It was the morning of May 17th, 1931 in Maymyo, Burma, and a riderless pony trotted into the compound of Syed Ali – the owner of the Maymyo Electric Supply Company – its saddle-back covered in blood.
Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), situated at the furthest edge of the Shan plateau, was the principal British hill-station in Burma, to which the colonial government in Rangoon decamped for three months during the hot season. Its manicured lawns and prim, trimmed-back rides recalled the English countryside. “The suggestion of a Surrey landscape is unescapable,” remarked one well-known traveller and plant-collector, “if only Surrey rejoiced in such a climate!”
It was down one such ride that morning that Captain Rawdon Briggs of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, having received a telephone call from Syed Ali’s house, led a search party of Gurkha soldiers, only to retire when night fell. The next day they were out early, and at 7:30 a.m. Briggs discovered a body some 200 yards from the path in the underbrush.
The corpse was that of Henry Treise Morshead, a well-known explorer, fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and director of the Survey of India’s Burma circle operations. Morshead was perhaps best known for his involvement in George Mallory’s 1921 and 1922 attempts to summit Everest, during which he lost three of his fingers to frostbite, and for discovering the source of the Dihang River in Tibet. Now he was lying dead on the forest floor in one of the remotest regions of Britain’s global empire with a bullet in his chest and one in his back. He had been shot at point blank range.
The timing of Morshead’s murder could not have been worse for the government in Rangoon. On the night of 22 December 1930, hundreds of miles to the South, a number of armed Burmese peasants, spurred on by the nationalist agitator and renowned medicine man Hsaya San, had attacked forestry officials near the town of Tharrawaddy. Within weeks the unrest spread like wild-fire throughout the rice-growing region of the Irrawaddy Delta and spilled onto the Shan plateau, mutating into a full-blown rebellion against British rule that would take the British two years to put down.
The Burmese grievances were real. The global depression sparked by the Wall Street crash of 1929 had ripped the bottom out of the rice market. In the resulting squeeze, the predominately Indian landlords and moneylenders who owned most of the agricultural land in the Delta were calling in their debts. At the same time, a movement for Burmese independence had been gaining ground since 1920, led by the GCBA (General Council of Burmese Associations) in the city and the wunthanu athins or “own race” associations in the countryside.
Ethnic tensions were high. The previous spring, a group of Indian stevedores had struck on the docks in Rangoon. Burmese workers had been called in as scabs, but when the company eventually reached an agreement with the Indian workers and called them back to work, the incoming Indians clashed with the outgoing Burmese. The resulting three days of anti-Indian riots cost hundreds of lives and left thousands wounded. The British police did nothing, and the army was not called out for three days.
This powder keg of racial, political, and economic animus was fueled by the perception among Burmese Buddhists that the arrival of a new chakravarti or universal ruler was nigh, someone who would revive the legacy of the Buddha’s teachings, his sasana, and raise Buddhism to its former glory as the state religion of Burma.
Nevertheless, British authorities were surprised by the speed and scale of the rebellion. Having put down several following their conquest of the country fifty-five years earlier, they believed they were dealing with a coup on the part of a pretender king to the Konbaung throne – the official government report talked of magic, bullet-proofing tattoos and a secret crowning ceremony involving a blood-pact.
In fact, for all his regal rhetoric, Hsaya San was not a pretender king, but a modern political leader, a district leader of the GCBA, and a well-known speechifier.
According to the historian Maitrii Aung-Thwin, the British were used to viewing rebellion in Burma through the lens of their own ideas about Burmese superstition, criminality, and “traditional” Burmese culture. The source of the rebellion, it turned out, was much simpler, and far more dangerous – it was general dislike of British rule. In the British magistrate and author Maurice Collis’s words, every “man and woman in Burma wanted to get rid of the English Government.” In this context the death of a well known British civil servant would have far-reaching consequences beyond Maymyo.
The Rangoon papers quickly caught wind of Henry Morshead’s death and began to speculate wildly as to the identity of the killer. The rebellion was still ongoing and dacoits – gangs of armed rebels – had been seen in the area of Maymyo the night before the murder. There had been other attacks. A few weeks earlier, an Indian man by the name of Ahmed Ali had attempted to kill a British forestry official named Heaney. The man was a disgruntled employee and he was agitated so he missed Heaney entirely and was quickly disarmed. Morshead had been present at the scene. Perhaps the murder was part of a larger plot against the British administration at Maymyo?
But the papers somewhat ironically (given his status as a senior British civil servant in a British colony) claimed that Morshead had no “obvious” enemies and was well-liked by all who knew him. The government began to conduct inquiries and quickly arrested two local inhabitants of Maymyo – a Gurkha and a Burmese man – neither of whom were named in the subsequent report.
The Gurkha admitted to having gone hunting in the vicinity of where the murder took place on the same day with a gun he had borrowed from the Burmese man. He said that he mistook Morshead for a stag and fired at him, hitting him in the back. But when he realized his mistake, and Morshead advanced on him to take the gun, it went off in his hand, hitting Morshead in the chest and killing him. The Gurkha even had a bruise on his head to suggest a struggle.
But the final report was ambiguous. It was determined that the Gurkha’s story could not have been true, because it was impossible to cover the distance between his house and the scene of the crime on foot in the time required by the sequence of events. Furthermore, it was determined that there was “no evidence to connect the attack with rebel activity,” even though dacoits had been seen in the area the night before.
Ultimately, Whitehall declared that “the case must remain a mystery.” The King and Queen expressed their condolences to the family via the deceased’s brother, the Royal librarian Sir Owen Morshead, and promised to ensure a pension which never really managed to materialize. Henry’s widowed wife, Evelyn, left for England with her five children, never to return to Burma or the scene of her husband’s death.
But Morshead’s murder was so upsetting to his children and the case left so clearly unresolved that his son, Ian Morshead embarked upon a journey to Burma in 1980 to revisit the scene of the crime and perhaps solve the mystery surrounding his father’s untimely death.
Arriving in Maymyo, a town he remembered well from his childhood, Ian called at the house he had grown up in and was soon dining with the man who held his father’s position in the now-independent Burma Forest Service. He walked the same streets he walked as a boy and followed the same woodland rides (now bullock tracks) to the place that the report said his father had been murdered – all the while looking for clues as to the circumstances of his death.
One thing stood out to Ian in the reporting of Henry’s death: the riderless horse returned to Syed Ali’s compound and not to Henry’s house. Looking through his father’s diaries, Ian realized that his father often looked after the horses of neighbors. From this he surmised that since the horse had returned to Syed Ali’s compound, it must have been Syed Ali’s horse. His father’s colleague Kenneth Mason confirmed that Henry often borrowed other people’s horses to train them. If the horse was indeed Syed Ali’s horse, then was it possible that Syed Ali had arranged the killing?
Ian asked his aunt Ruth – who had been living with her brother in Maymyo at the time – about Syed Ali and she said that her brother hated him. Morshead reportedly had a nasty temper and, as a regular old sahib, was quick to throw a book at his Burmese teacher or to discipline his servants. Ali was a prominent businessman in Maymyo and a member of the Freemasons. Morshead’s diary had him dining as guest of honor alongside Ali at the United Club Anniversary dinner only a few nights prior. Was it possible that one or the other of the men had held some sort of grudge?
As Ian walked the still tulip-lined lanes of Maymyo, a tip led him to the house of John Fenton, an Anglo-Burman who had worked for the forestry service during the period of his father’s death. When he arrived, he wrote, Fenton took one look at him and promptly sat down to write a statement.
The old man claimed that he had seen Syed Ali out riding one day with “a lady” related to Mr. Morshead and that he had heard a rumor at the time that Morshead had objected to Ali riding with his sister Ruth and that he had had it out for him. Soon after the murder, Fenton said, Ali left Maymyo – the implication being that he had been deported.
This added a whole new dimension to Morshead’s search and provided him with the twist to his book on the subject of his father’s death. Returning to England, Ian sought out his aunt Ruth who denied ever having met Syed Ali, but speculated that “your father must have made an enemy somehow.” Morshead chose to believe his aunt and did not pursue the matter any further.
The death of many of the people involved in the case (including Ian in 2014) means that the time is right to shed new light on the question of Henry Morshead’s murder. Many of the writers of the history of British Burma were direct actors in the events they described and therefore their accounts deserve a re-analysis in the light of new approaches to imperial history and the history of the region.
New understandings of ethnic conflict, the growth of pre-colonial nationalist movements, gender relations in the colonial environment, and the relationship between the colonizer and colonized mean that we can now probe deeper than ever before into areas of the archive that might have seemed unimportant or sensitive to past historians.
Amorous relations between the races in Burma was a subject of much debate during the 1920s and 30s in elite circles. Of particular concern to Burmese and English commentators alike was the influx of Indian immigration to the country and marriages between Indian men and Burmese women. The resulting mixed population were known as zerbadis and were distinctly disliked by the Burmese. Moreover, relations between Asian men and European women were the subject of legislation on the part of the colonial government. In 1902, European bar-girls were banned in Rangoon and Calcutta out of fear that they might be dishonored by their Asian clients. Sex and race were one more way in which the imperial elite aimed to create what Ann Stoler has called “categories of difference”, that is ways to distinguish colonizer and colonized, and any slip-ups here – such as the illegitimate offspring of European men and Burmese women – were an embarrassment to the colonial order of things.
In this environment, perhaps the colonial government wanted to save Ruth the “embarrassment” of a further inquiry into her relationship with the Indian Syed Ali. Or maybe – in light of the recent attacks on Indians – they did not wish to probe the matter further for fear it might exacerbate pre-existing ethnic tensions.
Though it was ruled out at the time, it is still possible that the murder was politically-motivated. Under the 1929 Simon Commission, the Brits were busy readying Burma for political separation from India. A high-profile murder of a British civil servant in such a political climate might have bolstered the argument that Burma was not politically ready for separation, or that the safety of British officers in the country could not be insured without the help of the Indian Army.
Another possibility is that the murder was motivated by the intersection of politics and business interests. One of the major grievances of the Hsaya San rebels was that they were being denied access to forest products such as bamboo to build their houses, firewood to cook their food, and thanaka and cutch (one of the key ingredients in betel quids) to sell at market. In the years leading up to the rebellion, the number of forest-related “offences” – such as theft, arson, and illegal grazing – sky-rocketed alongside the general crime rate in Burma and forest officials were often targeted as some of the most visible agents of the colonial regime.
Morshead was not with the Forest Office, but he was Survey of India, the body which consulted the Forest Office on where to cut down and where to re-plant trees. He may have been seen as being “in league” with forestry officials and therefore have become a target. The Maymyo Electric Supply Company run by Syed Ali had originally struck a deal with the government for access to timber, but by 1932 was reducing its requirements. Perhaps Ali was mad at the Forest Office and so was resorting to other sources of power such as coal. Perhaps he sought revenge for some business disagreement? Or perhaps local residents had decided that Morshead was the next-worse thing to a forestry official and so he had to go?
We will likely never know for certain what transpired on that spring day in 1931, as so many of those involved seem to have been dead-set on covering up the truth. But what we do know is that the murder of Henry Morshead was not an isolated incident. Yes, his murder was odd in that dissatisfaction with the colonial regime was generally directed at the ethnic groups that performed the functionary roles of British power – the Indians, the Chin, Karen, Kachin and Shans. But at the same time it was indicative of some of the larger issues at play – namely, ethnic conflict, state control, fears about inter-racial relationships, the fight over access to natural resources and the growth of Burmese nationalism on the whole – topics which remain relevant to the Rohingya Crisis and the Myanmar of today.
Aung-Thwin, M. The Return of the Galon King: History, Law and Rebellion in Colonial Burma (University of Ohio Press, 2010).
Bryant, R.L. The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma 1824-1994 (University of Hawai’i Press, 1997).
Collis, M. Trials in Burma (Faber, 1937).
Morshead, I. The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead: A True Story from the Days of the Raj (Oleander Press, 1982).
Report on the Forest Administration of Burma Excluding the Federated Shan States (Rangoon, 1925; 1932; 1933).
Stoler, A. and Frederick Cooper. “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (University of California Press, 2007).
Wright, A. “Maintaining the Bar: Regulating European Barmaids in Colonial Calcutta and Rangoon,” in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 45 (2017).