Maurice Collis

20th century Irish novelist and historical writer

Maurice Collis

Maurice Collis (1889-1975) was born in Dublin, graduated from Oxford, and joined the Indian Civil Service in Burma in 1912. While serving in Rangoon, Maurice Collis fell into official disfavor for fraternizing with the Burmese and Chinese residents, and was posted to the obscure port of Mergui. After his retirement in 1936, he wrote at least twenty historical books.

cover image of the book Foreign Mud

Foreign Mud

First published in 1946, Foreign Mud is a marvelous historical reconstruction of the events surrounding the illegal trade of opium in Canton during the 1830s and the ensuing Opium Wars between Britain and China. Based largely on the voluminous documents written by British doctors, missionaries, merchants, and government officials, Collis’s tale – far from being a dry assemblage of dates and facts – is a fascinating look at British imperialism. Shifting back and forth between the fiery debates in London and the confrontations on the China coast, his story recounts, in all its complexities, a moment in time when China is forced after more than two thousand years of self-contained sufficiency to open its doors to the culture, commerce, and evangelization of the West – the casus belli: the foreign mud, or opium, the Brish grew and shipped from India. Interspersed with various maps, plans, and illustrations, Foreign Mud is a historical narrative readers will find provocatively entertaining.

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cover image of the book Cortes & Montezuma

Cortes & Montezuma

The convergence of Cortés and Montezuma is the most emblematic event in the birth of what would come to be called “America.” Landing on the Mexican coast on the eve of Good Friday, 1519, Hernán Cortés felt himself the bearer of a divine burden to conquer and civilize the first advanced civilization Europeans had yet encountered in the West. For Montezuma, leader of the Mexicans, 1519 (known in their advanced astronomical system as “One Reed”) was the date of a dire prophesy: the return of Quetzalcoatl, a fearsome god predicted to arrive by ship, from the East, with light skin, a black beard, robed in black––exactly as Cortés would. The ensuing drama is described by eminent historian Maurice Collis in a style that is equal parts story and scholarship. Though its consequences have been treated by writers as diverse as D.H. Lawrence and Charles Olson, never before have the facts of this event been rendered with such extraordinary clarity and elegance.

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cover image of the book She Was a Queen

She Was a Queen

She was indeed a Queen. Born a peasant in thirteenth-century Burma, Queen Saw––young, beautiful, and extremely intelligent––reigned beside two kings. Everything luxuriantly cruel or voluptuously lovely swirled around the royal White Umbrella: mandarins, oracle-eating tigers, murdersome intrigue, egg-sized emeralds, concubines, fearsome magic, Tartars, and groveling courtiers (with elbows calloused as thickly as the soles of their feet). Queen Saw happily survived all––her two husbands as well as the Mongol invasion. Wonderful in its details and historical lore, the chief enchantment of She Was a Queen is the storytelling style of Maurice Collis. A book by him, Eudora Welty noted, “is as strategically put together and as fantastically simple as a fairy tale; and it affects us, quite aside from the scholarship of Mr. Collis, with that true belief we gave fairy tales when children.”

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cover image of the book The Land of the Great Image

The Land of the Great Image

A hybrid of history and biography, Maurice Collis’s The Land of the Great Image concerns a little-known Portuguese friar abroad in early seventeenth-century Asia. The book chronicles the great diplomatic coup of Friar Manrique’s career, opening the kingdom of Arakan, now Burma (land of the “great image” of the Buddha) to the Church and to Portuguese trade, Dispatched from Goa, capital of the now almost forgotten Portuguese empire in Asia, Manrique made his way across and around the Bay of Bengal, surviving shipwreck, tigers, and pirates, to reach the court of King Thiri-thu-dhamma. And all along Manrique’s way the author waits at every turn with another curiosity, another historical tidbit for the reader to relish. Collis notes how trials of the Inquisition were run (which too had set up shop in Goa); the luxury enjoyed by Europeans in the East; what was served for dinner at court; how elephant warfare was waged; and what went into a potion magically brewed to bring glory to King Thiri-thu-dhamina (the hearts of 2,000 white doves, 4,000 white cows, and 6,000 of his subjects).

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