John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

. (page 23 of 41)
Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 23 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

betel chewing.

When the dwelling-rooms occupy more than three
bays in depth, the house usually has a double roof
consisting of two parallel ridges with a gutter between,
though this is of course only necessary in the larger
houses. The roofs end in gables built, like the walling,
of planks or bamboo matting. Thatch made of Thekke
grass i^Impcrata cylindyica) forms the general material
for roofing, and affords the coolest shelter, but split



bamboo and palm leaves are also used for this purpose.
Roofs of such inflammable materials are dangerous even
in small villages ; hence pots of water, extinguishing
clappers, and firehooks are kept outside each house to
deaden sparks and tear down burning thatch in case
of fire.

In all the towns, and of course more particularly near the
centres of European civilization, the materials with which
the houses are built are becoming more costly as the value
of land rises. Here the roofs are often formed of small
flat tiles or teak-wood shingles, or even of corrugated
iron. In certain portions of the chief towns consideration
for the general wellbeing necessitates restrictions being
placed on the indiscriminate use of dangerously inflam-
mable materials in house building. In all the better
classes of houses the flooring consists of planking and
wooden beams and joists, but in the humbler abodes it
is formed merely by lashing small bamboos closely to-
gether over joists of larger bamboos.

Under British administration the general increase in
prosperity throughout most districts with ample rainfall,
and especially along the seaboard, together with the greater
security from illegal oppression and the feeling that it is
no longer necessary to refrain rigidly from any of the
outward signs of being prosperous, have led to many
advances being made with regard to household accom-
modation. Where twenty to twenty-five years ago poor,
miserable-looking hamlets nestled on the banks of tidal
creeks, large, well laid out, prosperous villages with
substantially built houses are now to be seen. And this
progress is general in all localities having direct contact
with the centres of commerce.

This tendency towards improvement in household
surroundings is also exhibiting itself in the desire, often
marked, to abandon the previous national simplicity
with regard to household articles. The national custom
was, and is, to sleep on the floor, as well as to sit and
eat there, and the use of a low plank cot was reserved
for those of high degree ; but now cots, tables, and
chairs have for years past been gradually finding their
way into the houses of dwellers in the towns ; and



naturally they bring coarse glassware lamps and the like
in their train. Throughout the vastly greater portion of
the country, however, the Burmese still live in their
former state of simplicity, and are certainly as happy
under it as they could possibly be with a multiplicity of
household requirements less easily satisfied.

Except at the Court of Ava, there were not, and there
are not now, any marked or recognized differences in the
dress of men or women indicative of social rank. Of
course there is a natural tendency for the rich to array
themselves in more costly garments than can be afforded
by those who are not so well off ; but on festival days,
when every one puts on his or her best apparel, it would
often be impossible to determine the social rank simply
from outside appearances ; and as the work-a-day dress
consists merely of old gay garments, or of cotton cloth
instead of silk attire, there is then the same difficulty
in distinguishing high from low merely from their
attire. The everyday clothes of cultivators are woven
by their wives and daughters from home-grown cotton
dyed with local forest produce, while holiday clothes
are, as a rule, bought in the bazaar, whether made in
Burma or imported. As regards food there is either
little or no difference between the rich and the poor, for
the primitive simplicity still obtains throughout the
country at large. It is only in the chief towns that a
higher standard of living is forcing itself on the younger
generation. No liquid is drunk while eating, but the
food partaken of is, on the meal being concluded, washed
down with a draught of water ladled out of the earthen-
ware pot with a water dipper made of cocoanut shell or
the lid of a betel box. A smoke or a chew of betel nut
is then taken to promote digestion or increase the feeling
of after-dinner satisfaction.

In the richness of the jewellery worn by the women,
however, a more direct indication of prosperity can be
obtained, although this would be just as misleading with
regard to any attempt to fix social status as it would be
in European cosmopolitan gatherings. Even among
the ordinary agricultural peasants a family must be poor
indeed which cannot muster gold ornaments for women



and children on great occasions. But ear cylinders,
necklaces, and rings studded with diamonds and rubies
can of course only be acquired and retained by those
fairly well endowed with the world's goods.

The national dress is simple, though gorgeous in
colouring. The men's waistcloth {Paso) is originally
made eighteen yards long and twenty-two and a half
inches wide. The ends being folded back, it is stitched
together, forming a plaid nine yards long and one and
a quarter broad, which is fastened round the waist either
by tying or hitching in the end, the remainder forming a
bag-like kilt in front or else being thrown jauntily over
the left shoulder. A white cotton or silk jacket is worn
down to the waist, or longer in Upper Burma, while the
top-knot and hair are either bound up in a gay silk
kerchief or else a Jilet of muslin is tied round the head
with the ends pointing up behind. The latter is really
the national headdress, compulsory at court, which is
usually worn by all old men, and such as have attained
high position. The female skirt {Tamein) consists of
an upper part of common stuff, a broad centre of rich
design, and a border also of fine work, all of which are
sewn together lengthways to form a garment like a
small table-cover about four and a half feet wide and a
little more in depth. The upper part is folded across
the breasts and fastened by a hitch in the cloth, while
the lower portion remains open with the end touching
the ground. Thus at each step the leg with which a
pace is being made is exposed up to above the knee.
A jacket of white cotton or silk, or of coloured velvet, is
worn above this, and a kerchief is loosely thrown over
the shoulder. Only the men wear this silk scarf as a

The villages are usually prettily ornamented with
fruit trees, such as mango, jack, tamarind, cocoanut,
toddypalm, and many others planted along the road-
way, while here and there other large trees, like pipul
and padauk, also offer a cool and shady resting-place for
wayfarers, and serve as the meeting-place of the elders
when village affairs require discussion. One often finds
around sacred fig trees, or large spreading tamarind trees,



a platform of boards erected on a parapet of brickwork
forming somethin(^ like a local formii ; and this custom
extends right across the hills from Upper Burma,
through the Shan States and Yunnan, into Szechuan.

Each house has its little plot of land extending at any
rate to the back of the house, and fenced in with split
bamboos. Sometimes a few fruit trees are grown in this
small " compound," but there is seldom any attempt at

There is, as yet, little or no sanitation in the majority
of villages. Even in the smaller towns the simple
measures taken in this respect are hardly what can be
considered very effective. The large numbers of pariah
dogs, which are allowed to breed and rear their litters
unchecked by the people, are the chief scavengers, and
dirty-looking pigs often assist them in this work. Some-
times the administration has to take measures for
reducing the number of pariah dogs, which are often
allowed to increase in dangerous numbers. More
humane methods are now employed ; but many years
ago this necessary work had in the town of Shwegyin
to be done by natives of India, for the Burmese would
not deliberately take life in this manner ; and the
coolies employed clubbed the male dogs only, so as
not to spoil their trade in future.

The old order of things is changing, and is giving
place to a new social system under which wealth is
beginning to be held in estimation in a way that would
not have been possible in former days. Then, to be
known or reputed wealthy was to render a man liable
to oppression, from which a way of escape could only be
conveniently found in works of religious merit and public
benevolence. But now, along with the old social system,
the Burmese race itself is gradually disappearing ; and
a century hence there will probably remain little or
nothino- more than traditions of the former, and but
mere remnants of the latter.

Hitherto this has not been the case in any very
marked degree, and the Burmese have perhaps in this
respect shown an almost Celtic-like power of assimilating
the lesser tribes and the immigrants of other nationalities.



Thus, in 1872 the proportion of Burmese to the rest of
the population throughout Lower Burma was as 236 to
100; while in 1891, notwithstanding better enumeration
of the Karens and other hill tribes and a then weak
influx of foreign immigrants, it had only decreased to
188 to 100, But the forces that are now at work in
the shape of British administration and improved com-
munications by railway, river, and sea, are all of such a
nature and magnitude as have never previously been
encountered ; and they are such, moreover, as will soon
produce an enormous influx of population from India and
China, which is far more likely to impress its various
and different leading features upon the future inhabitants
of Burma than to be absorbed by the existing Burmese

This fusion of races will be rendered all the more
rapid and complete by the comparative ease and alacrity
with which the Burmese woman mates with men of other
than her own nationality. To the Chinaman, her fellow
Mongolian, she brings an industry well suited to this his
own great characteristic ; while in grasping greed and
love of money she is thoroughly qualified to be the mate
of the rapacious Hindu or the Mohammedan from any
part of India. But she still, to a considerable extent,
looks down upon the Kald or " non-Mongolian " native
of India, as belonging to an inferior race, to mate with
whom involves a certain amount of degradation and loss
of social status, unless he happen to be rich.

To be married to a Chinaman is for a Burmese girl
rather like drawing a prize in the matrimonial lottery.
The Chinese consider themselves, and are considered, as
belonging to a race superior to the Burmese : and they
are frugal, industrious, and affectionate. The fruits of
such mixed marriages result, as might be expected, in a
finer breed of children than the issue of unions between
Burmese women and men of non- Mongolian race. Of
the former, known among the Burmese as Baba or
Bawa (a corruption of the Malay word IVazva, meaning
" half-breed ") and among the Chinese as Shipyittein,
the boys are brought up, dressed, and taught to jealously
consider themselves as Chinamen, while the girls are



usually made to adopt the dress, language, customs, and
religion of their Burmese mothers.

More nearly allied ethnographically, the union of
Burmese and Shans results in a mixed race differing but
little from cither of the parent stocks. It is only
throughout the northern portion of the province, how-
ever, where the Shan tribesmen were broken and
scattered, — after having centuries ago invaded Ava,
crossed the Irrawaddy, and founded the Shan dynasty,
of which Sagaing was the capital, — that the strain of
Burmese and Shan half-breeds has maintained itself
among those who now call themselves Kaciic and have
adopted a racial language and customs of their own.

The offspring of Burmese women by natives of India,
whether Hindu or Mohammedan — and, curiously enough,
when one speaks of a " native " in any of the towns of
Burma, this invariably means a native of India and not
one of the race indigenous to the province — are called
Zairbaddi by the Indians, although they are simply in-
cluded among the general run o'i Kdbyd or "half-breeds"
by the Burmese. As children they are often of remark-
able beauty, with lovely eyes, but as they grow up they
are apt to develop traits of character of a very unpleasing

The children of unions, usually only temporary, be-
tween Europeans and Burmese women are on the whole
an unsatisfactory cross-breed. No good purpose would
be served by here discussing the morality or immorality
of such alliances. So far as the Burmese girl is concerned,
the union is not degrading to her. From her point of
view she is married to the European ; and she knows
quite well that in perhaps more than nineteen cases out
of every twenty the time must come when there will be
a separation — that is to say, a divorce — desired by the
husband. In becoming the Gaddw or "lady" of any
European she is not quite on the footing of a woman
married formally under the national custom of eating to-
gether from the same dish ; but at the same time she
thus raises herself to a position where she receives many
marks of outward attention and homage, and she not
infrequently utilizes this position to her own advantage



in respect of the supposed influence she has with him
whom she addresses as Shin, "lord and master." As
previously remarked, this term of compellation is only
used by women : and it sounds curious when inad-
vertently used by men, as, for example, on one occasion,
when a young officer undergoing examination in the
Burmese language addressed us, his stern examiners,
with this soft insinuating term of respectful endearment.

There have been various circulars issued confidentially
by Government concerning unions of this nature between
young civil officers and Burmese women. The first,
issued about 1872, is said to have resulted in a match,
at a Rangoon race meeting, between two ponies named,
pro hdc vice, "C.C.C.C." (Chief Commissioner's Confi-
dential Circular) and " Physiological Necessity." The
latter won, and the threats of the circular were thus
smothered in ridicule.

In 1878, another confidential circular was issued.
This took the much more sensible line of deprecating
the practice owing to the imputation, to which it laid the
reputations of the officers concerned open, that the
people at large might believe influence was thus brought
to bear on official matters resting within the jurisdiction
of the former.

Since then, other two confidential circulars have been
issued on the subject. The last of these, hurled at the
malpractice in 1894, and threatening stoppage of pro-
motion of offenders, immediately resulted in several
marriages, bond fide unions registered under English law,
between members of the Indian Civil Service and young
Burmese women already living with them. This unex-
pected result caused Government practically to retract
the circular, for it has since remained a dead letter. One
young civilian, stationed in a lonely township where he
was cut off from the district headquarters save by
steamer communication about once a fortnight in the dry
season and once a month in the south-west monsoon
months, even went the length, as oflicial registrar, of
marrying himself to his Burmese girl, in order to legiti-
mize the child about to be born of the union ; and the
trustees of the Bengal Civil Fund refused to recognize



the act as legal or as entitling the woman and her child
to be thus brought on the Fund as possible annuitants.

This is not a very savoury topic for discussion. But
the great majority of those who may perhaps feel them-
selves called upon to preach on this subject cannot know
what they are talking about unless they have personally
experienced the depressing effects of the climate and the
dismal, soul-deadening solitude of residence in a small
out-station, where for weeks and weeks, often for months,
the young European either enjoys no companionship at
all with his own fellow countrymen or at best only occa-
sionally sees one or two, who are for the greater part
of their time occupied in touring about in the jungle.
Taking into due consideration the several influences of
climate, environment, human nature, and the facts of
medical science, one can quite understand the position
taken with regard to this matter by those — and there
are many such — who think the lapse from virtue in
respect of such connubial relation with a daughter of the
land is perhaps the least pernicious of all the vices in its
immediate and its ultimate effects on that noblest of
temples, the human body which enshrines the soul, the
image of God.

Sometimes the Eurasian children resulting from tem-
porary unions of this kind are brought up as Burmese,
and sometimes as Europeans. If they dress and class
themselves as Burmese, it is really best in many ways.
The absence of caste prejudice, the tolerance of Bud-
dhism, and the prestige of their admixture of European
blood, are all more favourable for the growth of self-
respect among such half-breeds ; whereas the social,
religious, and political position of those who are brought
up to consider themselves and to be considered as of
degraded European origin is full of sadness and misery.

The children of Europeans and Burmese women not
formally married and registered under English law have
no claim on property left by the father in Britain. But
it is a point perhaps capable of argument, and one which
the High Court of Burma recently established in 1900
will probably one day have to decide, whether or not the
property in Burma of a man dying intestate cannot be



claimed by the Burmese widow and the children begotten
of her before he entered into marital relations binding
under English law. For the Burmese Min Gaddiv, the
temporary wife of a European, is in her own eyes, and
in the eyes of her fellow countrymen, truly and honour-
ably united to her husband pro tempore. The relation-
ship thus created is not a degrading one for her ; and
after its dissolution she frequently marries well, without a
taint of immorality besmirching her reputation on account
of such previous union.

In addition to the causes already noted as gradually
altering the social system among the Burmese, there is
one other whose effect is likely in course of time to
become all the more marked in proportion as the
religious philosophy propounded by Gaudama gradually
relaxes its hold on the Burmese nation. This remain-
ing cause is to be found in the work of Christian
missionaries belonging to various denominations ; but
its results are as yet noticeable only on a comparatively
small scale and rather as regards the spirit-worshipping
Karen tribesmen, with whom it is almost becoming the
national religion, than with respect to Burman and
Talaing Buddhists.

At the time of the census of 1891 there were 112,000
Christians in Lower Burma or about twenty-four per
1,000, while in Upper Burma there were less than 9,000
or only three per 1,000. But these figures convey no
idea of the influence which mission work has already
begun to exert on the national character, while the blow
which was struck to the prestige of Buddhism by the
downfall of the kingdom of Ava and the present absence
of any Archbishop {Thdthandbaing) formally recognized
by Government are contributing towards the decay of
the Burmese national religion. Most likely the census
of the present year will show a marked increase in the
number of Christians, and each decennial return will
probably record a further rise in the proportion of those
professing the religion taught by the Europeans.

Needless to say, the first workers in this vineyard were
the Roman Catholic missionaries; and at a very early
date, when Philip de Brito y Nicote, the Portuguese



Governor of Syriam, was impaled in 1613, his colony
was transported to Ava and settled in villages on the
banks of the Mu river, where traces of them are to this
day to be found in people with hair and eyes lighter than
is usual among the Burmese. When Alaung Payd took
Syriam in i 756, the number of these Christian settlers
was increased; and on Ayodya, then capital of Siam, being
captured by the army of King Sinpyuyin in 1767, they
received still further additions in the shape of the Vicar
Apostolic and part of his flock. With the characteristic
tolerance of Buddhism, these penal colonists were allowed
to retain their own religion.

In 1 7 19 the first priest of the Barnabite mission arrived
in Burma. On his death in 1727, he was succeeded by
Father Gallizia, who, returning in 1743 as first conse-
crated Bishop of Elisma iit partibus, was slain at the
capture of Syriam. His successor. Bishop Percoto, fol-
lowed his flock to Ava, where he died in 1 776. But
the best known of these Barnabite Fathers is San
Germano, who lived in Burma from 1783 to 1806. The
French Revolution, war in Europe, and loss of mis-
sionaries through the unhealthiness of the climate led
to the mission being given up by the Barnabites to the
Priests of the Propaganda, by whom it was in 1840
transferred to the Society of the Oblats of Turin. Owing
to political troubles in Italy it was finally made over to
the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Paris in 1856, when
Father Bigandet, the learned author of the Life or
Legend of Gatcdavia, was consecrated Bishop of Ramatha
and for forty years controlled the duties of the Pegu and
Ava missions. By this time the annexation of Pegu by
the British had enabled the missionaries to work under
much more favourable circumstances than during the
Burmese rule.

The American Baptist mission has also a long record
of good work, chiefly among the Karens. In 1807
Messrs. Marsden and Chater, of the Serampur Mission,
came to Rangoon, and were soon followed by the Careys,
father and son; but it was not till 18 13 that the special
Burma Mission was founded by Messrs. Judson and Rice.
Troublous times were passed through till the conclusion



of the first Burmese war, when Messrs. Judson and Rice,
who had been thrown into prison at Ava, were employed
as intermediaries in negotiating the Treaty of Yandabii
in 1826. A branch mission was then started in Tenas-
serim and attention turned to the Karens, who proved
wilHng to become converts.

Being regarded as EngUshmen, the position of the
American missionaries became untenable in Pegu, and
they had to withdraw to Tenasserim and Arakan, where
the malarious climate of the latter soon killed them off
one after the other. In 1852 the annexation of Pegu
once more enabled missions to be re-established in the
Irrawaddy valley ; and Rangoon, Bassein, and Toungoo
were made the centres of mission work, special success
being achieved by Dr. Mason among the Karens at
this last place. Subsequently work has been undertaken
among the Karenni to the north-east of Toungoo by Dr.
Bunker, and among the Shans by Dr. Gushing.

Church of England missionary work was not entered
on till 1859, when Dr. Parish, chaplain to the troops at
Moulmein, induced the Society for the Propagation of
the Gospel to commence work in Tenasserim. The
missionaries of this Society are now to be found in
many other parts of Burma, and particularly in the
central portion.

The youngest of the missions is the Methodist Episco-
pal Church, which commenced work at Rangoon in 1879
and numbers about thirty teachers and catechists.

The most valuable work that has yet been accom-
plished by the European and American missionaries has
been in the field of education. Here their success has
been large and well deserved. Under the energetic
guidance of the Rev. Dr. Marks, St. John's College in
Rangoon, founded in 1869, is doing splendid work both
among Burmese boys and among the Eurasians, chiefiy
the offspring of temporary alliances between Europeans
and Burmese women. For the girls of both classes
equally beneficent work is also undertaken by the Roman
Catholics, while the American Baptist Schools are mainly

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 23 of 41)