The large and interconnected territories between northeast India, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar and southwest China have among the world’s most varied natural and socio-political conditions. High-value goods have travelled with caravans across the landscapes for at least a millennium within what is known as the southwestern branch of the Silk Road network. From the 19th century onwards, the region has been plagued by violent upheavals, colonial and imperial conquests, and authoritarian regimes and controls. The political borders are hard and heavily militarised. Yet, people move and migrate across those borders, and with people follow items, wealth, labour, animals, networks, kinship, beliefs, and behaviour.

By studying an unusual event—the first European led expedition from Bhamo in north Burma to Momein in western Yunnan in 1868, at the time of the large Panthay rebellion in Yunnan—we can trace how flows of communication moved in this frontier zone. Documentation kept by the British and Qing imperial administrations provides rich descriptions of the political events and their social and economic consequences with authors representing different parties in conflicts.

The expedition crossed the northern Shan-Dai multi-ethnic polities. Academically speaking, these large hill tracts between Yunnan and Burma have long been anthropology territory with important studies of the Wa, Shan, Dai, Jinghpaw/Kachin, and other ethnic groups. The rich composition of these societies has been researched in detail. Lately, their singular dissimilarity as people of the mountains, apart from the lowlands or valley kingdoms, has even been made theoretical iconography of ethnographic difference. As historian of the dramatic shifts of the 19th century one marvels at the absence of temporal shifts and transformations in these texts other than in grand terms of production systems or colonial conquest, or when a village is invaded by or included into modern society.

By keeping a narrow view on the 1868-expedition and the people and events it encountered, I will discuss how flows passed via the communication routes as they branched out in the hills and connected Burma and Yunnan via the Shan-Dai polities. With this perspective, we may also see how large and global empires collided in their competition for wealth in the web of routes.                                                             


Gunnel Cederlöf is Professor of History at the Linnaeus University, Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. Her work intersects the fields of colonial, environmental and legal history of modern India. She is the author of Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers, 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity (2014), Landscapes and the Law: Environmental Politics, Regional Histories, and Contests over Nature (2008, 2019), Bonds Lost: Subordination, Conflict and Mobilisation in Rural South India c. 1900-1970 (1997, 2020), At Nature’s Edge: The Global Present and Long-Term History (2018 with M. Rangarajan), Subjects, Citizens and Law: Colonial and Independent India (2017 with S. Das Gupta), and Ecological Nationalisms: Nature, Livelihoods, and Identities in South Asia (2006, 2014 with K. Sivaramakrishnan).