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
Classes for Bible study--Journey to Toungoo--The Sittang River and its sights--Description of the Karens--Their religious beliefs--Their first conversion by the American Baptist Missionaries--The S.P.G. Mission--Its location--Work to be done--Karen Confirmation--Consecration of Mission Church--Ordination of four Karen Deacons--Burmese Confirmation--English and Tamil Confirmation--Entertainments and festivities--Elephants in Toungoo--Anecdotes of elephants--Final work at St. Paul's Mission--Publication of a Karen Prayer Book.
AMONG other duties which St. Paul prescribed to Titus as Bishop of Crete, he reminded him of "holding fast the faithful word," that he might "be able to exhort." This I endeavoured to do, not only in the pulpit, but in private. On Tuesday mornings I made it a rule to give Bible instruction to the senior class of Christian boys in St. John's College. On Saturday mornings another meeting was now held with those who were preparing for priests' and deacons' orders, which I called my "Theological Training Class." This class was a great source of interest and encouragement. It was, moreover, the realisation of one of my fondest hopes in coming out to the diocese. The formation of a native ministry had always been my desire, as the only true foundation of any successful Mission. Englishmen, who require at least two years' residence in the country before they can speak its language, and much longer before they can preach fluently, and who are constantly liable to be displaced by furloughs and sick leaves, can never really consolidate a native Church. I felt, therefore, called to my office under a solemn sense of responsibility to establish a native ministry as quickly as possible; and I found, in this class, a very useful element for its promotion. As a means, too, of further influences for good, I commenced Bible readings in my own house for any of the residents in Rangoon who might care to join them. These were held on Saturday afternoons, and were as successful in numbers as they were profitable and delightful to all who united with us.
All these meetings were, however, at this time to be suspended in consequence of a journey which I had to take to Toungoo, where I had to consecrate a Mission church, and ordain four Karen teachers, who had been already duly examined and admitted as candidates for holy orders. This journey is ordinarily very tedious, having to be taken in a native boat under scorching suns or heavy rains, traversing 300 miles and requiring fifteen days. On the present occasion, however through the kindness of J. Darwood, Esq., I was invited, with two of my daughters, to accompany him thither in his steam launch; by which means we accomplished the journey in four days, and arrived at our place of destination with ease and comfort.
The journey from Rangoon commences by turning first up the Pegu river, and from thence through a newly constructed canal into the Sittang river. The passage through this canal was tiresome. But where every sight is new, what can be uninteresting? Burmese life was exemplified in its slowness and laziness at the lock gates with special peculiarities, yet compensated for afterwards by the beauty of the Sittang river. Not so vast as the Irrawaddy, but more varied, and with more pleasing scenery, this river presents many attractions. Hills are seen by the traveller through a stretch of 150 miles, varying in height from 3,000 to 6,000 feet. Shwaygeen, a small town which stands about half way between Rangoon and Toungoo, nestles in the lap of these beautiful hills, and is a picture of quiet beauty. The banks of this river also furnish many interesting objects. Here we saw herds of buffaloes standing up to their chins in soft mud as a protection from the tormenting mosquitoes; blue and silver spangled kingfishers, darting from the bushes into the water; huge grass, well named "elephant grass," fifteen feet high; gardens of plantain trees covering two miles or more of river frontage, while, at every village which we passed, men, women, and children came crowding down to the water's edge to indulge their looks of curiosity.
Besides which, we were deeply interested in the large number of teak logs, formed into rafts, which were floating down the river on their way to the timber yards of Rangoon. This timber is felled in the forests of Upper Burma, and then made into rafts, on which bamboo huts are afterwards erected for the Karens to live in who have charge of their conveyance. It seemed to be a procession which would never end.
On landing at Toungoo we were kindly met by the chaplain (the Rev. A. G. A. Robarts) and the Rev. T. W. Windley, S.P.G. Missionary. They both gave us a hearty welcome, and then conducted us to the house of Major Strover, who most kindly and hospitably entertained us during our residence in this Karen country.
Before proceeding further in my narrative, it may be well to say a few words about these Karens, who, next to the Burmese, are the chief people in our British territory.
The Karens consist of a variety of tribes or clans, some of whom speak different languages or dialects. They are small in stature, yet tolerably well proportioned, and, contrary to general experience, those who live upon the mountains are less muscular than those inhabiting the lowlands. Like the Burmese, they are evidently of Turanian origin. Speaking of them, generally they are a dirty people. They never use soap, and their skins are enamelled with dirt. When they bathe it is only for the purpose of cooling, not of washing themselves. Indeed, when water is thrown upon them, it rolls off their bodies as globules of quicksilver would run off a marble slab.
The names of these people are generally derived from circumstances attending their birth. One child, for instance, will be called "Harvest," because born in the harvest season. Another will be called "Father-returned," because his father returned from a journey when he was born. One is called "Joy," another "Hope," a third "Sunrise," a fourth "Full moon," and so on in endless variety. It would be impossible to relate here the interesting facts which might be given concerning their habits and customs, their dwellings and superstitions; all this would require a book of itself. One or two words, however, about their general belief in spirits cannot be overlooked.
To these Karens the spirit world is a great reality. The earth is more thickly peopled with spirits in their imagination than it is with men and women. Every one has a guardian spirit walking by his side. The spirits of his ancestors are also round about him; besides which, every important object in nature is the abode of spirits. Moreover, all these spirits are supposed to possess power over disease, life, and death. Thus they are objects of reverence and fear, and the occasions on which offerings have to be made to them are interminable. They believe also in giants, omens, soothsayings, and necromancings. As to the future world, it is supposed to be a direct counterpart to this, and is located under the earth. When the sun sets here it rises there. But the most singular fact is, that some of their traditions agree with the early narratives of our own Scripture, excepting the names of persons contained in them. One of these traditions says that, in the days of Pan-dan-man, the people determined to build a pagoda which should reach up to heaven. When the pagoda was about half way up, God came down and confounded their language so that they could not understand one another. Then the people scattered, and Than-mau-rai, the father of the Gaikho tribe, to whom this tradition belongs, came west, with eight chiefs, and settled in the valley of the Sittang.
The first great Missionary successes among this primitive and simple-hearted people were achieved by the American Baptists, through the labours of whom, large numbers were brought into the Christian faith. In the course of time, however, a schism arose upon matters to which no allusion need be made in these pages, leading to the complete severance of a great number of Karens from that body. Those who have read the life of the late Dr. Mason will perhaps remember the circumstances. Being then without any regular Missionary supervision, the Bishop of Calcutta (Bishop Milman) and the S.P.G. were earnestly entreated to take charge of these wandering sheep. Great hesitation, reluctance, and delay were shown in accepting this request, inasmuch as the Church of England naturally felt an honourable disinclination to "enter into other men's labours." Nor was it until many of them were found drifting back into heathenism, and others going over to the Roman Catholic Church, that final consent was given. Since then, I am thankful to say, we have not only consolidated the scattered fragments of these Karen Christians, but have commenced an effective Mission of our own; the vitality of which may be measured by the fact that, within the last twelve months, it raised in offertory alms, out of its semi-civilised poverty, the sum of 1,000 rupees.
The Rev. T. W. Windley, who has charge of this Mission, extending over a large tract of hill country, has fixed its site, together with his own place of residence, on the native side of the river Sittang, opposite to the town of Toungoo, in order that, by removal from immediate contact with English society, he may be more wholly devoted to his work, and gain greater influence over the converts. I am afraid that this devotion to his work is at the risk of his own health, for the site is low and swampy during the rains, and is only reached from Toungoo by a ferry-boat which is poled across the water. These crossings backwards and forwards under burning suns at all hours of the day, and often three times in the same day, with the addition of a quarter of a mile walk to the Mission station, at any rate, greatly added to my own fatigue during the visit; yet I felt so happy, and was so much carried out of myself in my work, that I always found strength day by day for my appointed tasks. Unfortunately the weather, through a cessation of the rains, had become intensely hot, and the mosquitoes were exceptionally troublesome. Setting to work at once, however, I went on the afternoon of our arrival to examine the S.P.G. school. The boys were dressed in their best, and looked charmingly gay; but better still, they were remarkably well instructed. J. Kristna, the head master, an ex-pupil of St. John's College, Rangoon, and a son in the faith of the Rev. Dr. Marks, I found to be an enlightened Christian, and a most valuable teacher, energetic as au Englishman, and loved by all his pupils. Early the next morning I crossed the river to have an interview with the Karen teachers, who were candidates for holy orders. Mr. Windley and Mr. Jones acted, of course, as my interpreters. These Karens showed themselves thoroughly in earnest. One of them indeed, after a conversation with them in which I had strongly enforced the solemn responsibilities they were about to undertake, said he did not think he was fit to be ordained; but eventually they all took the oaths of canonical obedience, and joined with me in prayer for the Divine blessing. I then went to examine the church which was to be consecrated; for a noble grant to wards which we are indebted to the Christian Knowledge Society. The building is spacious and a good one, and is now called St. Paul's. I could not but rejoice at such a permanent accession of strength to the Mission.
The following day we began work with the Confirmation of fifty-nine Karens, both men and women, the behaviour of whom was as orderly and devout as any one could have desired. What a change! Twenty-five years ago these people were perpetually quarrelling with one another, burning down each other's villages in night-marauding expeditions. In the afternoon the consecration service of the Church was held, attended by English residents from Toungoo, as well as by a crowd of Karen villagers, many of whom had travelled two days' journey from the adjacent mountains in order to be present.
On September 8th, being Sunday, I was privileged to ordain my four Karen deacons. The service was long and exhausting; but one to be ever remembered, both from its novelty and blessedness. The sermon was preached in the Karen tongue by Mr. Windley. Some parts read by myself were interpreted. When laying my hands on the deacons' heads, however, I managed to repeat the appointed words in their own language, and was subsequently told that the Karen congregation quite understood what I was saying. At the celebration of the Holy Communion, which immediately succeeded this, we had upwards of 100 Karen communicants. The entire service was solemnly impressive; so much so, that the people afterwards informed Mr. Windley they had never before understood the real grandeur of the Church of England liturgy. The evening presented a different scene; for I had to preach to a crowded congregation in the Cantonment Church on the other side of the river.
Next morning I crossed the river again, in order to hold a second Confirmation in St. Paul's. This was for some of the Karens who had arrived from their mountain homes too late for the service of the previous day; and also for the Burmese converts, who had before been purposely excluded. In the evening of the same day there followed a third Confirmation for the English and Tamil converts, in the Cantonment Church.
The following day's work was somewhat different. I went with the chaplain to the military hospital, and assisted him in the service. Afterwards, we distributed prizes in the S.P.G. schools. In the evening, an entertainment was given to the visitors and inhabitants, when a play, expressly composed for the occasion, was acted by the boys; and the whole concluded by a display of fireworks. I may add that, between this prize-giving and entertainment, I had also to take a service and to preach in a military Mission room, at the request of one of the officers (Captain Churchill). Such was the quick and crowded succession of work provided for the Bishop, whose strength was supposed to be corked up within an inexhaustible bottle. But all this while how shall I speak of our social life? It so happened, by a curious coincidence, that the Chief Commissioner was again my companion in an "up-country" visitation. Festivities, as far as they could be crowded in, were the order of the day. Dinners and breakfasts, when otherwise quite tired out, fairly exhausted me, and nightly sent me to bed like a squeezed sponge. The truth is, poor Toungoo lies so completely outside the rest of Burma, and so seldom receives such an accession of visitors as it was then having, that it went almost wild with excitement, and smothered us with hospitalities.
Thursday, the 12th of September, our last entire day in the place, was commenced by myself and youngest daughter with an early morning ride round the town on an elephant. Elephants are quite an institution in Toungoo. The military authorities employ from sixty to seventy, not only for commissariat purposes, but for serving what is called a "mountain battery." It is a splendid sight to see the way in which these noble animals move the guns and obey military orders on the parade-ground.
While speaking of elephants it may not be uninteresting to my readers if I give them two anecdotes, which will illustrate their strength and sagacity.
On one occasion in Toungoo, after a hard day's labour, during which an elephant had been moving logs of timber, the yard bell rang for ceasing work. It happened, however, that one immense log of timber remained, and it being thought desirable to have all cleared away before morning, this elephant was set to remove it. The animal offered no resistance, yet found, alas, that with all his pulling and straining, the weight was too much for him. Seeing this, the manager of the yard brought a second elephant to assist in the work; yet strange to say, the two unitedly could do nothing; their trunks twisted and their limbs strained, but all in vain! Thus the work ended for the night-What was the surprise next morning when, upon the bell ringing for work, the first elephant moved the log by himself as easily as a child would have moved a stool! So clear was it that these sagacious brutes had determined the night before, by some sort of mutual and secret compact, that they would do no work for their masters after work hours were over!
I am not sure, however, that my next story is not a better one. It has to do with a Rangoon elephant employed at Dalla. The owners of this fine brute desired on one occasion to get him upon a raft, that he might be transferred to the Rangoon side of the river. But his quadruped lordship did not seem to be quite in the mood for that sort of thing, and totally refused to have anything to do with this raft. Efforts of every kind were in vain. At length some one wiser than the rest proposed that the raft should be removed and the elephant secured to a steam launch by means of a strong cable, in order that he might be made to swim after the vessel to the side of the river designed for him. His majesty had no objection to the swimming part of the business, and therefore willingly allowed himself to be drawn into the water. But, to the infinite surprise and merriment of all the spectators, he had no sooner got fairly into the water, after tamely following the steam launch a little way, than he suddenly turned round, and swimming in the opposite direction, had strength enough to drag the vessel back with him, landing the whole party just where they had been at first, the "monarch of all he surveyed."
But now let me return to my own elephant ride in Toungoo which led me to the ferry-boat and to St. Paul's Mission. I went thither for the purpose of joining the clergy and Mission friends in our last Holy Communion, when I gave these faithful and devoted men a farewell address, and instituted two sub-deacons. Breakfast followed; after which a private devotional conference. And so my Mission work in Toungoo ended; the only remaining duty being to inspect the cemetery and write in the Church Record book an account of my first episcopal visitation among the Karens.
I should not conclude without adding that a full translation of the Prayer Book into Karenese had, at this time, been accomplished, and was being printed in Rangoon at the expense of the S.P.C.K. of London. The publication of this work will be most valuable, and reflects great credit on Mr. Windley.