In 1756, King Alaungphaya of Burma sent a letter to King George II of Britain. Written in Burmese script, the letter was engraved on a gold sheet and decorated with 24 rubies then encased in an elephant tusk for delivery, but despite its designed-to-impress packaging, nobody at King George’s court could read the language so in 1758 George forwarded it to the Royal Public Library (formerly the private collection of the Dukes of Hanover, then their official government library, then once the elector of Hanover became King of England, styled the Royal Public Library) in his hometown of Hanover, Germany, for archiving.
The letter remained in a vault in Hanover for 250 years, mainly unremarked although Danish King Christian VII saw it in 1768. It would have been better he hadn’t because he damaged it in handling making the text even harder to decipher.
Three years ago historians at what is today known as the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, after the famous mathematician and philosopher who was also its head librarian between 1676 and 1716, revived the long-dormant golden letter and set about finally deciphering it.
Amid the valuable gems and flowery language, King Alaungphaya confirms his permission for a harbour to be built in the city of Pathein to encourage trading co-operation between the two countries. Written in Burmese script, it is addressed to “the most meritorious and supreme [king] master of all the parasol-bearing kings … lord of ruby, gold, silver, copper, iron, amber and precious stone mines, lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours”.
It goes on to convey “kindest greetings to the English king who rules over the English capital”.
The letter, which was contained in an elephant tusk, referred to the presence in Burma of Henry Brooke, a British envoy working for the British East India Company who was in charge of the settlement in Pathein.
It went on: “Following the humble request of your esteemed Highness’ envoy, Mr Henry Brooke, We have granted the site for your ships in Pathein at the place he wanted.
“A sealed royal order was sent to the officer of the English king and the governor of Pathein was instructed to measure and hand over [the piece of land] in Pathein.
“When close friendship prevails between kings of different countries, they can be helpful to the needs of each other that we are eager to fulfil.”
First let’s just state for the record that “lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours” is a truly outstanding honorific. Having said that, it’s clear that King Alaungphaya was eager to curry favor with the British King. He was the founder of a new royal dynasty — the Konbaung Dynasty — and spent all eight years of his reign, from 1752 to 1760, fighting to reunify the country splintered under a variety of kinglets and to keep foreign powers out.
His prompt acceding to British desire for ship berths was doubtless informed by his desire to maintain strong trade ties to Britain and its rich supply of weapons.
The golden letter was formally presented to the Leibniz Library yesterday. It will go on display for a short time, but given its fragile condition, extreme rarity and high face value, most of the time it will be kept out of public view.
The letter will be the subject of an international congress next year.