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
New Year temperature---New Year's greeting from our Christian Tamils--Horticultural Show--Burmese Pouays--Public sale of needlework--One hour's worries--Financial affairs of our Missions--Changes of chaplains--Another Missionary ordination.
WHAT a wonderfully equable temperature is upon the whole preserved in this country! The New Year commenced with the thermometer at 90° in the shade during midday, and 78° up to 11 P.M.; dust on the roads as in an English August; harvesting in the rice-fields; cricket matches and open-air evening parties--all these pleasant things, instead of chilblains, frostbites, and the untold miseries of bitter thaws, abundantly compensated for mosquitoes and exile from home.
January 1st, 1879, will long be remembered. Sitting in my verandah about 4 P.M., I heard the sound of a violin, accompanied by singing, at our compound gate. Presently a long line of Tamils--men, women, and children--advanced toward the house, with weird and wild-sounding hymns, to give their Bishop a New Year's greeting. On ascending the verandah, they all filed along the front rails in silence, and, when stationed in proper order, again broke out into a series of hymns with violin accompaniment. This clone, they handed myself and daughters bouquets of flowers, and proceeded to read me a written address, which was composed in very good English, thanking me for the interest that I had taken, in their spiritual welfare, and invoking every blessing upon myself, family, and diocese. This was read by their deacon, Abishekanathan. I replied in affectionate and grateful terms. At the conclusion of my brief reply the women then came forward and showered over me broken sprigs of flowers, which they had reserved as a final mark of attention, performing the same ceremony also on my daughters, until at length the verandah floor was literally covered with flowers. After this friendly greeting we all knelt down and asked the Divine blessing. I then distributed sweetmeats to the children, in return for a cake which they deposited on the table, shook hands with them one by one, and bade them a hearty farewell. It need scarcely be added that, on leaving, the violin was once more brought into requisition, with resumed procession and hymn-singing. In this manner these simple-hearted people retired, under a pleasing conviction that their offices of Christian love had been duly and solemnly exercised.
No one must think of us in Rangoon as without our out-door amusements. Every Monday and Friday evening a fine regimental band plays before a large assembly of carriage-visitors in our lovely Cantonment Gardens. This month also we enjoyed a horti-agricultural show in Phayre Gardens--wonderfully reminding me of similar gatherings in England. The military band, the tents, the stalls of fruits and vegetables, with the names of exhibitors and prizes marking those competitors who had proved successful--all showed a counterpart to our own.
Another open-air entertainment was held in Dalhousie Park, on the edge of our royal lakes, when the boarders of St. John's College had what is called a treat, kindly furnished them by G. Dawson, Esq. On this occasion a Burmese play, or Pouay was acted for the enjoyment of the young ones. These pouays are one of the greatest characteristics of the Burmese, exciting them to the most passionate degree of earnestness, one play often lasting for ten or twelve nights in succession. For this acting there is no theatre or stage--nothing but a large tent, and even that is dispensed with when it takes place at night. Nor is there any stage scenery. The simple appliances are a pole or young tree fixed in the centre of a piece of ground marked out for the actors, with a box or two for changes of dress, and which serve for resting-places when the performance may require it. Nor is there even necessarily a dressing-room for the players. On the present occasion, for instance, every slight change of dress was effected, on retirement from a particular scene, by simply turning to the rear; all readjustments being made while sitting upon the ground. Indeed, it was uncommonly pretty to see the naïveté and nonchalance with which the prima donna and other Burmese girls retired, powdering their faces and examining themselves in the looking-glass as if no one had been present. The acting, in the short piece now performed, was excessively comic, eliciting roars of laughter from the children and visitors who knew the language well enough to understand the jokes. The plot in these pouays is almost always about princes and princesses, with love, jealousies, quarrels, reconciliations, and dangerous positions of every sort. As for the dancing, which is an invariable part of these Burmese plays, it is a strange mixture of awkwardness and elegance. The dress of the women, fitting almost close to the feet, leaves no room for any counterpart to our European ballet; but the contortions of the arms, hands, and neck, and the subtle movements of their whole bodies, present features of great novelty. I was much struck with the extempore talent of these Burmese actors, who improvised with a prodigality of native wit, and some of whom had a power of facial expression which it would be impossible to exceed. All this served me with considerable matter for reflection, since it appeared to exhibit the germ of the drama as it must have existed in the prehistoric periods of mankind.
A totally different, yet by no means uninteresting open-air scene, about this period also presented itself in the grounds of Colonel and Mrs. Horace Browne, where we had a "Sale of Work," for the benefit of the S. P.G. Ladies' Association, being the proceeds of a large box made up by kind-hearted English ladies. Several of these boxes are annually sent out to the different stations in Burma where the Ladies' Association schools are working. Most generous and valuable gifts they are. On this occasion, the afternoon being cool, it was a time both of financial profit and of social enjoyment. The stalls were amply stocked; the sales were sufficiently prosperous; and the well-dressed ladies serving ices and refreshments were very duly honoured by attentions. We only wished our English sisters at home could have peeped in upon us to witness the satisfaction which their liberality afforded. It must not be thought, however, from these pleasant reminiscences, that every-day life was all gold and glitter. Let me give a single entry, per contra, from my rough diary, of one hour's proceedings.
"This morning Mrs. S------came with a peck of troubles about her school at------. All this needs to be settled. Mrs. S------ had no sooner gone than Bernard brings the A------catechist, telling me that his house has been burnt down, the which burnt an immediate hole also in my own pocket. No sooner had he gone away than Daniel, my butler, appeared to inform me of white ants having got into my new cocoa-nut matting on the verandah staircase. And--oh!--the sight thereof!" Such was the lively variety of incidents in one hour of my morning's life on February 17th, 1879.
Let us now turn to a graver subject--one which cost me infinite trouble, which turned me into a treasurer for the monetary affairs of the whole of our diocesan Missions, and which, added to other labours, taxed my time and energies to the utmost. Before entering into the diocese, and during the greater part of my first year's residence in it, all the funds spent upon our Burman Missions had been administered by the S.P.G. Committee. Toward the end of 1878 this state of things, however, came under discussion, both the Calcutta and the Home Committees being of opinion that the time had arrived when, as Bishop of Rangoon, I should accept the responsibility of forming a separate organisation for Burma, and of administering the funds allotted to it by the parent Society quite independently of the Calcutta Committee, To this I cheerfully assented, feeling both its importance and its reasonableness. Accordingly a local committee, or council, was formed, with myself and another gentleman as joint treasurers. I ventured to press the appointment of myself in conjunction with a lay treasurer because I had learned, by past experience, how often such officers change, and how extremely important it might possibly become for the Bishop to get all the accounts of his diocese at his fingers' ends, in view of his being suddenly left without a helper. And well was it that we made that prudent arrangement; for the month was scarcely ended before circumstances obliged my coadjutor to retire, if not from his office, at least from all practical work. Thus I was left alone, and a very arduous and complicated routine of official duty ensued, extending over all the Missionaries, catechists, schoolmasters, and schoolmistresses of our Missions, and involving the charge of banking accounts, cash-books, and ledgers, to an extent which was far more necessary than agreeable.
The early spring of this year made considerable changes among our chaplains. Mr. Taylor left Rangoon to relieve Mr. Warneford at Port Blair. The Rev. G. C. Moore, of Calcutta, arrived to take the place of Mr. Taylor. Mr. Pearson, of the Cantonment Church., shortly afterwards went to Japan on privilege leave, while Mr. Robarts, of Toungoo, took his post in Rangoon. These perpetual changes are very detrimental to true Church progress. More or less they mark the whole of our Indian life, but in Burma it is exceptionally the case, arising from the fact that our present staff of chaplains belongs to the late diocese of Calcutta. The chaplains are therefore at liberty to return to their old presidency. The truth is, we are at present in a transition state; nor will it be remedied until new chaplains can be allotted to us from England, who will come pledged to remain in Burma during their whole term of office. At this time we had only secured one of these, viz., the Rev. C. H. Chard, the new chaplain of Thayetmyo; and in the mysterious providence of Cod, this good man was shortly afterwards laid low with small pox. He had to take furlough and leave for England; his place being supplied by the Rev. J. Sandys from Bengal.
In the midst of such fluctuations among our chaplains, however, it gave me great comfort to feel that our Missionary work was going forward with more steady and advancing stops. The Mission in Toungoo now furnished me with three more candidates for ordination. These consisted of W. E. Jones, Esq., J. Kristna, and another Karen teacher, named Martway, all of whom came down by boat journey to be examined and admitted into the holy office of deacon. The nett result to our Mission field has been, that whereas when I arrived in the country, it numbered only four ordained Missionaries, I left it in August with twelve. To God be all the glory!