What’s Colonial in a Name?

In a blog post published a few months ago, Matt Houlbrook, the historian of twentieth-century Britain, wrote about the difficulties he had deciding what name to call the man that he has been studying for over a decade. This ‘trickster prince’ went by many aliases during his life. Matt (if I may?) also discussed the dilemma of whether it was better to refer to people in our studies by their first or by their surnames. Is a sense of familiarity in our writing a good thing? And how might our choices chime with the class politics of who was (and is) referred to by their surname and who by their given name? His post reminded me of the dilemma that I had when writing my book on corruption in late nineteenth-century colonial Burma.

The problems Matt raised were compounded by two further factors in this context. The first was the impact of the colonial bureaucracy on how Burmese names were recorded. The second was Burmese naming conventions.

The sources that I used to complete my research were hundreds of case files filled with materials gathered during investigations led by high-ranking British officials into everyday corruption. These files contained memos, informal notes, witness statements, petitions, written explanations from accused officials, court records, and completed investigative reports. In these documents, the male subordinate Burmese officials nearly all had Maung at the start of their names.

Maung means young brother in Burmese, and it is a term reserved mainly for male children and teenagers. It is also how people deemed to be of a lower social status might be addressed by people who perceive themselves to be of a better status. However, British officials used it to refer to nearly all Burmese officials, regardless of age or social standing. Correspondingly, British officials were supposed to be addressed as Thakin, or master, by Burmese subordinate officials. So, Maung was a sign of colonial authority.

However, Maung is also a fairly popular name itself. In Burma it is unusual to have a family name. Instead, people often have given names that traditionally have been based on the day of the week that a person was born. It is not unheard of for people to have only one name, and there is some evidence to suggest that this might have been more common in the past. As a result, I was never entirely sure whether Maung was always an element added by British officials or whether it was already part of their given name.

Burmese naming practices meant that the British bureaucracy evidently struggled to keep tabs on who was who within their employment. In one case, a particularly corrupt township officer was referred to in official correspondence as Maung Gyi (8). There were so many officials with that name that high-ranking British officials had taken to numbering them. The British were individuating people with the same name in a highly impersonal, indeed depersonalizing, manner.

It seemed to me, that using the names as they were recorded in bureaucratic correspondence would be to re-inscribe the colonial hierarchy implicit in the use of Maung. But, on the other hand, this would have meant that the names in my writing and the names that appeared in the extended quotes I used, would have been inconsistent with one another. Moreover, I worried that it would be harder for future historians to seek out the individuals that I wrote about within the imperial archive. In the end, I just used the names as they appeared in the record. However, I am still unsure and uneasy about my decision. I suppose I let academic formality and convention trump post-colonial rigour. Either way, the recording of names is one of the many ways that the practices of colonization continue to subtly inform the histories that we write.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Kenneth says:

    As someone who grew up in Burma (but not old enough to have experienced the colonial era, I’m happy to say), I can assure you “Gyi” is a highly unusual choice for a single-word Burmese name. True, in rural areas, you might find peasant parents who dub their kids single-word names like Kway or Pu. As the child mature, he or she would progress into Nya Kway (little Kway) or Mi Pu (little Pu), Maung Kway (young man Kway) or Ma Pu (young lady Pu), then U Kway (Mr. Kway) or Daw Pu (Madam Pu). But I’ve never heard of Gyi as single-word name. So I’d venture to say the given name of that corrupt official in your document is “Maung Gyi.”

    An older person may also call a younger person with the prefix Maung. For instance, I’m in my 40s; therefore, I can justifiable call someone 35 or younger with the name Kyaw Thu as Maung Kyaw Thu. Accordingly, the younger person may address me by attaching the age-appropriate prefix Ko in front of my name.

    I think for the purpose of a history book, it’s better to stick to the name as it appears in the original documents. Besides, I think it’s safer to assume “Maung” is part of the recorded name because that’s how a certain person was known in the community, not because the colonial scribe felt the need to add it to imply social inferiority.

  2. jonathansaha says:

    Thanks Kenneth, that’s very helpful! I am reassured with my use of Maung Gyi. And I do agree, maintaining a congruence with original documents is very important – but when trying to understand history from the perspective of those being written about, as well as those writing, it does feel important to get peoples’ names right.
    Relative age is important, however Ko or U are never used as prefixes in British colonial documents – and this is not because their staff were younger than them. Indeed, elderly, long serving officials were still referred to as Maung.
    In some cases there certainly was an attempt to suggest social inferiority as there was a discrepancy between how they were addressed in petitions written by Burmese people and how they were addressed in British authored correspondence. For instance, a police inspector was referred to as Maung Pyaw in his British superior officer’s letters, but U Pyaw in locally written petitions from village elders.

  3. Kenneth says:

    The persistent use of “Maung” in colonial documents that you mentioned is remarkable! I didn’t know about this. What year are these documents written in? Now I have newfound admiration for Orwell, who used the age-appropriate “U” for his Burmese character U Po Kyin in Burmese Days (set around the 1920s when Orwell himself was in Burma).

  4. jonathansaha says:

    The documents I looked at were from roughly between 1890 and 1910. By the interwar years there were some shifts in formal attitudes, with the government nudging British clubs to open their membership to Burmese and Indians, and high-ranks of the bureaucracy being slowly “Burmanised”. This may have shifted the terms used in late colonial correspondence, I’m not familiar enough with the day-to-day records of this period to say for sure. And you’re right – although not sympathetically portrayed, the character of U Po Kyin is certainly not belittled by Orwell’s narrator, as the use of Maung would have implied.

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