An excerpt from the book

In 1891 George Scott began work on his great five-volume Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Brick thick and turgid with detail, gazetteers were the blunt instruments of colonial administration. Today they squat, massive and many-volumed, on forgotten shelves in library basements, dusty reminders that the Empire was won not just by force of arms, but also by sheer tonnage of paperwork. 

They are psychotically fastidious. Scott’s Gazetteer records every man, woman, child, bullock, buffalo, cow, pig and pony in the Shan states, along with the geography, ethnicity and chief produce of even the smallest village. Nothing escapes its omniscient sweep. It knows, for example, that the saopha’s revenue from opium and liquor in Hsipaw State in 1897-8 was 18,132 rupees. It knows that in Kengteng five annas will buy you four duck eggs and still leave change for a custard apple. 

But Scott’s Gazetteer was much more than a dry imperial stocktaking. It was a fathomless resource on the origins, customs and languages of Burma’s ethnic peoples, written not in the stilted prose of a bureaucrat, but with the flair and passion of an experienced journalist. Even a century after its publication, the Gazetteer had an almost biblical authority. In Burma I met an American gem-dealer and a Canadian Red Cross worker who both swore by Scott’s magnum opus. I bought my treasured copy at a Rangoon bookshop. It wasn’t great bedtime reading; that would be like propping the Ten Commandments on your chest. But with a firm table, and some quality time, the Gazetteer was endlessly absorbing.

I now knew that Kachin warriors usually make war just before the moon rises, and make love in purpose-built ‘bachelors’ huts’ – the love hotels of the jungle. I had learned the crucial difference between the Banyôk people (who worship their dogs in an annual ceremony) and the En (who eat them). I had followed Scott’s brief exegesis on the Karen’s use of chicken bones to divine the future. I knew that the Kachin believe that the movement of giant subterranean crocodiles causes earthquakes, while the Eastern Tai are convinced that eclipses are the work of a moon- swallowing frog who must be frightened off by gong-beating and gunfire. I no longer confuse the Yindu people with the Yaw, the Yao or the Yo.

Even the index was a rewarding read. Looking up one eye- catching entry – ‘Headhunting, rules for its conduct’ – I read that, among the Wa, ‘to behead a man from a community even on the same range of hills is looked upon as unneighbourly and slothful’. The Gazetteer also scotched the myths of earlier observers, disagreeing, for example, with Lieutenant Master’s flamboyant contention that the Ling tribe solves the problem of coping with elderly relations by eating them. ●