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Dhaka Tribune

The legacy of Hiram Cox

Update : 19 Feb 2016, 07:38 PM

Mrauk U was the curious name of the last Arakanese Kingdom. Curious, because the English translation would be monkey’s egg.

A kingdom, noted for piracy as one of its central “industries” throughout much of its history, was one in which in its capital “Portuguese, Dutch, and French traders rubbed shoulders with the literati of Bengal, and even refugee Mughal princes.” Its final demise, which can be reasonably dated to the Burmese invasion of the once remnant lands, was in 1784 when the land was ravaged by its Burmese conquerors.

At one time, the kingdom stretched north-wards and westwards, beyond Chittagong, almost as far as Dhaka. In 1760, in pursuit of the fleeing Prince Shah Suja, the Mughal army retook territory, including Chittagong, as far as the Naf River, today’s border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

A century later, Chittagong and the lands south-ward as far as the Naf, were the first territories ever ceded to the East India Company in the sub-continent. Though then even they showed no interest in lands south of the Bakkhali River -- on the banks of which stood the ancient city of Ramu, and, probably, a Buddhist Temple, that still stands in the centre of today’s Cox’s Bazar -- as evidenced by the extraordinary map surveyed by Major James Rennell,  “the father of Indian cartography” and published by the Company in 1776.

The coastal lands, the myriad islands, and islets offshore had been neglected, ignored, and devastated by first the Burmese then the Mughals, and became lawless lands -- nests of piracy, where once they had accommodated a flourishing, Portuguese-founded shipbuilding industry. The piracy was a thorn in the flesh of traders across the bay of Bengal and beyond.

In ceding the territories to the company, the governor of Bengal was both conceding the strength of the 1757 victors of Plassey, perhaps to act as a buffer between Bengal and the Burmese Kingdom, and, no doubt, to at least partly assuage the evident hunger for Chittagong harbour that had manifested itself as early as the outset of Child’s War in 1684. In a land of tigers, perhaps he should have known that “feeding the tiger” often only enhanced the animal’s appetite!

When in 1784, Burma finally invaded the remnant of the Arakanese kingdom, south of the Naf, the lawlessness of the company lands to the north of the river was somewhat enhanced by a flood of Arakanese refugees, fleeing the depredations of the Burmese army.

About 1798, Richard Wellesley, the Earl of Mornington, newly appointed Governor of Bengal and Governor General of the East India Company’s territories, eldest brother of the famous Arthur Wellesley, recognised both the problem and the opportunity of these much neglected territories.

In 1798, he gave the task of settling the refugees from Arakan into lands and activities that could prove profitable to the company to Captain Hiram Cox.

Cox was born, probably somewhere close to Inverness in Scotland, in 1760. Following the 1745 rebellion led by the last Pretender of the Stuart dynasty against the Hanoverian rulers of Britain -- the final battle, Culloden,  being fought close to Inverness, Scotland had become something of a desert, with few career opportunities except those in Britain’s slowly growing Empire.

Marrying the grand-daughter of the last British aristocrat, he joined, as did so many contemporaries, the service of the East India Company. His early role in the company is believed to have been at sea, which would be unsurprising in view of the strong nautical traditions of east coast Scotland.

He came to prominence when sent, in 1796, probably by Sir John Shore, then Governor of the Company in India, as emissary to the Burmese King in Rangoon. Burma was an important trading partner for the Company, possibly because it was also a source of the vital supply of saltpetre, for gunpowder and also for its wealth of gems, and, certainly, for timber supplies for company ship-building and repairs.

His time in Burma has been a source of controversy, but, given the continuing unrest in the region as a result of Burmese activities, it was, probably, never going to be a comfortable assignment.

Nevertheless, perhaps for well-established administrative abilities, it was upon him that the responsibility fell at Mornington’s behest, to head to Ramu, and the lands that are, today, mostly Cox’s Bazar District.

The plan was to settle the refugees, and others, on areas of cultivable land, or with opportunities for fisheries, and create market places for trading: No doubt where tax collection could be more readily controlled.

There seems little doubt that Cox’s Bazar, named after his death by colleagues and associates, was the first of these market places, and that work rapidly commenced to settle the peoples, now known, within today’s Bangladesh, as the Rakhine people.

Whilst, beyond his own memoirs of his time in Burma, subsequently published by his son, Captain Henry Cox, and pieces written for Calcutta’s Asiatic Society, and his contribution to the esoteric game of four-handed chess -- we have little documentary evidence of him and his life so far uncovered from company records in London.

However, we do have clear, tangible, evidence of a man of strong opinions, vigour and energy, and one, after his death, described by friends and associates as “a compassionate soul.”

At the time, the lands around the Bakkhali river were, apparently, infamous as malarial. However, in 1797, he contracted malaria, probably not for the first time, and died. He was buried beside the Bakkhali River, it is believed, in Ramu. Subsequent changes in the course of the river appear to have washed his burial place away.

The only monument to his life and work, it is believed, is the plaque that stands in the pretty gardens of Cox’s Bazar Surf Club, the luxury beach front boutique resort on Shugandha Beach in today’s Cox’s Bazar.

The ancient Buddhist Temple in the town, possibly around which the market originally developed, possesses a small Buddha of Burmese origin, said to have been donated by Captain Cox.

Perhaps he was one of the “new men” of the East India Company who appreciated Mornington’s belief that the company needed to reform its behaviour, or risk losing the Indian territories.

Cox certainly seems to have bequeathed an enduring legacy that appears to justify the opinion of those who memorialised him. The vigour and urgency with which he very evidently tackled the mission entrusted to him by Mornington certainly reinforces that opinion of him bequeathed to history.

Today’s refugees around the world may well, if they knew of Cox’s history, wish for other such “compassionate” souls.

Subsequent history has seen great changes, and, in one sense, what Mornington and Cox attempted to achieve for the refugees from Burmese violence, has vanished.

Sadly that history has repeated itself in more recent years, but without the possibility to repeat any such solution. 

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