Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter III. Beginning Work in Maulmein

ON the afternoon of the third day after leaving Amherst we arrived at Maulmein. I had learnt that one may spell Maulmein pretty well as one wishes. All that is essential is to get the consonants right, after which you may put in any vowels you like. This is the case with the names of most of the towns of Burma. One frequently finds on the sign-boards of the railway stations that the name of the place is spelt differently on every one!

The name Maulmein is not Burmese at all, but Taking, a reminder of the fact that until two centuries ago there was, in these parts, a Talaing kingdom and a Talaing King, quite independent of Burma. The Burmese conqueror Alompra, the founder of Rangoon, swept them away, and now the Talaings have almost ceased to exist as a separate people, and their language is all but extinct.

It was only a village when the British took it during the first Burmese war, but it became the capital of Tenasserim, one of the provinces which were annexed as a result of that war. It flourished wonderfully under British rule until the second Burmese war, when Rangoon became the capital of the whole of British Burma.

Maulmein and its Pagoda have been immortalized by Kipling. Its situation is most beautiful. I have seen Burma from end to end, but I have never lost my first love for beautiful Maulmein. It is situated on the left bank of the river Salween, which is joined just above it by the large confluents, the Gyne and the Attaran. A long range of low hills forms the background. These hills are covered with vegetation through which can be seen the houses of the English residents and the pagodas and the monasteries of the Burmese. Between the hills and the river lies the town proper, with its Government buildings, churches, schools, bazaars, shops and dwellings, and along the river bank are the wharves, rice mills and timber yards.

These last are a wonderful sight to newcomers. The huge and highly-trained elephants at work all day "a-piling teak" for shipment are a source of unfailing interest. With their tusks, trunks and feet they shift huge baulks of timber according to the will of the mahout, or driver, who sits on the animal's neck and directs its movements by means of an iron hook which he holds in his hands. Many curious stories are told of the phenomenal intelligence of these animals. Some of them are said to close one eye and squint down the logs as they lay them, to see if they are straight! Others are said to object to work on Sundays, and they all "down tools" as punctually as the British workman as soon as the luncheon-bell is heard!

I was told by my friends when I left England that I ought to provide myself with a revolver and rifle, "for self-protection" against the Burmese people, who were treacherous savages, and would murder any European on the slightest provocation. I declined this well-meant advice, and during my whole time in Burma I have never possessed or used a fire-arm or weapon of any description. I have never once had occasion for anything of the sort, though I have travelled all over Upper and Lower Burma. For five years in Man-dalay I had no door to my house or guard at my gate. I have often been the only Englishman in large districts inhabited by many thousands of Burmans. I have slept in Zayais, or rest-houses, without walls, and with only my schoolboys around me, and all in perfect safety of person and property. I know that some people have not been so fortunate. But let every man speak as he finds. I have trusted my Burmese friends, and no people on earth could have repaid my confidence with greater hospitality and kindness.

From the wharf where I landed in Maulmein I went at once in a gharri, or cab, drawn by a Burman pony, to the S.P.G. Mission House at Moungan, where the Rev, A. Shears had begun a small school on lines which have been followed ever since in all our S.P.G. schools throughout the country. Children were admitted only on the distinct understanding that they were to be instructed in the Christian religion. No parents or pupils have ever raised any objection. But it would be wrong to suppose that their compliance indicates a strong desire for Christianity. Many parents wish their sons to learn our religion as part of our literature, but they express no desire to see them change and adopt it instead of Buddhism.

In the year 1869 I was at one of the stations on the Irrawaddy, where I wanted to start an S.P.G. school. The people came forward very readily with money, and we had the offer of a good and suitable house, when all of a sudden the question of religion was mooted by one of the elders. He spoke very calmly and respectfully, and asked me if I meant to make all the pupils Christians. Before I could reply, another elder interposed, and asked whether the same secular subjects would be taught as were being imparted to the boys in Rangoon and Maulmein. I replied that certainly the same course of studies would be followed, adding, however, that while we would do our best in secular work, our great aim was by teaching our "holy religion" to make our pupils "wise unto salvation." The meeting liked my plain speaking, and after conversation among themselves, the second elder who had questioned me summed up thus: "We give our children rice as their daily food, and one or more kinds of curry, fish, vegetables or meat, as we can afford. All eat rice, so all must have secular instruction. The curry is like the religious teaching. We have given them Buddhism curry; this English priest brings Christianity. So both are set before our boys. Let them taste both and judge for themselves which they like best." This speech thoroughly pleased the assembled parents. The school was established and prospered in all things, until it was unfortunately burned down by carelessness in 1876.

Much work lay to our hands in Maulmein. Its extent and interest seemed to be bewildering. The first thing was, of course, to learn the language--Burmese. It surprised me to know that over forty different native languages were spoken in that Eastern peninsula. But though a knowledge of any of these would be useful, and a smattering of some almost essential, Burmese was the language to be learned, and a very difficult language it is. Unlike the languages of India, it is of the Mongolian family, and with slight exceptions monosyllabic. I set to work to learn it, not in the orthodox fashion with dictionaries and grammars, but by making my Burmese pupils my teachers. Whilst I taught them to speak, read and write English, they taught me to read, write and talk, and preach in Burmese. It was a very interesting process, and we could afford a hearty laugh over each other's blunders. But the result was highly satisfactory on both sides. We had no bitterness of learning, no sleepiness, but many an opportunity of knowing each other's mode of thought and peculiarities, and of forming a real and lasting friendship. My chief tutor-pupil was my companion for many years afterwards, and my fellow-worker. His son is occupying a responsible position as a Christian teacher in one of our Mission schools.

Then we needed for our school and chapel more and better accommodation. The house that we rented was large, but not large enough for our increasing numbers. So at last we resolved to make an entire alteration, which gave us a beautiful large hall with an annexe to use as a chapel, an extensive tectum, or covered play-room, and a swimming bath. Much of the expense of these improvements, and of the gymnasium which we erected, was defrayed by the liberality of Mr. Shears, who spared neither the time nor the labour to further the work of the Mission.

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