Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter XII. The Call to Mandalay

OFTEN and often when my charge of district schools embraced Thayetmyo, I looked longingly across the frontier, and prayed that the way might be opened for me to extend my missionary efforts into the territory of the Burmese King. But there was either a clause in the treaty or a distinct understanding, that foreign missionaries were not to pass the frontier, and so, whenever I hinted my desire to go into the forbidden land, I was always told that the British Government would not sanction, any more than the Burmese Government allow, such an experiment.

But that did not remove my earnest desire, which I had entertained ever since I read on my long voyage Mrs. Macleod Wyllie's most interesting book called "The Gospel in Burma," describing the work and the perils of Dr. Adoniram Judson, the great American missionary to the King and Court of Burma in 1823-25.

I longed, under the altered circumstances, to visit and try to influence the King. Shortly after the amalgamation of the three provinces into the one Government of British Burma, Sir Arthur P. Phayre, as Agent to the Viceroy and Governor-General, went on a second mission to the King at Amarapoora, in order to negotiate a commercial treaty between the two countries. In this he was unfortunately not successful, and his failure was a profound disappointment. But from him and from Bishop Bigandet, who accompanied him, I heard very full details of the etiquette and customs of the Burmese Court, which they both described as the most ceremonious and exclusive of any they had ever heard of. And yet both were full of praise of the excellent personal qualities and disposition of King Mindôn.

But when I hinted to Sir Arthur that I should like to visit His Majesty for missionary purposes, he became very grave. He said: "We have had two very expensive Burmese wars, costing enormous sums and many valuable lives. Our relations with this King, though he will not sign a treaty, are more amicable and advantageous than we have ever before had with any of his predecessors. We have left him Upper Burma, which is most useful as a friendly buffer State between our territory and China and Siam. The King is a learned man in his way, and prides himself on being entitled the 'Great Chief of Righteousness, and the Defender of the Buddhist Faith.' He is a very devout Buddhist, and spends a great portion of the revenues of his country in building pagodas and monasteries, and in feeding an immense number of Hpôngyis. The Government of India is very anxious to continue on good terms with him, to the advantage of both countries. He would resent our permitting an English missionary to go into his country. It would be certain to cause unpleasantness, which it is our earnest wish to avoid. You would most likely get into trouble. We should be compelled to interfere on your behalf, and then complications would arise, and evil rather than good would be the result. So I can neither sanction nor recommend your attempting to go to the King's country."

This from so good a Christian ruler, and such a munificent friend to missions as was Sir Arthur Phayre, was very disappointing. So I had to wait. But not for very long. One of the King's sons, the Thonzai Prince, owing to one of those family troubles to which I have referred, came to Rangoon, where he was received with much respect and affection by the Burmans, who supplied all his wants and showed him all the sights of our capital. Amongst other places that he visited was St. John's College, S.P.G., then in its vigorous childhood. He professed great interest in a school where Burmese boys were so loved and cared for and were so affectionate to a foreign Hpôngyi. I showed him the boys' work, and he heard them converse with me in English. He accepted a Burmese New Testament and other Christian books.

He returned to Mandalay with Sir Arthur Phayre, and was shortly afterwards reconciled to the King his father, to whom he told of all the wonders of Rangoon, not excepting our S.P.G. school. Months rolled by, Sir Arthur Phayre left and was succeeded as Chief Commissioner by General Albert Fytche, who had been a most kind supporter of our work in Maulmein. One of his first duties was to go to Mandalay to obtain the commercial treaty. This, owing to the firm attitude of the Government of India and his own tact, and the assistance of Major (afterwards General Sir Edward B.) Sladen, the British Resident, he succeeded in completing.

A few weeks after General Fytche's return to Rangoon, I had the pleasure of welcoming to Burma from St. Augustine's, Canterbury, Mr. C. H. Chard (afterwards Archdeacon of Rangoon) to join our Mission,, which was thus providentially strengthened. One -evening, just as we had finished our day's school work, I received by special messenger a letter from Mr. J. S. Manook, an Armenian--the King's Kalawun, or Minister for Foreigners.

The letter consisted of a large scroll of Burmese black paper (parabike) folded in native fashion, with the royal insignia of the Peacock, and with the words: "From the King of Burma," inscribed on it in beautiful characters. It was written in French chalk, but was evidently authentic.

It set forth that His Majesty, with all his titles, had heard of the school of the English priest in British Burma, and the good that the school had done amongst the people, and desired (commanded) that I should go up to the new capital city of Mandalay, the centre of the world, and there, under His Majesty's patronage and support, establish a similar Christian school for the benefit of his people.

Let me say here parenthetically a word about the parabike. It is macerated bamboo, folded in squares, dyed black, and the writing thereon is almost, if not quite, as permanent as that written on ordinary writing paper with pen and ink.

Promising the messenger an early reply, and making an appointment for our next interview, I went off at once with this document to our Chief Commissioner. When he saw the letter, General Fytche showed more interest and pleasure in it than I had ever seen him exhibit before. In India he was nicknamed the Tanda Machla, or the Cool Fish, because he was never excited. Opening his own budget from Mandalay, he found a letter from Major Sladen, telling him that the King had written to me, and was very anxious that I should accept his invitation. General Fytche was willing, but the consent of the Bishop of Calcutta and the Government of India was needed.

I felt certain about Bishop Milman, but anxious with regard to the Foreign Office and the Viceroy. But all was made smooth. I was duly told that under certain conditions I might go to Mandalay at Government expense as Chaplain to the English residents, and stay there a fortnight or so. Accordingly, on August 20th, 1868, I set out by steamer, accompanied by six of my best boys from St. John's College. At Thayetmyo, our frontier station, I received a telegram from Government telling me not to enter Burmese territory till I should hear from Major Sladen of his return to Mandalay from his expedition to the Shan States. So, both as missionary and chaplain, I went up and down the Irrawaddy calling at all our Mission stations, and wherever there were Europeans to be ministered unto. My boys were with me, and in order to keep up their English they had to write a diary of each day's occurrences. But this frequently became monotonous. There is not much to be recorded on a river or jungle trip. This is a typical entry: "Your big dog, Lion, stole your dinner and got a beating. We were very sorry for the dog, but very glad to have some circumstance to write about."

With the necessary information we left Thayetmyo in a crowded and dilapidated steamer on October 1st, and entered the King's territory the same evening. We landed at Minhla, the first station in Upper Burma, and went to pay our respects to the Wun, or Governor, who by royal order received us most courteously. My boys, however, came back wiser and sadder. According to Burmese custom they had left their shoes on the lowest step of the great man's house, and equally according to Burmese custom the shoes were stolen before the interview was ended.

The difference between the country under Burman and British rule was very marked. Physically the features were the same; but the dwellings of the people in the towns and villages of the King's dominions were mean and poor compared with the substantial teak and brick houses of the inhabitants of Lower Burma.

We stayed one night at Ye-nan-kyoung, the creek of stinking water (i.e., petroleum), where the petroleum wells were situated on a hill about one or two miles from the bank. With much difficulty I managed to get on to a bullock cart and ascend the hill and view the operation of extracting the oil.

I looked down a deep well, over which was a cross-beam with a wheel and a long rope attached to it. At the end of the rope was a metal bucket which was let down to a great depth. At the bottom of the well one could hear a bubbling, and a fetid gas exuded from it. The other end of the rope was bound round the body of a stalwart Burman, who ran down the hill and so pulled the bucket full of crude oil up the well. The oil thus obtained was emptied by hand into a bamboo tube, whence it floated down to the boats on the river bank. The waste through leakage marked the progress of the oil all the way down to the river.

The oil itself was like greasy treacle of a greenish colour, and was highly valued by the Burmese as a cure for skin diseases. The workers all enjoyed marvellous health.

This was the beginning of what has since become a. staple industry of Burma. It was then, like everything else in Upper Burma, a royal monopoly, and the unfortunate minister or favourite of the Crown who received the promise of a boat-load of earth-oil at the King's valuation by no means congratulated himself on his good fortune.

First he had to get the oil, then to bring it to Mandalay, then to find a market for it, then to pay the various dues and duties demanded, and then to pocket what remained. Oh, the groans that I have heard concerning the transaction! The King thought that he was conferring a royal favour, but the unfortunate recipient knew better.

The wonderful change that has come over the production and refinement of this oil under British government is best illustrated by the balance-sheets of the various companies now associated with this trade which show that even in war time the profits of one of them amounted to almost £150,000.

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