‘The Philosopher Burmese Prince’ and the Air-Pump

The other week I found a digitized archive of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a periodical originally founded under a different name by the famed colonial Orientalist scholar William Jones. I was having a flick through looking for articles on Burma and found the following little article from early 1833.

From: The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 2 (1833), p. 47
From: The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 2 (1833), p. 47

I haven’t had the chance to research this in any depth yet, but it is an intriguing window into the exchange of scientific ideas and equipment in Burma before British colonization. Newtonian astronomy was evidently one set of beliefs circulating in the Burmese court among a number of others. I don’t want to push this too far – there is the barely concealed criticism of the Burmese monarchy in the article and, perhaps, a little bit of a patronizing tone. Nevertheless, it is clear that the writer is hugely impressed by the Prince and, more importantly, is unable to satisfactorily answer his scientific questions.

A few months later the journal published a response to the questions. It was a serious response too, containing several pages explaining the mathematics behind Newton’s hypothesis. And, although the earth wasn’t destroyed, there was a spectacular meteor shower in November 1833 that was seen across north America.

An engraving of 1833 storm produced in 1889 for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle - the engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm.
An engraving of 1833 storm produced in 1889 for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle – the engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm.

This wasn’t the celestial event he predicted, and I am unsure whether it was even possible to view the meteor shower in Burma with the telescopes of the time. But ignoring all that, it is a pleasing thought that in the Konbaung dynasty’s capital of Amarapura there might have been a prince secretly observing the skies to see it.

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