The Last Queen of Burma
By Kenneth Champeon 17 December 2016
On Friday, Burma’s vice president, military chief, and the living relatives of King Thibaw, the country’s last royal ruler, attended a ceremony to mark the the centennial of the late king’s death in Ratnagiri, India. Here is an account of the last queen of Burma, Supayalat, that we published in 2003.
Burma’s Queen Supayalat was a ruler to be feared and revered. I have a confession to make. I am infatuated with a dead queen, who among other appalling acts of cruelty ordered that between 80 and 100 of her husband’s relatives be murdered in ways said to include the dashing of children against walls. I revere her for that, because the massacre—or “clearing”, as it was called—was intended to destroy all potential rivals to the throne. But my infatuation derives from a portrait of her found in Terence R Blackburn’s The British Humiliation of Burma. In it she is prostrate; she seems to be staring right at me. One of her hands is under her chin, the other dangles lazily. Her enigmatic and enticing smile is nearly a smirk, and it originates less from her mouth than from her eyes. Her jet black hair is pulled up into a topknot. She is wearing earrings. She is petite. And she is beautiful. Her name was Supayalat.
She was the last queen of Burma. Supayalat was born in 1859. Or 1860: both dates are used. She was the middle daughter of Sinpyumashin, widow to Mindon, whose son Thibaw was Burma’s last king, her husband, and therefore also her half-brother. At the time of the massacre, which took place over a few days in February 1879, Supayalat was only around 20 years old. She died in 1925, and was buried in Rangoon. She would ultimately bear six children to Thibaw. The first was the only son, and he died after about six months. All the rest were daughters, as if not only the British Empire wanted the dynasty to end. Two of her daughters resided with her in Rangoon, where she lived in a modest—some say run-down—bungalow from 1919 until her death. She called herself an “ex-Queen” but despite this diminished title, she continued to demand that all visitors shiko her in the manner prescribed by royal custom. She demanded this even of foreigners, and she got her way.
Supayalat looms large in the novels The Lacquer Lady and The Glass Palace. And in his famous poem “Mandalay”, a paean to the East, Rudyard Kipling has this to say about her namesake: ’Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat—jes the same as Theebaw’s Queen An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot … This is interesting, because like many Burmese women Supayalat was a smoker of cheroots, and there is a story that when she had been hustled out of the palace by the conquering British army in 1885, she asked a soldier for a light.
At the time, according to Blackburn, she was “heavily pregnant.” The adjectives applied to the young Supayalat are fairly consistent across histories: vain, domineering, vindictive, unforgiving, imperious, beautiful, ignorant, passionate, determined, childish. When she became old and contrite, the adjectives change to calm, affable, pitiable. She pleaded with one visitor to give her a loan, evidently to support her donations to religious organizations. Her teeth had fallen out. She fed dogs. Only a smattering of Burmese nationalists saw her as a legitimate representative of her country. And though her funeral was appropriately extravagant, her tomb was neglected following the independence of Burma in 1948. It was she, and not Thibaw, who reigned. In 1882, says Blackburn, she assumed full control over the government of Upper Burma, and her rule was described as “sharp as a razor.” Thibaw was young, inexperienced, effete.
According to one of Supayalat’s maids of honor, “No one could stand against her when she was angry … It were better to face a tigress. Every one bent and shivered before her, and whatever orders she gave were carried out. The King was but a foolish school-boy before her.” In the portrait of Supayalat, the King is sitting beside her. He is plump. His left eye betrays fear, his right eye vacuity, and he almost seems to be leaning on Supayalat for support.
Historians tend to portray him as a drunkard, with a particular fondness for derivatives of the grape. Supposedly he was intoxicated when his relatives were dragged out of inhumane prison cells, strangled, clubbed to death, and trod into the ground—sometimes while still alive—by reluctant elephants. According to Lord Dufferin, Viceroy, when Supayalat “lifted up her finger the whole city trembled.” Supayalat’s ferocity and impertinence were apparent from the very beginning of her reign, if not her life. One historian claimed, for example, that as a child Supayalat enjoyed dismembering birds. This may be nothing more than the hyperbole and distortion often used by the English to discredit their enemies. But maybe not. Later, Supayalat would displace Thibaw’s Chief Queen Supayagyi by assorted intrigues.
After their wedding, Supayalat defied her mother and stayed in Thibaw’s quarters, and thereafter she did everything in her power to prevent him from taking on new wives and concubines, de rigueur for a Burmese monarch. When a certain Myoza of Yanaung urged Thibaw to take the 17-year-old Mi Hkin-gyi as his minor wife, Supayalat had both the Pandarus and the would-be Cressida executed, and she treated similarly any maid of honor that happened to catch Thibaw’s eye. She also believed that her son’s nurse had poisoned him; the nurse’s fate was thereby sealed. “If she liked you,” said a Mandalay abbot, “she loved you; if she hated you, she killed you.” Murder was not her only weapon. On one occasion she told the famously moderate and competent minister Kin Wun Mingyi that he was acting like a woman, and she even sent him a set of woman’s clothes. Apparently this is the gravest of insults to Burmese manhood.
In The Lacquer Lady, F Tennyson Jesse dramatizes the queen’s cruelty by showing Supayalat’s maids of honor pummeling “Ma Khingyi” (presumably the same as Mi Hkin-gyi) under the pretext of playfully dousing her with water. The queen’s Schadenfreude jumps off the page. She was vicious but she was also frivolous. She liked to have a good time. She was very protective of her “red velvet swing with golden tassels,” says Jesse. She had a weakness for jewelry, and one of her last acts as queen included the intended purchase of 70,000 rupees worth of fashionable clothing and, in her vague words, “interesting and unusual things.”
Blackburn gives us this account of her attire: “Suphayarlat wore a ‘huge diamond necklace some three or four rows deep, while a sort of coronet, set with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds was fixed in the folds of her hair just above her forehead.’ She was observed to be wearing English shoes, unusual for someone who supposedly detested anything Western.” And especially anything English. According to Jesse, Supayalat hated the English “unless they amused her.” This is hardly surprising given what they did to her. The British stole much of her property and all of her authority; exiled her to the coast of western India, the culture and soggy climate of which she shunned; and gave her what she considered to be an insufficient pension. “Our lot is already too hard,” she protested to the Governor of Bombay. “The tale of our domestic woes is too long to narrate here … We are torn from our natural home and are interned in a land which is utterly foreign to us.” One local official reported that in India Supayalat seemed to be “moping to death.”
Meanwhile Thibaw, who had never really wanted to be king anyway, was relatively content. Of course in some measure Supayalat was only getting her comeuppance. Historians blame her for the swift capitulation of Upper Burma to the British, not to mention the countless atrocities against her own people. And she blamed herself too. Little could she have known that some Burmese would later use her as “proof” that the governing of Burma could not be entrusted to a woman. If Supayalat proved anything, it was that the stereotype of the pliant, subordinate Asian female is specious. Whatever else one may think of her—that she was wicked or simply stupid—she held, for a moment, a country in the palm of her hand.