Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter X. The Diocesan Orphanage

OWING to circumstances well known to all acquainted with Eastern countries under European government, there are large numbers of boys and girls of mixed parentage in Burma, most of them being the offspring of European fathers and Burmese mothers.

According to the manners and customs of the Burmese, no stigma whatever attaches to a Burmese maiden who goes through a form of matrimony with a European, though she knows that the union is dissolvable at pleasure, on terms considered fair to both parties. In the Burmese mind, the union between John Smith or Thomas Me--and Ma Shwe, performed in presence of her parents and a select gathering of friends, the contracting parties eating rice and curry out of the same dish, is as much a valid marriage as if it were performed in church by a Bishop or Archdeacon.

This is the opinion of the Burmese. The Europeans set a different valuation upon the whole thing, which many of them regard as an amusing farce, knowing well that except by the constraint of their consciences they can at any time easily sunder the marriage tie, desert the so-called wife and her children, and depart to the home-land and marry an English wife.

They have not always, however, the opportunity for doing this. Fever, cholera, or accident intervenes, and the mother is left a widow with her children. Or the father is invalided home and the children of the Burmese liaison are left unprovided for.

These are our orphans. They are of European and Christian parentage, and cannot be allowed to grow up as Burmese Buddhists.

One can never forget the shock which one gets when this condition of things is first brought to one's notice. You go to what seems an ordinary Burmese house and the children come around you to talk. Oh, happy, charming creatures are little Burmese boys and girls! But as they play around, you suddenly discover the pale face and light hair of one which marks it out from the rest, and on inquiry you are told that it is the offspring of a former Assistant Commissioner or a young merchant, that there is no provision for it, and that it is being brought up as Burmese.

What is the missionary to do in the face of this kind of thing? We dare not leave the offspring of Christian parents to be brought up ignorant of, or hostile to, their own religion. On the other hand, we must be careful not to encourage parents to neglect their children by relieving them of parental responsibility.

After a very careful consideration of the whole question, I came to the conclusion that we must be prepared to take risks, and that the claims of these children, especially of the poorer ones, could not be overlooked.

Provision for the education of the richer classes of European and Eurasian children was already made by the chaplains under Bishop Cotton's Diocesan Scheme of Education. But for the poor and destitute and for orphans (with the exception of a small mixed school in Maulmein) there was no provision made by our Church in Burma.

It seemed to be a work rightly falling within the sphere of missionary labour--at any rate, at first. Many of these poor children were being brought up as Buddhists or heathen. Left to their Burmese mothers, they could not speak English and were dressed either entirely or for the most part as natives and very poorly provided for. To rescue them and give them Christian teaching and a good secular education seemed to be a work of charity as well as of necessity. And yet we could hardly provide for it out of ordinary Mission funds.

After much anxious consultation, I determined to begin within the walls of St. John's College an institution called the "S.P.G. Orphan Home," and I had mentioned this as one of the objects for which I sought so much land.

We had wealthy fathers who provided everything for their children. We had equally interesting boys whose fathers were either unknown, or suspect, or non-existent, for whom no provision was made. They were the veritable waifs and strays of Burma.

For such I neither dared nor would appeal to the British public at home, and how to maintain them on equal terms with the others gave me many an anxious thought and sleepless night.

At last I resolved to call a meeting of all whom I thought to be interested in the question. It seems that I blundered heavily. I invited the attendance at a meeting to inaugurate an orphanage, of some who were too deeply interested in the matter. It was a large meeting held in the Custom-house. I plaintively put before the meeting my difficulties and anxieties, but I got no sympathy. On the contrary, I was assured that I was attempting to condone immorality and to promote concubinage. A proposition to commence a Church of England Orphanage was almost unanimously negatived.

I shall never forget that afternoon. I was utterly dejected, but my faith in the righteousness of my cause did not fail me. I said in a moment of bitterness: "Gentlemen, I thank you for your attendance, I grieve at your vote, but I am determined to establish a diocesan orphanage."

Fortunately, we had strong support amongst the clergy and other friends of the Mission. One merchant, after hearing all the objections at our first public meeting, quietly slipped into my hands a cheque for Rs. 500 wherewith to start the institution. It has gone on doing its beneficent work ever since--though after the creation of the Diocese of Rangoon, at Bishop Titcomb's advice, the name was changed into its present title, "The Diocesan Orphanage for Boys;" for on the establishment by Bishop Strachan of the Bishop's Home for Girls, the scope of our orphanage was limited to boys.

The maintenance of the institution as a part of, and yet to a large extent financially separate from, the College, has added very greatly to our anxieties and responsibilities. For many years I had to find about Rs. 1,000 per mensem to feed, clothe and educate nearly one hundred orphan and destitute European and Eurasian lads. But it has been a work which God has greatly blessed, and in looking back upon my happy life in Burma there is no part of the work for which I feel more grateful, and which will, I believe, be productive of better results. The Government and people of Burma have supported it with wonderful liberality and kindness. Let me give one instance.

Sir Charles E. Bernard, the Chief Commissioner, the friend of every good work in the province, promised me Rs. 10,000 if I could raise an equal sum towards building a separate orphanage in the College compound. But I was taken ill and was unable to go about among my friends to get the money. So unwell was I that Sir Charles was good enough to insist that I should leave the noise and work of the College, and enjoy the luxury and quiet of his residence, Government House.

One day he came to me and said: "My promised grant of Rs. 10,000 can only hold good for a few days longer, after which it will pass from my control. I see that you are not fit to collect your share. What could you do with this sum by itself?" I assured him that we should be able to erect a building large enough for our present purposes, and he thereupon passed orders on my application for the sum of Rs. 10,000 to be given to us.

It was a splendid tonic. I bucked up, and though I had already been having the attention of the kindest physician, this medicine soon put me all right again.

Of course, as we expected, there came a strong remonstrance from the Director of Public Instruction about the grant. He had cast longing eyes on this final balance of the Educational Grant for the benefit of some of his secular schools; but Sir Charles soon convinced him that the deed was done and that the money had been paid into my account at the bank! Thus with a liberal grant from the Rangoon Municipality (always our friends), and a gift of Rs. 500 from dear Bishop Titcomb, who knew and loved our orphan boys and was loved by them, we were able to build and equip the very suitable Diocesan Orphanage, which is the central house in our group of buildings.

The Rangoon merchants have ever been most kind and liberal. One firm has given us for many years past Rs. 1,000 per annum in money or rice (we prefer the latter); another has given us all the timber we have needed for our constant additions and nearly every church in the diocese gives us an annual offertory.

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