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BURMA / NORTHEASTERN INDIA: Eastern Bengal, Assam, Burmah, and parts of China and Siam mostly adapted from the maps of the Surveyor General of India by Robert Gordon, Esq., M.I.C.E. and M.I.M.E.



A fascinating, very rare large-format map of Burma and Northeastern India composed by Robert Gordon, a prominent explorer, Ruby prospector and the principal engineer of the Irrawaddy River system, published in Calcutta by the Surveyor General of India’s Office.

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This very rare map of Burma is the finest overall rendering of the country available before Britain conquered Upper and Northern Burma during the Third Anglo-Burmese War (November 14-27, 1885).  It was compiled by Robert Gordon, a prominent explorer, ruby prospector and river engineer, as the key map of his atlas of the Irrawaddy River system, published by the Survey of India Office in Calcutta in 1880.

The map embraces all of Burma, plus much of Bengal (including Calcutta), Assam, the tribal border states, plus parts of Tibet and Siam (Thailand).  The map’s projection of Bengal, Assam, all of the coastal areas and Lower Burma (which Britain conquered in 1852-3) are extremely precise, as these areas had long been scientifically surveyed, variously by the British Admiralty and the Survey of India. 

The rendering of Upper Burma, which remained the territory of the Kingdom of Burma, ruled by the Konbuang Dynasty, is mapped with less accuracy than the British-held territories, but nevertheless features many impressive details, especially along the major river valleys which had been explored by British agents, including Gordon.  Throughout the map, all major roads and towns are labelled; in addition to the two lines of the Burma State Railway, being the line from Rangoon to Prome (completed in 1877) and the only partially completed line running north from Rangoon towards Toungoo.  All major rivers are delineated, while mountain ranges are expressed by intermittent lines.  Interestingly, the map features interesting notes such as the locations of the Ruby mines at Momeit (Mogok), the source of the best such gems in the world, as well as ‘Teak Forests’ and stands of ‘Varnish Wood’, all highly valuable timber.

During the period in which the present map was made, Burma was the source of intense interest to Britain, which having conquered Lower Burma and the country’s coastal areas was continually working to make the remaining Kingdom of Burma a client state.  The British sent many expeditions to the Burmese capital of Mandalay to this effect, but they were stonewalled by the understandably reluctant Konbuang court.


Robert Gordon: Explorer, Prospect and Engineer in Burma

Robert Gordon (fl. 1868 – 1891) was a major figure in Burma during the period in question.  He first appears on the scene in 1868, when he became the chief engineer for Major Edward Bosc Sladen’s expedition to open a trade route over the mountains between China and Burma, the so-called ‘Bhamo Route Survey’.  This mission did not meet with success, as the terrain was virtually impassable, and the Burmese Royal government proved uncooperative.  The mission did, however, yield useful intelligence with respect to the geography and natural resources of the northern parts of Upper Burma, details of which made their way into the present map.

Around 1870, Gordon was appointed as the Chief Engineer of the Irrawaddy Valley River system, charged with improving navigation and flood prevention.  Gordon also spent a great deal of time searching for rubies and attempting to quantify the production of the famous Mogok mines. All this was done with the reluctant cooperation of the Burmese Royal government, which (probably rightly) suspected Gordon to have been a British spy.

The present work is closely based upon the most authoritative existing map of Burma published by the Survey of India, Eastern Bengal, Assam, Burmah, and parts of China and Siam 1870. With Additions and Corrections to 1875 (Calcutta, June 1875), today likewise a very rare work.

The present map was issued as the key map of Gordon’s untitled atlas of the Irrawaddy River Valley and Northeastern India (published 1880, in Calcutta by the Survey of India), which consists of 32 maps and 6 charts on 18 sheets (this map bears the numeral ‘I’ in the upper-right corner, indicating that it was the first map in the atlas).  This magnificent atlas, by far the best mapping of the valley to date, is today extremely rare, we can trace only a single institutional example, at the University of Chicago Library.  Moreover, we cannot trace any examples of the present map appearing separately in libraries or on the market.

Gordon was a foremost authority on Burma and the Royal Geographical Society published some of his articles and maps, including the Sketch Map showing the probable course of the Sanpo of Tibet to the Irawadi of Burma (1885) and a Plan of the Ruby Mine Districts of Burma, surveyed by R. Gordon (1888).  Curiously, despite his evident skill as a geographer and engineer, Gordon was always wedded to the incorrect notion that the Irrawaddy’s headwaters could be found in Tsangpo River, so connecting the Burmese and Tibetan watersheds. Although this perhaps was not so strange, given the Victorian obsession with ‘kooky’ theories.


Historical Context: Britain’s Designs on Burma

Burma had been a prime target of Britain for many decades; however, the powerful Konbuang Dynasty, which ruled the country from Ava (and later Mandalay), was a formidable military adversary, best approached with caution.  Indeed, the Burmese army had been the scourge of its neighbours, having overrun Siam.  However, in the early 19th Century, the Burmese began expanding their influence into the tribal states bordering Bengal, the jewel of the British Empire.  Britain could not tolerate such a dangerous adversary holding territory only few days march from Calcutta and saw a useful excuse to strike Burma.  The timing was perfect, as the Anglo-Indian Army had vanquished the Marathas in 1818, and found themselves at full strength, with little other distractions.  During the Frist Anglo-Burmese War (1824-5), the British defeated Burma, albeit with great effort, taking the coastal regions of Arakan and Tenasserim, while expelling the Burmese from the tribal borderlands. 

Over the next generation, Britain’s technical advantage over Burma increased, and during the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3), Britain easily conquered Lower Burma, which included Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta. 

In the coming years, Britain sought (unsuccessfully) to make the Burmese Kingdom, which still held Upper and Northern Burma, a client state.  They mounted several ‘scientific’ and ‘cultural’ expeditions, which were thinly-disguised espionage missions, some of which were undertaken by Robert Gordon.  The British were astounded by the immense wealth of Upper Burma, not only the ruby mines (which were already well known), but the immense Teak Forests, bearing the world’s finest hardwood, and the rice fields that were so productive that Burma could produce more rice than all the rest of the Indian Subcontinent combined!

Moreover, the British also hoped to open an overland trade route between China and the Indian Ocean, running through Burma.  Such a route promised to yield untold riches.  Curiously this dream remains unrealized, as even to this day, no good road or railway traverses the mountain passes between the countries (a serious Chinese attempt to build such a rail link was mothballed by the Burmese government in 2014).

When Britain’s efforts to bend the Konbuang Dynasty to its ends failed, the empire made a strike to take the entire country.  The British easily overran Mandalay in November 1885, and with it came the collapse of the independent Burmese state.  While sporadic guerrilla resistance continued until 1895, Burma became one of the most valuable parts of the British Empire until its regained its independence in 1948.


References: Cf. [Complete Atlas:] University of Chicago Library: G7722.I7 1880 .M3; OCLC: 865019846.

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