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 VII.

Rangoon Literary Institute--Journey to Prome--Description of Prome--Laying the foundation stone of a new church--The banks of the Irrawaddy--Myanoung--Yangdoon--Dony-bhoo--Henzada--Pantanau and Panglang Creek--Its mosquitoes--Reception at Bassein--Cape Negrais--Return to Rangoon.

RANGOON possesses a "Literary Institute," containing a well-stocked circulating library, opened for occasional lectures. These having of late years been allowed to drop--much to the loss of the intellectual life of the city--one of my first efforts for the general good of the place was to aim at their revival. I accordingly delivered two lectures upon a subject which I thought would interest and excite attention, having the somewhat startling title of "The Saxons in India," My design was to show that, in the primeval dispersion of the old Aryans from their central home when those various waves of migration occurred which carried some of them to the continent of Europe and some into Northern India, the Sacse (or aboriginal Saxons) might be identified with the Saks or Sakyas, the former having travelled westward, and the latter eastward. In. which case the interesting corollary would follow, that Guatema, or Sakya-muni, must have been of Saxon origin. This position I endeavoured to fortify by a number of arguments, ending with the idea that, as we were now in Burma, face to face with the religion of Guatema--if it could only be well brought before the Buddhists, it might possibly provide its with a practical and hopeful method of approaching them in religious discussion. These lectures were well attended, the Chief Commissioner being in the chair. They provoked a great deal of discussion, with some little raillery against myself as an ingenious enthusiast; which, indeed, I had fully expected. My effort, however, was of no use. The passing interest of the subject soon faded; and though two gentlemen promised to follow me with other lectures, not one promise was fulfilled.

I now felt it my duty to visit Prome, going, as it is here called, "up country." I had the advantage of taking my experienced friend Dr. Marks with me, who, as chaplain to the Irrawaddy stations, had to pay them a series of his periodical visits. Under his instruction I prepared myself with all sorts of provisions, as we were intending to lodge ourselves in the various "circuit houses" provided by Government for their travelling agents, and in which only lodgings are provided. It was quite amusing to see our tinned meats and soups, with knives, plates, cups, spoons, &c., needful for carnivorous human nature. It was June 19th when we started by rail for the journey. This line, known by the name of "The Irrawaddy Valley State Railway," had been only opened a year previously, having a commodious terminus station in Rangoon, and traversing about 165 miles of road. Pleasant enough it was at first; for the scenery was new to me, and the sensation of once more being in a railway-carriage made me dream that I was in dear old England. Yet not so by the end of our journey, inasmuch as we had been about twelve hours running it. This comparative slowness is due to the habits of the Burmese who never hurry themselves in anything, and to whose habits the English authorities so far defer. Ten minutes' or a quarter of an hour's rest at every station will sufficiently account for our delay, to say nothing of the average speed not being more than fifteen miles an hour. I was much struck on the road with my first sight of buffaloes feeding in the jungle; also with the Burmese method of ploughing up their paddy fields while they are under water. Previously to this I had no idea that we entirely owed our rice to its seed being sown in mud thus immersed; and for the first time recognised how beneficently the monsoon had been arranged for the supply of the country's wants.

Arrived at Prome, we soon found our way to the circuit house. Such is the hospitality, however, of our British residents in Burma, that one is never long under the necessity of taking meals in such a lonely home. It was so on the present occasion; for the Deputy Commissioner, Major Plant, persisted in our taking meals with him, much to the relief of my Madrassee man-servant, who was thus saved the necessity of unpacking my tinned meats.

Prome, in the annals of ancient Burma, is full of historical interest. It was taken by the British forces in 1825, in what is called our first Burmese war. Since then, I need scarcely say that it has been very much improved and beautified by our Government, though its drainage is still defective. Its very situation is lovely. It stands on the brow of a somewhat narrow gorge, through which the river Irrawaddy flows, rising and falling between the two monsoon seasons to the extent of forty feet. The view of the opposite bank, with its conical-shaped hills, cultivated with "sweet custard apple" gardens, trained like German vineyards, reminded me much of the river Rhine; while the Irrawaddy flotilla steamers and native Burmese boats enhanced the beauty of the picture.

Prome possesses a fine pagoda belonging to the Buddhists; a good Mission establishment belonging to the American Baptists; an excellent boys' school belonging to the Government; and a very efficient girls' school belonging to the Ladies' (S.P.G.) Association. It has also a handsome court-house and municipal bazaar; from the profits of the rents of which latter building the local municipality draws a large revenue, enabling it to improve the roads, and other parts of the town. Both the size and cleanliness of this bazaar greatly astonished me, and no less the order of its business arrangements. Indeed, it was like a town of itself; full of streets, each having its own name; every article, moreover, which man can ordinarily want being found in it, down to "Bryant and May's" match-boxes!

We had not been long in Prome before our new Chief Commissioner arrived from Thayetmyo in his Irrawaddy gun yacht. Mr. Rivers Thompson, who had welcomed us to Rangoon, was now replaced by Mr. Aitcheson, late foreign secretary to the government of India. Like his predecessor, I am thankful to say he is a noble and enlightened Christian, and one who, to myself, has ever been a most kind and faithful friend.

This junction of the Bishop and Chief Commissioner proved most opportune. A church for the station had already been subscribed for, all the necessary funds collected, and a site secured. It was therefore arranged that advantage should be taken of the presence of the Chief Commissioner to lay the foundation-stone. No proceedings could have been more expeditious. It was surprising to see how stone, trowel, plumb-line, bunting, matting, bamboo-shed, &c., were all prepared within twenty-four hours. Everything passed off well, or as well as Burmese rain would allow. The devotional forms of the ceremony were taken by myself; the laying of the stone by Mr. Aitcheson; speeches from ourselves, the Rev. Dr. Marks, and Major Plant followed. The assembly of ladies and gentlemen then broke up, heartily thankful that a new and happy era had dawned, when Prome might hope to enjoy divine service in a duly consecrated church. We named the proposed church St. Mark's, in honour of our Missionary brother.

Omitting any further details (except that we inspected and examined the Government, and Girls' Ladies' Association Schools and enjoyed two very largely attended services, on Sunday, in the former building), let me now conduct my readers along the stream of the Irrawaddy southward, as we accompanied the Chief Commissioner, by invitation, to visit the river stations. On the right bank we soon came to a spot where the rocks were excavated in clefts and niches for a variety of images of Bhudda; many of which, having been just regilded, shone in the sun most lustrously. It was an attractive, but sad exhibition; and yet, perhaps, not more sad than those images of Christ and the Blessed Virgin which one so often sees among the rocks and roadways in Homan Catholic countries. Soon after this we reached a point where the spurs of the Arakan mountains stretch down to the river, and where, evidently, from the whole configuration of the country, the Irrawaddy began to form its present vast delta.

The first station at which we stopped was Myanoung, a place of considerable size, but without any Church work going on in it. Here was an extremely fine cluster of venerable pagodas. In one spot, a small but very ancient pagoda had actually become invisible by the growth of a remarkable tree (of the ficus order), which had so inclosed the whole erection within its trunk that it would have been altogether unrecognisable, had it not been for the usual four dragoned statues placed at its base. In this town we found two English children who were waiting to be presented for holy baptism. After which ceremony we went forward on our journey, and saw a novel spectacle--novel at all events to me, as a stranger in the country. Two Burmese were in a boat ferrying six bullocks across the river; these bullocks, however, were not in the boat, but lashed to its sides and made to swim, three on the right hand, and three on the left, while the men simply paddled for the purpose of steering. It looked extremely curious.

Passing by Henzada, because intending to return thither, we went on to Yangdoon or Nyoungdoon, a large and thriving ports celebrated for its fishing trade. Of this fact we were soon abundantly convinced by the abominable smell of nga-pee, a kind of dried and putrid fish, of which the Burmese are particularly fond; nor by that circumstance alone, for we counted a hundred and twenty large trading vessels anchored along the bank. This place, as might naturally have been expected, was very dirty. It contained a population of nearly 10,000 souls, almost wholly given up to Buddhism. As we-walked through the bazaar, which was large and well supplied with goods, and then went about to other spots of interest, with, the Chief Commissioner and his staff in front, crowds followed us behind, to whom I gave Burmese Christian tracts, while Dr. Marks spoke to them in their own tongue. It reminded me of that saying in the Gospel, "Great multitudes followed Him," in a manner which I could never have otherwise realised. During this visit we entered what is called in Burma a "lay school," i.e., a day school taught by a lay Burman on his own account, and quite independent of any of the Kyoung or monastery schools. I am bound to say that, while boys and girls were here taught side by side, there was excellent order, and fair proficiency both in reading and writing. In this respect Buddhist Burma is far from being an uncivilised country. I was, however, much depressed at the sight of this large population destitute of any Christian school or teacher; inwardly sighing for help that something might speedily be done in it for the kingdom of Christ.

We left Yangdoon at 6 A.M. the next morning for Dony-bhoo, or Danoo-bhyu, a place of special and melancholy interest, from its having been the site of two bloody battles between the Burmese and English in the first Burmese war, and in one of which battles our own forces were defeated. It is now a pleasant, clean-looking town, lying along the river front on the right bank, and containing about 7,000 souls. Here also we distributed tracts and spoke to the people. We also paid a special visit to one of the monastery schools. It became more and more evident to my mind, from these visits to the native schools, that the Burmese have no lack of primary education, and that it only needs the ingrafting of Christian knowledge to improve and to regenerate them. We also inspected in this place an English cemetery, in which the tombs still stand of all those brave men who fell before the Burmese stockades in 1826. Hard by this cemetery is a beautiful pagoda, with a Burmese bell of very excellent texture and tone near to it, quite fit for a cathedral. How I longed to get hold of it for Rangoon!

Having returned to Henzada that evening, which is on the left bank of the river, and spent the night, as usual, on the steam-yacht or gun-boat--where, by the way, I invariably slept in the open air on deck--we sallied forth the next morning with the Chief Commissioner to inspect the public buildings. This town pleased me greatly. Its cleanliness and peaceful ness, its cool shades and open grass meadows, reminded me more of England than any other place had done in British Burma. The bazaar was exceptionally fine, from the rental of which the municipality is enabled to keep the whole town in excellent order. Henzada has a considerable population, and possesses two very elegant pagodas. Here, too, I am thankful to say, we have a first-rate S.P.G. Mission school, superintended by a capital Burmese Christian master. It was established some years ago through the Missionary zeal of Dr. Marks. I examined it with much satisfaction, and felt truly grateful to God that at least one place along the banks of the Irrawaddy was possessed of a Church of England witness to the Gospel of Christ. Beside this, there is a good Karen school belonging to the American Mission.

On board the vessel once more for our evening's rest, after a Friday evening's service in the circuit house, two things struck me as worthy of note. In the first place, a young leopard was brought to us, tame and playful as a kitten, with the offer that any of us might take it home if we pleased. No one, however, seemed disposed to accept the gift, interesting as it might appear to return with a domesticated beast of the forest. In the next place, we had placed on the table for dinner what my friends in England would take as a Baron Munchausen's tale if I were not to assure them of its truth, viz., prawns seven inches in length, and one and a quarter in thickness. Such is one among the products of a river which can produce alligators likewise.

The next day was Sunday, when we had Morning Prayer with Holy Communion and sermon at 7.30, and Evening Prayer with sermon at 6, both services being held in the circuit house. Perhaps nothing can better show the changing character of society in British Burma than the circumstance that on this day I breakfasted with one gentleman (Major Prendergast), and dined with another (Mr. McCrea), whom within a a few months after I found in different stations--the one at Thayetmyo, and the other in Maulmain.

I left Henzada for Pantanau, situated on what is called the Panglang Creek, celebrated, like the Yandoon and Bassein Creeks, for its terrific mosquitoes. How shall I describe them? I could well write an essay on the subject. It is no exaggeration to say that when we sat down to dinner on board the vessel they new about our faces in perfect clouds, which nothing but punkah-pulling mitigated. On proceeding next morning up one of the creeks for Bassein, our steamer ran aground, twisting lengthwise between bank and bank, from which predicament it was no easy matter to get extricated. At length we came to Wy-oung-nya. Here, again, we visited some interesting pagodas, and another of the Kyoung schools. In a few hours afterwards we anchored off Bassein.

The reception of the Chief Commissioner at this place was unexpectedly gay. We were first greeted with a salute of thirteen guns, then with Burmese racing galleys, pulled by thirty oars each, amidst the greatest shoutings and merriment. On going ashore afterwards police lined the streets, fags were flying in all directions, and other signs of welcome manifested themselves. Then came all sorts of private hospitalities and kindnesses. It was, however, by no means altogether play; for there seemed to be an inspection of everything, from the Government and Roman Catholic schools to the Karen schools of the American Missionaries, of which last I cannot but speak in the highest terms. Nor to myself was the Sunday work by any means light work. Dr. Marks had by this time returned to Rangoon, so that I was all alone with two full services and Holy Communion, baptisms, and funerals, and in weather which was terribly scorching. This may surprise some persons when they remember it was the rainy season; but they must be informed that at times there are what we term "breaks" in the monsoon weather, when the damp heat and solar glare are unusually severe. Such was the case now. The next morning I had the pleasure of going over a large rice mill, employing six hundred men, with steam, machinery of great power, and thus saw a little into one of the secret springs of Burman prosperity. The same day we went down to Cape Negrais, at the mouth of the Bassein river, where I landed, and had a pleasant walk on a sandy beach, and, for the first time in Burma, stood upon rocks, while the sea waves rippled round my feet.

By July 11th I reached Rangoon in safety, full of gratitude to God that my dear children were as well as usual.

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