Did you know that Queen Supayalat spent her final days in Yangon?
In the 94 years since her death, Supayalat, the last Queen of Burma, has never quite been able to live down the image of the “domineering” wife and “vicious” courtesan.
But who was the real Supayalat? And was she that straight-forward?
If we dig a little deeper we find that the stereotype of the conniving queen emerges largely as a remnant of a colonial smear-campaign to discredit the Burmese monarchy in the lead-up to the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885.
The contemporary press painted the Queen as a scheming “shrew” who controlled her husband King Thibaw, a weak monarch and a drunkard (no matter that as a devout Buddhist he never touched a drop in his life), naively driving him into a futile war with Britain – a far technologically-superior Western power.
But the realities of court politics in late-Konbaung Burma were far more complex than that. The Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3) had left the kingdom deeply unstable and when King Mindon died in 1878, a succession crisis quickly emerged. Twelve years earlier, two of the King’s sons had rebelled against the crown prince, killing him. The sons fled into exile, but it was common knowledge that they were planning to one day return with the help of the British and ministers at the court to claim back the Lion Throne.
In this context, Supayalat’s mother, Hsinbyumashin, had secured Thibaw’s coronation by ordering the massacre of hundreds of princes in 1879. Having come to power on the back of so much bloodshed, Thibaw and Supayalat naturally trusted no one, and ruthlessly maintained their hold on the throne. When a British ultimatum finally came in 1885, they feared agreeing to peace with the British because it would likely mean the end for them and their family. So instead, they prepared for war…
When the pair were crowned in 1879, Supayalat was only nineteen and already deeply in love with the shy, bookish Thibaw.
As a girl she had disguised herself in men’s clothes in order to pursue her teenage crush, the Thahgaya Prince, into a forbidden part of Mandalay Palace. But when she could not find Thahgaya, she asked Thibaw where he was, and, when he would not tell her, she smacked him on the head. She never found her beloved, but, from that day on, the future-King was smitten.
Thibaw made his love known, and the princess reciprocated, writing passionate love letters and even running away to visit him in his private apartments. Her mother Hsinbyumashin was scandalized, but she recognized the potential of such a match.
It was her eldest daughter, Supayagyi, however, that Hsinbyumashin intended to marry off to the young prince. Supayalat, however, was not prepared to share her love with her sister and she broke considerably with court custom when she insisted that Thibaw take her as his one and only wife.
Deeply in love, the King agreed, shocking the royal establishment. The night of the coronation of the two queens, the King did not sleep in the chief Queen’s apartments, but in his own with Supayalat. It was clear to everyone in court who the real Queen was.
But the reign of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat was not to last. When the British marched into Mandalay Palace in 1885, having quickly defeated the Burmese forces, they sent the royal family into exile in a small town in India called Ratnagiri, a backwater far from Burma. Thibaw would never see his native land again.
The Exile and Return
In exile, Supayalat kept largely to herself, writing long letters to the viceroy in Calcutta, pleading for a larger allowance, the return of her stolen jewels, and to be allowed to return home.
When her beloved Thibaw died in 1916, an elderly Supayalat was finally allowed back to Burma, not to Mandalay Palace, but to Rangoon, the colonial metropolis that had grown up in her absence.
Despite the best efforts of the British, however, the memory of the monarchy refused to die. In Rangoon, Supayalat was called upon by many curious visitors, European and Burmese alike. She and her family occupied a bungalow at 23 Churchill Road (now Komin Kochin Rd.), located on a hill with a view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which she so revered.
Living under house arrest, Supayalat nevertheless continued to maintain all the age-old customs of the Burmese court. The Queen sat above her guests and the servants slid back and forth around the room on their stomachs.
It was in Burma that she finally found peace. She took to wearing white, “for remorse,” she said, and being deeply religious, she made offerings to the monks every day.
Evidently, she was trying to grapple with the weight of past sins. A Burmese reporter from the Bandoola Journal interviewed her in September, 1924. At one point during the interview, she asked him abruptly: “Is it true that people believe I killed the princes?” referring to the massacre of 1879. When he responded in the affirmative, she replied firmly: “I didn’t kill the princes. I was a child when I was installed on the throne.”
One who waited on her was Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, a founder of the nationalist Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association), a great supporter of the Queen, and a close friend.
The very thing which the British government had hoped to avoid began to happen – the fledgling Burmese nationalist movement rallied around the Queen.
Queen Supayalat would die on Nov. 24, 1925, of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five.
Surprisingly, the British government paid for the funeral. The colonial author and civil servant Maurice Collis stood by the roadside that day and watched “what was likely to be the last royal procession in Burma.” He found it ironic that the British governor would attend the Queen’s funeral, when the British had branded her a “capricious tyrant.”
Nevertheless, Collis recognized that Supayalat had, in death, become a symbol of the struggle for Burmese independence from the British.
Her tomb still stands today among the Kandawmin Garden Mausolea on the Shwedagon Pagoda Road. It is in the traditional style, similar to that of her father-in-law King Mindon.
It has always been the goal of the surviving members of the Burmese royal family to relocate the tombs of the King and Queen to Mandalay.
But for the moment, Supayalat’s remains sit alongside some of the most famous of her people: ex-Secretary General of the U.N., U Thant, her beloved Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Daw Khin Kyi, in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, a position she would doubtless have enjoyed.