Project Canterbury

Forty Years in Burma

By John Ebenezer Marks

London: Hutchinson and Co., 1917.

Chapter VI. Beginning Work in Rangoon

AFTER my Ordination, Bishop Cotton decided that I should go to Rangoon to start a new school there. In the meanwhile, I was to visit Akyab, to hold services there on my way to Rangoon.

At Akyab I was warmly received by the Commissioner, General Ardagh, and during the fortnight that I spent there as his guest I held daily services. Before my departure, a meeting was held under the chairmanship of the Commissioner, and substantial help was given to the new Mission. Some of the principal native officials and merchants begged me to take their sons with me to Rangoon, and I took eight or nine lads, who proved the most troublesome that I have ever had.

Several of them bolted back to Akyab, as they could not endure the separation from their parents and native country and the discipline of a boarding school. I liked Arakanese boys least of all my pupils. But yet one, the least promising of the runaways, afterwards became a trusted and titled officer of Government, and a most loyal, generous and efficient supporter of our Missions, himself being an earnest Christian and lay reader. One of our S.P.G. churches in Upper Burma owes its existence almost entirely to his liberality and exertions. I confess that I felt rebuked when, a few'years ago,..I baptized in his house at Poungde three of his children. "Thou canst not tell whether I shall prosper either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good."

One other incident of my sojourn in Akyab must be mentioned. Some Chins, a hill tribe from the Arakan Yoma mountains, came into the town and sought me one morning. They were very scantily dressed, their hair was knotted over their forehead, and they had to speak by an interpreter. They said: "Several years ago some white teachers told us out of a book of the Great God who rules over all the universe and orders our lives.

They promised to teach us more fully, and we are most anxious to learn. Can you come to our hills and teach us and our children?

We will take all care of you, and give you of our best." I was obliged to decline their invitation, but promised to do what I could to supply them with a teacher. But though I have frequently tried, I have never been able to send them one to instruct them. Yet they are our fellow-subjects, and have been so for more than seventy years. But the Church of England has never been able to do anything for them. Bishop Titcomb, indeed, wrote through Archbishop Tait to the American Church, begging their Bishops to take up the Missions to Arakan. But that Church felt itself unable to comply with this request. Must these hill-people always be neglected? On my arrival in Rangoon my old friends very cordially welcomed me, and gave me the most kind and valuable assistance with regard to the new Mission. Especially was this the case with that noble ruler, Sir Arthur Purvis Phayre, the first Chief Commissioner of British Burma. Under him the three provinces had just been united, and the foundation laid of that prosperity which has ever since been characteristic of Burma.

He was a grand type of the British ruler. He loved the people whom he governed, and they reciprocated his affection. He was a good Christian man, the helper and supporter of every good work. To myself personally he was more than a friend, ever ready with his advice and means to assist in the Mission. The officiating Chaplain, the Rev. John Clough, also gave me substantial help, as did the permanent Chaplain, the real founder of the Mission, the Rev. H. W. Croft on, on his return from furlough. I preached to a very large congregation in Christ Church, Rangoon, on the first Sunday after my arrival. My text was, "Thy kingdom come," and I explained the necessity and promises of our Mission work. The church is a large iron structure. It used to be said of it that, with a little alteration, it would make a capital goods-shed for a railway-station, and that if you closed the doors and windows you could bake bread in it during the middle of the day, in the hottest months.

But the efforts of successive chaplains have greatly improved its interior, and although essentially unsuitable, it has now a very ecclesiastical appearance inside.

On the following day we had a well-attended public meeting under the presidency of Sir A. Phayre, who with other speakers gave the Mission and myself a very hearty welcome. Then for the next few days I went round for subscriptions. If I have earned the title of a hardened beggar, the success which attended my first efforts must be pleaded as my excuse. I met with nothing but the greatest kindness and sympathy. Sir Arthur Phayre headed my subscription list with a donation of Rs. 500, and Rs. 15 per mensem. Messrs. Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co. gave a like amount. In five days over Rs. 7,000 was collected, including Rs. 600 from the Burmans themselves.

I had to go to Maulmein to give over charge to the Rev. H. B. Nichols, from New Brunswick, who came full of hope and energy to continue the work. As soon as possible I returned to Rangoon with ten of my best pupils from Maulmein, to begin our new Mission school.

My brother also came, as did a bright, good-looking Madrassi youth, named Kristnasawmy. His father was a commissioned officer of good standing and repute in the Madras Army. When the regiment was ordered to India, the boy begged earnestly to be allowed to stay with me. For some time the father refused, but at length, on my promise to look after the lad as my own son, and not to force or bribe him to change his religion, the Soubadhar left him in my care. He was most useful and efficient; a better helper I never had. It was not for several years afterwards that he asked to be received into Christ's fold. At his baptism by me in Holy Trinity pro-cathedral, Rangoon, of which I was then minister, the General commanding the province and many of the officers of the garrison attended to witness his reception into the Church. He was afterwards the valued Headmaster of St. Luke's Mission School, S.P.G., and was ordained deacon and priest in 1879 and 1881 by the Bishop of Rangoon. The Rev. John Kristna was an excellent linguist, and preached with acceptance to the British soldiers at Toungoo and Thayetmyo, and to the Christian Madrassis, Telugoos, Burmese, and Karens in their own languages. He died in 1898.

We began our Rangoon school on March 14th, 1864, in a small house called "The Cottage," near our present premises. We paid Rs. 100 a month for it. I had one sitting-room and a combined bed and bath-room for myself; other masters had similar accommodation, and there was room for about twenty boarders, and two halls for day-scholars. It was the best house that we could then hire, but it was terribly inconvenient. The morning sun shone fiercely into my room, and made me feel ill and tired before the day's work was well begun.

The boarders soon got an idea that the house was haunted, and I felt it to be highly necessary that they should find out the cause for their alarm, or they would assuredly run away and injure our prospects. The lads complained that they were annoyed by sounds of rapping and knocking at the partition planks of their room. I promised to sit up all night and discover the cause, and the boys went to sleep. At dawn, feeling that as the night had been perfectly quiet no ghost would disturb the place that morning, I determined to snatch an hour's sleep, for I was very tired, and had a heavy day's work before me. I had scarcely thrown myself on my mat when I heard a shriek from the boys, followed by a stampede from their rooms into the compound, where they stood together, big and little, in real terror. The rapping had recommenced more violently than before. My assistants and I proceeded to investigate the cause, and it was not far to seek. My dear little dog had got through a broken pane into an almirah, or cupboard with glass doors, and to rid himself of the fleas, with which the floor was infested, was scratching himself and knocking the stump of his tail on the shelf. This shook the glass and the door, and thus produced the dreaded noises. The little dog, apparently to convince the boys, went through the performance in their presence, till they were heartily ashamed of themselves. But though they never liked me to refer to this incident, I always found them remarkably timid and unreasonable in such matters.

Older than the Buddhism, which is now the prevailing religion of the country, there was (or I ought to say is) a superstitious worship and dread of spirits, or nats, good and evil, who are attached to trees, rivers, mountains and valleys, and who work benefits or troubles to people in the night and in solitariness. It is a very bad and exaggerated form of English children's notions of fairies and bogies.

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