When Rangoon Defended an Irishman Challenging the British Empire

(A guest post by Dr. Laurence Cox of the National University of Ireland Maynooth)Cover of The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire

On a Friday 13th in 1911, the colonial Chief Court of Rangoon tried and failed to put an Irishman on trial for sedition. The problem wasn’t that he did not show up: the difficulty was that too many people came with him. In fact, he appeared at the centre of a huge crowd, who pulled him in a carriage in a style normally reserved for Burmese royalty and venerated Buddhist monks. The crowd included many Buddhist Burmese, but also much of the Chinese diaspora and the Indian migrant population, largely Muslim dockworkers: the Indian, Chinese and Burmese bazaars all closed for the day in support.

Faced with this, the trial was quickly postponed for a week. It was an appeal against an earlier sentence by the district court in Moulmein to the southeast, where the same thing had happened: large crowds of supporters, “soldiers and civilian police … stationed everywhere” and a postponed trial. The empire wanted to put this Irishman on trial, but as quietly as possible; its subjects did not agree.

The trial became a cause célèbre across the country. The defence lawyer, U Chit Hlaing, went on to become a key figure in Burmese nationalism. Local Buddhists in Moulmein wrote a public letter saying that the first trial’s judgement was decided in advance, and started collecting funds for an appeal. Three months later, the appeal was so popular that the Edison Bioscope Cinema in downtown Rangoon donated two days’ takings: the issue was known across Burma and further abroad, not least in the United States.

One of the movers and shakers behind this campaign was the newspaper owner PJ Mehta, a leading light in the Indian National Congress. Two years previously, Mohandas Gandhi had written his book Hind Swaraj, outlining his strategy for independence, for Mehta. Mehta was already on the authorities’ radar. The relationship between Indian and Burmese nationalism was complex, but Mehta would go on to collaborate with Chit Hlaing on other anti-colonial struggles – as well as organising the Indian dockworkers.

An Empire in Crisis

This Irishman’s trial, in fact, was part of a much wider crisis facing the British empire, and not just in Burma. Mehta was part of the radical wing of the Indian National Congress, arguing for a boycott of British goods. This campaign was met with an increasing range of repression and censorship, including the imprisonment of Congress radicals in what from the viewpoint of the Raj was the remote province of Burma – enabling Mehta to campaign on their behalf.

Further afield, the January 1910 UK election had left the Irish party holding the balance of power, leading to promises of home rule and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist it. “Black Friday”, in November 1910, saw police violence, including sexual violence, against suffragettes in London. And from 1910 until the outbreak of WWI the “Great Labour Unrest” had already seen troops deployed against strikers and a miner killed. The strike spread to include railway workers and the threat of an international dock strike. The empire’s subalterns were no longer willing to be ruled as they had been previously.

In this context, the last thing the authorities in the port and provincial capital of Rangoon wanted was to see all of this erupt in their own backyards. They were not happy to see a seditious Irish ex-docker and ex-sailor supported by Indian radicals and dockworkers, the Chinese diaspora (whose organisations figure in colonial police records as inherently suspicious), the Burmese nationalists of the upcoming middle class as well as the wider population.

The peaceful demonstration of Friday 13th did not yet “hurl the little streets upon the great”, as Yeats would write a few years later – but the possibility hung in the air. Small wonder that the trial was postponed – or that, as in Moulmein, the sentence was as mild as could be passed without severe loss of face: binding-over to keep the peace for a year.

From Dublin to Rangoon

The Irishman who was eventually tried on Friday 20th, by the (equally Irish) judge Daniel Twomey, met the court under the name “William Colvin”, one of at least five aliases; his real name was probably Laurence Carroll, born in Booterstown, Dublin in 1856. He left school at 12, emigrated to England and then worked his way across the Atlantic, where he was a coastal sailor as well as a hobo (migrant worker), eventually winding up in San Francisco and working the trans-Pacific routes before arriving in Burma.

These were turbulent years in the United States, and despite Carroll’s fondness of telling stories about himself he drew a veil over about 25 years of his own biography. By the time we can trace him in the historical record in 1900, he was already an effective political activist – suggesting that he had learned his trade somewhere that was still too “hot” to talk about decades later, before modern extradition proceedings. In the States these years saw the decline of the Fenians and the rise of Clan na Gael, the Irish secret society scare of the Molly Maguires and many another bitter labour struggle, the rise of socialism and anarchism and many another conflict.

They were also the years of the rise of radical freethought (atheism), widespread in these radical working-class milieux: his fellow-Dubliner Lafcadio Hearn, apprenticed to an anarchist printer in the US, became an atheist and interested in Eastern philosophy as an alternative to the dominance of Christianity. Carroll, too, shared an Irish sense of the potential of religion to express popular opposition to power. In Ireland, Daniel O’Connell had deftly organised the struggle for Catholic emancipation against the established Anglican church, associated with British power, to build what Terry Eagleton calls the world’s first truly modern social movement. In Burma, Carroll would take a similar approach, defending the local religion (Buddhism) against the missionary Christianity that was increasingly associated with empire – but drawing on western atheist arguments (and his own familiarity with the Bible) to challenge the missionaries.

The Bible, the Whiskey Bottle and the Gatling Gun

His sedition trial, in fact, was all about this challenge, more specifically about a phrase he repeatedly used, criticising “the Bible, the whiskey bottle and the Gatling gun” – an analysis of colonialism as combining military conquest with missionary religion and cultural destruction (in a Buddhist and hence theoretically non-drinking society). This analysis also gave him a political programme. Opposing alcoholism, in Burma as in Ireland, was politically uncontroversial. By contrast, openly opposing military conquest was straightforward treason, in a country which had only been finally conquered a couple of decades previously with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.

As in Ireland, opposition to the establishment’s religion in defence of popular religion enabled a mass anti-colonial politics which it was very risky for the authorities to repress. But one difference was that converting to Buddhism – in fact, becoming a Buddhist monk as Carroll did – challenged imperial power in other ways. Subverting the behaviour expected of “Europeans” (whites) in Asia, being a monk meant wearing Asian clothes, going barefoot, begging for a living and working for an Asian organisation. Needless to say, it was widely appreciated by the colonised Burmese.

Under his monastic name U Dhammaloka, Carroll would become a celebrity preacher across Burma, with huge audiences travelling for days to hear him even in remote rural areas as he toured by train and river ferry. But he was popular for other reasons as well. A decade previously he had highlighted the disrespect to local religion, and hence to Burmese people, marked by colonial soldiers and policemen as well as European tourists walking on the sacred pagodas in shoes – which are viewed as dirty in Burma as in much of Asia. In this context he was accused of saying that Europeans “have taken Burma from the Burmans and now desire to trample on their religion”.

Postcard of Army barracks in Rangoon with the Shwedagon pagoda

Postcard of Army barracks in Rangoon with the Shwedagon pagoda. Image from the Sharman Minus collection of Burmese postcards.

It is hard to exaggerate how important these issues were: the British army reportedly kept cannons trained on the Shwedagon, the most venerated pagoda in Burma and the one where Dhammaloka turned shoes into a national issue – with the implicit threat to destroy this sacred site, containing the hairs of the Buddha, if locals caused trouble. The tens or hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pamphlets that his organisation printed and distributed were part and parcel of this conflict.

A Turbulent Monk

Dhammaloka’s challenge to the establishment came closer to home than this, however. He campaigned against the practice where colonial officials kept local concubines but abandoned them, and their children, on returning “home” to marry British women; and against the requisitioning of food from villages by touring officials. We also see him successfully bringing charges for corruption against individual officials, all of which was wildly popular among the colonised population.

His activities spread far beyond Burma, however: these were the years when resistance to colonialism in Asia was moving from the desire to restore ancient monarchies to imagine what might come after empire. Before Irish independence in 1922, however, it was not at all clear that the future would be one of separate nation-states. The transnational connections enabled not just by empires but equally by the steamship and the telegraph opened the possibility of a more broadly-framed future. For some, this could be shaped by science and modernity, for others by socialism. For others again, religion might provide a connecting factor, and Buddhism – a living religion from Japan to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with roots in India – might play this role.

Dhammaloka was an active player in the pan-Asian Buddhist revival, involved in Japanese attempts to launch international Buddhist organisations and touring Ceylon on behalf of the pan-Buddhist activist Anagarika Dharmapala. Keeping up the multi-cultural spirit we see in his Burmese supporters, he founded English-language schools for poor boys from different backgrounds in Singapore and Bangkok – the latter of these survives to this day. We also find him active in today’s Malaysia and Bangladesh, in India and Australia, and perhaps in China, Nepal and Cambodia. This Irish emigrant, sailor and hobo was good at travelling, and good at finding ways to get involved in what was happening wherever he arrived.

A Hairy Moment

It was not only Dhammaloka’s trial that came to the ears of the wider world. His story was carried by Harper’s magazine and the American travel writer Harry Franck, even appearing in Ireland in the pages of the Sunday Independent.

From the San Francisco Examiner

One story that readers found particularly fascinating was the story of how this Irish hobo drew bigger crowds than the imperial Viceroy, Lord Curzon, when both visited Mandalay within a short time of each other. The San Francisco Examiner was particularly taken by the traditional way in which Burmese Buddhist women venerated particularly worthy monks:

“A double row of dark-haired maidens extended from the doors of the monastery for nearly half a mile along the dusty road. The women, after kneeling, stretched themselves at full length on the ground. Their hair, flowing unbound, was spread upon the roadway, and over this silken carpet and down the human isle strode the barefooted American Buddhist.”

The ritual is quite real, but the Orientalism misses the point: Burmese women would do this precisely because they held Dhammaloka to be a highly meritorious Buddhist monk in a traditional sense, so that they would acquire religious merit by doing so. The Examiner’s image, though, is not so much Orientalist as Hollywood: the “dark-haired maidens” have become proto-flappers, Dhammaloka now has a Tibetan lama’s cap and a cadaverous appearance, making the whole thing look like nothing so much as Brides of Dracula.

On the Trail of Laurence Carroll

Dhammaloka’s five aliases, and his brushes with the law, are part and parcel of the world of working-class Irish (and other) migrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is the period when authorities brought in the use of mugshots and fingerprints in a desperate attempt to keep track of people who could change their names as easily as they changed their clothes; five (known) aliases was the average for arrest records in 1870s San Francisco. It is also the world of Sherlock Holmes stories about mysterious characters returned from “the colonies”, and later represented in John Buchan thrillers where cross-cultural disguises play a central role.

For the last ten years, Alicia Turner (York University Toronto), Brian Bocking (University College Cork) and I have tried to track down this trickster figure across the many different countries he visited. It is no easy task – what has been preserved, and digitised, is often mostly the English-language newspapers of the colonial establishment he opposed. Meanwhile, the radical press, media in Asian languages and regional newspapers are much less likely to have survived: the only surviving text of Mehta’s United Burma we can find is … a bundle of clippings sent by Dhammaloka to the radical Kentucky Blue-Grass Blade and translated into Swedish for the Minneapolis Forskaren.

But this particular game has been worth the candle. A hundred years ago, Dhammaloka lived by his wits, his charm, his ability to spin yarns and his skill in finding his feet in many different worlds – and all of this comes through in his own words where we have them, and the stories other people told about him. Beyond a fascinating life, he helps to shed light on a very different dimension of Irish diaspora history, to think about colonialism and religion in new ways, and to see connections between Ireland and Asia at the height of Empire.

The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire (Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox and Brian Bocking) is published by Oxford University Press on March 31st 2020.

When Rangoon Defended an Irishman Challenging the British Empire by