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
The Andaman Islands--Beauty of Port Blair--Reception--Convicts Mount Harriet--Viper Island--The aborigines of the islands--Interview with some of them--Return to Rangoon--Organisation of a proposed Church Conference for British Burma.
MY visit to Maulmain was followed by one to the Andaman Islands, where there is a Government chaplaincy and a large penal settlement for Indian convicts, together with a corresponding force of military. This is at Port Blair, on Ross Island--one of the smallest, yet chief of the whole group, because the residence of the Governor.
Steam communication between Rangoon and Port Blair being only monthly, and the interval of another month being necessary before any ordinary possibility of return, I was thankful to embrace an opportunity afforded me toward the close of April, of accompanying General Knox Gore thither; who, with his staff, was proceeding to the Islands upon special Government service, and who proposed to return at the end of a week. The weather was magnificent, though excessively hot, and there was ample time for returning before the bursting of the south-west monsoon.
How can I picture the beauty of the scene as we steamed into the little bay in which this settlement stands? On the right rose Mount Harriet, clad with forest trees to its summit. In front of us lay Aberdeen, slanting from the shore amidst cocoanut trees, from which there peeped out a small military cantonment. On the left was Port Blair, with its busy beach, its English church, and gardened bungalows or villas. Here we were all welcomed by boats full of friends, who had come out to meet us, and pull us in to shore to give us our variously appointed hospitalities. Ross Island is very small. It contains neither carriage roads nor horses; the only method of communication with other parts of the settlement being by boats. But what it lacks in this respect it amply makes up for by other comforts, and notably by the kindness of its inhabitants.
I was entertained by the chaplain, the Rev. T. Warneford, who had at that time been living ten years in the place, and who seemed rooted to it with all the affection of one who could make it his home for life. The parsonage is in a lovely situation--built upon a cliff, with the blue sea in front of it, and rich tropical vegetation at the back. The church stands even higher, and is the model of a well-appointed sanctuary. It was my privilege to preach here twice on the Sunday, and to hold a confirmation also in the little Tamil church close at hand. I had a conference, moreover, with the Church council (of which General Barwell, the governor, was one), in which I endeavoured to see what could be done for the benefit of the native Andamanese. To my great delight I found that several thousand rupees had already been collected for Missionary purposes, and that the Government had sanctioned the establishment of a Mission, provided it became subject to the rule which forbids Missionary efforts among the convicts. I am sorry to add, however, that as yet nothing has been done with this money, the proposed work waiting for development under the fostering care of the S.P.G., which at present has not seen its way to take it up. Let us hope that this will not be much longer delayed. For the aborigines, though among the lowest in the scale of humanity, are very impressible, and, from the fact of their having no religion whatever, nor any caste prejudices, it is probable that they would easily become imbued with Christian truth. Besides which, a Mission amongst these people, if well carried out, would become the means of preventing the occurrence of murders of crews shipwrecked upon their shores, which are now so often repeated. It is only right, however, to say that there is at present an Andamanese Home, supported by the Government, in which a few of these poor creatures are clothed, fed, and instructed, with a view to make some little advance in their civilisation. But I say no more of these people now, as I shall have to speak of them a little further on. I will only add that a good foundation for future Mission work has been laid by the indefatigable labours of Mr. Man (son of General Man, formerly governor of the settlement), who has reduced the Andamanese language into Roman characters, and has published both a grammar and a vocabulary of it.
Many persons imagine that the great number of Asiatic convicts who are at large in this settlement must render it an insecure place of residence, especially since the lamentable assassination of the late Lord Mayo; but this is a mistake. That murder was committed by a fanatic on political, not on social grounds, and had no bearing whatever upon the general relationship of the convicts to English residents. As a matter of fact, the residents are quite secure; they live in the midst of them with as little fear as the gentry have of the villagers in their own English homes. I remember Mr. Warneford astonishing me by saying that all his boatmen had been transported from India for murder, and when I asked him if he had no apprehension of danger, he simply laughed at me. My readers may be equally astonished. But experience, however wonderful, proves that he was perfectly right. Armed with this assurance, I entered his boat on one occasion, to cross the bay and row over a beautiful coral reef, where the coral lay sparkling under the blue water with rainbow-like colours, and shapes the most fantastic. After this we landed and walked through the forest to the top of Mount Harriet without a single halt. Green parrots flew chattering above our heads in large flights; trees rising 150 feet before a single branch appeared, greeted us as we ascended from point to point. On the near summit Jay a splendid and newly-formed coffee plantation, worked entirely by convicts, who were then wandering about after their day's work in hundreds. On the crown of this mount (1,500 feet high) stands a bungalow, near which we sat for a while to enjoy the view, and behold a gorgeous sunset. We then descended by another path and reached home at 8.30 P.M., passing by the very spot where poor Lord Mayo was murdered.
One afternoon I visited Viper Island. This is the place in which the strongest prison has been built, for the incarceration of the worst and most dangerous criminals. It has not only to be guarded by police, but by a very strong detachment of European soldiers. It was a place, however, in which Heber's lines might have been quoted--
"Where every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile; "
for the view from the highest eminence of this island was simply exquisite. The various islands and bays opened out one after another, presenting the appearance of a number 01 lakes, with the bright blue ocean stretching again to the far distant horizon; making one's heart bound with love and praise to the great Creator.
Shortly after this Mr. Warneford gave me an opportunity of seeing a group of the Andamanese aborigines, who had just come in from the jungle not far distant; and who, from their proximity to the English settlement of Port Blair, are not only no longer afraid of the white man, but are even willing to be friendly for the sake of English liberality. These people belong to a class called by some ethnologists Oceanic Negroes; and most certainly they deserve that title: for their skin is of a jet blackness which makes the darkest Hindu comparatively pale. This black skin is, however, not left to nature, but is smeared over with a red pigment, which serves the purposes of barbaric vanity as much as of utility, keeping off mosquitoes and other insects. Their hair, moreover, is as woolly as the genuine negro of Africa. These exceptional varieties in the midst of the ocean world are very difficult to be accounted for, and form one of the most interesting problems connected with the distribution of the human race. In the "Little Andaman Island," the inhabitants are, I believe, abnormally savage and ferocious; but in the islands of which I am now speaking, they are not so much so. Still, they are among the lowest of uncivilised beings. In their native forests they go perfectly naked; never attempting to cultivate the ground, but living on shell fish, and birds, and beasts, which they kill with bows and arrows in a manner which is remarkably skilful. In height, they seldom, if ever, reach above five feet; and the women are sometimes scarcely above four feet six inches. They are, however, remarkably merry and light-hearted, and are extremely fond of singing and dancing.
On this occasion, when they were brought in to see me, they performed one of their dances in a manner which strongly reminded me of the Ojibbeway Indians of North America. The group consisted both of men and women, who, in condescension to our own civilised habits, had taken the pains, I am glad to say, of encircling their waists with white cloths, to be cast away, however, on returning to their native jungle. The only ornaments they wore were of a most curious and ghastly character; being nothing less than the finger and toe bones of their ancestors, which were threaded into necklaces and bracelets. The interview appeared to please them immensely, for, of course, they were treated to food. Their greatest delight, however, was the reception of a number of Burmese cheroots which I freely distributed among them. Indeed, before they left, one man persisted in showing his gratitude to me by presenting me with his bow and arrow, which is now among my personal treasures in England.
I left the Andamans, having no time to visit the Nicobar Islands, which belong also to the Diocese; feeling painfully sad at the utter want of Missionary life among the people, and praying inwardly that, before long, "good news from a far country" might be brought to them. On returning to Burma, though I had left an earthly Paradise behind me, yet Rangoon seemed to smile with life and verdure. The great pagoda was shining in the sun like molten gold; the trees were blossoming with resplendent colours, full of pink, yellow, and mauve flowers. The heat, no doubt, was excessive, 100° in the shade in my own verandah. Yet cool breezes fanned us at nightfall from the river and the sea. To speak truth, indeed, I grew more and more in love with the place the better I knew it and the longer I stayed in it.
Restored to my Rangoon home, I soon found myself busy in preaching, both to the English for my chaplains, and to the Burmese for my honorary chaplain, the Rev. J. E. Marks, in the College Chapel of St. John's. About this time, too, I first conceived the idea of organising a Diocesan Conference for our Church in British Burma, having for its object the discussion of questions affecting local interests, and the bringing together of laity and clergy in Church fellowship. I therefore summoned a select body of representatives at my own house for the preliminary consideration of the matter, when it was arranged by definitive resolutions, (1) That a plan of this kind would be highly expedient; and (2) That it should be held in the Assembly Rooms in the beginning of December. We also framed four subjects of discussion; the names of writers of papers and subsequent speakers being left to myself. All this added new work; but it seemed full of good promise for the Church, and filled my heart with gladness.