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
Settling in our new home--First conference with clergy--Proposals for a cathedral--Ecclesiastical difficulties in Maulmain--Description of Maulmain--Insufficiency of our Mission work there--The mutual relationship of the various Missions--Incident on the sea voyage back to Rangoon--Publication of a Burmese pamphlet addressed to the Buddhists of Burma.
HAVING enjoyed the hospitality of Government House for R week, during which time we were introduced to the chief residents of Rangoon, the "Guest House" was kindly placed at our disposal. This is a building provided by Government for the reception of native princes and embassies, or for any visitors unable to be accommodated otherwise by the Chief Commissioner. It was here that we commenced our first realisation of Eastern life; being obliged to hire native servants, start carriage and horses, and cater generally for ourselves. To this work, however, my eldest daughter set herself with her usual calmness and ability, aided by our faithful servant from England. Of course it was but a temporary refuge; and, therefore, one of the first necessities laid upon me was to seek as quickly as possible a permanent dwelling-place. We found it in a large and excellent house near the town jail, known by the name of "Ferndale," situated in a compound of about four acres and elevated about thirty feet above the river, at about a distance of a quarter of a mile. This house, in common with most of those of the English residents in the place, is built of teak timber, the dwelling rooms resting on posts or piles as in Swiss chalets. It is surrounded by large trees, the relic of a primeval forest, in which, fifty years ago, there roamed tigers and elephants. I have been credibly informed, indeed, by old inhabitants of Rangoon, that within this period a jungle path went from Rangoon to Kemmendine, which is only two miles distant, named "Tiger Alley"; so named because the only way of safely travelling along it was by making up large parties for mutual defence against the tigers. Such are the changes wrought by civilisation.
The furnishing of a house in this country is no easy matter. One has to do it by degrees; purchasing different articles at public sales, whenever any of the inhabitants are leaving for Europe or India. In the hot season, which was now commencing, this was weary and uncomfortable work; but, like all other troubles and difficulties, gave way before patience and perseverance. The solemn responsibility with which I was entering upon my new office gave me quite enough to occupy my mind, and take off my attention from discomforts of a domestic character. I had to face greater difficulties, and settle weightier matters. The organisation of the diocese, as it existed, had to be learned; while the best methods of developing new work no less required to be studied.
Under these circumstances, the first thing I did was to assemble the clergy of Rangoon in private conference, viz., the two chaplains (Messrs. Pearson and Taylor), and the two Missionaries (Messrs. Marks and Colbeck), in order that I might ascertain from them the exact position of ecclesiastical affairs, and consult their views upon matters of the most pressing importance. I took this early opportunity also of explaining my own Church principles; expressing at the same time a fervent hope that we should ever work together in love and harmony, as members of the same Church, and brethren of the same Lord and Master. All of which was most kindly received; and I may add that, ever since, not one word of any serious misunderstanding has arisen between myself and the clergy of the diocese. At this meeting, the subject of a cathedral for Rangoon was opened. It was not my own suggestion, nor should I have broached the subject, because, knowing that so much was required in order to establish a more effective living agency for Church progress, it seemed to me that a large expenditure for cathedral purposes would be premature. It was rejoined, however, that the cantonment church, used by the military, was merely a tin structure, old, and wearing away; and that it would be therefore well to ask for a Government grant towards a new church on cantonment ground, which should be built, by the additional aid of public subscriptions, upon a scale sufficiently large to accommodate civilians also. The result was that I obtained permission from Mr. Rivers Thompson, the Chief Commissioner, to summon a public meeting in his Banqueting Hall for the consideration of this subject. The attendance was good; the spirit of the meeting was excellent; resolutions approving the object were passed; and a large Committee was formed for the purpose of approaching Government on the subject.
Such was the first bud of promise in the work of my new diocese. It never ripened, however, inasmuch as the Government of India refused to give the slightest 'grant in aid' toward the object. It has consequently, for the present, been abandoned. And yet the effort was not without some indirect effects; for the Town Church has, since then, been wonderfully improved by a new stone pulpit, reredos, choir stalls, lectern, tessellated chancel floor, and bishop's throne. Hence we now call it our Pro-Cathedral, and are content to remain in this state till more auspicious days dawn upon us.
The ecclesiastical condition of Maulmain was the next matter which engaged my attention, and was anything but agreeable. It should be understood that the station was at this time without a Government chaplain; the duty being served fortnightly by one of the Rangoon chaplains. Perhaps it was natural, therefore, that when the Bishop arrived, the inhabitants should have expected him to supply them with a new chaplain; the more so because they had hitherto always enjoyed that privilege in Maulmain. Still more natural was it that they should have become disconcerted and annoyed on finding their Bishop unable to do this. Yet I was conscientiously prevented from doing so; for, on the subdivision of the diocese of Calcutta, the Metropolitan had only assigned to the diocese of Rangoon five Government chaplains out of the Bengal establishment, two of whom were required in Rangoon, one in Thayetmyo, one in Toungoo, and one at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. Now the importance of these stations would riot allow the permanent displacement of any one of their chaplaincies. I was, consequently, driven by force of circumstances to hold to the arrangements which I found on my arrival; and had no course left me but to propose a public meeting in Maulmain, for the purpose of conferring with the inhabitants as to the best method of meeting this very unpleasant emergency.
Accordingly I visited Maulmain, in company with the Rev. A. C. Pearson, the chaplain who had up to that time been doing temporary duty there. I was hospitably entertained by Donald Macleod, Esq., Judge, who informed me that a very strong feeling prevailed against any proposal which I might make to them for contributions' in support of a new chaplain, seeing that they had hitherto been always supplied with one freely by the Government. I must confess that, accustomed as I had always been in England to speak at public meetings, and take part in critical debates, I never met an assembly under a greater feeling of nervous apprehension. I stated my case, however, with as much calmness and clearness as I could command, arid boldly proposed that if, on their part, they would guarantee the payment of 150 rupees a month, I would do my best to secure the same sum monthly from the Government. The temper of the meeting was anything but agreeable. Nevertheless there seemed a certain restraining power over it which prevented any actual outburst of anger. To be brief: my proposal was accepted by a small majority of votes, on the understanding that, pending any settled arrangements, I would personally undertake to supply them with a chaplain from Rangoon once a fortnight. This was settled: and from that time I always went over and did the duty myself, except when travelling in other parts of the country on Visitation.
The distance from Rangoon to Maulmain is about 130 miles. The British India Steam Navigation Company's mail packets, owing to their ordinary speed and to the difficulty of the tides, almost invariably have to leave one day and arrive the next. The Company, however, has built a fast-going paddle-wheel steamer for this service, which always accomplishes the journey in one day, starting at 6.30 A.M., and usually arriving at 4.30 P.M.
Maulmain, although by the map it appears to be a seaport, is, in reality, now about twenty miles from the sea. Its commercial condition is somewhat depressed, having been injured by the transfer of the seat of Government to Rangoon in 1862, when the provinces of Arakan, Pegu, and Tenasserim were united under one central administration. Its trade, however, is still considerable, as the wharfs and wood sawmills evidence by their extension along the river-bank for a distance of three miles or more up to Maboon, where shipbuilding is actively pursued. The river Salween, on which Maulmain stands, empties itself into the gulf of Martaban. Its navigation is extremely difficult, owing to shifting sands. Further on indeed it soon becomes altogether unnavigable, owing to "rapids." Maulmain is extremely beautiful, and has often been called the queen of British Burma. It is embosomed, on both sides of the river, with grand ranges of hills, which are clothed with rich jungle forests to the height of 4,000 feet, except in one direction, where the scene is diversified by a range of limestone rocks taking rugged and picturesque forms, and containing immense caves, which are the wonder and admiration of all visitors. The town is widely scattered, and is built 011 undulating ground; from different points of which there are exquisite views of the river and its adjacent mountains, with golden pagodas and monasteries peeping out from elevated ridges in the midst of luxuriant foliage.
With regard to our Missions in Maulmain I felt much discouraged. A Burmese Mission which once existed has been abandoned, while the present Tamil Mission is extremely feeble, owing to the Tamil catechist, who has sole charge of it, being afflicted with severe asthma. That this good man (David John) would require to be pensioned off, as disabled, after seventeen years' faithful service, I soon saw plainly enough. Prudence, however, restrained me from acting on too hurried an impulse. On the other hand, I was greatly encouraged by visiting the Orphanage for Eurasian children, which appears to be doing a really good work. I examined one of the head classes in Scripture, and found the children as fully proficient as any scholars in an English national school of the same age would have been. Adjoining this building is the English church of St. Matthew's, attached to the former Government chaplaincy. It is remarkably adapted to the climate, and is well preserved and appointed, and, better still, well attended by the people. All this made me more than ever regret my inability to station a resident chaplain in the plaee. I should not be doing justice, however, to my own feelings, if I did not here acknowledge the valuable services rendered to the Church in Maulmain by my kind host previously mentioned; who, being an M.A. of the University of Cambridge, was in the habit of putting on his university hood and surplice, and taking duty both in the church and cemetery, whenever there was no officiating clergyman.
It should be added that both the Roman Catholic and American Baptist Missionaries have large and nourishing establishments here, each putting our own work to the blush, in consequence of their much longer occupation of the field. I need scarcely remark that I entertained no idea of interfering with these workers, still less of assuming hostility towards them; inasmuch as before the appalling mass of heathendom round about us, any form of Christianity, however much we might differ from it, was preferable to a religion in which the blessed name of Jesus was unknown; and that, besides this there was room for all our efforts without the slightest need of jealousy. Nothing indeed more impressed my mind on commencing my work in British Burma than the total absence of all those sectarian cavillings with which, alas! we are too familiar in England. I left my own country filled with polemical strife, and I arrived among Christians where religious strife seemed unknown. Happy is the lot either of Bishop or Missionary who can labour in such a sphere, content to do his own work for God in the cultivation of those first fruits of the Spirit--"love, joy, and peace!"
I left Maulmain in the fast-steaming paddle steam-packet already described. It is known by the name of The Rangoon and is a great favourite among the Burmese. On this occasion it was unusually crowded--carrying a large number of hpoonghies (i.e., Buddhist monks), with others, to attend a Buddhist festival at the Shway-Dagon pagoda. Having left my home for the purpose of presiding over the English Church in Burma as its first Bishop, I naturally desired to claim acquaintance, as far as possible, with some of these people. I, therefore, invited one of these monks to meet me on the upper deck--using the services of a fellow passenger who could act for me as an interpreter. He was extremely polite, but frankly acknowledged that he knew nothing about Christianity. I told him that I wondered he had never desired to make himself acquainted with a religion which had spread so widely through the world; that, for my own part, long before I had the least idea of visiting Burma, I had studied his own religion, and that I, therefore, thought the least he could do would be to make some inquiries respecting mine. He replied that he had no materials for doing so, because nothing existed in the Burmese language, so far as he was aware, which made any attempt to explain it in any formal manner. This remark set me thinking very much, whether it might not be my duty to attempt such a work. On reaching home I resolved to do so. The result was, that in a short time I drew up a pamphlet upon this subject which was entitled The Christian Religion; or, Thoughts for the Buddhists of Burma, contrasting Buddhism with Christianity. My aim, in this little work, was to explain the Christian faith in its general outlines: to show how it came into the world; how our ancient forefathers had looked for it through many previous revelations from Heaven which had been preparing them for it; how it reached mankind as a religion suited to all nations, giving joy and peace to human hearts which could never find that peace without it; and how it must one day triumph over every other religion, filling the whole world with truth and happiness, and restoring mankind to perfect and eternal rest. I am thankful to say that this little treatise has, since then, been translated into Burmese, and is now in circulation among the Buddhists. May it prove to be a seed cast within the soil, which shall bring forth fruit hereafter to the praise and glory of God!