New book reveals hidden history of Portuguese of Burma

14 December 2014

“Many of us here were born in Portugal or at least Goa. We have spent many years here in Burma. We always feel like we are prisoners or guests or visitors. Now is the time to accept Burma as our country. We are still Portuguese but will never see Portugal again. Some of you have never seen it at all.”

The year is 1628 and the scene is Ava, a city in upper Burma. The speaker is Captain António do Cabo, an officer in the Portuguese army who has spent most of his adult life in this country, thousands of kilometres from home.

It comes from a new book that tells a remarkable story. “Cannon Soldiers of Burma” recounts the history of hundreds of Portuguese who arrived there at the start of the 16th century seeking opportunities for trade.

Its kings and rulers immediately recognized their superior military skills in the use of cannon and muskets and hired them as mercenaries. So it was that they came to stay in Burma, bringing their families and their priests with them. They intermarried with local people and became part of Burmese society; most never returned to Portugal.

The author of the book, James Myint Swe, is a descendant of these people. He was born in 1948 in Chan Tha Ywa, Ye U, one of the Portuguese settlement villages in the north of Burma.

He migrated to Canada in 1976 to have a better life for his young family. While working as a healthcare professional, he continued his studies and graduated in political science from the University of Western Ontario. Upon completing his Masters in Health Care Administration from Sienna Heights University, Michigan he served as a vice chief executive of the Lambton Hospitals Group in 2002-2003.

In 1995, he and his wife Janis received the Peace medallion; in 2009, the Mayor honoured them for more than 20 years of community work and helping in a medical clinic on the Burma/Thailand border. They live in Sarnia, Ontario in Canada.


“The westerners, mainly the Portuguese, reached the shores of

Arakan/Rakhine – the western province of Burma today – in the early 1500s, while searching for new nations in the East and new trading routes to China and Japan,” he writes.

From the 1500s until the late 1600s, the Portuguese established trade with different kingdoms in Burma, followed by the French in the late 1700s.

“This early European involvement in Burma has been ignored and almost eliminated from Burmese history. However, numerous historians would attest to the fact that the Portuguese involvement in Burma – between the Mons, Arakans and the Burmans – was crucial to laying down the foundation of the contemporary nation of Burma/Myanmar.”

Most Europeans who came to Asia before the modern era stayed only long enough to complete their business transactions or hold a comfortable position in the colonial administrations before going home to enjoy the fruits of their work.

But these Portuguese were different. They took employment as soldiers or bodyguards for Burmese kings and warlords, settled down and married local women. They became a part of the nation’s fabric and history.

“This story attempts to reconnect the relationship between the Burmese and the Portuguese as business partners, in trading, as close friends and allied mercenaries serving the kings at times and, at other times, as adversaries. Events during those missing three hundred years were pivotal in the development of the historical structure of today’s Burma,” writes Myint Swe.

Initially, the Portuguese were involved with the nation-states of the Mons, Arakans and Burmans, helping with military support in internal wars. Their downfall came when Felipe de Brito, governor of Thanlyin/Syriam, betrayed his master, the Arakan king. He was later defeated in 1613 by the Burmese king Anaukpetlun; thousands of Portuguese and their followers became prisoners of war.

The king brought them to Ava, the capital at that time. After his death, a new king Thalun ordered the Portuguese and Burmese to marry and serve his palace, allowing them to integrate into Burmese society.

Around 1630, the Portuguese who settled in Ava were given a territory to settle between the valley of the two rivers, the Chindwin and the Mu; they were allowed to occupy and expand the land to protect the northern Burman empire. They never returned to Portugal.

For the next two centuries, they served the kings as cannon operators and gunners. When the British took over Mandalay Palace in 1885, they defended King Thibaw until he ordered them to surrender as he was taken to exile in India.

Searching for the Truth

Myint Swe writes that he was inspired to write the book based on the stories he had heard from elderly relatives during the summer months spent at his birthplace. “This impelled me to delve deeper into the past, resulting in many years of research.” This took him through thousands of kilometres across Asia, Europe and North America, where he searched through museums, libraries and old bookshops looking for material.

The book is in two parts, the first of them this novel. “This first part was written as a novel to allow the reader to understand the 200 years of history that have been lost. The names of the main Portuguese characters are real, whereas the Burmese characters are fictitious, to make the story more meaningful.”

The second part will be published soon and support part of the novel’s accuracy in a historical way. “Though written documents that would verify some of the facts have been destroyed, there is a scientific way to prove the historical presence of the Portuguese and Europeans in the Two Rivers valley.”

Strong characters

The novel is mainly told through two Portuguese characters. One is Paulo Seixas, a Portuguese officer assigned to train the Mons in weaponry. He is one of 100 such officers, following an agreement to supply the Mons with 200 muskets, gunpowder and bullets and 100 small cannons.

He learns the Mon language and visits Pegu, the capital of the kingdom; as a major seaport, Europeans often visited the city. Paolo marvels at its wealth and magnificence. It is 80 km northeast of Yangon and is now known as Bago.

There he meets and falls in love with Ziwa, a local princess. They are married in a Buddhist ceremony and Paulo loyally serves the local king.

Then the Burmese king attacks Pegu with a powerful army; in the fierce fighting, there is Portuguese fighting on both sides. Finally, the Mon king is forced to surrender. “Paulo and Ziwa bowed deeply to the royal family, touching the ground three times, a sign of deep respect, then slipped away into the night.”

The great city is looted and destroyed and Paulo’s house burnt to the ground. Broken-hearted, Paulo and his family leave for Goa on a merchant ship; then they go on to Portugal, never to return.

Lead My People

The second main character is Luisa de Brito, who is taken prisoner together with thousands of Portuguese by the victorious King Anaukphetlun; he has ordered the death of her husband Felipe after the siege of Syriam. Two men held his arms while two soldiers, each brandishing a bamboo spear, ran ten steps towards him and drive them though his stomach; four then hung his body on top of a bamboo spike, 20 feet in the air. The king also kills Luisa’s son and grandson.

A short time later, Luisa and the other prisoners begin a 75-day march to the capital city of Ava, where the king intended to use the Portuguese prisoners skilled in musketry and cannon gunners in his Royal military. They march with chains and bonds, escorted by 200 Burmese soldiers. Many die along the route, especially the old and the children.

Luisa cries in anger at the treatment meted out to her people; she is punished and tied to a tree for a whole night. She emerges as the leader of the Portuguese.

When they finally reach Ava, they are placed in a detention camp; conditions there deteriorate and supplies of food dwindle. Under the guidance of a Catholic priest, they keep the Portuguese traditions as best they can, with a Mass every day and a celebration of Christmas.

Change of fortune

Their fortunes change dramatically after his son, who was having an affair with a member of his harem, assassinates the cruel king.

A new king Thalun, the oldest brother of the dead king, is chosen. He is of a different character and decides to free the Portuguese and give them land to settle down; many of those who had served in the army had married local women and had families of their own.

The king allocates them fertile land in the north of Burma. Nearly 2,400 Portuguese reach the west bank of the Mu River. “Our people shall never know hunger again,” says Luisa, the matriarch of the new settlement. “We have truly found a paradise here. God has answered our prayers from so many years ago.”

They established prosperous villages. “Between intermarriage and gradual assimilation, the Portuguese became almost as culturally Burmese as the Burmese, though they still faithfully maintained their Catholic traditions and holidays.” They wore traditional clothes and the soldiers were tattooed with the same royal crest as Burmese soldiers.

The king sends them money to build more churches and invites priests from Portugal, France and Italy to celebrate Mass in this remote corner of Burma.

Luisa dies in her 70s, after spending more than 50 years in Burma. She is given a large Catholic funeral, with a procession waving a Portuguese flag, a flag of religious symbols and a flag of the royal Ava military service of the Portuguese.

“Very few of the younger Portuguese ever actually saw their ancestral land; they were all buried in grounds far away from the ocean and no-one in Portugal or Goa was ever to know their names.” (By Mark O´Neill)