Last and First in Burma – Brian Maye on author Maurice Collis

An adventurous life

As one reviewer put it on, “if you are interested in some of history’s strange byways, you could hardly do better than to read the works of Maurice Collis.” Irish-born Collis, who died 50 years ago on January 12th, held senior positions in the British Indian civil service, lived an adventurous life and was a prolific author.

He was born on January 10th, 1889, in Donnybrook, Dublin, eldest son of William Collis, a solicitor, and Edith Barton. His twin younger brothers, Robert and John, were also authors. Robert was a doctor who was one of the first medics to treat prisoners at Belsen at the end of the war and went on to do pioneering paediatric work in Nigeria. The family moved to Killiney, Co Dublin, where Maurice spent much of his early childhood, but he received most of his education in England.

After Rugby School, he went to Oxford University, from where he graduated in 1911 with a first-class degree in history. His uncle was the well-known orientalist Sir George Grierson, and while still at college, Collis had decided to join the Indian civil service. Following passage of the relevant examination, he was posted to Burma in 1912, where he remained for most of his administrative career.

During the first World War, his Burmese service was interrupted as he saw military duty in India and Palestine.


In Burma, “he developed a keen sympathy for the Burmese, their history and culture”, according to Frances Clarke, who wrote the entry on him in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

He frequently disagreed with the attitudes of most of the British administrators, especially when he was serving as district magistrate at Rangoon. This was during a period of heightened political unrest from 1928 to 1931. After many of his judgments were regarded as too sympathetic to the Burmese, he was moved to a distant posting at Merugi.

He had begun to write before leaving for Burma, his earliest output being a book on Napoleonic legends. Maintaining an interest in Ireland, he was drawn to the so-called “Celtic revival” and came to know some of the leading literary lights in Dublin, such as George Russell (AE) and James Stephens. His small poetry collection, published in 1922, entitled Dance Macabre, featured ancient Irish themes.

After leaving Burma in 1934, he lived in England and devoted himself seriously to writing. The publication of his book Siamese White, in 1936, was a major turning-point in his life as its success persuaded him to retire from the civil service. It is a biography of Samuel White of Bath, who, during the reign of James II, was appointed by the king of Siam as a mandarin of that country. The Evening Standard described the book as “a magnificent story full of interest and excitement ... Collis, who has lived for years on the scene of these high happenings, is able to give us a first-hand picture of a fascinating land, of a lovely archipelago, of rivers and rapids, of an immemorial track through jungles haunted by tigers and malaria.”

The great success of the book stimulated Collis into what Frances Clarke calls “a prolific output of dramas, novels, travelogues and autobiographical works, many of which drew on his interest in the Orient”.

Some of his publications were The Great Within (1941), The First Holy One (1948), The Discovery of LS Lowry (1951), Last and First in Burma (1956), Raffles (1966), and Somerville and Ross (1968), which was serialised in this newspaper.

Collis also became a noted art critic and contributed to, among others, Time and Tide, the Observer, the Arts Review and the Sunday Telegraph; he was a cofounder of the International Association of Art Critics. In his late sixties, he took up painting and had two one-man shows at the Kaplan Gallery and Gallery One in London.

His first marriage, to Dorothy Tilney-Bassett, with whom he had two sons, was dissolved after five years in 1917, and in 1922 he married a former Killiney neighbour, Eleanor Bourke, with whom he had two sons and a daughter.

An interesting footnote is that his 1939 novel, She Was a Queen, based on the life of Queen Pwa Saw in 13th-century Burma, was banned by the dictatorship in Myanmar for supposed resemblances to Aung San Suu Kyi and was unbanned in 2005.

Maurice Collis was sympathetic to Irish nationalism (indeed, one source describes him as “a professed Irish nationalist”), which might explain why although he worked in the service of the British Empire, he did what he could to mitigate the excesses of foreign rule on other subject peoples within that empire.