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
Prevention of visit to Tavoy and Mergui--Voyage to Akyab--Description of the place--Products of Arukan--Total lack of Missions--The N. Arakan Hill tribes--Some of their laws and religious customs--Encouragement to form a Church Mission among them--Church matters in Akyab--Dreadful fire in the town--Results of the calamity--Return to Rangoon.
THOSE who study the map of Burma will see two places marked toward the south of Tenasserim, named Tavoy and Mergui. They are lovely spots, and containing English residents in connection with Government service, demanded visitation on the part both of Chief Commissioner and Bishop. By kind invitation from the former I was to accompany him thither, with one of my daughters, in a Government steamer. Man proposes, however, and God disposes; for just as we were beginning to make our arrangements to depart, the Chief Commissioner received an intimation from head-quarters in India, saying that owing to the complications at Mandalay, it would be wiser for him to postpone his visit. It was a great disappointment, and in the light of subsequent events, irreparable; for by missing that opportunity, I found no other, and was at last suddenly torn from my diocese without ever having had the means of doing my duty to those places.
There was but one other station of great importance which required my care, and to that I immediately turned attention. This was Akyab in Arakan, between which and Rangoon the communication is regular and easy. The distance, about 500 miles, was traversed in two days and a half, during the northeast monsoon, when the weather was everything that could be desired. During this voyage we saw turtles lying in the sea, full of lazy enjoyment. We coasted, also, the Krishna shoal, from which, only a few years ago, a lighthouse suddenly disappeared in a heavy gale, and was afterwards no more heard of. We likewise passed two islands celebrated for their mineral oil wells, not far from Akyab itself; and at length came to anchor in the bay about 7 A.M. Here I was courteously received by J. G. S. Hodgkinson, Esq., Commissioner of Arakan, who entertained me during my week's sojourn, and afforded me every facility for the accomplishment of my visitation. Here too I found Major and Mrs. Plant, and made several other delightful acquaintances, of whom British Burma is so full.
Akyab is a charming place, situated at the mouth of the river Koladyne, which, rising in the far north, flows through 200 miles of British territory. This river is in its upper parts extremely picturesque, having little hamlets dotted here and there on the hill tops overlooking its banks, while in its southern course it is open to large boats for 140 miles. Immediately opposite to Akyab stands Savage Island, on which is a fine lighthouse. It is a most romantic spot, and one which, to myself, will be ever pleasant in retrospection from the remembrance of a delightful morning picnic under the hospitable superintendence of Mr. Hodgkinson and Captain and Mrs. Ransom. The English houses in this town, as in Rangoon, are separated from the native dwellings on a higher level. Banian and cassarina trees abound in marvellous luxuriance; I had never seen anything approaching to them in other parts of Burma. There is a place also called "The Point," in this part of Akyab, stretching out into the bay, which forms the favourite evening drive of the inhabitants. It consists of an assemblage of rocks on which is built a Rest-house affording delightful shade. How charming it was to wander about this place, beholding glorious waves dashing in among the rocks, and breathing the breezes of the ocean, I cannot describe. I went to bed each night listening to the roaring of waters upon the beach, dreaming that I was at home again on England's sea-girt shores.
The mountain ranges of Arakan are fine, being covered with forest-trees and bamboo-jungle, and intersected by valleys and mountain streams. The height of the more prominent ranges average from 3,000 to 3,500 feet above the sea level, and the crest of Kyoukpandoung has been registered 4,500 feet. The products and natural resources of the district are also of deep interest. Comprising as it does so much rich valley land, well watered and timbered, and with a soil and vegetable growth of great productiveness, it offers a splendid field for the cultivation of tea and tobacco. The growth of this latter article of trade has, indeed, been already largely developed; as many as 3,500 acres being under cultivation. After tobacco, cotton crops form the next principal item of product. Teak plantations to the extent of 17,000 acres have been also opened by Government. Besides these products, Indian-rubber, beeswax, and ivory, are imported from the transfrontier districts. In some parts of the North Arakan mountains cinnamon trees are also abundant. I may add that indigo is likewise grown; not for exportation, but simply for the dyeing of native cotton cloths, which, in the shape of turbans, sheets, and haversack-bags, find a ready market in the country.
Is it not a pity that with resources so rich as these, there is yet a large amount of soil lying in virgin repose, within the reach of agricultural enterprise, totally unoccupied? Yet is it not sadder still to know, that in this division of the province of British Burma, covering 18,000 square miles, there is not one single Missionary? The American Missions once planted a station in Akyab, but surrendered it; and, at present, there is no witness for Christ among the Arakanese whatsoever. Nor is it the Arakanese alone who are thus neglected. There are mountain tribes on the North Arakan hills which would present us with a new and most interesting field of Christian labour, if the S.P.G., or other friends in England, could only be induced to realise the importance and hopefulness of starting a Church Mission among them. It would be a sphere of labour as interesting to the ethnologist and man of science as to the philanthropist and Missionary.
The names of these tribes are the Khamies, the Mros, the Chyoungthas, the Chaws, and the Khyens or Chins. I have not myself visited any of them, but, by information drawn from the spot, I can attest their characteristics. They are robust, hardy, well-made; and happy, if not intellectual-looking. The Khamies are perhaps best entitled to be called aborigines, and, very singularly, there is a closely linguistic affinity between them and the Karens. All these tribes are of Turanian descent. The Chyoungthas are the only portion of the hill tribes who have any knowledge of reading and writing. The Chins or Khyens are the most widely spread, reaching even to Pegu. They are splendid sportsmen, depending wholly on their bows and arrows for their supply of animal food. To their poisoned arrows even game as large as bison and elephants become victims. This tribe, too, is peculiar in its language, and no less so for the manner in which they tattoo the faces of their women, the neglect of which they regard as a disgrace. The Chaws, likewise, have marks of distinctiveness from the rest of the tribes. They bury their dead instead of burning them. In their hair-dressing, also, they are peculiar; the men knotting their hair at the back and shaving it over their forehead, the women plaiting it in two tails, which are then brought up over their foreheads.
To say that these tribes are not cruel, excitable, and turbulent, would be false; but to say that they are not open to improvement and to amelioration of manners, would be no less so. Major Hughes, the Government superintendent of these tribes, who has spent many years among them, reports that they are generally honest in their dealings, and, as a rule, are truthful; nor are they intemperate. Laws, too, exist among them which show no inconsiderable grasp of moral principle. It is true that their only forms of punishment for wrong-doing are monetary fines; yet their selection of offences and the adjustment of their fines exhibit no little appreciation of what is right as between man and man. Thus murder is punishable by a fine of 600 rupees; homicide, by one of 300 rupees; assault with injury of person, by 100 rupees; theft, with return of the stolen property and thirty rupees forfeit. These, and other laws which I have not space to enter into, surely prove that in spite of the wild and otherwise uncivilised nature of these tribes, they have a basis and backbone of moral sense, and a conception of the rights and duties of social life, which would be most encouraging and hopeful in view of Christian Missionary work among them. The sphere, too, would be one in which no special hindrance could interfere with their receptivity of the truth. Unlike the Hindus they have no priesthood or caste. Unlike the Buddhists they have no sacred books, or order of teachers, venerated by the claims of antiquity. Like the Karens, their religion is simply that of nature worship. Without any clear notion of the Supreme Being, they see in the streams, trees, and woods, mysterious spirits, whose mission it is to watch over them for evil or for good. Hence, to these spirits they look for the relief of their bodily ailments, and at the time of seed-sowing and harvest, no less than in sickness and sorrow, they offer fowls or pigs in sacrifice to them. Their natural religiousness of feeling is also evidenced by their practice of observing long fasts. Thus the Mros fast for forty days on the death of a relative, eating only rice. The Khamies also fast when their paddy crops have ripened, even avoiding fish.
Do not such facts give us reason to hope that the introduction of the Gospel, simply and lovingly taught them, would lift up these children of nature above the all-engrossing cares of their present wants, and prepare them for eternal life? May these few words assist in stirring the hearts of my readers to do what they can toward an object so truly glorious!
But what of Akyab? I regret to say that, not only is there no Missionary work going on in this place, but that since the transference of Mr. Myers to Maulmain, no chaplain has been found to take his post. Nor have I even found one at the time of writing these pages. Nevertheless, the inhabitants have guaranteed 150 rupees monthly, and Government has done the same. There is also a good parsonage, furnished and rent free; and a pretty, well-appointed church, in which I had the pleasure of preaching, baptising, and celebrating Holy Communion. The Government school of this town is a large and effective establishment. I examined it with the greatest satisfaction. A capital hospital, just built, also adds to the importance of the town. It was fortunate that these buildings stood where they do, for during my stay in Akyab, a tremendous conflagration took place, extending within a hundred yards of them. It was no ordinary fire; for it nearly devastated the town, and most certainly the whole of its business quarters. A space, indeed, of half a mile by one in area, was completely levelled. Almost every shop was destroyed, with nine-tenths of the food available for our present necessities. Moreover, several persons were burned to death; while 8,000 lost their homes, as well as all worldly substance. And this within the space of about three hours!
The rapidity of the dreadful conflagration arose from the fact that an exceptionally high gale of wind was blowing from the sea, and that the fire-engine premises were burnt down on the very first outburst of the flames. The main cause, however, of all our native fires is the universal employment of bamboo woodwork and matting for the houses. I need scarcely say that the municipal authorities are endeavouring everywhere to minimise this evil as much as possible; but to get entirely rid of it is beyond their power.
The results of the calamity may be imagined. I find, for instance, in my diary: "March 23--Living to-day without bread. We used our last this morning at Holy Communion, in the 7.30 service. Never was so near famine before." As for the homeless natives, it was pitiable to drive along the roads and behold them sitting in crowds along the ground, looking on their property reduced to heaps of ashes. In our own country such a state of things would have been to the last degree appalling; but in Burma, where the climate is so equably warm that sleeping in the open air is no punishment, the misery of the situation was very much modified. Add to this, the natural impassiveness, and easy nonchalance of native character, which takes almost everything as it comes, and it will be no surprise to my readers when I say that, within thirty-six hours of the accident, hundreds of these sufferers were contentedly busying themselves in various expedients of self-help. Within three days, moreover, our Government authorities had built temporary shelters fox almost all the destitute people.
Such were my final recollections of Akyab, on the morning of the 26th, when I left my friends behind me, and steamed away once more to Rangoon.