Almost a decade ago, while researching on European burials in Malabar coast for a book I was writing, I came across a surprising entry in the death and burials register kept at the old garrison church in Kannur: Egbert Alexander Granville James, died and buried on 19th August 1887, son of Prince Moung Lat, Burmese state prisoner. The brief entry in the burial register at St. John’s Church said the boy died on the sixth day of his birth and the cause of death was ‘tetanus’.
The British East India Company that had come to possess the entire Malabar region from late 18th century had established the garrison at Cannanore as early as 1810, in order to protect the large areas seized from Tipu Sultan and their vast trade interests. The garrison had seen hectic military activity over the years as it had to deal with a highly volatile region that experienced a number of revolts including the Pazhassi rebellion of 1790s to the Moplah revolt in 1921. The barracks were home to almost all the major regiments of the British Army, from the HM 74th Highlanders to the Royal Fusiliers. The English had established the church and a cemetery nearby and among the tombs of traders and soldiers from various European nationalities was this singular grave of a Myanmar prince.
The mention of a Burmese prince as state prisoner in the garrison town’s church records was surprising: the British authorities had always maintained that the only state prisoner from the Burmese royal family, after the conquest of Burma in the third Anglo-Burma war in 1885, was King Thibaw, who was followed by his consort Queen Supayalat (who was also his half-sibling) and their daughters who were lodged in a hill-top house called Outram at Ratnagiri, a coastal town in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. After spending more than 30 years in penury and isolation at Ratnagiri, the King died in 1916 as a captive and the Queen and her three daughters were allowed to return home afterwards, leaving behind one of her daughters who had married a commoner in India. The eldest Princess later returned to Ratnagiri to be with her husband Gopal Sawant, who was formerly employed as the family’s driver.