It is good to be king : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

It is good to be king

…but all glory is fleeting

by William C. Nelson

Pity poor King Thibaw, the last sovereign of Burma. There cannot be any painless way to lose a kingdom, but in 1885 when King Thibaw fell, he fell especially fast and hard. Dethroned in a day by an invading British force, in no time did King Thibaw see his rule abolished and his kingdom transformed into a British colony. Countless volumes tell other sad tales of indig- enous sovereigns who, refusing to play ball with the Brits, paid a similar or higher price for their recalcitrance. So why do we concern ourselves with the story of this fallen king here in the pages of P&T? King Thibaw (his name is spelled variously) interests us because of his potential connection to a pipe, and because of one Missouri man’s quest to discover all he can about that pipe and how he came to possess it. That’s a tough proposition, since mystery clouds the pipe’s past. All we can do is tell what we know and see where it leads. If we are to begin unraveling the intrigue surrounding this pipe, it is proper that we first observe the catastrophe that befell King Thibaw—who just may have held the pipe in his own royal hand.
Thibaw Min, born in 1859 to King Min- don Min of Burma’s Konbaung dynasty, ascended to the throne in 1878 when he was only 20 years old, upon the death of his father. The royal king1family reportedly slaughtered many potential rivals to the throne (mostly family members) to safeguard Thibaw’s unopposed ascension. Nothing, however, could safeguard the young king’s prospects from an encroaching British Empire, which had for 60 years been nibbling at Burma during the first two Anglo-Burmese Wars. When in 1885 King Thibaw unwisely declared his intent to drive the English into the sea, thus starting the third Anglo-Burmese War, the Empire pounced with finality. British vessels steamed unopposed up the Irrawaddi River, and British troops marched directly to the King’s summer residence, placing the king, to his astonishment, under arrest. He was packed with the royal family, in humiliating fashion in open carts, in full view of flabbergasted Burmese locals, down to the wharf where a ship waited to carry them all off to exile. The royals landed at the seaside outpost of Ratnagiri on the west coast of India—their new, permanent prison abode. Meanwhile, back at the palace, royal possessions were being parceled out mainly to the conquering British officer ranks who made sure the king’s treasures got into the hands of the right people (by contemporary lights). At the time they were evacuated, King Thibaw and family were permitted to take some valuables, but in the ensuing years they sold off the better items little by little to augment their lifestyle. It is reported that the king died, brokenhearted, still in exile, in 1916 at age 58.
As for the pipe in question, we give you its story as first related to us in an email from its owner, George Clemmons, 68, of suburban Kansas City: “The pipe was brought from England by Mrs. Maria Chruthers in 1908. It belonged to King Thebau…. It was brought to England by A.H. Grundy, Sergeant in the Royal Welsh Fusilier, in 1889. He obtained the pipe, with some jewels, in exchange for his watch and chain. He placed the jewels and pipe in Nottingham Castle Museum, where it stayed until Mrs. Chruthers brought it to America in 1908.” Clemmons reported that Chruthers gave the pipe to Dr. Walter M. Clemmons of Kan- sas City, Mo., Clemmons’s grandfather, in June 1920 out of gratitude for his medical services, “for restoring her to health.”


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Category: Feature Article, Pipe Articles, Winter 2015

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