Henry Burney Collection

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 115 RCS/RCMS 65
  • Dates of Creation
      1784-1845
  • Language of Material
      English , Burmese , Thai .
  • Physical Description
      .16 cubic metre(s) 16 archive boxes and 2 volumes paper

Scope and Content

The cataloguing of the collection has occurred in several stages. In 1921, the RCI Librarian Evans Lewin listed the main English language material in four series, assigning each a letter, A to D. In 1958, Dr D.K. Wyatt examined the Siamese material, including some as yet uncatalogued European material. He listed it in three sections, with the letters E, F, and G. In 1973, Dr G.E. Marrison produced a provisional description of the Burmese manuscripts (letters H and J), and in 1975, this was supplemented by a more detailed catalogue by Patricia Herbert, who at the same time, revised Mr Lewin's original list B. This listing of the collection follows that published in the appendix to Thuang Blackmore, 'Catalogue of the Burney Parabaiks in the India Office Library', (London, 1985).
For the automated catalogue, the original division of the archive has been retained, but the letters RCMS 65/A-H and J have been replaced with the Arabic numerals, RCMS 65/1-9. A new section for a small amount of miscellaneous material has been created, RCMS 65/10.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Burney was born in Calcutta on 27 February 1792, the second son of Richard Thomas Burney, a Senior Master of the Calcutta Military School for Orphans, and his wife Jane Ross. Henry's grandfather was the musicologist Dr Charles Burney and his aunt the novelist Frances Burney. He joined the East India Company's army, serving as ensign (1808) lieutenant (1813), captain (1823), major (1828) and lieutenant-colonel (1834). In 1818 Burney was appointed Military Secretary to the Governor of Penang, Colonel John Alexander Bannerman. From 1825 he served as Political Agent to the Native States adjacent to Penang and led several political missions to Kedah and Ligor. From the beginning of his career, Burney had displayed a gift for oriental languages, soon mastering Hindustani, and during this time he acquired Siamese and Malay. Burney's grasp of local politics and languages led to his appointment as Envoy to the Court of Siam in 1825, and by June 1826 he had negotiated a treaty with the King. During this time, he continued to expand his geo-political knowledge of the Malay peninsula and the wider region. In 1827 he was posted to the new British province of Tenasserim, which had been acquired during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), serving as Deputy Commissioner of Tavoy. Burney immediately began learning Burmese. In 1829 he acted decisively to suppress a rebellion.

His diplomatic experience and linguistic skill were further recognised in 1829 with the appointment as the Indian government's representative to the Burmese court. Burney arrived at the capital of Ava on 24 April 1830, establishing the first British Residency. Burney's study of Burmese (with the aid of a tutor) had advanced so rapidly that by April 1832 he was able to communicate directly with the Burmese ministers in their own language. He enjoyed initial success, resolving the problem of banditry on the Arakan and Tenasserim borders and a territorial dispute on the Manipur frontier. He also persuaded the Burmese government to pay the final instalment of the indemnity owed as part of the settlement of the war. King Bagyidaw appreciated Burney's efforts to foster good relations, honouring him with a Burmese title inscribed on gold leaf, Mahaz-eyayazanawrahta, accompanied with a badge of office, a nine-stranded salwe. Burney's position, however, was undermined by Bagyidaw's deposition by Prince Tharrawaddy who later became king, and he found it difficult to work with the new regime. Burney was recalled on 8 March 1838 and returned to the Indian army, serving with a number of infantry regiments until his death at sea in 1845, while travelling to England on medical leave. The collection preserves important records of Burney's diplomatic missions: his instructions, travel, correspondence, journals and reports, which include rare insight into the Siamese and Burmese courts. Burney shared the family's intellectual curiosity and literary flair, and was fascinated by Siamese and Burmese culture. He researched the two countries' climate, geography, languages, history, philosophy, religion, astronomy, mathematics and astrology, and collected important translations from original sources. Burney presented papers to learned bodies such as the Royal Asiatic Society and published in the 'Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal', the 'Asiatic Journal' and the 'Journal of the Statistical Society.' During the early 1840s, he received permission from the EIC to publish the journal of his mission to Siam and it is possible that he also contemplated writing a pioneering English language history of Burma. With the resumption of his military career, ill health and a comparatively early death at the age of 53, however, these plans never came to fruition.

Access Information

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact mss@lib.cam.ac.uk. Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (www.lib.cam.ac.uk).

Acquisition Information

Presented by M. d'Arblay Burney in 1921.

Note

Includes index.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue of the collection can be found on ArchiveSearch.

Alternative Form Available

In 1925-26, a number of documents were copied for the Vajiranana Library, Bangkok. In 1957, the Burma Historical Commission microfilmed material relating to the country and five reels were photographed, copies of which were deposited with the RCS (MC21-26).

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

All items in good condition unless specified otherwise

Related Material

A copy of 'The Burney papers', (Bangkok, 1910-14), which reproduces material held by the British Library, is stored with the collection.

Additional Information

This archival description was entered by MJC.

Burney, Henry (1792-1845) Lieutenant Colonel Bengal Army Diplomat