Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter I. The Outward Journey

IT was a bleak winter afternoon in 1859 when I appeared before the committee of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at the office at 79, Pall Mall, and interviewed the Rev. Ernest Hawkins and the Rev. W. T. Bullock, the secretaries.

Few and short were the questions put to me, as I was very well known, and the catechism which was propounded went very much in these words:

"Where do you wish to go?"

"Anywhere where the needs of the Society are greatest."

"What kind of work do you chiefly desire?"

"Educational mainly."

"Will you go to Maulmein?"

"With pleasure. Where is it?"

"It's in Burma."

I did not like to confess my ignorance any further, but taking leave of the Committee, I went into Stanford's at Charing Cross, and asked if they could tell me where Maulmein was. The attendant in charge confessed ignorance, but when I said it was in Burma it was known that it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of India, and so Maulmein was at length discovered.

Of course there was a lot of preliminary getting ready of outfit and other preparations for a long voyage, for in those days junior missionaries did not travel by the well-appointed liners as they do now. My passage was taken in the Propontis, Captain Barnes, a Penzance brigantine of 235 tons register. The ship was bound from London to Maulmein, Burma, East Indies. The captain, two mates, nine sailors, and one passenger, myself, made her complement, fourteen all told.

I am not going to describe our voyage in detail. Before I embarked, when I made known my destination amongst my friends, my report was received with consternation, and several attempts were made to dissuade me.

I did not meet anyone who could give me any information from personal knowledge, but the country had a bad reputation.

"Don't go to Burma," said a Madras major, whose regiment had suffered there during the war, "you'll die of malaria in a month, and if you do not die of that, those bloodthirsty Burmans will kill you. Their great delight is to kill white people."

Another officer assured me that he had lately returned from Bombay, where he had had a bad attack of fever, and by all accounts Burma was worse than Bombay, and therefore he strongly advised me to choose some other country to go to.

I did not want for advice. It is astounding what an amount of that commodity of all kinds is lavished upon a youngster making his first voyage. Kind old ladies, of both sexes, with most philanthropic intentions, if they have nothing else to bestow, can afford to give advice for what it is worth. In after days one appreciates the motive but is amused at the recollection. But again and again during the voyage, I wished that I could have known what the voyage was likely to be. It was my first experience and I suffered accordingly. I found myself burdened with a lot of useless things and very deficient in things which would have tended greatly to my comfort.

The captain was a cheery, bright West-country seaman, very companionable and pleasant; but the tedium of the voyage from December, 1859, to the middle of May, 1860, was more than I can describe. I had thought that I could learn something of the language on my way, and I bought all the books that I could think of. I had Judson's "Grammatical Notes," and what I was told was a Burmese New Testament. But it was Karen, and, of course, the two gave me no more help than did some Malay and Sanskrit books which I had also brought with me! It was like trying to read Welsh with the help of an English grammar! After several gallant and painful attempts to make something out of the mixture, I had to abandon my Oriental studies in despair.

I have often thought since, how well it would be if we had in London a bureau to give information to missionaries and others proceeding on their first voyage to the East. It would save them from many a foolish notion, many a useless expense, and enable them to proceed in comfort on their journey, free from anxiety and disappointment. They would know what to take and what they could get on arrival, what would be useful on the voyage and what would be superfluous.

It is amusing to the experienced, but painful to the inexperienced, to observe how frequently young travellers overload themselves with what they do not require, or could procure more cheaply, and better adapted to their requirements, on arrival at their destination.

The worst experience during the voyage was in the "Roaring Forties" round the Cape of Good Hope, where we encountered a series of storms and cross winds trying to the nerves of even seasoned salts, much more to a landsman like myself. We were tossed about most unmercifully, the only resting-place being in one's bunk, and even that was invaded by big seas that encroached on one's privacy and gave us more salt-water baths than we cared for.

But in later days I often called to remembrance how on the worst morning, when the storm was at its height, I opened my Prayer-Book as usual to read the daily office. It was the 22nd day of the month and the 107th Psalm: "They that go down to the sea in ships. . . . He maketh the storm to cease so that the waves thereof are still." It seemed to me a voice from Heaven, assuring me that, in spite of present peril, there was a kind Providence watching over us, in whose power was the sea and all that is in it, and that He would safely bring us to the Haven where we would be. And so it proved. We thanked God and took courage. The crew joined with me in praise to God who had preserved us so that we might pursue our voyage in comparative comfort.

To those of my readers who have had similar experiences in sailing vessels, in voyages of nearly half a year's duration in small cargo vessels ill adapted for carrying passengers, I need make no apology for this description of my adventure. But should any be tempted to follow my example, I would strongly and emphatically say: "Don't!"

Still, it must be granted that the voyage had for me certain advantages. Mine had been a laborious and strenuous career, and a season of retirement for quiet reflection and devotion, with an ever-deepening sense of the importance and responsibility of the career upon which I was entering, and a sense of reliance upon our Heavenly Father's care, was of immense value, much more than I realized at the time.

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