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A Burmese Mystery

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

This intriguing sword is a mystery on several levels. When it appeared at auction in the UK it attracted no attention, I was in fact the only bidder. Part of that can be attributed to the condition, a heavily pitted and corroded blade, and partly the piece simply does not fit into the usual types of dha seen. Everything from the profile of the blade to the shape of the hilt components is a little out of the ordinary. I was intrigued, while there are cases of "put-together" pieces from various spare parts, this one had serious age not only in the blade but also the hilt. It was not imitating any particularly known style so the chances of a deliberate 'fake' were low. From the outset there were several key characteristics that made this sword unusual. The profile is broadly speaking that of a dha, being a single edged sabre with a long wood handle, capped with silver, it could be from Burma, but there are many intriguing details to this sword that might point elsewhere.

The Blade

This blade had from a glance; several characteristics unusual for a dha. The curvature was not typical, the fullering style unusual as was the spine. Thankfully, this was the easiest element of the piece to identify. While the blade is corroded the remnants of the blade markings can still be clearly seen on both sides. The blade is that of a mid-18th century hanger, manufactured in Birmingham by Samuel Harvey. The blade is marked with a fox and the remains of an 'H' can be still seen inside; this is typical for these blades which combined the fox with S.H. in many cases. This form of hanger is perhaps best known from the 1751 pattern but was predated by a 1740 pattern and was generally in vogue throughout the 1740s-1760s. It was phased out of use before the Napoleonic wars. In earlier periods it was a general issue to privates but later was more typical among grenadiers and sergeants.

The next question of course becomes how this blade ended up in the environs where dha like swords are found, which immediately points to the regions of eastern India or Burma. Hangers of this type were part of the equipment of the European regiments of the East India Company as well as with regular British Army troops in the mid-18th century in India. Before the formation of regular European East India Company regiments like the Bengal European Regiment (later 101st Foot), there were also independent companies of Europeans within the service of the Company. All these elements give a foundation of hangers of this type and age having a presence not only in India but specifically in Bengal where the British Empire and Company territories were already in contact with the Burmese Konbaung dynasty, who would eventually expend directly in Assam and other abutting territories.

(18th century infantryman of the 1st Bengal European Regiment)

By the 1780s the Konbaung king Bodawpaya conquered Arakan, a kingdom with a long historical connection of both Burmese influence and political influence and connections with Mughal Bengal. Direct conflict with the British would not follow for several decades but there was extensive contact including Burmese incursions into British territory such as in 1795 where a large company of the Burmese army marched into Chittagong demanding that Arakan rebels be turned over to them (see The East India Gazetteer or Syme’s account of his Embassy to Burma in 1795). The issue was resolved without conflict at the time but sets the tone of Anglo-Burmese interactions of the time. I will leave the complexities of 18th and early 19th century Burmese history for another time, but my aim is to illustrate that Burma and British India were not entities in isolation of each other.

As with any blade that turns up in mounts that are not original and difficult to precisely date when it may have reached its current form but it seems reasonable to assume, given the age of the hanger and the period when it was in service, that at the latest it may have been converted into a dha during the first Anglo-Burmese war and more probably before that since this form of hanger would not have been a common sidearm for British troops, either in regular service or in the Company regiments, Indian sepoys carried tulwars rather than European style swords. Intriguingly, issued swords such as these hangers apparently were notorious for going missing in regimental use. C. ffoulkes and E. C. Hopkinson in THE SWORDS OF THE BRITISH ARMY (Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research) note inspection reports such as 1767 were inspections of 8 regiments found only 151 swords in total. A clear disregard for the regulations regarding equipment for the time. Since regiments purchased swords through ‘off-reckonings’ in essence the funds left over after food and board for men, this equipment was not centrally controlled in terms of issuance.

We have a situation then where a hanger of this type would have been found in use in British India at a time when swords were becoming outdated among a musket and bayonet driven mode of warfare. It is not hard to imagine a multitude of scenarios in which a hanger then goes missing and ends of traded on. Of course it could equality have been found in the hands of the numerous traders, adventurers and mercenaries engaged in commerce in India and Burma as well.

The next question of course is why the blade would be desirable enough to change the hilting. This is much easier to answer, European and particularly British steel was highly desired and a traded commodity within Asia. Within the rather lengthily titled Through Burmah to Western China, being notes of a journey in 1863 to establish the practicability of a trade-route between the Irawaddi and the Yang-tse-kiang by Williams, he recounts that Shan blade smiths (the dominant group within northern Burma) considered the iron available from Chinese traders (the region is close to Yunnan) was poor while the steel was excellent that they sold. An accompanying Burmese reminded the smith that the steel was of British origin. Williams notes that the one commissioning a sword seems to have usually supplied the iron or steel and he observed older blades and even pots being converted into new swords. The blade in this case has characteristics that would have lent it to immediate remounting rather than recycling the steel. It is a single edged sabre of a similar length of many dha with a thick spine and excellent distal taper retaining good flexibility.

The blade is mounted using the resin or lacquer of the Burmese Lacquer Tree (gluta usitata) which sets into an incredibly hard substance. The condition is rough, with extensive pitting, however the blade remains semi-sharp and quite flexible.

 The Hilt

While the blade and its origin is easily identified thanks to the abundance of documentation regarding European swords, the hilt poses a more severe challenge. Simply put, it has several features which do not conform to the typical style of Burmese dha.

The handle is turned rosewood and covered in lacquer which looks to have been wrapped in twine to give a subtle 'ridge' effect to enhance grip, these are common materials and techniques for dha, however the decorative motifs on the silver guard and butt caps are not and the swelling in the butt or pommel cap is also unusual. The end of the pommel is capped with copper, likely a repurposed coin. This is quite possibly a late repair and the original cap may have been silver. Many times of copper coinage were in circulation including French coppers in the 18th century through to British pennies and Indian coinage in the 19th century. Coins are found not infrequently as part of dha mounts.

The floral decorative elements on the silver mounts are not of a style that corresponds to that usually seen on Burmese dha and not on Thai darb. In fact, the closest in stylistic terms I have observed are to be found on the floral decoration common on Tibetan swords. Burmese silverwork is usually more deeply repousse, while this is not raised significantly.  

 My initial thoughts are that this sword is likely from Northern Burma and more likely to be from one of the Western provinces, perhaps even into what is now modern day Assam in India. Until a match for the decorative work and precise hilt style is found it is difficult to say with any great accuracy, however these sort of mysteries are what keep the study of arms and armour intriguing for me. Many dha are unique and reflect the character of the owner who comissioned it, a charming change from the uniformity encountered in many sword types. The image below shows a typical northern Thai daab, a very large Burmese dha and the subject of this essay grouped, clearly illustrating the unique elements I have highlighted.