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Dr Francis Buchanan MD and Rohingya

By Aman Ullah

On 24th March 1798 Buchanan reached at Choonooty of Chittagong, as Rennell calls, Sunouttee, and then he went Hrvang village, and also Baratulla Valley. There he said, “All the way from Chanpour to Baratulla we have had low hills between us and sea: ….Various parts of the Hills in this neighbourhood are inhabited by Mugs from Rossawn, Rohhawn, Roang, Reng or Rung, for by all these names is (are) Arakan called by the Bengalese. These people left their country on its conquest by the Burmas, and subsist by fishing, Boat building, a little cultivation, and by the cloth made by their women. They also build houses for the Mohammedan refugees, of whom many come from Arakan on the same occasion, and settling among men of their own sect, are now much better off than their former Masters. A Bengalese Mohammedan would consider himself as polluted by living in a House built by Mug.”  [Willem van Schendel edit, ‘Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798)’- Dhaka 1992, p.31]

In evening of 27th April 1798, Buchanan reached at Raing-ghaiung-bak (Rainkyoung-bak) a small Chakma village near the mouth of the Rainkhyong. There he said that, “I found here a man, who was dressed in a yellow habit: but the man said, that he was not a priest, and that his assuming the dress was only temporary. He was reading a book in Bengalese character, and on inquiry I found, that the men, except a few words, understand no other language. They say that they are the same with the Sak of Roang or Arakan: that originally they came from that country; and that on account of their having lost their native language, and not having properly acquired the Bangalese, they are commonly called Doobadse (Dubhashi).” [p.104]

On the evening of 28th April 1798, Buchanan reached at Taubboka, which by the Bengalese is commonly called Rajbary near Rangamatty, there he saw a priest, who assumed the name of Poun-do-gye or Great royal virtue. The priest informed him that, “the Chakmas have in general forgot the Roang language: but that it is the dialect spoken by the Sak-mee, who still live in Arakan. The books, which this priest has, are written both in the Rohang character and dialect.”[p.108]

Above mentioned are from the account of Journey to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hills Tracts, Noakhali and Commiila during 1798 by Dr Francis Buchanan, M.D.

Francis Buchanan’s account is the earliest and the most significant source of new information of 18th Century Bengal, Arakan, Tripura, Cachar, Manipur, Mizoram and Burma (Myanmar). It provides unique information on Southeastern Bengal in particular and further regions to the South and East in general and is a good example of how Europeans collected knowledge of the wider world and what views they held. It contains information on rural economy, social life and ethnic relations and above all of the British imperial policy in the region. Although Buchanan’s account is presented as a travel diary, it is the diary of a disciplined traveller and is thus seen to represent a genre. His surveys are of far more than antiquarian interest as they provide us with the first detailed information in existence about rural Bangladesh. “He is, first and foremost, an intellectual forbear of all social scientists trying to make sense of social structure and social change in South Asia.” [Professor Willem van Schendel of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, in his editor note]

Francis Buchanan published his “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire” in 1799, in the fifth volume of Asiatic Researches in the pages 219 to 240. This piece provides one of the first major Western surveys of the languages of Burma. But the article goes beyond this and provides important data on the ethno-cultural identities and identifications of the various population groups in the first half of Bò-daw-hpayà’s reign (1782-1819).

On this account, Buchanan started that,
“To judge from external appearance, that is to say, from shape, size, and feature, there is one very extensive nation that inhabits the east of Asia….. A nation may be distinguished by a short, squat, robust, fleshy stature, and by features…… Circumstances, such as laws, customs, government, political maxims, religion, literature, there is also a strong resemblance among the different states composing this great nation ; no doubt arising from the frequent intercourse that has been among them.  But it is very surprising, that a wonderful difference of language should prevail. Language, of all adventitious circumstances, is the surest guide in tracing the migrations and connections of nations. In all attempts to trace the migrations and connections of tribes by means of language, it ought to be carefully remembered.”

He also mentioned that: –
“It ought also to be observed that, in tracing the radical affinities of languages, terms of art, men’s names, religious and law phrases, are, of all words, the most improper ; as they are liable constantly to be communicated by adventitious circumstances from one race of men to another. What connections of blood have we, Europeans, with the Jews, from whom a very great proportion of our names and religious terms are derived? Or what connections have the natives of Bengal with the Arabs or English, from whom they have derived most of their law and political terms? With the former they have not even had political connection, as the phrases in question were derived to them through the medium of the Persians an[d] Tartars. Two languages, therefore, ought only to be considered radically the same, when, of a certain number of common chosen by accident, the greater number have a clear and distinct resemblance: a circumstance, to which, if antiquarians had been attentive, they would have been saved from the greater part of that etymological folly, which has so often exposed their pleasing science to the just ridicule of mankind.”

“In the orthography I have had much difficulty. Two people seldom write in the same way, any word or language with which they are unacquainted. I have attempted, merely to convey to the English reader, without any minute attention to accent, or small variations of vowels, a sound similar to that pronounced; nor have I paid any attention to the orthography of the natives. This, in the Burma language, I might have done; but as I am not acquainted with the writing of the other tribes, I thought it the safest method to express the sound merely.”

Regarding the Language of Burma he wrote that: –                                                     
“I shall begin with the Burma language as being at present the most prevalent. There are four dialects of it, that of Burma Proper, that of Arakan, that of the Yo, and that of Tenasserim.

The people called by us Burmas, Barmas, Vermas, Brimmas, &c. stile themselves Myammaw. By people of Pegu, they are named Pummay ; by Karaya, Yoo ; by the people of Cussay, Awa, by the Cussay Shau, Kammau ; by the Chinese of Younan, Laumeen ; and by the Aykobat, Anwa. They esteem themselves to be descended from the people of Arakan, whom they often call Myanmmaw gyee; that is to say, great Burmas.

The proper natives of Arakan call themselves Yakain, which name is also commonly given to them by the Burmas. By the people of Pegu, they are named Takain. By the Bengal Hindus, at least by such of them as have been settled in Arakan, the country is called Rossaum, from whence, I suppose, Mr. Rennell has been induced to make a country named Roshaum occupy part of his map, not conceiving that it would be Arakan, or the kingdom of the Mugs, as we often call it. Whence this name of Mug, given by the Europeans to the natives of Arakan, has been derived, I know not; but, as far as I could learn, it is totally unknown to the natives and their neighbours, except such of them as, by their intercourse with us, have learned its use. The Mahommedans settled at Arakan, call the country Rovingaw; the Persians call it Rekan.

The third dialect of the Burma language is spoken by a small tribe called Yo. There are four governments of this nation, situated on the east side of the Arakan mountains, governed by chiefs of their own, but tributary to the Burmas.

The fourth dialect is that of what we call the coast of Tenasserim, from its city now in ruins, whose proper name was Tanayntharee. These people, commonly called by the Burmas, Dawayza and Byeitza, from the two governments of which their country consists, have most frequently been subjected to Siam [and] Pegu; but at present they are subjects of the Burma [kingdom].”

Buchnan described another six language, which are he termed as the languages of this great eastern nation, of which, during his stay in the Burma Empire,  he was able to procure vocables sufficient for his purpose.

Further Buchanan wrote that: –
“I shall now add three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation.

The first is that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.

The second dialect is that spoken by the Hindus of Arakan. I procured it from a Brahmen and his attendants, who had been brought to Amarapura by the king’s edlest son, on his return from the conquest of Arakan. They call themselves Rossawn, and, for what reason I do not know, wanted to persuade me that theirs was the common language of Arakan. Both these tribes, by the real natives of Arakan, are called Kulaw Yakain, or stranger Arakan.

The last dialect of the Hindustanee which I shall mention is that of a people called, by the Burmas, Aykobat, many of them are slaves at Amarapura. By one of them I was informed, that they had called themselves Banga ; that formerly they had kings of their own ; but that, in his father’s time, their kingdom had been overturned by the king of Munnypura, who carried away a great part of the inhabitants to his residence.”

Mr. GILCHRIST has been so good as to examine particularly these two dialects, and to mark thus (*) those words which come nearest the Hindustanee spoken on the Ganges; and thus (†) those not so evidently in connection with the same, but which shew resemblance by analogy.

   English.                      Rooinga.                       Rossawn.                    Banga.
1   Sun                                Bel                          *   Sooja                      Bayllee
2  Moon                             Sawn                            Sundsa                   Satkan
3  Stars                              Tara                         *  Nokyoto                 *   Tara
4  Earth                            Kool                             Murtika                   *   Matee
5 Water                           Pannæ                        *   Dsol                    *   Pannæ
6   Fire                             Auin                           *   Aaganee                   Zee
7  Stone                            Sheel                          *    Sheel                 *   Heel
8  Wind                            Bau                            *     Pawun                 *   Bo
9  Rain                             Jorail                          †    Bistee               *   Booun
10 Man                             Manush                      †    Moanusa         *    Manoo
11 Woman                        Meealaw                           Stree                 Zaylan
12 Child                            Gourapa                      *   Balouk               Sogwo
13 Head                            Mata                                Mustok             Teekgo
14 Mouth                          Gall                                 Bodon              Totohan
15 Arm                              Bahara                     *    Baho               Paepoung
16 Hand                            Hat                                Osto                   Hatkan
17 Leg                               Ban                             † Podo               Torooa
18 Foot                              Pau                               Pata               Zankan
19 Beast —                       Zoomtroo                     Sasee             sangee
20 Bird                                  Paik                       †  Pookyee        †Pakya
21 Fish                             Maws                             Mootsæ           †Mas
22 Good                           Goom                              Gam                 Hoba
23 Bad                           Goom nay                        Gumnay             Hoba nay
24 Great                          Boddau                           Dangor            Domorgo
25 Little                           Thuddee                       *Tsooto              Hooroogo
26 Long                           Botdean                           Deengol         Deengul
27 Short                            Banick                            *Batee            *Batee
28 One                               Awg                                *Aik                      *Ak
29 Two                                 Doo                               *Doo                  De
30 Three                              Teen                          *Teen                 †Teen
31 Four                               Tchair                              *Tsar            *Saree
32 Five                                Pansoee                        *Paus                *Pas
33 Six                                   Saw                                  *Tso              *Tsæ
34 Seven                               Sat                                *Sat                *Hat
35 Eight                              Awtoa                              † Asto               *Awt
36 Nine                               Nonaw                              *No                  *No
37 Ten                                Dussoa                             *Dos               *Dos
38 Eat                                 Kau                                 *Kawai           † Kæ k
39 Drink                             Karin                                 Kawo            † Peek
40 Sleep                              Layrow                      † needsara         Hooleek
41 Walk                                Pawkay                            Bayra        teea-ootea
42 Sir                                    Boihow                        † Boesho            † Bo
43 Stand                            Tcheilayto                      *Karao                  †Oot
44 Kill                                  Marim                             *Maro                 *Mar
45 Yes                                  Hoi                                   Oir                    Oo
46 No                                   Etibar                                *Noay            *Naway
47 Here                                Hayray                               Etay               Erang
48 There                              Horay                                 Horay            Orung
49 Above                             Ouchalo                             *Ooper           Goa
50 Below                                Ayray                                Hayray         † Tol  

Dr Francis Buchanan, later known as Francis Hamilton but often referred to as Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (15 February 1762 – 15 June 1829) was a Scottish physician who made significant contributions as a geographer, zoologist, and botanist while living in India. He  studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and served in the Bengal Medical Service from 1794 to 1815. He also studied botany under John Hope in Edinburgh.

From 1807 to 1814, under the instructions of the government of Bengal, he made a comprehensive survey of the areas within the jurisdiction of the British East India Company. He was asked to report on topography, history, antiquities, the condition of the inhabitants, religion, natural productions, agriculture, fine and common arts, and commerce. His conclusions are reported in a series of treatises that are retained in major United Kingdom libraries; many have been re-issued in modern editions.

Buchanan left India in 1815, and in the same year inherited his mother’s estate and in consequence took her surname of Hamilton, referring to himself as “Francis Hamilton, formerly Buchanan” or simply “Francis Hamilton”. However he is variously referred to by others as “Buchanan-Hamilton”, “Francis Hamilton Buchanan” or “Francis Buchanan Hamilton”.


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