The US National Archives has digitized a letter that was sent by Burmese king, Mindon Min, to the US president in 1856. In that year, Franklin Pierce was the president, but the letter did not arrive until 1857, when James Buchanan had assumed office.

The letter was written in Burmese and then translated into English by an American Baptist missionary who was working in Burma, Eugenio Kincaid.

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It is interesting to see how King Mindon referred to himself and addressed the US president in this letter. This is how the letter begins:

“His Majesty, whose glory is like the rising Sun, ruling over the Kingdoms of Thu na pa yon te – Ton pa de pa – and all the Eastern Principalities, whose Chiefs walk under golden umbrellas; Lord of Saddan the King of Elephants; and Lord of many white Elephants; whose descent is from the Royal race of Alompra: – Also the great Lords and Officers of State ever bowing before his Majesty as water lilies around the Throne, to direct and superintend the affairs of Empire:

“Send Salutations to the President and Great Officers of State residing in Washington the CapitalCity, and ruling over many great Counties in the Continent of America.”

Burmese version

Prior to the twentieth century, the place we today call “Burma” was not a unified country that was directly ruled over by a central government. Instead it, like many other premodern polities in Asia, fit a style of governance that scholars have labeled a “mandala” (O. W. Wolters) or a “galactic polity” (Stanley Tambiah) [the term has been used to refer to kingdoms in Southeast Asia but it is just as applicable to “China” and its tributary kingdoms].

In a mandala/galactic polity, there is a powerful center, a capital, but that powerful center does not directly rule over the areas that it claims to control. Instead, the smaller polities around it pledge allegiance to the center, but remain in many ways autonomous.

What is more, the edge of one powerful center’s authority can overlap with the edge of another powerful center’s authority, and the small polities there might end up pledging allegiance to both of the powerful centers simultaneously.

Finally, this arrangement was fluid, as a small polity on the edge of a mandala/galactic polity could break away from the powerful center’s influence if that powerful center became less powerful.

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With all of that in mind, that opening passage of King Mindon’s letter is fascinating, as he clearly describes his kingdom in such terms. What is also interesting is that he describes the US somewhat in those terms as well when he mentions a capital city from where the president and his “Great Officers” rule over “many great Counties in the Continent of America.”

Another point that I find interesting is that King Mindon mentions that he is the descendant of a “royal race.” All rulers throughout history have sought to distinguish themselves from the people they rule over. Today, in modern nations, the distinction is often made based on intelligence and capability, but in premodern nations there was more that distinguished a ruler.

King Mindon was saying in this letter that he was different from the people he ruled over. This is a type of distinction that nationalism has sought to erase, but it was very important in the past. Kings and queens were not “of the people.”

And “the people,” in the sense of a unified group of individuals who share a common language, culture, etc., did not exist either. We can see this in King Mindon’s letter as well, as he later states that,

“Should the RoyalKingdom and the great Country of America form a friendly intercourse, there is on our part the desire that the two Great Countries through all coming Generations may cultivate friendly relations; and that the Merchants and common people and all classes may be greatly benefited.”

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A king from a royal race who ruled over kingdoms and principalities under which were “Merchants and common people and all classes” – this was a very different world from a modern nation-state, and a very fascinating world too.

 

The rest of the letter is as follows:

His Majesty, whose shadow like that of his Royal race, falls over the entire Kingdom, desires to govern so as to promote wise and useful regulations, such as the greatest and wisest Rulers have ever made it their study to accomplish.

His Majesty is aware that it has always been the custom of wise Rulers to be on terms of friendship with other Nations, and to pursue measure tending to perpetual amity.

As the American Teacher, the Rev. Eugenio Kincaid has come to the Royal City without hindrance, and as he has permission to go in and out of the Palace when he pleases, and has permission to look on the Royal countenance, he will be able to address the President of the United States and the Great Officers on all subjects pertaining to the government and Kingdom of Burmah.

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Should the RoyalKingdom and the great Country of America form a friendly intercourse, there is on our part the desire that the two Great Countries through all coming Generations may cultivate friendly relations; and that the Merchants and common people and all classes may be greatly benefited.

To facilitate these objects this Royal Letter to the teacher, Mr. [?] Kincaid.

Should he be charged with a Letter from the President and Great Officers of State to bring to the Royal City of Ava for his Majesty and the Court, and should the President of the United States and the Great Officers who surround him, say “let the two Countries be on terms of friendship, so that our children and grandchildren, and all Merchants, and all classes of the people, may, through all generations, reap great advantage”: – should such a message come, it will be heard with great pleasure.

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[Letter From the King and Court of Ava to the President of the United States, 1856–1857, National Archives Identifier: 4718602]