Monday, July 27, 2015

The King of Pegu

This Vintage Burmese Ruby Engagement Ring demonstrates the
tantalizing essence of the King of Pegu's vast treasures of rubies,
sapphires, and spinels. Photo ©2015 EraGem Jewelry.

"The King of Pegu had treasure houses full of gold and silver, rubies, sapphires, spinels, and other precious stones," writes Sir Harry Johhnston in his book, The Great Pioneers of India, Ceylon, Bhutan, and Tibet.{1}

The book chronicles the visitation of Pegu by all manner of men throughout the ages. Both the adventures of Lewes Vertomannus (known widely as Varthema, in 1503) and Ralph Fitch (in 1583) are of note in describing the vast ruby treasures of the King of Pegu.

Though Varthema visited Pegu earlier, it is Fitch's adventure which draws the more relevant boundaries of this land for a modern day reader. Fitch called the land of Pegu, Burma. Today we know it is Myanmar, a country rich in treasure which lies nestled between the vast country of India and the smaller tropical oasis known as Thailand.

In 1759, in the British publication The Modern Part of an Univer[s]al Hi[s]tory, from the Earlie[s]t Time, Burma was part of the vast Kingdom of Pegu. It lay 'between the 110th and 116th degrees of longitude, and between the 14th and 19th degrees of north latitude,' an area of 350 miles in length and breadth, bordered by Siam, Arrakan, Ava, and the Bay of Bengal.{2}

Ralph Fitch visited Syrian (also called Pegu), the capital city of Burma, while it remained "in its greatest was very [s]pacious, fair, and [s]trong, [s]urrounded with [s]tone walls and very wide ditches."{3} The old part of the city belonged to the merchants and traveling foreigners. It was plagued by frequent fires which could destroy the thatch houses in mere minutes. Therefore, warehouses fashioned out of bricks dotted the landscape to provide safer storage for merchant commodities.{4}

The newer section of the city boasted twenty stone gates with gilded turrets and streets that ran perfectly straight from one gate to another. These broad streets were lined with avenues of palm trees, and the surrounding houses were made of wood with tile roofs.{5}

The king's palace, made entirely of gilded wood with tiles of silver decorating the pagoda, blazed in golden glory in this higher class region.{6} It was here where both Fitch and Varthema made their separate acquaintances with the King of Pegu, a man who "wore rubies worth the ransom of a large city...on his toes...[and] great rings of gold set with beautiful rubies" on his legs.{7}

In Sir Johnston's book, we read about the lengthy exchange made between Varthema and the King of Pegu. During their meeting with the king, Varthema and his Persian companion showed the king some red coral. So fascinated was the monarch by this new red treasure, that he offered to pay them for it in rubies. Shrewd as he was, the Persian merchant offered the coral to the king as a gift.

In response, the King of Pegu declared that he would not be outdone by Persian generosity. He ordered the presentation of "a certain little box...worked all round in gold."{6} Immaculately decorated with rubies, this box contained six sections filled with rubies. He placed it before the two men, telling them to take what they wished for their good pleasure. Varthema and his companion went home with 200 rubies of the highest Burmese quality. The Persian merchant's share was recorded in value at 20,000 pounds.{7}

It is no surprise that when cash was low, the King of Pegu paid for things with rubies. The gorgeous red gemstones were the king commodity of Pegu, coming in ahead of the vast stores of sapphires, spinels, and a prized crimson dye called lac found in Burma.{8}

The ruby mines were located in the mountains called Capelan, a twelve days' journey from Pegu. Described in 1881 by Sourindro Mohun Tagore, in his book Mani-Mala, these most precious rubies and sapphires were "found in the mines of sulphur and mercury," in a land rent with storms, belching with sulfurous gases, and as dry and inhospitable as the Sahara.{9}

Though the King of Pegu, adorned in all his splendor, has long been dead and buried, the rubies which made him so famous as the King of Gems live on today, carrying the same allure now as they did then.

~Angela Magnotti Andrews, Staff Writer


  1. Johnston, Sir Harry. The Great Pioneers of India, Ceylon, Bhutan and Tibet. Delhi, India: K. M. Mittal, 1986, p. 166.
  2. The Modern Part of an Univerfal Hiftory, from the Earlieft Account of Time, London: S. Richardson, et. al, 1759, p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 43.
  4. Johnston, p. 163.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p. 100.
  8. Ibid., p. 100.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Tagore, Sourindro Mohun. Mani-Mala; or, A treatise on gems, Volume 2. Calcutta: I. C. Bose & Co., Stanhope Press, 1881, p. 862.

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