Book Reviews

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Journal of a Voyage up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and Bhamo

Talboys Wheeler

1871, 1995. 102 pp., six colour plates. 19 x 13.3 cm., softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-8299-67-8 $16.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8299-67-9

Up the Irrawaddy

Journal highlights interviews with King Mindon Min of Mandalay

By Michael Smithies

(Bangkok Post November 1, 1997)

This text, first published in 1871, is an account of a six-week journey by boat from Rangoon to Bhamo and back, made by the then Secretary to the Chief Commissioner and Agent to the Viceroy and Governor-General of India.
   It was apparently printed in Burma at the behest of Major General Fytche, the said agent, and forwarded to the (British) Government of India for its “interesting and graphic descriptions of a country and peoples but little known to Europeans”.
   The work contains, perhaps of greater interest, accounts of two interviews with the Burmese king ‘Moung-lon’ (Mindon Min, 1853-1878), then still holding court at Mandalay, which he founded in 1857, and which was to be captured in the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885.
   At the first interview, the king “took up his opera glasses and surveyed us very leisurely”, even though the party was but a few yards away, “and then began eating betel, which he never ceased doing throughout the whole of the interview”.
   The names and offices of the visitors were read out, and the lists of presents spread out on a carpet. The king made clear that “there shall be perpetual peace, and no war between us, as long as I live and reign in Burma.”
   This sentiment was repeated in the second interview, with added emphasis on furthering commerce, and the king’s desire for free trade and reopening the trade route to China. This was perhaps more an expression of pious hope than reality.
   Trade was a source of increasing friction between British Burma and the Court of Ava.
   Talboys Wheeler describes the mat-walled huts of the British outposts in Mandalay and Bhamo.
   He observes that Burmese soldiers were identified by “a tattoo mark at the back of the neck” rather than a uniform, cogently remarks that it was an “utter fallacy” to believe that, “what is good for India is good for Burma”, and, plus ca change, witnessed in Mandalay the unloading of cases by “crowds of coolies who had been pressed into the service of the King, and were compelled to perform the work without pay.”
   But the style is ponderous:
“Judging from the large number of native boats which are moored off Mugway, the villagers might be supposed to be much given to fishing”, or “The dogs also took a lively curiosity in our proceedings, and seemed under the impression that the introduction of civilisation into Bhamo was not conducive to the true interests of pariah puppies.”
   One also needs a command of Anglo-Indian terminology to appreciate the meaning of abkary, cesses, etc.
   The author does not tell us, but Bhamo was not only to be the point of departure for exploring a land route to Yunnan, but to be considered the start of a railway from Burma to Shanghai.
   Continuing unrest in south-west China, Mindon Min’s death in 1878 and the short but chaotic reign of Thibaw and his ruthlessly ambitious queen, Supayulet, which followed, put an end to such pipedreams.
   Colonial servants, who appear to, subsist on a diet of brandy and soda, are often accused of philistinism and cultural superiority. There is a fair amount of the latter here, as in many late-nineteenth-century texts dealing with Southeast Asia.
   But Talboys Wheeler devotes eight pages to describing the “extraordinary ruins” of Pagan, forming “the relics of one of the greatest cities in the Golden Peninsula”, and clearly enjoyed, for a time at least, the folk songs and dances performed in honour of his visiting party.
   Not all were philistines.

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