Book Review—The King in Exile

By Hnin Wathan 18 August 2012

Not much has been written about the personal life of King Thibaw, the last king of Burma, after he was deposed by the British in 1885 to live in exile in Ratanagiri, a small and isolated town in India. And even less has been written, even in Burmese historical books, about the tragic lives of the four princesses.

For many Burmese people, Thibaw is known as the last king of Burma—a man of weak character who was easily manipulated by his strong-willed wife, Queen Supayalat. Despite being only the 41st son of King Mingdon, he was placed on the throne by Queen Supayalat’s mother and other influential ministers of the court who conspired to manipulate their “puppet.”

In Burma’s history, Thibaw’s rise to throne was marred by the massacre of a large number of royal family members, and his reign made infamous by marking the end of many centuries of monarchy due to British colonization.

Although “The King in Exile,” by debutant writer Sudha Shah, covers that part of Burma’s history to provide background context, it mainly focuses on the lives of the last Burmese royal family and its descendents. In particular, the book provides a comprehensive portrayal of their personal life, especially during exile in India and immediately afterwards.

The life of the royal family is divided into three parts—before, during and after exile. It starts with a background of Thibaw and Supayalat before detailing their rise to the throne and subsequent deposition by the British. This is followed by the royal family and Burma during the exile, and finally what happens to Queen Supayalat, the four princesses and their children with more detail given to the children of the fourth princess.

The first section gives readers a feel for the magnificent riches and power enjoyed by Thibaw and Supayalat in their palace as well as the intricacies and scheming alliances of the power struggle in court, and how it affected the future of the country.

The second and third parts highlight the impact British colonization had on Burma and Thibaw’s family personally. From being the sovereign of Burma, Thibaw was reduced to having to survive on a comparatively paltry allowance from the British government after his precious treasures and properties—much of his wealth subsequently unaccounted for—seized by the British.

Shah’s seven years of extensive historical research for this book is impressive. She made several trips to relevant cities—Ratnagiri and Kolkata in India as well as Rangoon, Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) and Mandalay in Burma—where the royal family and their descendants spent various parts of their lives.

Shah conducted interviews with the royal family’s descendents, as well as carrying out research at the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, National Archives of India in New Delhi, National Archives in Rangoon and the British and SOAS libraries in London.

Despite being a historical book, Shah’s writing style is readable and captivating yet concise. The third section on the lives of the four princesses and their children was the personal highlight as it is the first time anyone has written at length on the subject.

Throughout the book, Shah indicates whenever there is a lack of information on certain accounts—an appreciated demonstration of honesty. She also provides her analysis with very balanced views—giving the opposing perspectives of both the royal family and British government.

This is a true human story about the last Burmese royal family and their relationships—with their British controller, their social circle as well as among themselves. It has the elements of real life drama and tragedy.

On one hand, Thibaw and his family have to get approval from the British on every aspect of their lives—how much money they can spend per month, who they can meet, who they can hire and fire in their housing staff, who the princesses can marry, even what education the grandchildren receive.

Thibaw and Supayalat used to have the power of life and death over the Burmese people, and so life in exile, subjected to totalitarian control, must have been extremely strange and frustrating.

Conversely, the British government does not seem to have anticipated the nature of handling all affairs of the royal family, which was forced to live in total isolation and seclusion in a remote Indian town even though it was used to having all their wishes fulfilled.

The princesses grew up without any formal education and their peer group was principally limited to just staff—mostly uneducated Indians from the town and their Burmese “servants.” Would they have had better futures if properly schooled and exposed to other privileged societies?

The British government—in order to curb a possible rising of Burmese nationalistic spirit—did not allow the ashes of Thibaw, who died in exile in 1916, and his junior Queen Supayagalae to be brought back to Burma.

Was the British government being too severe on a family who had to live in exile in a foreign land for more than 31 years? These questions might surface in the reader’s mind upon finishing the book.

Shah acknowledges Amitav Ghosh’s novel “The Glass Palace“—set over three generations in Burma and with links to the royal family’s exiled life in India, and the winner of the Frankfurt eBook Award Grand Prize for Fiction—as having inspired her to research the history of Thibaw and his royal family. As much as “The Glass Palace” was a fascinating fictional read, “The King in Exile” is certainly its equal in the non-fiction genre.