The mythical Burma of Maurice Collis

Like George Orwell, Maurice Collis served as a colonial policeman in interwar Burma. Unlike Orwell, he is now little known, but his conservative critique of empire – and his curious output of history, myth and magic – gained a wide audience during his lifetime.

Bagan, Myanmar ancient temples at dusk. Alamy stock image.
Bagan, Myanmar ancient temples at dusk. Credit: Alamy stock photo.

George Orwell served in Burma as a colonial policeman between the two wars, when he was still known as Eric Blair. His time in colonial service gave him a scepticism, which later hardened into a passionate dislike, of the imperial enterprise. It also gave him a fixation: an interest in how the performance of power kept a large population in hock to the people who claimed the right to rule, based on little more than ritual and pretence.

Burma’s intellectuals said that Orwell had written not one book about their country but, rather, three. The early novel Burmese Days is one, naturally. But also two others: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Novels of totalitarianism, in the eyes of Burma’s intellectuals, also described their country. The books were said to depict military rule in what the junta called Myanmar with dead-on accuracy.

At one time, even so arch an imperialist as Rudyard Kipling was considered a favoured son of India. Time complicated that relationship. And so, too, one assumes, that of Orwell and Burma: not least because Burma is a profoundly diverse society, and Orwell never managed to mention the Kachin or the Rohingya, among many other minorities that the Burmese junta has spent much of its strength attempting to destroy.

With an eye on his former colonial patch, Orwell, as an anonymous book reviewer for the Listener, wrote about a memoir called Trials in Burma, whose author was a recently retired colonial civil servant called Maurice Collis.

‘This is an unpretentious book, but it brings out with unusual clearness the dilemma that faces every official in an empire like our own’, the review begins.

Collis, unlike Orwell, is forgotten today, though he was once held in as high regard by the Burmese as any foreign writer. Trials in Burma is one of four memoirs Collis wrote, among more than thirty other books.

An eventual and productive career as a writer was one that Collis did not embark upon, at least successfully, until he had already lived one life. He was an unhappy ‘Civilian’, working in the Burmese branch of the Indian Civil Service for twenty years, until he reached the earliest possible retirement age in his late forties.

Collis had been exiled from Rangoon, the capital, to distant Mergui on the Andaman Sea because he had embarrassed the British elite with his decisions from the magistrate’s bench. He had been too harsh on whites and too soft on Indians, Burmese and more, the gossip went. He was ‘cut’ in the whites-only clubs. He must go.

This coastal exile not only made up Collis’ mind to leave government employ, but also – quite unexpectedly – gave him the means to do so.

After he had left Burma, and after years of enforced silence in imperial civil service, Collis wrote like a man possessed. First, in 1936, came Siamese White, an intriguing biography of a seventeenth-century adventurer and privateer, Samuel White – a book only Collis could have written.

In Mergui, Collis had lived on the site of White’s old house. He could see some of what turned out to be the adventurer’s rusted cannons from the hill on which his family lived. He had also been visited in dark and wind-lashed nights – both Collis and his daughter, Louise, later claimed in print – by tempestuous apparitions. The locals said they were spirits of the English from White’s band, killed when they were being driven out.

Conveniently enough, Collis was – unlike Mergui’s inhabitants – an old school friend of Geoffrey Faber, of Faber and Faber, who published the book. It was a commercial success, and Collis, with what he later terms naïvete, decided to publish a book a year to supplement his civil service pension. With a few difficulties, that is what he did. It was a charmed life.

Collis returned to literary London between the world wars, imbibing art and culture as a man freshly returned from the desert gulps mineral water.

An early and charming travel book about the Shan states in northern Burma, Lords of the Sunset, set off a spate of memoirs about times spent in the region. Three early novels, including the fable-like romance, She Was a Queen, followed. This early rush included a spy story, more concerned with satirising confessional traditions within Buddhism than a plot, called The Dark Door. (The book’s only chance to sell, Collis later wrote, was if the thriller-reading public would buy it on a false prospectus. ‘That mistake they did not make.’)

Then a novel, Sanda Mala, about Burmese colonial mores – including a frustrated civil servant so autobiographical it is almost embarrassing. Collis thought it a failure.

Trials in Burma was Collis’s first and most cursory attempt at autobiography. It represented his initial stab at understanding why his colonial service was so unsuccessful, why he did not fit in among the British governing class. It is a memoir of misery.

In that book, Collis narrows down his failures to an unhappiness with the pedestrian pace of an isolated governing life. And his punctilious application of what he considered justice, when what the bureaucracy really called for was unjust treatment in the interest of the governing class.

After six books on a Burmese theme, Collis hunted around for more variety. The war had come; Burma was swiftly lost for the British Empire. In 1942, Collis wrote a falsely optimistic pamphlet, The Burmese Scene, which suggested with contrived hopefulness that Orde Wingate’s Chindits would soon overcome the Japanese in jungle warfare and the threat to British India would cease, after which Burma could be brought back into the fold. He may have believed it. Last and First in Burma explored the collapse of British rule and the certainty that it could never have returned.

Collis alighted on China. Barring a few historiographical issues – he was writing before Hugh Trevor-Roper’s demolition of Edmund Backhouse in The Hermit of Peking, so Collis uses some of the products of that old fraud’s pen without scepticism – his turn was successful.

Studies of Chinese history – including a sympathetic and colourful history of the prelude to the first Opium War, Foreign Mud, and a work on Confucius, The First Holy One – are equally of note. Most monumental is Collis’s attempt to create a diorama of the Middle Kingdom as encountered by Western emissaries to China’s imperial court in The Great Within.

Collis wrote three plays, none of which were performed; and he dabbled in films – none of which were produced. He cultivated elite friends, such as Bill, Viscount Astor. Collis was well-connected for a disgruntled ex-civil servant, but not at all for what he now was: a writer whose books appeared often, and which when they appeared got good notices; a writer who had transformed from a one-man imperial awkward squad to an intellectual, whose opinion on all manner of things was actively sought.

Collis then wrote what are his most beautiful and now-unfashionable works: retellings, in a language of fairytale and wonder, of myth, legend and magic. Some of them are reconstitutions of canonical works. The Quest for Sita is a telling of a portion of the Ramayana.

In The Descent of the God, Collis himself features. It is a tale of the magical powers of an island hill within his jurisdiction while he was a civil servant. He bracketed this tale as a ‘romance’; it has an ancient story about angering the gods within its framing narrative – but it is clear that Collis himself believed in the supernatural. The book describes a hill that emanates a fragrance so strong as to convince locals of the presence of a powerful spirit – a hill whose soil, when analysed scientifically, has no uncommon properties,  but where Collis believed he had seen ghosts.

Postwar, Collis wrote his memoirs in two back-to-back volumes – The Journey Out and Into Hidden Burma – parts of which are tedious, like all memoirs of school, others illuminating, notably that which deals with his service in the First World War as an officer in an ill-fated Burmese regiment. He was sent to the Middle East, where his men faced their own demons more than the enemy; they committed suicide at a frightening rate.

Collis turned to history late in life: elegant little books on Cortés and Marco Polo, and a peculiar but enjoyable history of the Peasants’ Revolt as a continuation of the Hundred Years’ War, The Hurling Time. A series of portraits of travellers: The Land of the Great Image, on the friar Sebastien Manrique; and The Grand Peregrination, the first biography in any language on Fernao Mendes Pinto, author of one of the great classics of Portugal, who, like Marco Polo, was disdained by many in his lifetime, accused of lying, of being a rough man with no knowledge of the things he claimed to have seen with his own eyes.

Collis was a man whose time in the civil service came to an end when it was still inconvenient to imagine civil rights for some classes and races, where the ‘colour bar’ was real. He retired before he could have a hand in decolonisation, but it is clear where his sympathies lay.

Orwell wrote that Collis was ‘good imperialist’ with ‘concern for the good name of English justice’, but Collis’s own books contradict that impression. He was a romantic, uncategorisable man. His superstitions were Burmese, just as his sympathies were.

In the penultimate year of his life, 1972, Collis was at an event attended by Prime Minister Edward Heath. As if motivated to sum up, Collis defined himself thus: ‘I am Maurice Collis. I have written thirty-five books, some of which were considered bolshy in their day, but I believe there is nothing in any of them that a modern conservative could object to.’

Only when the empire was dead was Collis’ place in the world made right.


James Snell