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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXXV

1874-1875. BURMAH

Ordered to India—Bombay—Malabar coast—Madras—Intended expeditions—Ran. goon—Shoay Dagon—Delhi Royal family—A coming race—Up the Irawaddy - Donabew—Hansadah—Akouk.tong—Prome—Thyet Myo—History—Petroleum wells-Great forest—Our progress—Mengee Sekan—Night shelters - Wandering Karens—Tonghoo--" Complication" with the King—The Sitang River— Boats and crews—Shoay Gheen—Sitang town—Its associations—Kadouk----Kyatsoo creek—Back to Rangoon--Comments.

SUDDENLY, and without note of warning, the contents of one of those long blue War Office envelopes informed me that in consequence of a death vacancy in India, I was to proceed without delay to Madras. The immediate result was a good deal of inconvenience and expense, arrangements having been made for a somewhat longer stay in camp than under the circumstances was now possible.

Leaving Portsmonth by the Indian troopship Euphrates early in September, in due time, and without adventure, we' landed at Bombay. Arrived at the capital city of the Western Presidency, the hospitality of one of India's merchant princes was extended to us, a letter of introduction3 having preceded us. it so happened that an unusually heavy rainstorm had passed over that part of India a few days previous, causing complete destruction of railways, besides much damage in other respects. Our departure was accordingly delayed several days, it being necessary that we should proceed by steamer towards our destination. Meanwhile, however, the kind civility of our host was unrelaxed; short trips were organized by him for our pleasure—one to the famous Caves of Elephanta on the island of Gharipuri, the sculptures in which represent nearly, if not all, the mythology of Hindooism.

The first month of the "cold" season was well advanced, the cold being rather in name than reality. Otherwise our sea trip along the coast of Malabar was pleasant enough; the bold scenery of the western ghats in some places striking, in others grand; the cities, towns, and natural harbours, at several of which our ship made a brief stay to land and take on board goods and passengers, became so many objects of interest to us and a few others, who, like ourselves, had been also forced to adopt this mode of travelling.

Arrived off Beypore, we disembarked; thence took train, and so in due time reached Madras. The formality of reporting arrival to the authorities concerned once got over, duty was entered upon, our residence temporarily taken up in one of the large but otherwise comfortless hotels with which the place was provided, all such establishments being the property of, and managed by, natives.

Rumours circulated that a military expedition was likely to proceed via Burmah towards Yunnan, to co-operate with a corresponding force to be dispatched thither by the Yangtse kiang, with a view to inflict punishment on those by whom Mr. Margery had recently been murdered in that province. As a preliminary measure, the Commander-inChief, Sir Frederick Haines, determined to make a tour through what was then British Burmah, to satisfy himself in regard to the capabilities of the country to meet requirements of an army, including food, transport, supplies, and accommodation.

Together with other members of the staff with whom special details relating to the expected expedition would rest, His Excellency and party embarked; the pier on the occasion being crowded with his numerous friends, a guard of honour, in accordance with his rank and position, also drawn up. The Oriental quickly steamed away; in due time touched at Coconada and Vizagapatam respectively, then away across the Bay of Bengal, landing us safely at Rangoon on the seventh day from that on which we had gone on board. Hospitable friends awaited our landing, and by the kindness of Surgeon-General and Mrs. Kendall I was made comfortable as their guest.

Various objects and places of interest in and around this modern but prosperous city were visited and examined, so soon as relaxation from official duties permitted us to do so; but it is not intended in these notes to give more than a very brief record of experiences in these respects. The first to claim attention was the famous Golden Temple, the Shoay Dagon, the most important Buddhistic memorial in Burmah, originally erected, according to legend, as a monument over eight hairs from the head of the Sage. In the course of our wanderings among the many smaller temples by which the dagon proper is surrounded, we met at intervals female devotees,—nuns, in fact, who had given themselves up to the service of the temple, their object in doing so, according to our informant, that in the next transmigration they might be born men!

In the course of the day's excursion we came upon a very unroyallooking "palace," now the residence of the Delhi Begum, and then upon an equally unroyal-looking personage, described as the remaining prince, his brothers having been shot by Hodson in 1857. The residence of other political prisoners were pointed out to us, including the house in which the deposed "Grand Mogul" of Delhi died.'

The extent to which the Chinese element monopolized various kinds of business and industry was remarkable; it was no less evident that the best portion of the town was theirs. In course of our rounds we met with several examples of what may in a sense be looked upon as a new race; namely, fruits of unions between Chinese men and Burmese women. Those with whom we met were young women, comely in appearance; their costumes a happy mixture of styles of the nationalities personified in themselves. It is probable that the males adopted the costume pertaining to one or other nationality, and so were undistinguishable from these.

Our journey upwards by steamer on the Irawaddy was pleasant, and in some respects interesting. The early portion was through a succession of narrow creeks before getting into the main stream, somewhat after the manner of the Soonderbunds, but on a small scale as compared to them. As we advanced, a rich, well-cultivated country opened up on either side of us. The fresh cool air on deck made thick clothing desirable. On either side well-to-do villages rose at short intervals as if out of the river, while on it were thickly dotted boats of various sizes transporting goods of many kinds. Rafts of timber, consisting of several portions ingeniously united, and well steered, were met with winding, as it were in folds, along the current. Fields of rice and gardens of banana gave place to patches of forest, separated by tracts covered by tall reed grass; then dense bamboo jungle, while from some of the riverside villages odours wafted off which told that in them various delicacies from fish, such as Burmans love, but other people abominate, were in course of preparation. Such a place was Pantanau, at which we spent a night.

Resuming our journey, the somewhat large towns of Yandoon and Donabew were passed in quick succession, the latter associated with the history of the first Burmese War, 1824-26. There, one of the most severely contested battles of that war took place; the Burmese leader, Bundoola, was killed. At the same place in the war of 1852 severe fighting took place, heavy losses being inflicted upon our forces by the native troops under command of Myot Zoon.

In due time we are off Hansadah, also associated with the wars of 1825 and 1852; the name of the place itself—namely, Hansa—anser, goose—being derived from Turanian mythology. At a little distance from that place a halt was made to replenish the stock of firewood; the time so spent enabling us to take a short excursion in the near vicinity. Animal life in great profusion existed everywhere; cattle in excellent keeping, for the Burmese are extremely kind to them; poultry of all sorts in abundance; sparrows in myriads, and if possible more bold than are their kind in our own country; water birds in great numbers; land birds equally so are everywhere, nor are they as yet slaughtered in the name of "sport," as doubtless they will be when British guns become more numerous here than luckily for the wild creatures, they are at present.

On either side the country changes gradually in appearance; at first an uninterrupted level, then undulating, the inequalities greater and greater as we proceed. Now the dim outline of the Arracan Yoma range looms in the distance; we reach the high bold promontory of Akouk-tong, round the base of which the Irawaddy rushes violently. On its river-face several rude carvings represent Buddha; on its summit and landward declivity stand pagodas of various sizes, the whole connected with each other by winding pathways. During the war of 1852 the Burmese erected a powerful battery upon the summit of that promontory, for the capture of which a party, under command of Captain Gardener, was landed from the Enterprise. Unhappily it fell into an ambuscade, its commander beheaded, his head carried away as a trophy of victory. More and more distinctly the hills of Prome came into view; forests of teak, interspersed with patches of custard-apple trees, were seen clothing their sides, tracts of underwood everywhere. Now we obtain glimpses of a well-made military road, to be used if need be by troops from Akayab to this place.

Prome is a city or town of considerable importance; its chief products, lac, petroleum, silk, and lacquer. Occupying an elevated site is "The Holy Hair Pagoda," smaller in dimensions than its counterpart the Shoay Dagon at Rangoon; like it, approached by an extensive flight of steps, on either side of which is a long series of mythological figures. A variety of bells, large and small, swung from stands, at short intervals among the buildings connected with the temple proper. These bells, when struck by a mallet of deer's horn, suspended from their stands for the purpose, emit a sound of surprising sweetness. In the second Burmese War, namely that of 1852, Prome was taken possession of by our troops on October 11.

Thyet Myo is reached after a few such mishaps as are incidental to travel on the Irawaddy; among them breaks-down of machinery, leaking of steam boilers, running "fast" upon sand-banks, getting doubled up in the coils of rafts, and so on. As on the occasion of our departure from Madras, so on disembarking here, a guard of honour, with regimental band and colour, salutes the chief; hospitable friends 1 invite us to their houses; our party is comfortably and well provided for.

Thyet Myo, otherwise "Mango city," has a history which dates back to A.D. 250. In 1854 cantonments for British troops were erected near to it, on a site so situated as to command the passage of the Irawaddy. In 1857 the river deserted its old bed, making for itself a new one at least a mile and a half distant, thus destroying the purpose originally in view.

A tedious ride through thorny jungle, then along what was intended to become a main line of road to Mendoon, took us to a series of petroleum wells at Pendouk-ben. Regarding them great expectations were entertained, and energetic endeavours were in progress accordingly; but so far, their produce was limited to the oozing in small quantities of "oil" from the sides of wells in course of formation in the schistoze rock. Subsequently, that industry, there and elsewhere in the country, has attained great importance.

Official duties over at Thyet Myo, our journey was resumed, all arrangements made beforehand for an expected interesting if somewhat arduous progress through the extensive forest that occupies the tract of territory between the rivers Irawaddy and Sitang, including what is called "the great Yotna range" of mountains, or more properly speaking, hills. Our first move was to cross the first-named river and encamp on its further bank. Next morning, we four began our real trip, all mounted, the large body of "followers" of all sorts composing our escort making their way on foot.

Our progress during the next four days was along "roads" the roughness and other difficulties of which rapidly increased as we went on; villages and patches of cultivation became smaller and less frequent; the people showed themselves curious to see the kalzs, or white foreigners, their own state of raggedness and dirt offensive to look upon.

We had reached the densest part of the forest, at a point whence our further progress was to he by elephants, a track being made in the jungle by a number of men sent before us for that purpose. We reached a stockaded village, such a defence in this secluded spot being very necessary against marauders. The forest resounds with the voices of birds, from the resplendent plumage of some of which the sunlight is reflected in flashes. Later on all becomes silence, save from the voices of our own party, and so we reach, as afternoon advances, the halting place of Mengee Sekan.

Hitherto we have taken advantage for accommodation overnight of such buildings as we found, in the shape chiefly of deserted Buddhist monasteries, in various stages of decay. It became necessary to extemporize a hut or bower in which to pass the night. Such a place was quickly prepared for us by natives attached to our party, who, by means of their deihs - half-knife, half-sword - cut down branches of bamboos and trees; these they arranged and secured by ropes made of bark and creepers: thus they made quarters in which we were by no means uncomfortable.

Our elephant steeds carry us onwards, along the half-dried bed of what in the rainy season is a mountain torrent, confined on either side by precipitous cliffs, our progress at times interrupted by deep pools, at others by boulders singly or in masses in the river bed; these obstacles having to be circumvented as best was practicable, but always causing much delay and inconvenience. Coming upon a pathway, evidently used by wandering Karens, and made passable for us by our dah-men already mentioned, our elephants have to scramble as best they can upwards along the steep face of a mountain spur of the Yoma range. We gain the summit, and from it obtain a wide and extensive view of rich dense forest stretching far away, around, below the level of the point from which we took our survey. We pass the watershed that divides the tributaries to the Irawaddy and Sitang. Our descent is rough and precipitous; we arrive at the Krat-Moung creek, and for some miles travel eastward along its bed; the forest on either side dense as before, the brushwood and lower vegetation consisting chiefly of ferns and stemless palms. After a day of somewhat arduous toil we reach an open space, and there a bower being quickly prepared for us we rest for the night.

Our journey resumed, the roadway we take is once again the bed of a mountain stream, the banks high and steep; vegetation still dense, huge creepers stretching from branch to branch, masses of parasitical plants hanging from the highest arms. Soon the forest becomes less dense; isolated houses, then villages, surrounded by patches of cultivated ground, are reached. Such a village is Pyagone. It is under the jurisdiction of Tonghoo, from which place letters have been sent for us, and so we hear of those we care for. Here we part with our elephants and other establishments belonging to Thyet Myo, exchanging the former for small Burmese ponies, on which the remaining part of our journey is performed. Several more marches were performed, differing in no particular characteristic from those already alluded to. Then, glittering in the sun, but still a long way in front of us, the pinnacle of a gilded pagoda indicates the position of Tonghoo. As we plod along the dusty way, we overtake a caravan of Shans, their bullocks laden with merchandise to market. We reach the remains of what was once the fortified wall by which the city was surrounded, but is now a series of dilapidated fragments. Friends I come out to receive and offer us hospitality; baths and good cheer soon set us up; we look back amused at such small discomforts as we had recently undergone.

Tonghoo marks the eastern limit of what was, three centuries B.C., the empire of Asoka. The modern town, however, dates only from the tenth Century of our era; its position, upon a peninsula round which winds the river Sitang. At a distance eastward, the Karenee range of mountains some four thousand feet in height, their sides thickly covered by forest; the general aspect of the locality and its surroundings forlorn and unattractive.

At the time of our visit a political "complication" with the king of Burmah was considered likely to be the outcome of a different interpretation as to the boundary line between Native and British Burmah entertained by the Indian and Burmese officials; while the Karens lay claim, in opposition to both, to a tract of territory said to have been occupied by them from time immemorial. Some months subsequently this matter was amicably arranged.

Our duties performed, our homeward journey began; we start away to Tantabin, where long, narrow boats lie moored to the bank, awaiting to take us on board, and so down the Sitang River. But the hospitality of friends at Tonghoo has yet another demonstration to the Chief and his party ere we finally take leave. A sumptuous and costly déjeuner awaits us in the zyat, or travellers' rest-house at the ghat. When the meal is over and we get on board each his particular boat, many expressions of mutual good-will exchanged, much waving of hands and handkerchiefs, and then—our river trip begins.

The kind of craft in which the next few days and nights must be spent is peculiar. Mine consists of the scooped-out trunk of a tree, its inner arrangements fitted up according to Burmese ideas of comfort, or it may be, luxury. The measurement of the boat, or rather canoe, is three tons, itself so narrow and crank that practice is needed to move without tilting it over to a dangerous degree ; yet on further experience this became sufficiently easy. The crew comprised six Burmese, active in body, cheery in disposition, well acquainted with their particular work; ready to joke and chaff with brother boatmen, as we glided pleasantly down the stream.

A short halt is made at Shoay Gheen, an important town, at which in due time we arrive. Here we find the remains of a stockade, held in considerable strength against our troops by the Burmese in 1825, though surrendered by them without a struggle in December of that year. There are two respects in which Shoay Gheen is famous: the one, that from here direct to Yunnan a trade route extends; the other, that in the district to which the town gives its name is the chief habitat of that most dreaded of poisonous snakes, the hamadryad (Ophiophagus elaps).

Another day and night and we are at the town of Sitang; its streets and houses are arranged in regular order, the streets wide, sheltered, boulevard like, by a row of spreading trees on either side; everywhere flocks of poultry, large and small, especially of the particular breeds for which Burmah is famous. On the more prominent points are pagodas, several undergoing repair and being regilded. Near each is a group of hideous stucco figures of nals; among these, people in attitudes of devotion, presenting to the images offerings, sprigs of sacred flowers, jasmine and jonesia (the asoka tree), and other plants.

In the first Burmese War a strong position was taken up by them at this place. On January 7, 1826, it was unsuccessfully attacked by our forces, who sustained severe loss, including their commander; on the 11th, however, the attack was renewed, the position captured, with a loss to the enemy of six hundred in a strength of four thousand defenders. In 1852, after peace had been declared, a British detachment was stationed here, and so remained for some time.

Time presses; tide waits for no man. Our boatmen, aware of the latter fact, press on by means of sail and paddle throughout the night; we arrive at Kadouk soon after daylight. Considerably to our surprise, our boats are quickly turned from the main stream into a narrow creek, and there made fast. But the detention is only for a little; our boatmen resume their work; our boats re-enter the stream, and for a time keep close to the right bank. A rushing sound comes upon us from the distance; it increases; the tidal wave of the Sitang is upon us; not in its full volume, however, for from a point just ahead of us it breaks with a roar, and then, curling with foam as it advances, it rushes irresistibly to the opposite bank. It was to avoid this "bore," for so the wave is named, and being probably swamped by its force, that our boatmen had pushed on.

Communication between the Sitang and Pegu rivers was by means of the Kyatsoo creek, and that only during the three days of spring tides at the present season of the year. A canal was in progress of construction, and railways were being extended in various directions; yet neither was usable for our purpose. One suggestive circumstance, however, we learn: that, anticipating enhanced value of land as a result of such works, a precocious native agriculturist is making extensive purchases along the line of the new waterway. Our passage along the Kyatsoo creek was marked by nothing more stirring than a succession of groundings, bumps against other craft, and such trifles. On either side of us cultivated fields extend away to the distance; on some of them the blue flower of the flax plant is bright and fresh. Isolated huts and small villages occur at small distances from each other, and high up in the azure firmament a lark pours forth its volume of song, as in our own island.

As we proceed, the tapering summits of pagodas are seen reflecting the sunlight ahead; they indicate the site of the once important city of Pegu, capital of the Talain kingdom. A little further and we experience the tide as it comes from the river so named, to meet that from the Sitang, by which so far we have been conveyed. A little more and we are back in Rangoon, the members of our small party hospitably received by newly-made friends, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson kindly taking me to their house.

The next few days were passed mostly in the performance of official duties, spare intervals being taken up in visiting places of interest previously passed over from want of time. Our journey and observations made during it supplied subject alike for official and for ordinary talk, giving zest to forecasts variously expressed in regard to the probable issue of events which may follow upon the death or deposition of the king. The prevailing view was that Government will place upon the throne the legitimate heir, and having done so will carry on administration by means of a Commission. In such an event, it is anticipated that Burmah will be one of the best fields for British energy and capital, that communication will be opened up, and resources of the country developed.


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