Monday, February 16, 2009

Maurice Collis – Always a Good Read

Over the weekend I reread the great Maurice Collis’s Trials in Burma from 1938 for the Burma Road project I’m just finishing off. A few months ago for another project I reread Collis’s excellent Foreign Mud, his history of the opium trade and Opium Wars. I’ve long been a fan of Collis who I don’t think is much better read these days but only knew the bare bones about his background – that he was a British official in Burma with an interest in China who was pushed out and marginalized in the 1930s for being deemed by the Foreign Office as too pro-Burmese and returned to England to become a writer, concentrating on books about Burma and China.

Well, thanks to the rather classy original Penguin copy of Trials in Burma I picked up, I now know a little more about Collis. He was born in Dublin in 1889,went to Rugby School (a dead posh private school) and to Oxford in 1907 where he got a First in history. In 1911 he joined the Indian Civil Service and went immediately to Burma (then part of the British Empire and the Raj). He stayed in Burma for 20 years in a variety of posts, including upcountry in Sagaing and Arakan, and his career peaked as District Magistrate of Rangoon (his father had been a solicitor in Dublin before him) in 1929-30 (the subject of Trials in Burma). In the book he indicates why exactly the FO decided to sideline him to the post of an Excise Commander (technically a promotion some could argue, but Collis got the message).

After retiring to England in 1934 he became a prolific writer turning out plays (The Motherly and Auspicious) as well as books:

Siamese White (1936) – bio of Samuel White of Bath who, during the reign of James II, was appointed by the King of Siam as a mandarin of that country.

Trials in Burma – Collis’s time as a magistrate in Rangoon in 1930

She Was a Queen – bio of a Burmese Queen

Lords of the Sunset – Collis’s 1937 tour of the Shan States

The Great Within – a history of early China

The Land of the Great Image – bio of a missionary in Arakan in 17th century

Raffles (1966) – bio of the founder of Singapore

Marco Polo – bio of the Venetian traveller

Foreign Mud – the opium wars

He did vary his interests (indeed a complete list of his books would be significantly longer than the one’s I’ve noted) turning out biographies of Nancy Astor, Cortés and Montezuma, Somerville and Ross and Stanley Spencer and did turn his hand to painting himself in later life. He died in 1973. When Foreign Mud was published the Daily Telegraph wrote “Collis's books give nothing but pleasure to those who enjoy elegant writing.”


ThomasCrampton said...

Yes, Collis is great! I am also a total fan.

Anonymous said...

I have just read his biography of Raffles, which was grippingly told and was very sympathetic. Collis himself was disapproved of by the British Establishment and this, clearly, rang a cord for him. The East India Company claimed against Raffles' widow for funds, it appears, vindictively.

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Marilyn Longmuir said...

I find it a crying shame that Maurice Collis has been so neglected. INTO HIDDEN BURMA: An Autobiography is one of my favourite books and his description of Kyaukpyu harbour has stayed with me for years.He describes it as "the largest harbour in Burma....the whole British fleet could have entered and ridden there." Finally after all these years, the Burmese government with Chinese help is developing it into a super port on the Bay of Bengal, with Middle East oil tankers to berth there.
Maurice Collis loved and liked the Burmese and the pages of this book, clearly expresses these feelings.

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