The Last Queen of Burma
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Magazine

CULTURE

The Last Queen of Burma


By Kenneth Champeon JULY, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.6


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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.


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