Project Canterbury

Personal Recollections of British Burma and Its Church Mission Work in 1878-79.
by the Right Rev. J. H. Titcomb, D.D.
First Bishop of Rangoon

London: Published for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1880.

Chapter I

Introduction--Leaving England, and the voyage out--Arrival in Rangoon--Reception--Description of Rangoon and its Inhabitants--General ignorance of its position and character--The nature of its climate.

As these are personal recollections, my readers must kindly consent to a considerable use of the first person singular without indulging in any cynical remarks. No man can give an account of his own experiences unless the egotistical "I" play some part in his story. To suppress it would be an affectation of humility at the expense of truth. Admitting it, therefore, as a necessary ingredient into this narrative, just as a visitor within a foreign city consents to his garrulous commissionaire for purposes of information, let me commence by remarking that I accepted the Bishopric of Rangoon in November, 1877, with mingled feelings of faith and fear. The difficulties at first appeared insuperable. How could I, at the age of fifty-eight, break up my parish work, my home, and family? Everything said, "Impossible! You have never hitherto resided in a tropical country, and you have too many family roots and responsibilities at home to allow yourself to be transported to such a distance." In this state of feeling I had almost given up the idea, when voices from one side and another made me pause and count the cost as in the light of a call from God which was too solemn to be lightly resisted. Passing by this struggle, however, let it suffice to say that, having once made up my mind, I set myself firmly to prepare for "consecration," and for subsequent departure. The latter act was effected with as little loss of time as possible, inasmuch as I was anxious to reach the scene of my future labours before the setting in of the hot season. To be brief, I was on my way to Calcutta, viĆ¢ Venice and Alexandria, accompanied by three of my daughters and a faithful maid-servant, eight days after admission into my office.

We started for our new country on December 29, 1877, without home, friends, or furniture; but supported by the prayers of many who were left behind us, and by a consciousness that God would give us strength to surmount every difficulty. My children were very brave; and very probably I owed much of my own calmness and self-possession to the noble spirit which they exhibited throughout this painful season.

Of the voyage there need be no chronicle, except to say that we were most hospitably entertained in Calcutta at the Bishop's palace, where kindnesses innumerable were shown us both by himself and Miss Johnson; and where, in addition to our own party, we had the pleasure of meeting my married daughter and her husband--Captain and Mrs. Wyllie. During this time also, the Bishop of Lahore, who had been consecrated in Westminster Abbey the same day as myself, arrived from England. The visit was most opportune, for, as the two dioceses of Lahore and Rangoon had been taken from that of Calcutta, we naturally had many points of interest to discuss.

Leaving Calcutta on February 17, 1878, we arrived safely at Rangoon on February 21, full of thankfulness to our Heavenly Father for His numberless mercies. Not the least of these was the hearty welcome which we received on landing at the Custom House ghaut; where the clergy of Rangoon, and others, met us on the steamer, and escorted us to the Town Church, in which a congregation had already assembled for a short Thanksgiving Service. We were then driven to Mr. Rivers Thompson's, the Chief Commissioner of British Burma, who kindly received us at Government House as his guests, until we could obtain a dwelling-place for ourselves.

The season in which we entered Rangoon River being especially devoted to the rice trade, all things were unusually busy; so that the shipping which was anchored along its shores impressed us with an amazing conception of the prosperity of the country. Upon steaming into port, indeed, the whole place strikingly reminded me of Liverpool. The line of buildings also--chiefly public offices--opposite to which we were moored, struck all of us as far more like European than Oriental edifices. Thus we were cheered with a home-like feeling from the first moment of our arrival. One thing alone dissipated this sensation, namely, the variety of costumes worn by the inhabitants; for Rangoon may be truly termed cosmopolitan. First, we have the indigenous Burmese, whose dresses, when grouped together in any large numbers, form a perfect flower-garden, particularly on Buddhist festival-days, when pink, blue, green, yellow, scarlet, mauve, and every intermediate tint, mark both their turbans and their tunics, or as they are more properly called, "putsoes." Besides which, the women, who walk about as freely as the English, constantly wear flowers in their hair, and that with an art which lends them a peculiar charm; a charm which is rather enhanced than lessened by their merrily pacing the roads with large cheroots, being smoked, or thrust through a hole in the lobe of the ear. I use the word "merrily," because the Burmese are among the most happy, good-humoured people possible; perpetually laughing and joking, never working when they can possibly afford to be idle, and often playing with all the joyousness of children--I grieve, however, to add, with a taste also for gambling, which constantly leads them into fatal quarrels. Secondly, we have a large Tamil population from the Presidency of Madras, who come over chiefly as household servants. The reason is, that the Burmese are far too independent to act among the Europeans as household servants. Hence the force of circumstances has induced a great influx of these Hindu strangers, who, for the sake of the high wages which they are able to command, leave their own land, returning to their homes and families as soon as they can save enough to live comfortably. They are generally dressed in white, the men, however, having very frequently red turbans, and the women scarlet linen carefully covering the breast, with one shoulder exposed. Nor are these the only Hindus. Chittagong supplies us with sailors and boatmen; Bengal with durwaus, barbers, dhobies, and tailors; Telugu and other parts of India with coolies (or street porters), whose more than semi-nudity adds a peculiarity to the streets which, at first sight, strikes the European visitor with astonishment. Then we have Bengalee Baboos of higher caste, and more refined look, who are employed as clerks in mercantile firms and Government offices. Thirdly, there is a large and increasing number of Chinese settlers, employed as gardeners, agricultural labourers, pig-breeders, shoemakers, and carpenters, whose neat coats, either of black or white, and long pigtails, increase the picturesqueness of the streets. Add to this, fourthly, Armenians, Jews, Parsees, and Mohammedans, who are generally shopkeepers or merchants, and whose dresses are all more or less divergent, together with European civilians, and British soldiers and sailors in their unmistakable uniforms. Thus we have a mingled mass of people, which give to the roads of Rangoon a character almost peculiar to itself. I certainly saw nothing comparable to it in Ceylon, Madras, or Calcutta.

Of Rangoon as a city, what shall I say? Undoubtedly it needs description; for among the greater number of our countrymen, nay, even among Anglo-Indians themselves, it is scarcely known either geographically or pictorially. I have heard men of enlightened education make the most egregious blunders in reference to its position; while, with regard to its general character, they have evidently thought it a semi-civilised settlement, situated on some miserable swamp. Let it be understood then, that (including its European and native suburbs) it contains about 100,000 souls; that it possesses a custom-house, law courts, Government and private banks, a railway terminus, municipality offices, revenue and port-trust offices, merchants' offices, public assembly rooms, steam saw-mills, rice-mills, shipbuilding yards, steam-packet offices, several sets of Government barracks, a police and public works department, and a forest department; that its principal streets are wide, and all its roads so thoroughly metalled with granite as to preserve them from mud even in the midst of the heaviest monsoons; that it has also a fine town-hall, a public park, a museum and public gardens, a literary and scientific institute with large circulating library, clubs of various sorts, two daily newspapers, and at least nine places of Christian worship, beside Mohammedan mosques and Hindu and Chinese temples.

This may suffice for a general description. Speaking of it in other aspects, let it be understood that almost all roads out of the city are lined with beautiful trees, blossoming at certain seasons with variegated coloured flowers; that the houses of the European residents are all detached, on roads intersecting one another, in the midst of what looks like a fine park, but which is really the relic of an old primeval forest; and that beyond the chief group of these houses there are extensive lakes, whose banks are covered with tropical verdure of the most luxuriant kind, situated on an elevation of some sixty feet above the river; pre-eminent over the whole of which rises the Shway-Dagon pagoda, 300 feet high, and gilded from the top to the bottom, the beauty and wonder of which must be seen to be rightly understood. This building of the Buddhists is supposed to cover eight hairs of the head of Gautama, the founder of their religion. It was commenced 2,000 years ago, and is now regarded as the most sacred building of Burma.

The astonishing verdure of the foliage in this country should be also noticed. Almost all the trees are evergreen. Although the year is divided into two parts, known by the names of wet and dry seasons, which are regulated by the setting in of the south-west and north-east monsoons, and although the latter continue without rain for six months, yet the foliage on the trees is as luxuriant and green at the end of that time as at the beginning. True, the grass is burnt up with heat; nevertheless, among trees where the roots lie deep, the soil is sufficiently preserved with moisture to make nature an everlasting summer.

There is no European settlement on the opposite side of the river. This side is called Dalla, and is chiefly occupied by the premises of the Bombay and Burma Trading Corporation, the surroundings of which consist of extensive paddy fields, intersected by numerous creeks. On the Rangoon side, there is, however, a large suburb rife with business, called Poozondoung: yet, in the same way perfectly untenanted by European inhabitants. This suburb is plentifully supplied with pure water from the lake just spoken of, greatly to the advantage of public health. And here, while adverting to the subject of sanitation, it maybe as well to remark for the benefit of those who have friends in these parts, that British Burma is by no means unhealthy, or unadapted to the European constitution. In the frontier towns of Thayetmyo and Toungoo there is, during the cool season, a fair amount of cold weather: enough to make greatcoats and blankets extremely serviceable. At Akyab, also, the air is cooled by sea breezes up to the end of April. On the more southern coast-line, however, including Rangoon, it must be allowed that cool weather is nominal rather than real. The nights are nevertheless cool for the most part, even in the hottest weather --a circumstance by which one's strength is pleasantly renovated, and daily duties are made cheerful. Of course there are often cases in which persons expose themselves too much to the sun, or who violate the laws of nature by trifling with damp; who indulge in intemperate diet, or persist in over-fatigues with out proper food and rest: and who then go home to their relatives saying that the climate has killed them. I admit that, in low situations, such as the banks of rivers and jungle villages, there is necessarily a malarious and feverish climate; but on high ground, and where European houses are built, there is nothing of the kind, it must he acknowledged, indeed, that where any one, upon entering the country, is enervated by organic disease, the heat and humidity of some parts of Burma produce loss of appetite, and consequent emaciation and distress. But for those in health I am satisfied that it is as fairly salubrious as any tropical country can be. At any rate, I am bound to say of myself, and with this remark I conclude my first chapter, that, after eighteen months' residence in Rangoon, after travelling through different stations in the province, and often sleeping in the open air at nights, I not only never suffered from the slightest ailment, but never even lost my elasticity of spirits, until beaten down by that heavy domestic affliction which drove me back to England.

Project Canterbury