Friday, April 14, 2006

What was Harvey’s Contribution to his own history of Burma? I

Harvey, G.E. (1925) History of Burma: From the earliest times to 10 March 1824, the beginning of the English conquest. New, York, Toronto, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras: Longmans, Green and Co.

In his preface to Harvey’s history Sir Richard Carnac Temple observes:

“There is one criticism which it would not be difficult to level at this book in places. At times it reads almost like a jumble, in which the wood cannot be seen from the trees. That is not the fault of Mr. Harvey but of his subject” (xi).

Is it really? Historians who came after Harvey seem to have been able to put order to the chaos. Perhaps, this is one way to look at Harvey’s history: a jumble of correct facts without citations to sources. Where these facts came from is also made abundantly clear in the first sentence of Harvey’s preface:

“Mr. Charles Duroiselle, Superintendent, Archaeological Survey, Burma, suggested in 1918 that I should write this book. Since then he has guided my reading and given me access to his notes—the accumulated notes of a lifetime—so that the first half of this book is largely his, and the only reason his name does not appear on the title page is that he has not seen the final draft.”

So what we have here is Duroiselle’s facts and Harvey’s jumble of style and plot, a colonial era legacy that is may be hard to appreciate nowadays. Look at the very title of the history with the exact day that British rule began. One could well imagine a satire where the exact hour and second as well as the astrological position of the stars is also given.

Harvey’s style grates on modern ears. Take for instance, Razadarit’s being a victim of a nagging harem of wives later on in his life. This is one of the few male chauvinist-like episodes that is not in the original text, so it must have been added by Harvey later on. Passages in the original text like the women of Razadarit’s harem goading Razadarit on, encouraging him to grab the king of Ava’s harem and adding it to his already existing collection of wives, obviously seem fictional, but they are only a small fraction of the original Razadarit Ayeidawpon text. Harvey seems to emphasize this aspect of the original text in his history for their lurid melodramatic value and even makes them the centerpiece of whole sections of his historical narrative. Alyssa Phillips has investigated the literary side of Harvey’s history in a SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research paper , but the role of women in particular in royal chornicle texts that are dominated by warfare certainly deserves a more thorough treatment. Women and war are two major themes of Razadarit Ayeidawpon. To what extent were Razadarit’s marital affairs artificially complicated by the original Razadarit authors, and then later by Harvey, to enhance the fictional plot line of the narrative? This remains to be shown with exacting scholarship (if in fact there are enough sources to do this).


Phillips, Alyssa (2005)"Romance and tragedy in Burmese history: A reading of G.E. Harvey's the History of Burma," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol.3, No. 1, Spring 2005.