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
Mandalay--Character of the late king--Formation of the S.P.G. Mission--The late king's death and its consequences--Theebau declared successor to the throne--His atrocities--Their effect in Upper Burma--General excitement--Escape of native princes to the S.P.G. Mission--Mr. Colheck's clever transfer of them to the British Residency--Conversion of two Burmese ladies--Breaking up of the Mission.
MANDALAY, the capital of Upper Burma, which has lately become only too conspicuous in our English newspapers, has been already mentioned in connection with the Rev. J. A. Colbeck. It is a large city on the Irrawaddy, and contains over 120,000 inhabitants. I can give no description of it as an eye-witness, not having visited the place. It is, however, built in the shape of a square, consisting almost entirely of bamboo houses, with the royal palace in its centre--fit for a semi-barbarous monarch, who claims a host of fantastic and exaggerated titles, and who gives audience to no one unless he creep barefooted into his presence.
As every one now knows, great and painful changes have taken place in this city within the last year, changes of which I cannot but here speak. When I arrived in British Burma, Mandalay was governed by the late king; one of those mild, yet capricious despots, who shower down untold favours upon those from whom they think any advantages are to be gained, but who stop them the instant they find their hopes disappointed. This was exemplified in our S.P.G. Mission, which was commenced in 1867 on the express invitation of his Majesty. He not only built at his own cost large day and boarding schools, but even a handsome church and clergy house. At that time the Rev. J. E. Marks had charge of the Mission; for whom the king had contracted a singular friendship. There can, however, be no manner of doubt that in all this his object was simply political. Dr. Marks, indeed, has frequently told me of the adroit manner in which he had sometimes to extricate himself from positions of difficulty when the king endeavoured to make a tool of him for political purposes. At length the spell was broken. Dr. Marks was removed by the S.F.G. from Mandalay. The king then gradually lost interest in our work, and ended by ceasing to give it the least countenance or support.
He died in the autumn of 1878, when those changes commenced which have, for the present, robbed us of our Mission altogether. How were they brought about? I will explain.
In former times, the death of a Burmese king had been a general signal for the outburst of sanguinary conflicts. On this occasion, when the king died, we flattered ourselves in Rangoon that such times had passed away; for the king's ministers seemed to be using unaccustomed caution in maintaining peace. It was announced that the dying monarch had constituted the young prince "Theebau" his successor, and for a short time everything went on quietly. We were congratulating ourselves the more upon this, because Prince Theebau had been educated in Dr. Marks's school at Mandalay, and was therefore supposed to have received some English ideas, even with a possible substratum of modern civilisation. Alas, the vanity of human expectations! First there came an indistinct bazaar report throughout Rangoon, telling us that bad news was coming from Mandalay. Then followed tidings from Burmese merchants, saying that murders of many members of the royal family were secretly going on within the palace. At last all secrecy vanished, and the telegraph and newspapers openly announced a series of cruel assassinations which could scarcely be paralleled in the history of the Bulgarian atrocities. I shall not contaminate these pages by detailing them. Suffice it to say that in one way or another, men, women, and children, to the number of seventy, are on good grounds believed to have perished. Meanwhile this silly, self-inflated prince, more like a maniac than a man, had taken to the use of a spear, which he hurled at any one who offended him; and this was accompanied, as might well be imagined, by violent fits of intoxication. Could any state of things be more horrible? Mandalay was struck dumb with terror. Refugees came pouring along the river, scarcely knowing whose life would be secure. Even the English residents of the city felt extremely uncomfortable; for where you have to deal with a maddened young tiger such as this, surrounded by emissaries ready to do his bidding at any cost, one might naturally ask, "Whose turn will come next?"
The excitement was increased by a spirit of sullen, if not open, hostility to British interests, in consequence of expressions officially made by our Government to the young king respecting these massacres. Boasting threats were heard about the recovery of Pegu; Englishmen were publicly insulted in the streets of Mandalay; Burmese troops were drilled and armed as if for war; while seditious songs were sung about the streets of Rangoon by noisy Upper Burmans, who had apparently come down to excite disturbance. Under these circumstances, a guard of fifty sepoys was sent to the British Residency in Mandalay, between which place and the king's palace all communications had become closed. Again, several new regiments from Calcutta and Madras were stationed in Rangoon and Thayetmyo. Trade between Upper and British Burma became paralysed. Two chief princes of the royal family, also, who had fortunately escaped from the jaws of death, were now under the pledged protection of our Government. Even rumours spread about Rangoon itself that the place would be fired; the local newspapers also hinted, rather foolishly, at the possible necessity of the ladies having to be provided with a place of safety inside the pagoda fortifications. Thus many nervous friends in England feared that we were in danger of our very lives.
All this time it was refreshing to see the calm self-reliance and imperturbability of our English residents, including even the ladies, who, while their friends at home were so apprehensive, themselves remained perfectly undismayed. Still more admirable was the behaviour of Mv. Col beck, our devoted Mis sionary, in the chief centre of this excitement. For to his heroic conduct alone may be traced the saving of several important lives, seeing that it was to him the Nyoung Yan prince and his brother fled, together with their wives and children. At first these refugees were placed in the English church as a sanctuary. It soon, however, became transparent that if their lives were to be secured they must by some means or other be transferred to the British Residency. No easy business! For the way was dogged by Burmese soldiers, who were disguised as monks and coolies, having orders to capture the Nyoung Yan prince either dead or alive. Mr. Colbeck, however, was quite equal to the emergency. He dressed the princes as Madrassi servants, and bade them carry a lantern before him one dark night. He then disguised the Nyoung Yan's chief wife as a jewel merchant. The ruse succeeded. They reached the Residency safely. Moreover, when it was known that these important persons had eluded their watchers, the vigilance of the spy system became relaxed; the rest of the family with their retainers all getting over safely by ones and twos. Shortly after this they were sent by steamer to Rangoon, where I much enjoyed two interviews with them. Subsequently they were removed for still greater safety to Calcutta. I should add that this Nyoung Yan has, in the judgment of many, by reason of his birth and parentage, a far greater right to the throne than Theebau; and that, from his general popularity among the Burmese, he is not by any means unlikely one day to obtain it. The time may come indeed--and, in the opinion of most people, the sooner the better--when the British Government will see its way to set the Nyoung Yan prince upon the throne in place of King Theehau, establishing a treaty with him for the more permanent pacification of the country.
A communication made to me by Mr. Colbeck some time after this, respecting his Mission work in the capital, will show that he was not only a preserver of human lives, but a diligent overseer of souls. He says, "Last Sunday two adults made their profession of faith. They were the stewardess of the Nyoung Yan prince's sister, and one of the maids of honour of the Nyoung Yan's mother. God willing, we shall baptise them next Sunday. One of these ladies is quite a child in knowledge, but receives with meekness the Word of God. She has been in the palace from her infancy, without once having left it till now. She is seventeen years of age, and first came to me as I was sitting in the vestry of the church some months ago, begging me to help her mistress, the Nyoung Yan's mother, who was being barbarously treated. The other lady is a clever, intelligent woman of about twenty-three. She has had a hard struggle to give up her Bhuddist idols, and perhaps, what is more to her, hopes of earthly grandeur. I have not the least doubt that both these ladies possess an intelligent and real desire to embrace Christianity. The elder groans in spirit that she is not able to go and tell the good news to her young mistress. If the members of Caesar's household--the future Caesar of Burma, as we believe--thus embrace the truth, may we not hope in due time that Caesar himself will bow to Christ? The thought overpowers me. A nation might be born in a day. You will not wonder if, in the midst of such blessings, I greatly shun the idea of leaving Mandalay."
Such were his concluding words. Nevertheless, within a few months the British Residency had been withdrawn, the Mission broken up, the English Clergy House turned into a residence for Buddhist monks, and the church is reported to have been converted into a State Lottery Office! How inscrutable are the ways of God's providence! "How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out:!"