Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter XIII. First Interviews with King Mindôn

WE arrived at Mandalay on October 8th, 1868, and were most kindly received by my old friend of Maulmein and Rangoon, Major Sladen, the British Resident, who had much to tell of his recent expedition, and of the manners and customs of the Burmese Court. The Kalawun and other officials from the Palace came several times to see us, and to inquire on behalf of the King whether we had all that we needed. Mandalay was then a very curious place. It was surrounded by a low embattled wall each side of which was a mile and one-eighth long: it stood foursquare, with bastions and imposing-looking gates, and very elegant turrets at intervals. A deep moat surrounded the city. Only the Palace, courts of ministers and law, and residences of the nobility and their relatives, occupied the enclosed space. The roads were good, wide, and at right angles through the city. Outside the walls lived the artisans and foreigners, Chinese, natives of India, Europeans of all nations, Armenians, etc., in all comprising perhaps 125,000. I held services in the court-house of the Residency for the Europeans.

On the Monday after our arrival, we had by appointment our first and informal or semi-state interview with the King. My boys and I went to the Palace in bullock carts, the most uncomfortable of conveyances. We had to climb in over the bullocks' tails, and the bamboo flooring sloped at a fearful angle. The wheels, consisting of one or two solid blocks, had probably been made round originally, but they had worked nearly square. The roads outside the city walls were terribly bad, so that by the time we arrived at the Palace gates we felt that our limbs wanted readjusting. We had to walk across the Palace compound, no umbrellas or sticks of any kind being allowed--only as a Hpôngyi it was permitted for one of my boys to hold a large fan over my head, or I should certainly have had a sunstroke. We went first to see the famous White Elephant, who occupied a large grandly painted house adjoining the Palace. He was a huge, restless, savage brute, highly pampered and fed, but never worked. He was white only in a technical sense--to an ordinary observer he appeared to be of the same colour as other elephants. He had killed his keeper a few days before, and only acknowledged my visit by throwing a bundle of hay at me.

We then ascended the grand steps of the Hman-nan-daw (the true, or, perhaps, the glass palace), having, of course, left our shoes this time under safe custody at the bottom of the steps. We found ourselves in a very grand, large hall, splendidly decorated, with magnificent pillars of teak covered with vermilion and gold, with large mirrors from France against the highly-adorned walls, and the floors covered with beautiful and costly carpets.

I entered into conversation with many of the King's ministers of State, who were attended by their secretaries and clerks, carrying their portfolios of black paper or parabike. The ministers wore long, flowing cloaks or surplices of white muslin over their ordinary dress, and all Burmans had a small fillet of muslin round their heads. No turban or folded dress which might possibly conceal a lethal weapon was allowed in the Palace. Whilst thus talking freely, suddenly there was a whisper, "Twet daw mu thi," "the King is coming out!" Instantly all took their places on knees and elbows on the floor, ranging themselves in rows according to their rank. I was shown my place, a nicely-carpeted corner in front of the throne to the King's left. Every head (except mine) of that large assembly was bowed to the floor. I had been told to sit, but by no means to let my feet be visible. It was an unusual and very cramped position.

Doors opened, one behind another, and far in the distance I could see one individual stalking onward in solitary dignity. It was the King, a fine, tall, typical Burman-looking man, about fifty-five years of age, very dignified but very pleasant, "every inch a king." He walked on to the dais, which was covered with crimson cloth, and threw himself down on a beautiful couch. Several of the princes, all grandly dressed, came in at a lower door and took their places near me. One of them crawled up on hands and knees and placed the emblems of royalty, the golden-handled sword, the gold betel-box, and the gold spittoon, before the King. His Majesty once, as a token of his goodwill, sent a gold spittoon as a present to Queen Victoria, who, in acknowledging the gift, thanked the King for the beautiful flower vase that he had so kindly sent her!

The King took up a pair of binocular glasses and had a good stare round the Court. When his eyes rested upon me, and my boys, who all wore their school badge of S.P.G. on their arm, a herald sang out in a kind of monotone declaration a statement about us, that in obedience to the royal command we had come from Rangoon, and now placed our heads under the Golden Foot and waited His Majesty's further commands. Like all such recitations, it ended with the long-drawn-out U tin bah thi, P a y a, "My lord, etc."

In a very soft and agreeable voice the King began to ask whether I had had a pleasant journey to his capital, whether I was happy and comfortable in the Residency, how old I was, etc., etc. He then told me how pleased he was that I had come at his invitation, and he desired to know what requests I had to make to him, assuring me that all were granted before they were asked. I told him that my requests were: i. Permission to labour as a Christian missionary in his capital and country.

2. To build a church in Mandalay for worship according to the Use of the Church of England.

3. To get a piece of land for an English cemetery; and 4. To build, with His Majesty's help, a Christian school for Burmese boys. With regard to the first, the King said that I had his full sanction to preach my religion in his dominions, and that no one should be molested for listening or even for becoming Christian.

I could not but remember what different treatment had been accorded to Dr. Judson by the then King, who spurned the offer of a Bible, treated the missionary with contumely and insult, imprisoned and tried to starve him at Aung-pinlai, and even purposed to have him devoured in a lion's cage; from which fate the missionary was saved only by the providential approach of the British army, when his services were required as an interpreter. Nor could I forget that only a few months previously several Burmans had been crucified by royal order for preaching Buddhist heresy, real or imagined, and that the British Political Agent had, by command of the Viceroy, expressed the abhorrence of Her Majesty's Government of such cruelty and persecution for conscience sake. With regard to the cemetery, the King directed me to consult Major Sladen, and his ministers would give effect to our wishes. We, of course, chose the site next the Roman Catholic and Armenian cemeteries, where Mrs. Sladen and several other Europeans were already buried. It was afterwards enclosed and raised by means of funds supplied by the British Government, and it was consecrated by Bishop Milman on his first visit to Mandalay.

The King said that the schools, both for boarders and day-scholars, would be built and maintained at his expense; that they would be erected according to the Burmese pattern, with such alterations as I might require.

With regard to the Church he asked me to give him the plans, and he would build it at his own cost. I mentioned that friends in Rangoon, Calcutta and England would gladly contribute towards the expense. The King looked proudly at me and said: "Nga min bè!" "I am a King, I want no assistance in my works of merit," for such he deemed the erection of church and schools. The only contribution that he allowed was that of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, who, when she heard of King Mindôn's liberality, of her own accord sent out a most beautiful font of variegated marbles, in token of her appreciation of the King's kindness.

It was through my colleague, the Rev. J. Trew, that Queen Victoria came to hear of King Mindôn's liberality to us at Mandalay. While he was home on furlough, and preaching on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel before the Queen at Whippingham, he told the story of the Mission at Mandalay, and the Queen was at once interested.

While I am speaking about Queen Victoria, I will tell another story which concerns her and King Mindôn. When the school in Mandalay was in full working order, and the

King's sons were pupils in it, a general holiday was given on the occasion of the birthday of Queen Victoria.

The King, finding that the young princes were at home instead of being in school, sent for me and asked me what the school was closed for. I replied that it was the 24th of May, and that day, being the English Queen's birthday, was usually observed as a holiday in all the best English schools.

The King thought for a moment, and then said: "But why don't you give a holiday on my birthday?" "Because," I replied, "I am unaware of the date of your Majesty's birth. If you will tell me the date I will gladly give a holiday." "My birthday," replied the King, "is Tuesday, every Tuesday!"

The school was to be for a thousand boys. The King asked me when it was ready if I would undertake the English education of some of his sons. Of course I replied that I would most gladly do so. "What age would be suitable for the princes to come to school?" I suggested from twelve to fourteen as a good age. He turned to one of his servants and said: "Bring to my presence all my royal sons who are about twelve or fourteen years old." Nine boys were produced. His Majesty had a very large family, and laughed heartily at me when I asked him the total number of his sons and daughters. He had no children!

The King asked me if I could procure him machinery and other merchandise. I told him distinctly that I had nothing to do with politics or commerce--being simply a religious teacher, and as such earnestly desirous to serve the King and his people. My answer seemed to please him at the time, but the proposal was afterwards again and again made to me.

When the interview had lasted about two hours, the King concluded it by inviting my boys and myself to breakfast in the Palace for the following day, and by accepting the beautifully bound books which the Calcutta S.P.G. Committee had sent as my present.

The next day we went, as commanded, to the Palace; Major Sladen was too poorly to accompany us. My boys were Moung Gyi (now a most respectable well-to-do merchant); Moung Ba Tu (now an Extra-Assistant Commissioner and K.S.M., the highest provincial title of honour); Moung Ba Ohn (now barrister-at-law in good practice in the English Courts in Upper Burma); Moung Tsan Hla Dung (an Arakanese, now schoolmaster in Akyab); and Moung Po Ming, who died some years ago. The King was magnificently dressed, and had the order of the Tsalwè of twenty-four strands of gold crossed over his breast, and he was adorned with beautiful rubies, diamonds and sapphires. Several of the queens and princesses were with him. He was more stately and ceremonious than on the previous day, but equally kind and pleasant.

My boys prostrated themselves, as did the other Burmans, whilst I squatted down in a cramped position, being obliged to keep my feet out of sight. The King was seated on the highest of a flight of six steps. He began by asking if I was comfortably housed and cared for. He reiterated his promises of the day before, and expressed his hope that all would not be in vain. He made me tell him about each boy, and he addressed some kind words to them. I presented him with a telescope, and the boys gave a lot of English toys to the young princes. In return the King gave two putsoes, valued at £3, to each boy. I also presented to the chief Queen, through His Majesty, a box of beautiful needle and crochet work made and presented by the Burmese girls in Miss Cooke's school. The King pulled out two or three pieces of work, but did not seem to know much about them. He tossed them to the ladies behind him, who evidently valued them highly.

The King began to talk to the boys about religion. He told them that they should not lightly forsake their ancestors' creed. I interposed, when he laughingly said: "Oh, Hpon-daw-gyi" ("high Hpôngyi," the name he always gave me), "I and you will talk about these matters alone by ourselves." I replied that I should be delighted to converse with His Majesty on those subjects, which were of the highest moment to all mankind. The King said that he only wanted to guard the boys against being rash and foolish, or changing their religion to please men; that he was perfectly tolerant; that he had never invited a Mussulman, Hindu, or Christian to become a Buddhist, but that he wished all to worship according to their own way.

He told me to make what use I pleased of his steamers between Mandalay and Rangoon, and to grant passages to and fro to any boys whom I might wish to send. We were then conducted to another apartment, where a sumptuous breakfast was served to us in English style. My boys and I sat down to table, the Burman attendants wondering to see our lads freely using knives and forks instead of the orthodox fingers in eating. Suddenly my boys all slipped off their chairs on to the ground, and when I looked up to see the cause, I found that one of the elder princes, a lad of about seventeen, had entered, having been deputed by his father to see that all was right.

Next morning I went again to the Palace with my boys, to take the plans for the school and teachers' residence. He approved of the plan with one exception, viz., that the school must not have a triple roof, such being only for princes and Hpôngyis. My house is to be so honoured. The King's Minister for Public Works was called into the presence and ordered at once to commence the work, and to use all expedition in its completion. The King gave me £100 towards school furniture. I told him that I would procure a plan in Rangoon for the church. He repeated that it would trouble him very much if no English Hpôngyi came to Mandalay. I assured him that his liberality would not be so despised, but that I really would return myself and open the school.

After some further general conversation the King spoke to the boys, and especially to the Arakanese boy whom I had adopted in 1863. He repeated what he had said before about not forgetting the religion of his ancestors. I said that the boy's ancestors had not heard the good news which I taught him. The King took no notice of what I said, but continued to the boy, "Always remember the Yittana thôn ba (the three objects of devotion), the Paya (Buddha), Taya (law), and Thinga (clergy)." I said: "Christianity teaches us to worship the everlasting God, to obey His law, and to receive instruction from the clergy." The King seemed annoyed for a time, and then repeated in his usual good-humoured manner: "I cannot talk with you about religion in public, we will talk about it privately on your return." He added: "Do not think me an enemy to your religion. If I had been I should not have called you to my royal city If, when you have taught people, they enter into your belief, they have my full permission;" and then, speaking very earnestly: "If my own sons, under your instruction, wish to become Christians, I will let them do so. I will not be angry with them."

The Kalawun told the King that he had heard me pray for the health, happiness and prosperity of the Burmese King and the royal family in our service on the previous Sunday. I gave him a copy of the prayer for himself .and for our Queen Empress in the vernacular, and also the Confession and other parts of the Prayer Book. He read several portions aloud, and seemed to be deeply interested.

I had two further interviews with the King on the 30th and 31st of October. I went to the Palace with my boys on Friday, October 30th. After repeating what he had said before, His Majesty asked whether we had mè thila yin (nuns) like the Roman Catholics. He said that he thought that some English ladies would be very useful in Mandalay, and that he would give all possible help in their work.

I replied that we felt it better not to begin too many things at once, but that when our church, boys' school and residences were built, we should be delighted to further His Majesty's wishes to have lady teachers for the princesses and other girls. His Majesty repeated that it would make him look very foolish in the eyes of his subjects if, after all he was doing for us, no missionary were to be sent to use the church and to teach the boys. I replied again that everything would be done to prevent such disappointment.

His Majesty made me come on the following day to take leave. Accordingly, on Saturday, the 31st, I took two of my boys to the Palace. The King assured me that he would hasten on the work, which would be completed regardless of expense. He then placed before me two bags, each containing Rs. 500, one as a contribution to the work of the Rev. P. Marks, my brother, who was a missionary in Ceylon, the other a personal present to myself.

I said that though assured of His Majesty's goodwill, I would accept no such present. This refusal was likely to have caused some unpleasantness. The Kalawun earnestly requested me to accept it. So, addressing the King, I said that it was not the custom of English missionaries to accept such presents for themselves, but that if His Majesty would allow me to be his almoner, I had many ways of using his money so as to do good to others, and I would send an account of all through Captain Sladen.

His Majesty at once assented and entered into a long and pleasant conversation about English schools, books, etc. He wished to have the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" translated into Burmese, and he asked me to bring up about fifty of my Rangoon schoolboys for that purpose! He asked me to leave one or two of my present boys with him, promising that he would take care of them, but no boys wished to stay without me.

We saw the work of building the schools actually begun--the portion of land adjoining the British Residency carefully staked out and surrounded with a royal fence, and on All Saints' Day I solemnly dedicated our cemetery, until it could be properly consecrated, with a short service, to which all Europeans were invited. We left Mandalay on November 2nd, Math deep thankfulness to the great King of kings, who has taught us in His Holy Word that the hearts of kings are in His rule and governance, and that He doth dispose and turn them as seemeth best to His Godly Wisdom. We stayed a while at Thayetmyo, Prome, Myan-aung, and Henzada, greatly cheered by the progress of the work in all those stations, and by the open door which presented itself at so many other places.

On returning to Rangoon I had to stay a while to allow the Rev. C. Warren to go to Calcutta for his priest's ordination, and Mr. Chard for deacon's orders. Then Bishop Milman summoned me to Calcutta to confer with himself, the Government, and the Calcutta Committee respecting the new work in Upper Burma. It was not regarded in India and Burma with the same enthusiasm as that with which the news was received in England. There were not wanting those who utterly mistrusted the King, disbelieved his promises, and tried to dissuade me from going up again lest he should seek occasion to injure me and the work which he could not love. The wildest rumours were circulated, amongst others, that a Burman Christian teacher from our Myan-aung school had been beheaded for walking in a Mandalay monastery with his shoes on. Telegrams to and from Myan-aung soon assured us that the teacher had never left his station, but was diligently doing his work there. So with many similar rumours.

But these were all quieted when I had the opportunities which the chaplains afforded me of telling the true story in the Rangoon churches, and my friends then came forward willingly with funds and promises of help for the endowment of the work, which all felt should be secured against any possible change of mind of the King, or of a different Government.

Project Canterbury