being the politest people on earth.”

A Burmese saying of the time was that “Courtesy is the mark of a great man; discourtesy, the mark of a little one.”

These people had “respect for the aged, gentleness and loving consideration for little children, and unfailing courtesy to all mankind, including even the stranger within their gates.”

But what of Mrs. Judson seeing the low state of Burmese women?  That view was not shared by the writer of nearly 100 years later.  “Burma is the original land of woman’s rights in the far east, and woman’s position in this lovely garden spot is a most amazing thing.”  This is  “In contrast with the position of women in Algeria and the Barbary States [North Africa], Egypt, Turkey, […], there the identity of womankind is invariably hidden beneath the yashmack and behind the mysterious latticed windows of […] harems; and in even greater contrast with the bad picture of woman’s life in India and China, Burma stands alone, and presents the most astonishing spectacle of an eastern land where woman’s place is side by side with her husband, going with him hand in hand, his friend and comrade, and not his slave.”

Men in Burma apparently wore Turbans, “while the little brown ladies invariably go bareheaded.  The Burmese women have beautiful hair of almost purple blackness, which is sometimes so long that it sweeps the ground when they stand erect.”

The benefits of treating their women well were apparent to the writer for the Call, and “in Burma the poorest of the people seldom know the meaning of hunger.  Rags and tatters are quite unknown, and even the lowliest of these little people are very cleanly and dress in the bright colors for which the Burmese show a childish love.”  The fondness they have for nature translates into beauty of their appearance, both in clothing and in the pogadas they live in.”

The social customs in Burma were perhaps being displayed as a model for parts of the Western world.

“Marriage does not give a Burmese man any power over his wife’s property, and she remains in sole possession of whatever she may possess at the time of her marriage, as well as anything that she may inherit afterward.”  In fact, the Burmese apparently married for love, rather than economic reasons, and marriage was happier there.

It wasn’t only the women of Burma that caught that writer’s attention.

“In no other eastern land is the life of the home so happy and contented.  The men as a rule are kind and considerate.” And while the women are doing their part of the work, going tout to fetch water “the men of the village play lovingly with the little ones, like the big children that they are, […] and listening to the tinkle of the temple bells, and dreaming their quiet lives away under the tropic sun.”

And the journalist ended by quoting another visitor.  “Burma is the land of regrets, because people who have been there are never the same again.  There lives always in their hearts a regret for the land they have left behind.”

Yet there is no mention of female literacy in Burma.  Had it improved since the Judsons had their visit?  Presumedly so, or at least it must have been higher than in India, or else why mention the low level of female literacy in India?

That idyllic picture was far from the Burma we see in the west’s 20th century history books. Burma gets most attention for being a battleground.  Yet, in 1910, The Deseret Evening News saw the peace in Burma as a contrast to the turmoil in India.  In India, there was “great unrest” as the people wanted to break away from Britain.  India had riots, assassinations, “bomb throwings and all sorts of anarchistic demonstrations.” While in Rangoon, the lieutenant governor claimed that the peace in Burma resulted in “rapid growth.”

One of the most important buildings was the post office where “something like 23,000,000 letters, 3,000,000 books and 2,000,000 newspapers go through the mails every year.”

Among other things, the British had introduced a poll tax into Burma, which in 1910 was equivalent to a dollar sixty five for married men, and 90 cents for bachelors. The government had spent about a million dollars a year to look after the forests, but it was a good investment, as those same forests brought it three times that much in revenue from the timber it produced.

At that time, there appeared to be a lot of administrators in Burma, keeping books in the spacious government buildings.  And the government was investing in creating rail links with China and India.

African American soldiers taking supplies to India along the Stilwell Road
“U.S.-built Army trucks wind along the side of the mountain over the Ledo supply road now open from India into Burma…” n.d. 208-AA-45L-1 U.S. National Archives

These links were apparently never finished, but the dream continued up until the building of the great Stillwell Road.  The Stilwell road was meant to help the war effort in the second world War, to get Allied supplies through to India and China. Thousands of Burmese and other allies died building it, although some Western leaders saw it as a folly.

I haven’t seen a lot on Burmese history after World War II.  It achieved independence from Britain, in 1948, but little notice is given to how.

After the Cold War, the American news networks showed Burma as a place where Buddhist monks set themselves on fire in protest of the military junta.

A film called Beyond Rangoon showed a nurse who left America to escape her violent past, only to find refugees from Burma crossing the Thai border. The movie ended with a plea, showing the people of Burma asking America for help. (The US had economic sanctions against the ruling regime in Burma at the time, but that’s apparently not the kind of help they were asking for.)

I recently read a travel article of a journalist who went to Burma to try and follow the path of the remains of the Stilwell Road. The Stilwell Road, however, was on forbidden land, territory where the military government apparently kept minorities in a state of virtual slavery.  In his quest to find the road, he came across some of these people, and was followed by the authorities. When he came back, he reported how the government thought he was a spy, and how he suspected they tortured those who he interviewed. He felt guilty for endangering the people who helped him in his selfish quest.

The media told us how the Burmese government changed its name to Myanmar, how men were not allowed to wear western dress, how a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi was locked up in house arrest, and how all communication outside was banned.  Burma was no longer seen as the land of laughter, it was depicted as a land of tyranny and suffering.  That is, when it was depicted at all.

Even with all the news about tyrants, torture and terrorism in the rest of the world, Burma could not be forgotten.  In 2008, Rambo made an appearance in Burma.  Who was Sylvester Stallone’s character there to save this time?  Christian aid workers.  Perhaps this was a nod to America’s early relationship with Burma, established by the Judsons, and how that relationship soured over the years.

In May, 2012, President Obama announced that “today  I am nominating our first U.S. Ambassador to Burma in 22 years, Derek Mitchell.” Australia announced yesterday that it was getting rid of sanctions.

Some people say “it’s too soon.” Well, the sanctions have not helped the people of Burma. Perhaps dialogue will. And hopefully, one day Burma will again be known as “the land of laughter.”


  1. interesting and new to me. It would be interesting to know the differences if any between burma and thailand evolution in the period.
    I think there was a bloody war in burma right after ww2 between the british and communist guerillas.
    You can complete with the current events and Aung Sui Ku visit to europe. Is she meeting her children after all these years? I think her husband died in exile

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