Trials in Burma: Remembering Maurice Collis

NPG x135198; Maurice Collis by Ida Kar

Have you ever heard of Rudyard Kipling? Sure you have. And George Orwell? You bet. How about Maurice Collis? No? Didn’t think so.

Maurice Collis was district commissioner for Rakhine State in the 1920s, then a district magistrate in Rangoon, during the British colonial administration of Burma. He spent more time in Burma than Kipling and Orwell put together and wrote many books on the subject, yet these more famous writers are much more frequently associated with Burma – while his writings have been all but forgotten in the English-speaking world.

An Irishman educated at Oxford, Collis joined the Indian Civil Service and was posted to Burma in 1912. He left Burma to serve in Palestine during World War I, where he saw no action, and returned to take up his post in Rakhine State (also known as Arakan) in the early 1920s. It was only after his move to Rangoon and promotion to district magistrate that Collis became notorious for going against the wishes of the establishment – a reputation that stalled his career and destroyed his reputation among colonials in Burma.

A prolific writer, Collis wrote four autobiographies, nine biographies, seven histories, five works of fiction and two plays. Much of his writing was on the subject of Burma, and his most well-known work is autobiographical – detailing his controversial career as a magistrate in Rangoon.

Trials in Burma

Trials in Burma documents three trials over which Collis presided in the then capital of British Burma, and in which he upset his colleagues by going against the status quo.

In the first trial, Collis hears the case of a British man accused of killing his servant. Although Collis acquits “Mr Hughes” of the murder (to have convicted him would have caused an outrage), he reprimanded him for not having sought medical help for the servant after “boxing his ears”. Though it may not sound like much of a concession today, at the time it was virtually unheard-of for a court to reprimand a British man over the death of a local, and Collis’s decision attracted considerable negative attention from his peers.

In the second trial, Collis sentences the Mayor of Calcutta, Jatrindra Mohan Sengupta, to ten days in prison on accusations of making “seditious remarks” in a speech at Sule Pagoda in Rangoon. Sengupta was an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, who was just launching his campaign of non-cooperation against the British establishment, and it wished to silence Sengupta’s attempts to spread rebellion to Burma. Collis’s ten-day sentence was considered far too light, but because a sentence had been handed down, the High Court was unable to overturn it.

In the final trial, Collis sentences a British soldier to three months in prison for seriously injuring two Burmese women by dangerous driving. Outraged by what they considered far too harsh a punishment, the British authorities overturned the sentence, fined the soldier, and promptly transferred Collis to the post of Excise Commissioner, where he could not do any more harm. Before long, they had sent him into effective exile in Myeik, remote southern Burma.

Collis's legacy

Trials in Burma reveals Collis’s struggle to reconcile his role as an instrument of the British Empire (of which he was critical) and his desire to remain objective and fair in his role as magistrate. For his pains, his reputation amongst his peers was ruined forever – to such an extent that Lord Stanley of Alderley could tell Collis that in 1947, more than a decade after his term as magistrate, “your name still stank in the Pegu Club” - the old stomping ground of the British in Rangoon.

Joseph Woods, an Irish writer currently researching a book about Collis, is hesitant to suggest that the contempt of the colonial British is responsible for Collis’s current lack of literary renown – but it certainly didn’t help.

After leaving Rangoon for Myeik, Collis began collecting ceramics and took a keen interest in the 17th-century British pirate Samuel White, who once lived in the same town in southern Burma. He would settle in Maidenhead for the last two decades of his life, writing around two books per year and returning to Burma only once – to write Lords of the Sunset – A Tour in the Shan States.

To find out more about the history of Burma – colonial or otherwise – take a look at the history section of our website.

Get in touch with one of our experts if you’re interested in planning your own trip to Burma.

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