Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter XIV. Visit to Sir John Lawrence

I WENT up to Calcutta and was the guest of Bishop Milman and his devoted sister. I was taken ill on the voyage, and for the first day or two after my arrival was unfit for work. But there was much to be done with regard to the Society's operations and plans both in Upper and British Burma.

My time in Calcutta was fully occupied in earnest consultation with the Bishop and the Rev. J. Cave-Browne, the Secretary of the S.P.G. Committee. The Bishop and Miss Milman had one of their wonderful "At Homes," whereto came Rajahs and Zemindars, and clergy and ladies, native and European, and his Excellency Sir John Lawrence, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India. The Bishop introduced me to him, and after a few minutes' conversation his Excellency invited me to breakfast and talk at Government House on the following day.

Sir John Lawrence was a very homely, kindly, but determined ruler, greatly disliking pomp or show, humble-minded yet decisive in his utterances. Many were the stories that one heard of his simple habits, his love of business, his firm decision as a ruler. One story relating to the Koh-i-noor, the then largest diamond in the world, which was in his custody as Governor-General preparatory to its being sent to Queen Victoria, illustrates his indifference to the pomps and vanities of the world.

The mode of sending the jewel was being debated by the Viceregal Council at Government House, with Sir John presiding. One member asked very pertinently: "Where is it now?" Sir John said afterwards that his blood ran cold, for he remembered that for several nights it had reposed in the jacket pocket of his pyjama suit, which was at that moment hanging up in the bath-room. Excusing himself for a few minutes, he rushed into the room, and, to his great relief, found it wrapped up in a bit of tissue paper safe in his pocket!

Our breakfast was a very simple meal, and when it was finished, we adjourned to the library, where His Excellency began at once concerning my proposed obedience to the King of Burma's command. He said that he had studied the subject in various aspects, and with the advice of his counsellors, who knew Burma well, he was opposed to the project on political grounds.

The two Burmese wars of 1825 and 1853 had been fearfully expensive in blood and treasure. We had conquered and made a division of the country which, with all its difficulties, he hoped to be permanent. This was the first infraction of the understanding that foreign missionaries should not be sent to Upper Burma, and although the initiative came from the King himself, His Excellency could not divest himself of the feeling that it contained the seeds of future political trouble. He further pointed out the possibilities to myself by instancing the sufferings of Dr. Judson and other American missionaries before the last war.

He acknowledged that King Mindôn was a good monarch, but he pointed out that as a ruler he was a failure in that he was ruling for the people instead of governing them, and so on. With all this I perfectly agreed. "But," I said, "my knowledge of the conditions of Burma convince me that its annexation by us is only a matter of time."

Sir John rose from his chair with more anger than I deemed him capable of, and said: "If you wish to remain a friend of mine, you will never use that hateful word 'annexation' in my presence again. Let me say, once and for all, we cannot afford to annex Upper Burma. We neither desire it nor are we capable of accomplishing it. Annexation has been the cause of troubles without end. We had a disturbed frontier on the Punjab of forty miles. We therefore went to war, and now we have a disturbed frontier on the Punjab of four hundred miles, and the Indian Mutiny as another consequence.

"The Indian princes and peoples got to distrust us, and all because of the policy of annexation. With all its imperfections, it is desirable that the treaty with Upper Burma should stand. Never let it be so much as whispered that there is any thought of annexation. What we all feel here with regard to your scheme is that the Burmese King, who, with all his excellences and weaknesses, is an astute ruler, wishes to get you into his power for two reasons. One of them is flattering to yourself; he has heard, as we all know, of your work for Burmese boys in British Burma. He wishes to stop that work because it is antagonistic to the Buddhism of which he is the acknowledged secular head. The other reason is that he wishes to utilize you politically, and if you should not come up to his expectations in this respect, you will be imprisoned or murdered, and we shall have trouble with the Burmese Government, which is just the very thing which we wish to avoid. Don't go."

I replied that I fully appreciated all that His Excellency had said, and that I greatly regretted that I had incautiously used a word which he from his deep experience deprecated. But, with regard to the King's wish, while I acknowledged that such designs might be uncharitably attributed to a Western potentate, I firmly believed that the invitation or command was an answer to my continued prayer, and that unless obedience to it were rendered impossible, I certainly would obey it. I determined that while I was in Mandalay I would absolutely refrain from all politics, whether secret or open. That as regards personal risks of possible dangers, I entirely disregarded them, for, as I was acting in obedience to God's call, I should be under His protection, and I did not desire any other.

Sir John rested his head between his hands and for some moments was in deep thought. Then, coming to me, he said: "I see that you are determined to go. We will not hinder you. Only distinctly understand this, that you go, not as an envoy of the British Government, but entirely on your own responsibility. With whatever may happen to you we have no concern. If you are imprisoned or get killed in any way, it's of no use your crying out to us to come and help you. We will do nothing of the kind."

I replied: "I assure your Excellency that under those circumstances I will be perfectly quiet!" Sir John burst out laughing. "Go my dear fellow," he said, "and God's blessing be with you. Only be very careful." Later on in the day he sent me a cheque for Rs. 500 towards expenses.

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