Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter II. First Impressions of Burma

WITH a feeling of the deepest thankfulness we came at length within sight of the Island of Kalagouk off the coast of Burma. I cannot say that my first impressions of the country coincided at all with what I had been led to expect from what had been told me.

Kalagouk seemed rocky, scrubby, uninteresting. I visited it afterwards in a Government launch with General Fraser, R.E., and we were in more peril going there and back in the well-appointed steam launch than we were in our sailing-tub!

I have learnt since that Kalagouk, like everything else, has its uses. It is being utilized, though under immense difficulties, by the Burmese Government for quarrying purposes. The stone extracted is carried over to the mainland for the purpose of building river walls to protect Rangoon from the erosion of the river banks by the rapid current of the river.

The beautiful range of mountains and hills on the Tenasserim coast now came into view, and soon the boat came to anchor off the Burmese town of Amherst, where we had to wait till the turn of the tide before proceeding on the last stage of our journey up the estuary of the Salween to Maulmein.

I went ashore for a few hours at Amherst. It is a beautifully situated town at the mouth of the Salween, which is one of the great rivers of the Eastern Peninsula. I cannot describe its beauties adequately. I have visited it or passed it often since on my numerous voyages along the coast, and never without recalling that delightful first landing after more than five months' confinement in a small ship. I felt that if I was not in Paradise itself, I must be somewhere in the neighbourhood. I walked under a grove of cocoanut palms, glad to be alone again for a short time. I confess that I knelt down under a large tree and poured out my soul in thankfulness to God who had brought me safe to my destination, and I prayed that my coming to this beautiful country might be for the welfare of the people. The words came involuntarily to my lips: "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places."

My reveries were disturbed most agreeably by the arrival of some half-dozen Burman boys, merry, laughing, cheerful lads, dressed in pretty bright silk garments. In complexion they were only slightly brown, the hair, long and black, reaching half-way down the backs of some of them, and tied up in a bunch on the tops of the heads of others.

We looked at each other in amusement, not to say amazement. I had never seen Burmese boys before, and apparently they had never seen a raw missionary before. I certainly had no fear of them; they showed no fear of me until I put out my hand and said: "How do you do, boys?" Then they thought that I was going to hit them and ran away. I burst out laughing, and they, stopping, laughed too, and when I beckoned again, they came up to me, and we greatly amused one another by carrying on a conversation without a word being understood on either side.

I made signs to them that I had just landed from the ship which was visible coming up the river, and that I was thirsty; whereupon one of them, who had in his dress that wonderful dah--a marvellous bent knife, capable alike of sharpening a lead pencil or of hacking down a tree--climbed a tree with the agility of a monkey, and cut off two of the green cocoa-nuts; then, as rapidly descending, with his dah he cut off the top of one of them and handed to me the most delicious draught I had had for many a long day, cold and refreshing, more than I could drink.

This was my first introduction to the "bloodthirsty" Burman, and I thought then, as I have often done since, how incorrect is the sentiment expressed in dear Bishop Heber's hymn--written before he had ever been to India or Ceylon--

"Where every prospect pleases
And only man is vile."

As my narrative proceeds, I shall have much to say about the country as it was when I first made its acquaintance. I will merely remark here, in passing, that Amherst, before the first Burmese war in 1825, was called Kyaikkami, and that it was originally intended to be the capital of the newly-acquired territory. It was named after Lord Amherst, who was Viceroy at that time.

I had to re-embark on the Propontis, and had my first taste of river navigation in Burma, of which I was to enjoy so much in after years. It was as happy as it was novel. An English pilot came on board with his native linesman and took charge of us, to the great relief of the captain but not of the crew, who had to be watchful and attentive to Pilot Berry's orders.

As we went up the river new points of interest opened out at every turn, while the incessant calls of the leadsman, telling the depth of the water, gave me my first dose of sailor's Hindustani, that amalgam of East and West, English and native talk, of which I was to learn so much afterwards. I learnt that Bahm meant "fathom," and that Millani meant "No bottom reached." The river Salween was in full flood and was a noble stream, with many windings, pretty wooded banks and interesting villages. The houses seemed to nestle among the trees, to be built, the better class of wood, with thatched roofs of leaves (Dani), showing brown against the green. The greater number of the houses, however, were light and airy, built of bamboos, of whose multifarious uses I had yet much to learn. In Burma this gigantic grass furnishes poles for the houses, flooring for the rooms, thatch for the roof and vegetables for the curry, besides making itself useful in many other ways!

The houses are invariably one story, the ground-floor being utilized for cattle, buffaloes, fowls, and for cooking purposes. A very primitive ladder of bamboo reaches the upper chamber, which is the dwelling and sleeping place of the family.

Along the bank of the river we saw a specimen of "mixed bathing," and with most perfect decency and thorough enjoyment of the aquatic exercises. I did not, however, observe a single towel among all the bathers!

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