Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter IV. School Work in Maulmein

MR. SHEARS, the Chaplain of Maulmein, had arrived the previous year by P. and O. The house which he had taken was large and substantial, and, being entirely of wood, was easily capable of extension.

To begin a school in Burma is the easiest thing in the world. The Burmese have a natural love of being taught. It has come to them through many generations. As soon as a boy can toddle, he goes to the school at the Buddhist monastery, where he is safe under the care of the monks. If he wants food, there is plenty of it. His school equipment is of the simplest, consisting only of a black paper spelling-book, from which he learns to shout out his lessons at the top of his voice.

Everything is of the most primitive kind, but admirably adapted to his needs in his infancy and early boyhood.

As he grows up, however, he wants something better, and the European who will take him in hand and continue his instruction at once commands his friendship.

Mr. Shears had gathered a nice lot of boys as day scholars and a few of them as boarders, and he had got together some Burmese assistants and a few Eurasians. This school-work at once awoke my interest. It was just what I had left home to devote myself to. It seemed to me that an excellent beginning had been made, but as I got to understand the language, and to look around me and see the possibilities of development, I began to feel restless and dissatisfied.

When I left England I understood that Mr. Shears wished to devote himself to direct missionary work, and to hand over the school to a person like myself who was experienced in school management. On my arrival, however, he did not seem inclined to hand over the management of the school to me, and as time went on, I became less and less willing to acquiesce in the manner in which it was being carried on. So differences of opinion arose between us which were not finally settled till the arrival of Bishop Cotton, the Bishop of Calcutta, in whose diocese Maulmein and the whole of British Burma was then included.

One very serious question which presented itself to me was the admission and inclusion of the sons of Europeans into our Mission school. It was to my mind unthinkable that we should be giving the best education in our power to native boys and exclude from our schools the sons of our own co-religionists and countrymen.

It was true that we were missionaries to the heathen, but it was true also that we were charged especially to do good to them "which are of the household of Faith." A school for European boys other than Roman Catholics had long been needed, and a large sum of money had been collected by the Chaplain and sent to the S.P.G., with the request that a trained competent schoolmaster should be selected and sent out. But the selection had not been made and much delay had taken place, and the parents very earnestly begged of us to receive their boys into our Mission school, The Chaplain agreed that we would receive them pending the establishment of a separate school for Europeans, and the Commissioner of the Province, the Colonel commanding the regiment, the leading barrister and other residents sent their sons, paying, instead of the one rupee which the natives were charged, six rupees per month.

This added considerably to our funds and enabled us to pay our assistant teachers better and to improve our accommodation. Moreover, it interested the English community in our educational work, and made them understand the lines upon which we were working.

The practice of receiving European boys into schools originally intended only for natives is not, of course, free from danger. Not all such schools are fit for Europeans, nor are all teachers to be trusted to safeguard the admixture; but in the case of our Maulmein school it worked admirably and with perfect satisfaction to parents and pupils alike.

It required constant supervision and earnest care. The manners and customs of the different sets of pupils had to be taken into consideration and provided for. No preference could be shown either to Europeans, as the governing class, or to the natives, as being those for whom the school was primarily intended. But with care and tact all difficulties were surmounted, and the whole institution worked most harmoniously. To this day pupils of the several nationalities, who are now grandfathers, speak of their experience in our Maulmein Mission school in the very highest terms.

But the strain upon my own energies was very great, and that, together with the change of life and the privations of the voyage, told upon my health, and several times I was compelled to retire into a sick-chamber other than the single room in the school which was my home. All my illnesses in Burma have occurred at the beginning of the rains--i.e., in May or June.

Never can I forget the exceeding kindness of everybody during those times of severe illness. The Civil Surgeon was unremitting in his attention, so was the Chaplain, so was everybody. The Burmese schoolboys showed their affection for their teacher by night and day attendance upon me.

Let me give two instances of the kindness which I received. The Deputy Commissioner, Colonel Tickell, insisted upon removing me to his house for quiet rest and medical treatment, and there the Civil Surgeon and the Chaplain constantly visited me. An abscess formed on my right side, requiring careful treatment, and in those days we had no female nurses, our only hospital attendants were from the jail dispensary.

One afternoon in the crisis of my illness I was alone in the Deputy Commissioner's house, and a convict hospital servant was sent to apply liniment. We were alone together, and I noticed a sudden change in the man when he saw how weak I was. He ceased to rub me with the liniment, and with eyes glaring like those of a tiger, he sprang at my throat and tried to strangle me. I struggled with him as far as my weakness would allow, but I felt myself gradually sinking, when I made one final effort to scream for help. The servants came rushing in just in time to drag my assailant from me. By this time he was a raving maniac, and it was all they could do to overpower him. He was a Thug, one of a tribe of hereditary murderers, with whom strangulation was a fine art. He had been condemned to death for murder in India, but his sentence had been commuted into one of transportation for life.

The Roman Catholic Bishop, Dr. Paul Bigandet, a scholar of European fame, beloved and respected throughout Burma, had shown me much kindness and given me useful advice from the first, and he was a life-long friend and companion during our time together in all parts of Burma.

He visited me in my illness constantly, and one day he kindly said to me: "I know that your anxiety about your young school is retarding your recovery. I do not wonder at it, for I have suffered in the same way myself. But I want to try and help you. I have two Brothers of the Christian School who have just come from Europe, and who know English well. Let me send them up to your school. I promise you that they shall teach nothing that you do not wish. They shall merely direct the secular instruction and carry out your own plans and do just as you wish." It was a noble offer, but I could not accept it, But I have never ceased to feel deeply grateful for such a generous proposal.

My love and admiration for this grand prelate deepened throughout the long intercourse with him in boats, in carts, in steamers and bungalows. "We took sweet counsel together," and often and often I wished that I could add: "and walked in the House of God as friends." That last privilege was denied us, but we often read together. His favourite author was Cornelius a Lapide, and we often laughed as I read aloud on board the steamer in my English pronunciation of Latin.

Let me tell one story of our intercourse. In after-times, when we were together at Mandalay, where he, like myself, was a persona grata with King Mindôn, we were one day together at the Palace. There was a large assembly of ministers of state, who were talking with the King on various matters social and political, when all of a sudden the King turned to us, and à propos of nothing, said: "What is the difference between you two teachers of religion?"

It was a difficult question to answer to a Buddhist king in a heathen court. I turned to Dr. Bigandet and said: "Bishop, you tell him, please." "No," he said, "I'd rather you tell him." The King noticed our difficulty, and said: "You answer me, Bigandet." With wonderful French readiness the Bishop replied: "The English priest can get married but I cannot." The King laughed and said: "Is that all? And for that you want two churches to worship in!" But then turning to me the King inquired: "English priest, why have you not married?" "Because, your Majesty, no lady has asked me." At which answer there was general laughter, in which His Majesty heartily joined. "Then why not marry one of my daughters?" said the King. I had to confess that His Majesty did me too much honour, and I must remain single. What might have happened if I had been matrimonially ambitious I refrain from even contemplating! But this is a digression.

It was a real pleasure when I got well to find the school buildings ready for a grand opening by the Commissioner, Major-General A. Fytche, in the presence of all the military and civil officers, and of the merchants and other people of Maulmein. I think that it was one of the happiest days of my life. We had about three hundred boys of all nationalities-English, Eurasian, Armenian, Jews, Hindoos, Madrassis--while the majority were Burmese, Talaings, Chinese, Shans and Karens. All were in their best and gayest clothes, and the scene was highly picturesque. The Burman boy's dress is very beautiful. It is called a putso, and is about fifteen cubits long and two and a half wide. It is made of thick silk woven in wavy lines of various bright colours. It is wound round the body, kilt fashion, tucked in with a twist in front, and the portion which remains is gathered up and allowed to hang in folds from the waist, or thrown jauntily over the shoulder. The upper part of the body is covered with a tight-fitting silk or cotton jacket. Around the head a gay flowered silk handkerchief is worn as a turban. The boy's hair is jet black and very long, so that he can often sit upon it when he lets it down. But he oils and combs it very carefully, and gathers it into a top-knot (yowng) on the top of his head. We had at our opening a Christian service and various speeches, and a short examination of the pupils, and all went off very happily.

Shortly after this, on Christmas morning, 1861, we were gratified by a visit to Maulmein of the Bishop of Calcutta, Dr. G. E. L. Cotton, accompanied by Mrs. Cotton and the Rev. F. R. Vallings, the Secretary of the Calcutta S.P.G. Committee. The Bishop wrote afterwards: "A brighter inauguration of the Christmas Festival I do not remember ever to have experienced. Arrived off the main wharf at 10.30 on Christmas morning, the captain hurried us on shore, and himself ordered a tikkagharri (hired cab) for us. At 10.50 we were in the vestry of St. Matthew's, and at n I amazed the unconscious Maulmeinians by appearing in full robes in church . . . On Monday, December 30th, I breakfasted at the S.P.G. Mission, and afterward began the grand business of the day, viz., a public examination and prize-giving at the Mission school, at which I was to take the chair. Of the excellence of the school and entire success of the public exhibition there can be no doubt. . . . The sight of the assembled boys, or rather the whole examination scene, was of almost romantic interest. Nothing could exceed the picturesque variety of the bright colours of their putsoes and turbans, sometimes relieved by the dark dress of an English boy, and the blue jacket and trousers of a Chinese. They were examined for about two and a half hours in the Bible, geography, English and Burmese reading, and arithmetic, and answered remarkably well. They showed their English writing, and sang sundry hymns, chants, and even an anthem, with one or two rounds or catches, certainly with harsh voices, but in capital time and tune. The curriculum is certainly lower than in a good Bengal school, as may be expected, considering the recent origin of this. But all that is done is well and thoroughly done, and it is plain . . . that there is a large outlay on the part of the managers of zeal, ability and enthusiasm in behalf of the school."

The various reforms which I had introduced were approved and confirmed by Bishop Cotton, and all promised to be satisfactory, when Mr. Shears, who had suddenly changed his mode of life from extreme asceticism to married bliss, felt compelled to leave Burma never to return.

We all regretted this very sincerely, for though in matters of school management and other unimportant details Mr. Shears differed from the rest of us, we all had the highest respect for his zeal, earnestness and generosity in founding the Mission.

It was about this time that we introduced athletics on something resembling the English school plan amongst our boys. They had their own national game of Chin-lôn, a kind of football. The ball is made of wickerwork, strips of bamboo interwoven in bands, hollow and extremely light, and the game consists in keeping the ball as long as possible in the air without touching it with the hands; a circle of players, without shoes and with their loins girded, strike the ball in turns as it comes to them, with their knees, elbows, shoulders-- anywhere except with their hands. To play it well requires much skill and practice.

Cricket was unknown amongst our boys until we one day had a visit from Captain Hedley Vicars (a cousin of the Crimean hero), of the 68th Durham Light Infantry. He was a famous cricketer and delighted in the game, and he gave our boys some lessons, in which they showed, as he said, "all the qualities that go to make good cricketers." He died a few months afterwards in Rangoon from the effects of a fall from his pony. But eleven years afterwards, being in Rugby for S.P.G., I was asked to call on his sisters, who read to me the letter he had written to them about our Maulmein boys' cricket, and they insisted upon sending a cricket-bat in his name to the champion cricketer of St. John's College. General Fytche, our Commissioner, most kindly made the school a present of a full set of bats, wickets, balls, etc., and good use they made of them.

From all that I have said with regard to the Burmese and Buddhism, it will be seen that missionaries of the Gospel have no light task before them. One thing, however, we have in our favour, Buddhism is thoroughly tolerant. Neither the laity nor the Hpôngyis (monks) have any objection to our teaching Christianity to old or young. Hpôngyis have very often brought me one of their best pupils, saying: "Here, teacher, please take this boy. I have taught him all that I can; now I give him to you." And when I repeat my formula that ours is a Christian school, and all pupils must learn our religion, they raise no objection. The one difficulty is the necessity we are under of requiring payment, for all the monastic schools are perfectly free, and Hpôngyis are not allowed to have any money. But we have generally found some means of getting over this difficulty. Some of our most satisfactory Christian pupils were originally brought to us in this fashion. It was the case with the first of our new Rangoon school company that I had the pleasure to receive into the Christian Church by Holy Baptism. He was a pupil-teacher, a good honest lad. He went back to Maulmein and obtained the consent of his Buddhist parents. I baptized him by the name of Samuel in Burmese, in the presence of many friends of the Mission and of his schoolfellows, in the Cantonment church, the service having been translated, though not yet printed, by Mr. Shears and myself. In the translation work I was very kindly helped by the Roman Catholic Bishop, Dr. Bigandet, and by several of the American Baptist missionaries.

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