three pairs of lovers with space



According to the authoritative Itinerario of the Dutch Jan van Linschoten, published in 1596 and based on the author’s personal acquaintance with European travellers in the East Indies as well as wide reading, “divers of the Peguans [as Europeans referred to Burmese from Pegu being then their capital city] weare a belle upon their yarde, and some two, as bigge as an Acorne, which is made fast between the flesh and the skinne.”[1] This had apparently been ordained as a deterrent to sodomy, to which they had been attached. Linschoten had brought such a bell, “which had a very sweet sounde”, back to Holland. Moreover, “the women go altogether naked, onely with a cloth before their privie members, which (as they go) openeth [and uncovereth], shewing all they have, which is [by them] ordayned, to the ende that by such meanes it should tempt men to lust after women, and to avoid that most abhominable and accursed sinne of Sodomie.”[2] This last passage should be reliable as it was taken almost word for word from the account of the Italian merchant Cesare Federici,[3] who stayed in Burma for two years, probably in 1571-2.[4] A more elaborate account of these customs, based partly on Federici’s, was given by Sir Thomas Herbert in his Some Years Travels (1634), but was wrongly ascribed by him to Siam.

Burma in 1949

Another impediment to developing understanding of pederasty as a distinct form of love was probably an old tradition of gender-differentiated homosexuality, since its existence elsewhere had this effect:  transvestites called meinmasha performed in the royal palace, and men taking the active role with them were perceived as acting heterosexually.[5]

During the 19th century, the British conquered Burma in three successive wars. Following the first, in 1826 the easternmost and southernmost provinces were annexed to British India, and in 1852 they took over Lower Burma. Much of the country was already therefore part of India when on 1 January 1862 the British introduced a penal code there through which they sought to impose many of their own alien values.

According to article 377 of the new code, entitled “Of Unnatural Offences”: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with transportation for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation – Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.” The interpretation given to “penetration” was that it could be anal or oral.

Following a third war, the British annexed Upper Burma in 1886, from when this law applied to the whole country, and it has done ever since.

All the foregoing doubtless had a dampening effect, and attitudes to male homosexuality in the 20th century, among the natives as well as their British rulers, appear generally to have been sterner than in Burma’s Buddhist neighbours, Tibet and Siam. Nevertheless, there seems to have been no active repression.

The Anglo-Irish explorer Major Roland Raven-Hart wrote a book, Canoe to Mandalay (1939) about his exploration of the river Irrawaddy, always in the company of one or another local boy, whose physical charms he described warmly. Obviously he could not spell out whatever intimacies he may have shared with them in a mainstream publication, but it would appear that little could have stood in the way of him or anyone else with an inclination to practice Greek love discreetly, either then or later.

The English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson spent two months in Rangoon in 1949, the year after Burma became independent. A chapter in his memoir Some Boys is a moving description of his Greek love affair there with an affectionate pubescent boy he called Maung Tay Ba. The local British security services, who were anxious about his possible communist proclivities, got the Rangoon police to keep him under observation, and noted his dalliance with local boys (though they thought he preferred the Chinese ones), but no one seems to have thought of interfering with it.[6]

Describing homosexuality in Burma in 1990, Paul Knobel wrote: “Monks are said to be highly sexed and tourists are warned to be careful of sexual advances - though such reports may be exaggerated.”[7] If so, the sex in question is likely, in view of both the vast number of boy acolytes living under the mentorship of monks and the unusually old-fashioned character of Burmese society, to have been Greek love, as had been the case in Buddhist countries like Tibet and Ceylon.


[1] Arthur Coke Burnell, the learned editor of the Hakluyt Society’s edition of Lindschoten’s Voyages published in 1885, observed that “This practice is, it appears, now obsolete”, and that it had been alluded to in Luís Vaz de Camões’s Lusiads X 122, published in 1572, and earlier writings, but Lindschoten seems to have been the first to ascribe it to Pegu.

[2] John Huighen van Linschoten, his Discours of Voyages into Ye East & West Indies, translated and printed in London, 1598, Volume I, Chapter XVII.

[3] Cesare Federici, Viaggio di m. Cesare dei Fedrici nell'India Orientale et oltra l'India, nel quale si contengono cose dilettevoli dei riti et dei costumi di quei paesi et insieme si descriveno le spetiarie, droghe, gioie et perle che d'essi si cavano, con alcuni avertimenti utilissimi a quelli che tal viaggio volessero fare, Venice: Andrea Muschio, 1587, p. 173.

[4] Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Volume 45 (1995). Burnell, the editor of the 1885 Hakluyt Society’s edition of Lindschoten’s Voyages, confirms that “of this practice there can be no doubt”, having earlier observed that “the women of Burmah have continued to be very loose in conduct.”

[5] George van Driem, “Lexical Categories of Homosexual Behaviour in Modern Burmese” in Maledicta XII (1996) pp. 91-110.

[6] [British] National Archives: KV 2/2975/1.

[7] Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, edited by Wayne R. Dynes, Vol. I (Garland Publishers, 1990) p. 174.

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