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The Burma Delta

Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice Frontier, 1852–1941

Michael Adas

Publication Year: 2011

In the decades following its annexation to the Indian Empire in 1852, Lower Burma (the Irrawaddy-Sittang delta region) was transformed from an underdeveloped and sparsely populated backwater of the Konbaung Empire into the world’s largest exporter of rice. This seminal and far-reaching work focuses on two major aspects of that transformation: the growth of the agrarian sector of the rice industry of Lower Burma and the history of the plural society that evolved largely in response to rapid economic expansion.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps

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pp. ix-x

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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Preface to the 2011 Edition

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pp. xiii-xx

Together with many of the area specialists whose research and writing came during the peak years of the misbegotten u.s. intervention in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be increasingly focused on the peasantry of postcolonial nations, I came to view my work on Burma's rice frontier as part of a larger, collective scholarly project. I shared with colleagues working on agrarian change and peasant protest in areas as diverse as South Asia...


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pp. xxi-xxii

Citation of Selected Government Reports

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pp. xxiii

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pp. 3-11

With the rise of the Konbaung dynasty in the last decades of the eighteenth century, the Burman1 people reasserted their hegemony over the various ethnic groups whose territories bordered on their traditional heartland, the Dry Zone of the region later known as Upper Burma. After several years of bitter warfare between 1752 and 1757, the Burmans defeated the Mons and added their lands in the Irrawaddy-Sittang delta regions and Tenasserim to the growing Burman empire...

I. The Foundations of Social and Economic Development

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1. The Delta Rice Frontier under Konbaung and Early British Rule

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pp. 15-38

Historians of Burma have presented the century of Burman rule in the Delta which preceded the British conquest of 1852 as an era of suffering and strife. They have also agreed that the Burman-Mon wars of the mid-eighteenth century, the subsequent Burman oppression of the vanquished Mons, and general Burman misrule were the main factors responsible for the underpopulated and underdeveloped state of Lower Burma...

II. The Early Phase of Growth, 1852-1907

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2. Internal Migration in the Last Half of the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 41-57

More than any other factor, the favorable response of Burmese agriculturists to the incentives provided by the British and the potential which the Delta offered made possible the rapid growth of the Burma rice industry after 1852. The responsiveness of the Burmese agriculturist was most strikingly manifested in large-scale internal migration, 1 both from Upper Burma...

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3. Agrarian Development on the Advancing Rice Frontier

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pp. 58-82

The expansion of the Delta rice industry in the last half of the nineteenth century represents one of the most impressive examples of sustained economic growth under the aegis of a European colonial regime. A steadily rising overseas demand for rice was fed by an increase in the amount of rice and paddy exported from Lower Burma from 162,000 tons in 1855 to 2,000,000 tons...

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4. Indian Immigration to Lower Burma in the First Phase of Development

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pp. 83-102

During the first years after the 1852 annexation, British officials felt that migration from the Dry Zone and other areas within Burma would not be sufficient to satisfy the demand for agricultural and industrial labor in the Delta.1 In retrospect, it seems logical that these officials would come to regard India as the chief source of potential immigrant settlers and laborers for Lower Burma. Burma was part of the Indian Empire, many of the Indian districts...

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5. The Genesis of the Plural Society in Lower Burma: The Era of Symbiosis

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pp. 103-123

After the annexation of the Delta to the Indian Empire in 1852 the relatively underdeveloped political and economic systems which had existed in Konbaung times evolved into far more complex structures. Their expansion and elaboration produced many new niches to be filled in administration, trade, industry, and agriculture. These new positions in turn attracted European, Indian, and Chinese immigrants...

III. The Decades of Transition, 1908-30

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6. The Closing Rice Frontier and New Patterns of Agrarian Development

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pp. 127-153

In terms of rice exported, acres brought under cultivation, and the amount of revenue collected, the economic development of Lower Burma in the first decades of the twentieth century appears to have been a continuation of the rapid and generally healthy growth which began after 1852. Rice acreage rose from six million acres in 1905-6 to over eight million acres in 1930-31...

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7. Changing Migration Patterns and the Rise of Competition in the Mature Plural Society

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pp. 154-181

The closing of the rice frontier and the mounting agrarian crisis in Lower Burma were major determinants of changes in both internal and foreign migration patterns in the decades of transition. The decrease in available, cultivable land and the worsening condition of the rural population in Lower Burma greatly reduced the "pull" that the Delta had exerted on Dry Zone agriculturists in the late nineteenth century. While the influx of migrants from Upper Burma...

IV. The Years of Social and Economic Crises, 1931-41

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8. The Depression and Burma's Time of Troubles: Communal Violence and Agrarian Rebellion

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pp. 185-208

The Great Depression, which struck the economy of Burma with its full force in 1930, brutally revealed the extent and gravity of the agrarian crisis that had been building in Lower Burma for decades. The sharp drop in the value of rice on the world market in 1929-30 touched off a series of chain reactions in the various sectors of the rice industry...

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pp. 209-226

The history of agrarian development and social change on the Lower Burma rice frontier during the period of British rule provides important exceptions to many widely held assumptions regarding the economic impact of European imperialism, the nature of economic policy under European colonial regimes, and the responses of non-Western peoples to the changes generated by the spread of the European commercial-industrial revolution...


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pp. 227-230


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pp. 231-234


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pp. 235-252


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pp. 253-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780299283537
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299283544

Publication Year: 2011

Edition: Second Edition, With a new preface