Early Photography in Burma, Part 2: Willoughby Wallace Hooper

East India House, Leadenhall St., c. 1817 W.W. Hooper

Willoughby Wallace Hooper was born in London in 1837 and by the age of sixteen he became a writer in the East India Company. A writer was a junior clerk at the lowest level who took minutes,  recorded the entries in ships’ logs, assisted the directors and learned the business of the EIC from the ground up. By this time the power of the EIC was waning, to be completely destroyed by the Indian Mutiny of 1857. With the passing of the Government of India Act in 1858 the Crown took over its rule in India and by 1874 the Company was dissolved and its holdings and armies were then controlled by the British government. Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1877, just in case the sub-continent was under the impression it had escaped foreign rule.

Hooper joined the 7th Madras Light Cavalry in 1858 and rose through the ranks until he was made a full colonel in 1884. Throughout his time in India he was an obsessive photographer, as much as one could be while lugging around a large Victorian camera and tripod. He contributed to the eight volume set, “The People of India” , published in parts from 1868-1875,  and photographed the Madras Famine from 1876 to 1878.

Portrait of a Nihang or an Akali, W. W. Hooper, ca 1870

 

Famine victims, Madras
1876-1878

 

I believe that while excelling at the static studio portrait, Hooper wanted more. He wanted to capture the moment; the moment a gun is fired, the moment a man takes his last breath as he dies from starvation. He is described as rushing into battles with his camera and tripod:

“It is related of him that on one occasion when a sepoy went shooting at large at his officers and comrades, he ran out with a photographic apparatus and brought it to bear upon the sepoy, who was in the act of taking aim at him. The homicidal soldier was struck at the instant by a bullet from another sepoy, and Colonel Hooper obtained his negative.”

The desire to seize the moment in an image is not a new one. In the 19th century the Impressionists tried to catch the essence of changing light. The 17th century painter, Caravaggio, stunned the cognoscenti in Rome with his Conversion on the Road to Damascus; his depiction of Saul’s tumble from his horse, his blindness, and his reaching out for salvation is a transformational moment in St. Paul’s life.

 

The Conversion on the Road to Damascus by Caravaggio, 1600

 

It was this desire to capture a transformational moment which led to the sensational scandal of Willoughby Wallace Hooper’s dacoit photo.

Newly promoted to Provost Marshall with the Burma Expeditionary Force he sails to Burma in 1885 for what will be the Third (and final) Anglo-Burmese War. The troops commandeer ships from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and steam up the river to Mandalay, encountering little opposition.

Group of officers taken on board the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co’s Steamer “Irrawaddy” while advancing up the river. W. W. Hooper 1885

 

Once disembarked at the Royal City in Upper Burmah, a minimum number of shots are fired, the city taken, the enemy’s arms confiscated and a few days later, King Thibaw and his Queen are banished to Ratnagiri in India.

 

Arrival of the Expedition at Mandalay on the 28th Nov. 1885

 

A Print from a Negative (found in the Palace) of King Theebaw, Queen Soopy-a-lat and her sister

The fierce fighting was now about to start, with rebels loyal to the country waging guerrilla warfare for a good five years. Some of these soldiers weren’t always polite to surrounding villagers and would often take by violence what they wanted in the way of arms, food and other supplies. The British described them as “dacoits”, a particular and political term. From “Hobson-Jobson,” by Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, 1886:

Dacoit, dacoo, s. Hind. … a robber belonging to an armed gang. The term, being current in Bengal, got into the Penal Code. By law, to constitute dacoity, there must be five or more in the gang committing the crime.”

A gang of Dacoits being conveyed down the river from Mandalay to Rangoon on board one of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s steamers. W.W. Hooper 1886

When the British captured armed gangs, they were all considered dacoits, despite many  being just villagers hiding in the jungle. At that time, a man in Burma was not considered a man unless he had his “dah” with him; a long, broad, razor sharp knife in a sheath slung over his shoulder. He used it for everything from slicing fruit to chopping down bamboo. It was practically an extension of his arm and although rarely used for any violent purpose, the British had a perfect excuse to inflict the ultimate punishment on any armed group they caught. And they did, just to set an example.

A dacoit group was before the firing squad where Hooper was stationed and set up his camera nearby. There are many  pictures of this subject from the past up to the present: the prisoners tied to posts or not, the execution squad poised with their rifles, the aftermath of the slumped bodies. Goya painted this subject in his “The Third of May 1808.”

The Third of May 1808

They are disturbing because we know what is about to or has just happened. Hooper, though,  wanted an unconventional shot and approached it with a scientific frame of mind. The order goes out, “Ready, Present….” But what’s this? Hooper interrupts. He needs to adjust his camera. The calibrations are made, the order to fire is given and Hooper takes the perfect shot of the bullets striking the slight bodies of the Burmese dacoits.

A group of Dacoits captured near Mandalay. W.W. Hooper 1885

As inured to violence as the soldiers in the BEF were, word of what happened got back to London. It was as shocking to people then as Isil beheading videos are today. The Secretary of State, Lord Randolph Churchill, ordered a court of enquiry. Hooper was reprimanded and given a reduction in pay. It did not seem to hurt his career in the army. He went on to publish “Burmah; a series of one hundred photographs” in 1887 and retired in 1896, dying in England in 1912.

The most remarkable thing to come out of the scandal was the description of it by Grattan Geary in his book, “Burma, after the conquest” London, 1886. I quote some of it here to show his very modern opinion of the Scandal of Willoughby Wallace Hooper, and  to show how little the world has changed.

Excerpt pp 241-244, (bold type my own):

“The second instance which may be adduced is that in which the too curious use of the photographic camera added an unseemly element to military executions in Mandalay. Being desirous of getting photographs of the prisoners’ attitudes and expressions at the moment the bullets struck them, the Provost-Marshal set up a photographic camera in a convenient position when the dread words of command, “Ready! Present” were given. The discharge was then delayed for a few minutes while the camera was brought to bear on the doomed men; the focus attained, the signal was given, the bullets struck the waiting men; the negatives were secured. This procedure probably did not add perceptibly to the suffering of the men expecting momentarily the fatal bullets; but there is something unpleasant and almost sinister at the coolness and deliberation with which the action of the tragedy was suspended in order that a scientific record might be taken of the effect, physical and moral, of the shock of bullets, on the persons of defenceless and despairing men. Lord Dufferin at Calcutta and the Ministers in England shared the indignation of Mr. Bernard, when they came to know what had been done. The then Secretary of State, Lord Randolph Churchill, at once telegraphed instructions that grave and immediate action should be taken with regard to the officer concerned. His successor ordered that the Provost Marshal should be tried by Court-martial. But no one supposes that statesmen and administrators, accustomed to recognise and respect the rights of humanity, would fail to reprobate acts of the kind. The fatal thing is that such acts under certain circumstances become inevitable under a natural law, which ordains that the practice of cruelty makes even merciful men cruel, dulling the moral sense until it is impossible to draw the line with any precision between what is legitimate and what is not.

It is fair to say that Colonel Hooper has the reputation of being a very good officer, and that the desire to photograph the Burmese when struck by bullets is attributed, not to any inhumanity, but to what may almost be regarded as a passion for securing an indelible record of human expression at the supreme moment. It is related of him that on one occasion when a sepoy went shooting at large at his officers and comrades, he ran out with a photographic apparatus and brought it to bear upon the sepoy, who was in the act of taking aim at him. The homicidal soldier was struck at the instant by a bullet from another sepoy, and Colonel Hooper obtained his negative. At the battle of Minelah the gallant officer carried his camera under fire, so that it might be available for the record of any exceptional incident.

The photographing of the men shot at Mandalay under the circumstances mentioned was undoubtedly reprehensible. It created a bad impression, from which Colonel Hooper must be prepared to suffer in public opinion. But it is open to doubt whether there is not something very pharasaical in the spirit which revolts at the operation of photographing a batch of men at the moment of their execution, when their execution in batches is accepted as an ordinary incident in the subjugation of a conquered people. If all the men who were shot were dacoits, or had committed any moral offence other than that of hazarding their life in a lost cause, the shooting would be righteous as well as necessary, but, speaking generally, the executions in such cases are exemplary, and not punitive. It is the custom to close the eyes and the ears to the real nature of the “salutary severities” which are sparingly alluded to in the narratives of military operations in a vanquished country. It would be a great gain to the cause of humanity if there were more Colonel Hoopers, who would focus and fix and make widely known, every horror which it is the custom to slur over in referring to incidents of the kind. If people at large realised with anything like exactitude, the real nature of the price which subjugated populations pay for the blessings of civilisation, sounder views on such subjects would perhaps become more prevalent. As has been said above, if the severities produced always and everywhere the tranquillising effects which are generally expected from them, it might be a duty to acquiesce, as it is the duty of a surgeon to inflict pain as the price of an ultimate good.”

Some of King Theebaw’s Guards at the East Gate of the Palace enclosure, [Mandalay], the day we entered. W.W. Hooper 1885

References:

Luminous Lint

John Falconer at Luminous Lint

The British Library

Wikipedia

Click to see photo credits: British Library, London; The Prado, Madrid; The Getty Museum; Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome; and Luminous Lint

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Early Photography in Burma, Part 1: Linnaeus Tripe

Capt. Linnaeus Tripe

Capt. Linnaeus Tripe

Linnaeus Tripe was born in Devonport, Devon on April 14, 1822, the ninth of twelve children. His father Cornelius was a surgeon. In 1839 he joined the East India Company as an ensign in the 12th Madras Native Infantry, and travelled to Madras on the Carnatica, a voyage of four months. He was promoted to lieutenant early in 1840 and followed the usual round of moving to different posts in India with his regiment. In November, 1850 he sailed back to England (a five month journey this time) and arrived at a momentous time in its history: a celebration of the midpoint of the century with the the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was a fortunate coming together of circumstances that would change his life.

The daguerrotypes of the Americans and the calotypes of the French won awards and there were many photographs displayed throughout the Exhibition, as well as camera equipment and supplies. He must have been fascinated by this new technology, for at the end of 1851 he placed an order for equipment with G. Knight & Son and by early 1853 he was elected a founding member of the Photographic Society of London.

Although we don’t know the precise make of his camera, we do know it took 12 by 15 inch negatives which meant it was one of the more advanced options of the time. He used waxed paper negatives which were easier to carry and develop than the usual glass plates. We do know his lens was the four and a half pound Ross No. 4 Landscape Lens, with a focal length of 20 inches.

Unlike many new photographers he eschewed the taking of sentimental and highly narrative scenes in favour of an architectural approach to his subjects of ships and dockyard paraphernalia. His eye for composition was well developed by the time his leave finished and he sailed back to India in April of 1854.

Quarterdeck of HMS "Impregnable," 1852-1854

Quarterdeck of HMS “Impregnable,” 1852-1854

At the end of the year he took leave and self financed a photography expedition to Mysore where he used his meticulous method of long shots, mid-shots and close-ups to document two temples. Always aware of light, he employed it to advantage on complex carvings and to enhance his depth of focus. He entered sixty eight of these photos in to the Raw Products, Arts and Manufactures of Southern India exhibition and won a First Class Medal in 1855.

Hullabede: Temple of Siva, Sculptures, December 1854

Hullabede: Temple of Siva, Sculptures, December 1854

This honour brought him to the attention of Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India, who was planning a political mission to the King of Burma after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The British wished to explore and record as much as they could about the country and so hired Colesworthy  Grant as the official artist but also Tripe as the photographer for the mission. His was the first such appointment given to a photographer in the history of British diplomatic missions.

Tripe threw himself into preparations for the trip. Specially made sturdy and waterproof cases were ordered for all his equipment and supplies, including the waxed paper slides and the developing chemicals. He even included a small still so he could be sure of using only pure water when fixing the negatives. He left Bangalore in July 1855, headed to Burma by way of Madras, Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.

The Mission to Ava sailed upriver from Rangoon on August 1, 1855, under the leadership of Col. Arthur Phayre. Tripe started taking photographs once they reached Prome (now called Pyay) and numbered them sequentially.

No. 2. Prome. North entrance to the Shwe San-dau Pagoda

No. 2. Prome. North entrance to the Shwe San-dau Pagoda

We do not know how he worked, whether he had an assistant or what happened day to day as he left no diary. There is a scribbled note found later which gives us some idea of his difficulties:

he was working against time; and frequently with no opportunities of replacing poor proofs by better,” and “from unfavourable weather, sickness, and the circumstances unavoidably attending such a mission, his actual working time was narrowed to thirty-six days.

It is on record that of 6,517 prints 2,832 had to be rejected, and that many plates were ruined because the heat melted the wax on the negatives. Considering that temperatures in the months of August, September and October in the Dry Zone of Upper Burma regularly exceed 40℃ (100℉) his accomplishment was astonishing.

No. 9. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Balcony of a Kyoung

No. 9. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Balcony of a Kyoung

Tripe didn’t just develop the negatives he took over the three months of the trip; he drew on the plates directly, enhancing straight lines, putting extra leaves on a tree, ripples in a pool or clouds in the sky. Was he the first to re-touch his photos? Probably not; in fact it was a common practice, but he was a master of this early Victorian version of Photoshop.

No. 10. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Tamarind tree

No. 10. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Tamarind tree

He photographed in Prome, Thayetmyo, Yenangyoung, Bagan, Sagaing, Ava, Mingun, Amarapura and finally, Rangoon. They left Burma in October and returned to India, where Tripe methodically and carefully started printing.

It took him two years to complete the printing of a book, “Burma Views,” of which 50 copies were sent to the government in Calcutta in March of 1857, along with all the other prints, both partial and complete, that he succeeded in making. The government was so impressed with his work they granted him the copyright on all the images and gave him permission to make them for himself and for retail.

He was also given the office of photographer to the Madras Presidency which lasted until the end of 1859 when a newly appointed governor, Sir Charles Trevelyan asked whether the “Photographic Establishment is not an article of high luxury which is unsuited to the state of our finances.”

One can only believe that this was a blow of huge magnitude to Tripe, because of his subsequent actions, or rather omission of action. After putting on the pressure to finish printing all the work he had taken in Madras, while contending with constant requests for updated reports and financial scrutiny, and dismantling his printing studio, he returned to England on convalescent leave in the spring of 1860. He took no photographs while on leave.

Not a rich man, he was forced to resume his army career in India in 1863, where he remained for ten years. He took a only a handful of personal photographs of Burma in that time. Compare this paltry output with the impressive production during a single visit of three months to Burma on the Mission to Ava and a subsequent six months in 1858 travelling around India – 794 negatives.

In 1873 he retired to Devonport and never took another photograph. He died in 1902.

 

 

 

Please click on the photos for credits. Quotes and information taken from the book “Captain Linnaeus Tripe; Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860” by Roger Taylor and Crispin Branfoot with Sarah Greenough and Malcolm Daniel.

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The Burmese Zodiac: An Astonishing Discovery

Antique silver libation bowl with the animals of the zodiac. Burma, 1890-1910

Antique silver libation bowl with the animals of the zodiac. Burma, 1890-1910

 

The Burmese are a superstitious people. There are astrologists, numerologists and palm readers in every town, earning a good living. Most people seek their help in deciding an auspicious date for a wedding, starting a business or going to a new job. The military government moved all their ministries out of Yangon in 2005, to their newly built city of Naypyidaw, 300 km to the north because it was deemed more auspicious. While they have a monthly zodiac identical to our Western one, they also have a weekly one. It hinges on the day you were born, with Wednesday being divided into two halves, so making for eight signs. These are:

Monday – Tiger

Tuesday – Lion

Wednesday a.m. – Elephant, tusked

Wednesday p.m. – Elephant, tuskless

Thursday – Rat

Friday – Guinea Pig

Saturday – Naga (mythical dragon/serpent)

Sunday – Garuda (mythical king of birds)

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Tuskless Elephant At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

 

It was a bit of a surprise on my first visit to see the eight creatures of the zodiac featured in every pagoda. People would go to their animal or creature and salute it by pouring water over the statue while wishing for a good outcome to their endeavours. I eagerly looked for my day and found I was a guinea pig. What? A guinea pig? They aren’t native to Burma and never have been, yet this tradition goes back to the animist worship that pre-dates Buddhism. The guinea pig statues looked suspiciously like tailless rats to me. Was it a mistranslation? One person I asked said they had seen the day ascribed to the rabbit in times past, but since none of statues had ears people preferred “guinea pig.” Another suggestion was that it was a species called the bamboo rat, but that bigger rat had a tail, and why feature two rats in the list?

bamboorat_27541_lg

 

My big revelation in this blog post is that I have found out exactly what the tailless ratty, guinea piggy, rabbity creature really is. It’s a pika. The lightbulb moment came while watching a BBC documentary on the natural history of India. The team went to the far northwest hills in Assam and filmed these shy little creatures foraging in meadowland and on rocky slopes. They are small, between 5-9 inches long, tailless, with soft coats and faces much like rabbits, but no ears, similar to guinea pigs. This had to be it – the Assam area had very fluid borders with Burma in the past, the astrology and astronomy traditions originally came from Hindu practices, and to cap it all off, the pika is an inhabitant of Myanmar, according to this article.

A pika of the Himalayas

A pika of the Himalayas

Now, how do I convince the entire Myanmar nation to accept my findings?

Answers on a postcard, please, or you can just reply to this post.

 

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Antiques Roadshow, Burmese Style

The Old Dealer

I’ve always loved old things, especially useful but baffling objects from the 19th century. In museums you will find me staring at cases full of marrow scoops and asparagus tongs or marvelling at complete dessert services for 100 people, including tazzas and lidded ice pails. I’m always ready to stop at flea markets and antique shops because my mantra is “You never know.” In other words, you’ll never know what you might find if you stopped even if it was just… you shouldn’t have stopped.

So when my friend suggested she could take me antique shopping in Rangoon I was thrilled. Her friend advised I should go alone to a couple of junk shops on the Dhammazedi road first, to get a feel of what it was like; so armed with a map she marked for me I set off on an overcast but sweltering day, wearing khaki trousers with pockets, plastic flip-flops and a baggy linen shirt. I had some researching to do in that part of town and it looked as though it would just be half an hour’s walk away.

When I came out of the Myanmar Book Centre it was drizzling. The whole forecourt was one massive puddle. I splashed along to the street and turned in the direction of the junk shops. I had an umbrella and used it. The rain was torrential, then misty, then drifting, then torrential again. Well what could I expect at the end of the monsoon season? I walked along the pavement on top of the monsoon drain, which is covered in pavers with little gaps to let the water in. Then there were no more pavers over the open drain, so I walked in the road, cars swishing very close to me. I crossed the road when I saw a sidewalk, proceeded for several blocks, then ran into a restaurant being built out onto the pavement, so it was back to the road again. At this point there was a tidal wave of yellow muddy water to step through. Thank goodness my relative, Rachel Minus had suggested I wear flip-flops.

At one point, fearing I was lost, I asked a uniformed guard in a kiosk by a big gate if I was going the right way. Well, I waved my map at him and jabbed at it and he pointed me in the right direction. Lots of smiles all around, from both sides. Later, I learned he was a Government soldier, and people marvelled at how brave I’d been. No, not brave, just befuddled, lost and desperate. Finally I found the two junk shops. One was completely useless, but the other looked intriguing. It was run by this gentleman:

Antique dealer, Elvis impersonator and all round lovable rogue

Antique dealer, Elvis impersonator and all round lovable rogue

He sat me down on a none too clean chair and offered me some water in an old mug that he dusted with an equally suspect cloth. He handed me the goods I was interested in and didn’t seem downcast when I demurred at his expensive prices. When I returned something to him with a shake of the head, he sang a few bars of “Return to Sender,” a la Elvis Presley. He had the most amazing, large, vintage tin advertising sign at an equally amazingly large price, and to this day I wish I had bought it.

Vintage tin sign

Vintage tin sign

I could have stayed longer but I had to go. Trying to flag down a taxi on this busy road was a performance. After the fifth one turned me down, he suggested I would have better luck if I crossed the road, as the taxis were going in the right direction. So, I took my umbrella and life in my hands and waded shin deep in water across six lanes of traffic. The drivers were very polite, and slowed down as they diverted around me, but didn’t actually stop.

When I finally got back to my fairly swish hotel, I looked like an extra from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Trousers were wet to the thigh and muddy. The linen shirt was stuck to my back. My hair had turned into rats tails with the humidity. I was pink and sweaty and completely the opposite of the dainty Burmese women arriving for a wedding, clad in embroidered silk longyis; hair, nails and makeup glossy and perfect, skin powdered, diamonds glinting and kitten heels clacking.

Refreshed with a shower and change of clothes, I walked to my friend’s and was introduced to her landlord who was going to be guiding us on the afternoon’s antiquing trip. Bala was a Muslim born and bred in Yangon, and after many ups and downs with family fortunes was now a wealthy landowner. We were going to his old neighbourhood of Thingangyun, in the north east part of the city. The area was once the home of the prosperous Burmese middle class, and was still full of gently decaying teak homes with gingerbread trim. These were gradually being eroded in favour of new, shiny concrete and tile houses with barred windows. I suppose those materials are more easy-care in the harsh climate but they are not hla (pretty.)

IMG_6516

Two hla homes.

IMG_6497

 

New build flats with baskets to help top floor occupants buy from street traders

New build flats with baskets to help top floor occupants buy from street traders. Not very hla.

This small neighbourhood contained a Buddhist paya, a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Catholic nunnery. Everyone seemed to live beside each other with no divisions of race, class or religion.There were open drains and puddles galore, goats, chickens, and even cows tied up outside houses. alongside rundown cars.

Hindu temple

Hindu temple

IMG_6478

IMG_6520

We didn’t actually go into any shops. Bala knew people who demolished houses, or built cupboards and doors, and he took us to their workshops. Piled high outside would be wonderful Art Deco furniture in teak and rattan, deforming in the rain. Some of the places had shelves with a few objects that they had thought worth saving, but I wondered what they had left behind.

Old Burma Furniture

IMG_6476

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I found an Art Deco stepped glass vase for Laetitia in one place, practically the only piece of glass we saw that wasn’t damaged. Bala translated for us and we paid in US dollars. My treasure was a late 19th century or early 20th century teak carving of a Burmese Naga, a mythical serpent dragon. It had once been on the front of a cupboard, and was slightly damaged on one side. It was grey and filthy with cobwebs deep inside the undercuts, but I could see the work was complex and crisp. For thirty dollars it was mine! After being scrubbed with a toothbrush and oiled, it now hangs in my office at the bottom of the basement stairs. The wood is black, the serpent smiles and every time I look at it, so do I.

Carved wood Naga   Naga carving

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In Praise of Boring Books: A Golden Example

Have you ever stopped reading a book that everyone is raving about because you just found it…..boring? Have you persevered to the end of dull books just because you think you might learn something and afterwards regretted all that time you will never get back? I am here to tell you that sometimes it pays to read to the end of even the most yawn inducing volumes.

If you look at the top of this blog you will see a Book List page where I tell you why I set myself a goal in 2014 to read a lot about Burma and which books I read. Most of these would not have been books I’d normally choose to read for fun, but by the end of the year I was a convert to the non-fiction, history and WWII genres. I forced myself to read many books that previously I would have ditched after a few pages. As well as the books from my uncle’s library I started looking for more. So, a few weeks ago I spotted a book at a local secondhand bookstore, Russell Books, after I scrutinized all the shelves in their Southeast Asia section. It was written by a man outstanding in his field and literally, Out Standing In A (Burmese) Field. It was “The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma,” by Manning Nash, published in 1965.

Cover

Cover

Dr. Nash was a member of The American Ethnological Society, The American Anthropological Association and The Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He taught anthropology at the university of California, the University of Washington and at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD. He had done field work in Guatemala and Mexico, and later in Malaya. His field work for this book was done in 1960/61, just before the infamous military takeover that locked the country away until 2012. He chose two villages in Upper Burma near Mandalay: Nondwin, a mixed crop community and Yadaw, a rice growing community.

It could only be read in short doses while my mind was wide awake. It was no good reading it before bed, unless I wanted to fall asleep suddenly, like a parrot with a cloth over its cage. It had no photographs of the area  or even drawings of the thatched huts or a bullock cart. It was as sere as a summer in the Dry Zone of Upper Burma. I started referring to it as The Most Boring Burma Book in the World.

Modernity map

After reading a good introduction about the basic history of Burma I faltered at the first hurdles of maps and tables. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you: maps and this woman do not get on. I have been known to search for a friend’s house on an entirely different street one block parallel to hers and nearly convince myself her house had shape-shifted since I was last there. Nash’s maps were black and white line drawings that I itched to colour in. Shouldn’t the Irrawaddy be blue, the fields green and the scrubland beige? And then there were tables: Crops worked with acre and cultivator totals, return per acre of cotton or sesamum (sesame seed), a graph of landholding sizes, so many tables quantifying minutiae …..but then I came to Table VII: Average Monthly Expenditure Pattern of a Rich Household. I was hooked.

A viss is 3.6 lbs or 1.63 kg.

A viss is 3.6 lbs or 1.63 kg.

This table and its companion for the Moderate and Poor families made the village of Nondwin spring to life. I read on and was rewarded with a description of life in the Burmese countryside that with few changes could easily be written of the villages today. The farmers In 2015 might have cellphones but they still use bullock carts and wooden ploughs. I’ve seen satellite dishes on houses at Inle Lake but the cultivation of floating gardens continues. Cooking over open fires, the wearing of the longyi and the morning ritual of feeding the monks  is normal, and Buddhism is still the main religion.

Woman making rice crackers over a charcoal fire. She makes up to 400 per day and sells them in the market.

Woman making rice crackers over a charcoal fire. She makes up to 400 per day and sells them in the market.

Satellite dishes on the old stilt houses of Inle lake.

Satellite dishes on the old stilt houses of Inle lake.

I had a companion as I read. The previous owner of the book, David S. Moyer according to the bookplate, had pencilled parentheses in the text and N.B’s in the margins. Normally this marking of books annoys me no end and I find the more emphatic the underlinings the less likely the reader has finished the book but Mr. Moyer obviously read every word and fully grasped what was important. I like to think, but have no proof, that he was a graduate student attending one of Nash’s classes when he pencilled the notes in this book.

book plate

The reward for reading on was finding nuggets of gold like this selection of his nota benes:

“The villagers have the material equipment of a mode of life developed centuries ago and a mental outlook more closely geared to that than the modern world, but, at the same time, they are acting members of a working Asian democracy, and they are participants in the political and economic processes of transformation.”

“Toward what is seen as government, villagers take a stance akin to what they take when dealing with nats (the animistic beings peopling a good part of the village conceptual world): They try to ward off or to minimize this potential evil.”

“Women are full, functional members of society, whether they marry or not, as are men, and of course the unmarried are built-in parts of the social structure, not anomalies. The great overlap in the sexual division of labor makes it simple, on the side of the ordinary business of keeping fed, groomed, kempt, and housed, for single persons to live alone. Men can sew, cook, baby-tend, wash clothes, and shop for food. Women can work in the field, drive bullock carts, chop wood, and be prominent in market transactions.”

My favourite is :”Government is one of the five traditional enemies, along with fire, famine, flood, and plague.”

Since Burma has had little to do with Western countries for the past fifty plus years, it has been frozen in time and many of Professor Nash’s meticulous observations still hold true in the country today, whether it’s rural vs urban populations, the educated classes vs agricultural workers, or the common people vs the ruling elite in Naypyidaw. Considering there is going to be a free (ish) and democratic (sort of) election in Burma at the end of 2015, I think anyone in the Western press surmising about the outcome would do well to study “The Golden Road to Modernity” before coming to any conclusions. We know what happened recently in the UK elections and how the polls and pundits got it so wrong. To find gold you have to sift through masses of heavier material; I hope the election predictors for Myanmar do their homework and get it right, even if it means reading The Most Boring Burma Book in the World.

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A Love Affair with Lovedale

 

Scan

In an earlier post I mentioned Dad’s long journey to school every year (boat from Rangoon to Calcutta, then three days on a train to Lovedale.) He told me that despite the strict discipline he had had the time of his life there. He joined the band and played the clarinet. He won prizes for shooting and boxed as a featherweight, which gave rise to my nickname for him, Feth. He explored the forest and collected birds’ eggs which started his lifelong love of birds and birdwatching.  He made good friends there and spoke of them: Amber, Hoot, Ginger, Dungey, Bhamo and Max.He also innocently flirted with the girls when for the first time the school held coeducational classes.

In the 1970’s I lived in England and he asked me to put an ad in a major newspaper listing these nicknames, naming the school and asking if they would like to meet up with Mino on one of his trips. There was no response. Twenty years later he heard via a letter he had sent to The National Geographic Magazine that someone named Max Cocker, who claimed to be an old schoolmate, would like to contact him. He was as excited as a little boy at his birthday party, Christmas, Cup Final (ice hockey and soccer) all rolled into one. This kicked off his only visit back to Burma in the mid 1990’s plus a trip to the school, which is still going, in India. He met with Max and they became firm e-mail buddies. He also attended several Old Lawrencian reunions in London and kept in touch with several others.

Max had written a reminiscence of his schooldays and sent my father a copy. To Mino’s joy he was mentioned in five anecdotes. I present them here, five pages scanned from the book, Lovedale; The Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, South India: a
Personal Account by Max Cocker. C 1988.

Catching a trout

Catching a trout

Lab accident

Lab accident

Stealing young hawks

Stealing young hawks

Egg blowing

Egg blowing

Snake on the path.

Snake on the path.

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We’ve Got The Power

 

We’ve Got the Power sung by the Pointer Sisters

(Michael Brooks/Bob Esty)

I know the rules for foolish games

They only fill a heart with pain

We need a rest, a change of pace

Come take my heart to a silent place

Where our dreams run wild

The simple joy of a little child lives here

Telling us to hold on a little longer

 

We can climb a mountain

To the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To take us anywhere we wanna go

 

We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows

 

With what we have is where we start

And what we build or tear apart

Depends on what we gain or lose

What we reject and what we choose

When I see your smile

The simple joy of a baby child is born

Reminding us to hold on a little longer

 

We can climb a mountain

To the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To take us anywhere we wanna go

 

We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows

 

Thinking of a title for this post, the song, “We’ve Got the Power” popped into my mind. The lyrics could easily apply to the group that travelled to Rangoon to save the Armenian Church. The group included some trustees of other Armenian churches, international businessmen and interested parties like myself, headed by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians; His Grace Bishop Haigazun Najarian; Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Australia and New Zealand and Pontifical Legate of the Far East; Very Rev. Fr. Zaven Yazichyan; Armenian spiritual pastor of India and Manager of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy of Kolkata; and by Rev. Fr. Paruyr Avetisyan, Director of the Intra Church Relations Department of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.

 

Some of the Group

Some of the group

“We’ve got the power”

One could say that by the simple act of visiting the church, this influential group brought it into prominence. It was the first time in history that a Catholicos had visited Burma. It was the first time in decades the church had more than a handful of people at its services. It was the first time a church in Yangon had received an historical Blue Plaque. It was the first time ever, I am willing to bet, that it had a rugby scrum of paparazzi and reporters on its doorstep. With this kind of news coverage (the Burmese nationals and the BBC) you’d think the job would be done. But it wasn’t.

Plaque ceremony crowd

Plaque ceremony crowd

 

“Telling us to hold on a little longer”

There was the problem of the impostor pastor who had the keys to the church. He had taken control last year by the simple act of changing the padlocks on the doors. Even after the denunciation of him from the pulpit, he still wasn’t getting the message that his time was over. On the first Sunday after the visit by His Holiness, the promised Armenian priest from Calcutta could not be there due to visa complications. It takes longer to get a multiple visit visa than a tourist one. There was no way the group would let the church be empty.

Ashot Tunyan, who lives in Singapore stepped in. He came to speak to the newly gathered congregation of two dozen and to reassure them that with their commitment the church would have a future. Impostor Pastor was there as well, dressed up in his robes. (Where did he buy them? There must be a special ecclesiastical supply catalogue rather like the Sears Wish Book.) He introduced Ashot to us while we fumed. He then gave ‘translations’ into Burmese of what Ashot was saying, which weren’t accurate, trying to make us believe the handover was all his idea.

Ashot has come every Sunday since, sometimes with his family. He has succeeded in legally changing the locks so the keys are in the right hands. Father Zaven Yazichyan started coming on Oct. 19 and he or another priest from Calcutta will come every Sunday. The congregation has added some new members and now has an after-the-service meet and greet over coffee or tea.

Ashot Tunyan, second from left.

Ashot Tunyan, second from left.

 

Fr. Zaven addressing the congregation

Fr. Zaven addressing the congregation

 

“With what we have is where we start” 

The congregation is the real key for the success of the church. While it is a charming Eastern/Colonial/English country church building that welcomes visitors of all faiths, it isn’t a museum exhibit just for tourists. In one of his meetings, when asked by a Burmese Armenian descendant how had the current situation happened, His Holiness said it happened because no one, except Richard and Rachel Minus cared. No one, except this father and daughter, was proud of their Armenian heritage. This was the start – these two. At that meeting all the descendants of the original Rangoon Armenians present were asked to make a commitment to the church. As a result there are now enough members to form a committee of Trustees.

Rachel and Richard Minus with His Holiness Karekin II

Rachel and Richard Minus with His Holiness Karekin II

 

Some of the descendants of the Armenians of Rangoon

Some of the descendants of the Armenians of Rangoon

 

“The simple joy of a baby child is born”

The church has already had two baptisms, a sure sign of regeneration. Ashot’s son was the first, a little boy, not a baby. Rachel’s little niece of six months was next. Rachel and her daughter, Beyonce, and Rachel’s sister were confirmed. The church will be welcoming Rachel’s new baby next year in June. Congratulations, Rachel!

IMG_7097

 

Ashot and Lora Tunyan with their son

Ashot and Lora Tunyan with their son

The Minuses, baptized and confirmed

The Minuses, baptized and confirmed

 

“We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows”

 

This present church building has existed since 1862, there has been an Armenian church in Yangon for nearly 250 years. It has endured capricious kings, Colonial wars, recessions, fire, bombing during World War II and the isolation of a repressive military government. Through it all, the Armenian members hung on, until there were just two.  Those two reached out to the Armenian diaspora, and this is the result. It has surpassed our hopes; from nearly being stripped of it assets in cash and land to now hosting a growing congregation every Sunday, the Church has an excellent chance of survival.

I think all of us who took part in this adventure feel like they are on top of the world. Did we think we were chasing rainbows? If we did, the rainbow was surely caught and will live forever.

The church steeple

The church steeple

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One Quarter Armenian. One Hundred Per Cent Feisty

Armenian Women, 1895

Armenian Women, 1895

“I am a quarter Armenian but it’s the best part of me.” I first said this in Singapore where I was welcomed by the Armenians in Asia as they continued their historic tour with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. If you are unfamiliar with His title, He is to the Armenian faith what the Pope is to Catholicism.

Why was I on this tour?

About a year ago I received an emotional phone call from my ‘cousin’ Rachel in Rangoon. Cousin is in quotation marks because by family tree rules she is considered to be my third cousin, once removed. By the rules of our friendship she is much more than that. I met her during my first visit to Burma in January, 2013, at the Armenian Church in Rangoon. She, her father Richard and Mr. Basil Martin were the sole local parishioners, although occasionally the congregation swelled to eight or nine if visiting tourists or NGO members came. Richard Minus (Yay! another Minus) had been the Warden for many years and took an active part in the service, ringing the bells, while Rachel was the sole voice of the choir, and a very beautiful one.

At that time I met what I thought was the current priest, John Felix. He invited me to read from the lectern. He invited everyone up to take the sacrament, whether they were baptised in the Christian faith or not. He did not speak Armenian, nor was ordained in the Armenian church. His sole claim to his job seemed to be that his father, an ordained Anglican priest had held the position for more than 20 years. When he died in 2011, his son stepped in, claiming to have the same qualifications. He took great pains to tell me who he had been ordained by and where. No clergyman I have ever met has felt the need to do this.

I asked to see the register of Births, Marriages and Deaths.  It was stolen along with the candlesticks, he said. Any other documents about the church? Yes but you can’t see them. Why not? You cannot step up close to the altar where they are stored in a safe as you are not ordained. Well, can  you bring them out to me? Not possible, he said with much smarmy grinning. He was obsequious to the point of being another Uriah Heep.

But, I always think the best of people and in this church my grandparents were married, my grandfather had his funeral rites and my great-aunts’ trek was remembered in a plaque. So, I gave him $200 for the church and $25 for himself. In case you think that is a bit cheap, consider that the average monthly wage in Burma is $40.

Making a donation in January, 2013

Making a donation in January, 2013

 

He took me to see Mr. Basil Martin, the last full Armenian to worship in the church, although failing health had made his visits few of late. Mr. Martin lived in the splendid colonial house where he was born, hardly updated except for a modern bathroom. The kitchen was a separate building connected to the house by a covered walkway. Inside was the huge brick cooking range fired by wood with holes in the top to accommodate the ‘degchis’ or cooking pots. A single cold tap fed by a garden hose sufficed for water.
The modern fridge was inside the house. He was looked after by Rita, the Chinese housekeeper and her daughter.

I was allowed to see inside the house. You could see it had once been an elegant home, but now it was in a squalid state. I was most shocked by the state of Mr. Martin’s bedroom. His mattress was on the floor, covered by a dirty cloth tent with ragged mosquito netting panels. The room was dusty with the accumulation of months, not days. There was no air conditioning, all the windows were shut tight and looked like they had been that way for years. The house sat on two acres in the rich embassy neighbourhood of Rangoon. He rented out the top half to a doctor and his family. He was descended from the prosperous family of A.C. Martin, who built many of the beautiful colonial buildings you see today. How had his life and the life of the church come to this?

Rachel’s call revealed all. Mr. Martin died in May, a few months after our meeting. He had been Chairman of the trustees, with Richard as Warden. There was only the two of them and now one was dead. John Felix had declared he was head of the trustees now and he would sell the church grounds off to the highest bidder. Contractors were abuzz with excitement. Rachel asked me tearfully if he could do this.

Of course not! Was the man insane? Church property belongs to the church, not some individual. How dare he mislead me and try to sell this property? My blood was up.

That phone call started me researching everything I could about the church. Rachel contacted the Armenians in Asia group and we both communicated with Pierre Hennes of Singapore. They were shocked by what was happening and started the ball rolling which, a year later, culminated in the first visit ever to Rangoon by the head of the Armenian Church.

His Holiness, His Grace the Archbishop, attendant priests and the worldwide group of influential Armenians travelling with them throughout His SE Asian tour attended the installation of a blue historical plaque, only the third awarded by the Yangon Heritage Trust. This trust, headed by Thant Myint U, is doing wonderful work trying to preserve the colonial buildings in Rangoon. Laetitia Millois, of YHT, and I had worked together on three storyboards inside the church, giving visitors a chance to understand not just the history of the church but the importance of Armenians to the development of Burma and Rangoon.

Historical plaque outside the Armenian Church installed by Yangon Heritage Trust on Oct. 1, 2014

Historical plaque outside the Armenian Church installed by Yangon Heritage Trust on Oct. 1, 2014

On Saturday, October 4th, the church was packed for the liturgy to be performed by His Holiness Karekin II. This was the culmination of a year’s worth of emails, phone calls, research at the British Library, shock at Felix’s manoeuvres, times when we felt like giving up. We knew, however, that the experienced and influential Armenians in Asia group had everything in hand.  The deceitful John Felix was not going to mis-represent himself as a priest and take over. He was not going to sell off my ancestors’ heritage. I would see him in Hell before I let that happen.

A packed church on Oct. 4, 2014. Tina Minus talks to Winsome Vertannes in the centre. Winsome's mother waits for the service to start.

A packed church on Oct. 4, 2014. Tina Minus talks to Winsome Vertannes in the centre. Winsome’s mother waits for the service to start.

I was not familiar with all the details of the liturgy, but I did wonder why His Holiness and attendant priests spent a long time washing every surface of the altar. Then His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand made this announcement:

“Dear faithful,
Today we are going to re-­‐consecrate the altar of St
John the Baptist Armenian Church because John
Hla Win Felix has misrepresented himself as an
Anglican priest and has desecrated the church by
performing Divine Liturgies and sacraments. Mr.
Felix is not a priest, neither Armenian nor
Anglican. Therefore, according to the canons of
the Armenian Church and the Traditional
Churches, any sacrament officiated by him is not
valid.

We call on Mr. Felix exhorting him to stop violating
Church Canons and Holy Traditions and insulting
the Armenian Church and nation.

What has happened is painful for all of us. We pray
that God may pour His graces upon our faithful
and keep them in peace and harmony. ”

His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of The Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand

L to R: His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, the Very Reverend Father Zaven Yazichyan, and His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of The Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand

Well, I was in church. You can’t jump up and scream “Yes,” while pumping your fist in the air. But as I looked around at the beaming smiles of the congregation I knew they all felt like doing just that. Another cousin, Tina Minus, leaned forward and said this must be translated for the Burmese newspapers. I hope it was.

The press were there, security were there, but where were Rachel and Richard? For that matter, Felix wasn’t there, either. They were all together with the lawyers. Felix had been exposed and they wanted answers.They had discovered proof he was never ordained as a priest, merely a deacon. He was de-frocked of this title while in Thailand, for misappropriation of funds, so was completely without any qualifications when he came to the church in Rangoon.

He deceived Mr. Martin, playing on his father’s reputation, manipulating a frail and trusting old man. By church law, he desecrated the altar every time he used it, Sunday after Sunday for more than three years. The lawyers wanted him to return the keys to the church. He refused. They issued him an ultimatum: if he did not return the keys by 12:30 he would be denounced at the service. He could have one month to quit the shack he lived in, rent free, on the church property. He talked vaguely of having papers but funnily enough could not produce them. So, the denunciation was made.

The BBC who were working on an article and had interviewed me, for background history, and Rachel, for what the church meant to her, immediately took up the story. You can see it here.

Look at Felix’s body language and come to your own conclusions. A couple of days later I visited the church. Felix was still there. I asked what on earth he was doing there? He retreated to his shack and shut the door in my face. I talked at him through the keyhole telling him I knew he was de-frocked and had no right to be there. He threatened me with the police. The cheek of the man knows no bounds, but this feisty one quarter Armenian lady will not put up with it, and neither will the Armenian community worldwide.

I will go to the church this Sunday, Oct. 12th along with the Minus clan, to enjoy the service conducted by the Very Reverend Father Zaven Yazichyan. He assisted at the re-consecration and will be one of three priests from Calcutta who will come every Sunday, to serve the new congregation in a newly cleansed church. It is a re-birth for the little church that was consecrated in 1863 and the result of the innate feistiness of Armenians all over the world.

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The Congregation

Congregation in the late 1950's or early 1960's

Congregation in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s

 

In my last post I gave you a little bit of the history of the Armenian Church in Rangoon. After I visited and went home, I emailed the Yangon Heritage Trust to ask if the church could be put on the register of historical buildings. After all, the church was the first Christian church to be established in Rangoon in 1766, when it was made of  wood and brick. I corresponded with them regularly and tried to dig up more about the church. A relative I had met in Burma sent me two scans of the congregation, with pretty much the same members  in it. With help from my uncle Arthur in London, my dad’s cousin, Noel Minus and his daughter Chris in California, Rachel Minus in Rangoon and various others in Australia I added names and in some cases a word or two about their lives. I would dearly love to identify the question marks in this list.

The Yangon Heritage Trust put up a blue plaque on a building the other day, the first of many, we hope. One day this church will have its plaque, and it will be well deserved. Until I visited it was not a part of the tourist trail. I wrote the first review on Tripadvisor  in 2013 and told my friend Paula Swart-Till, who was the first person to encourage me to go to Burma. She is an Asian art history expert, hired by tour operators like National Geographic to lead tours in Burma, and now the church is one of the must-see places on the itineraries she devises.

Despite the fact that the current congregation when I was there consisted solely of my relative Rachel, her father Richard (the Warden) and the odd NGO worker, I think this church could have a future. This does not include selling the property to a developer, much as some people would like. I don’t usually espouse causes. I don’t belong to any political party. I don’t donate to Greenpeace, although I did attend their Amchitka concert years ago, but that was because of the music. I am a member of the silent majority but this cause stirs my heart. My grandparents were married in this church in 1920. My grandfather, broken and in ill health after the Japanese occupation, died at the age of 51, and his funeral ceremony was held in this church. The plaque honouring his sisters and their families who died in the Trek is in this church. I will do my utmost to see that this church survives.

Those identified in the photograph:

Front Row, L to R:

1. Pete Aratoon. Owned the Silver Grill pre-war. After 1945 he managed the Strand Hotel and later the Kanbawza, the government run hotel that used to be Chin Tsong’s Palace.

2. Archie Gregory. Ran Gaspar and Co., started by his uncle, a bachelor. Archie’s younger brother is John, end of third row.

3. Carr Johns. A long time employee of A.C. Martin and Co. He married a Burmese lady and never left Burma.

Priest from Julfa, Ter Poghos Petrossian.

4. Joe Martin, youngest son of A.C. Martin. He married Helen Apcar, third row.

5. Alfred Simon Mackertich Minus, eldest son of Simon Minus. Father of Keith and Eric.

6. Leon or Gregory Elias. Worked for years at Balthazar and Co.

Second Row, L to R.

7. John (?) Alexander.

8. Marjorie Minus, wife of Keith Minus

9. Priest’s wife, Mrs. ? Petrossian

10. Edie Gregory, nee Minus, married to Bertie Gregory, top row. Sister of Alfred Minus.

11. Annie Minus. Spinster sister of Edie and Alfred Minus.

12. Mrs. Gaspar, related to the Elias family who owned the Continental, a big catering and bakery business.

13. Mrs. Elias

14. Miss Christine Elias

15. Dr. Kenny Minus, second son of George N. S. Minus. He stayed in Burma but went to the U.S. for a short while, then spent the rest of his life in Fiji. I met him when our family travelled to California in 1960, so this photo is more likely to be from the 1950’s.

Third Row, L to R

16. Alexandra Maud Minus, my great-aunt

17. Helen Martin (nee Apcar.)

18. ?

19. Margaret Minus, youngest child of Simon Minus.

20. Sarah MacJohn.

21. ?

22. Noreen Martin, sister to Basil Martin.

23. Ripsy Minas ( wife of Jockey Minas, manager of Kanbawza Hotel.)

24. John Gregory, younger brother of Archie.

Fourth Row

Two men standing:

Man # 1, ?

Man # 2, William Hugh Minus, son of John Mackertich Minus, married to Alexandra Maud Minus.

Back Row, L to R

25. Bertie Gregory, husband of Edie Minus

26. Catchik Stevens, husband of Grace Minus, father of Kay Stevens

27. ?

28. ?

29. Keith Minus

30. Basil Martin

31. Jockey Minas, manager of Kanbawza Hotel

32. ?

33. ?

34. Joe Aratoon, nicknamed ‘Oxford Joe’

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The Armenian Church in Rangoon

In one of my previous posts I talked about the trek of the great-aunts and the plaque erected in the church to honour them. One of the first things I researched after our trip to Burma was the history of the church, what little there is. I picked up references to it in B.R. Pearn’s ‘A History of Rangoon,’ and in Colesworthy Grant’s ‘A Rough Trip to Rangoon in 1846.’ I referred to Liz Chater’s excellent blog, Chater Genealogy which is full of information about the Armenians in India. It will be an ongoing project to explore on my next trip to Rangoon, which is coming up soon.

The Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist, in Rangoon, Burma

Outside the church.

Outside the church.

This church is the second to be built by the Armenian community. The first one was not far away on the site of the Law courts, built by Gregory Avas (see note 1 below) with local bricks and a wooden spire, in ca1766.

This was most likely a grant of land from the East India Company, who were so desperate to get their hands on Persian silk they rashly granted all Armenian traders and their families the right to be treated as British subjects in every way, as well as to be given free land for a wooden church to be built at the EIC’s expense if they numbered more than 40, until the community could erect a church of a more substantial nature. (See note 2 below)

There were other churches in Syriam, Mandalay and Ava, but few traces remain. A traveller in 1836 thought Rangoon was nothing but a ‘neglected swamp,’ with huts of thatch and bamboo, a few wooden houses and only five small brick places of worship – an Armenian church, 3 mosques and a Roman Catholic Church. The only other large building was the brick, wood and thatch house of Mr. Manook, the most important Armenian merchant.

View of Rangoon, Colesworthy Grant

The wooden spire of the original Armenian Church, built in 1766, rises in the background of Rangoon. From ‘A Rough Trip to Rangoon in 1846’ by Colesworthy Grant 

 

The British Government of India sent Lt.-Col. A. P. Phayre (later Sir Arthur Phayre) to oversee the building of a new city on the swampy site of Rangoon in the early 1850’s and all existing land immediately became property of the government. People were allowed to stay, or even squat on unoccupied lots, paying rent, until the government had drawn up the city plan – then the lots would be up for sale or lease. Despite many petitions or ‘memorials’ as they were called proving the validity of previous contracts, land sales and grants, all deals were off. Instead, a free grant of land was given to all churches, exempt of purchase price and exempt from taxation. The Armenians were given this site, the southwest corner of Merchant and Sparks streets. All the records of this church have been lost, so we do not know who designed it. The land was given circa 1853, listed in Thacker’s Indian Directory as being founded in 1858, then finally consecrated on January 17th, 1863. The officiating priest was Revd. Father Aviet Chaytor.

Burma 2013 Jan 097

 

It makes the most of a high roof and Gothic arch pointed windows. The concessions to the tropical climate are the covered entrance porch and side porch, which serve in both the hot sun and torrential monsoon rains. The pews are not solid, but cane seated, another nod to the heat. The bell, which is still rung by hand during the weekly Sunday service, was cast in England. The roof was redesigned in 1908/9.

3476_004

During the Second World War the church suffered some damage to its roof. It was repaired and rebuilt, the result of which can been seen today.

Burma 2013 Jan 105

 

Presently all properties in central Yangon are being eyed by developers and this large church property which also has an overgrown garden is no exception. It was never put on the Heritage list in the 1990’s. Please contact the Yangon Heritage Trust at yangonheritagetrust.org if you would like to see it survive.

 

A list of previous priests, wardens etc. of the church

Nearly all of the information in this table, never previously published, comes from the Thacker’s Indian Directories in the British Library. I spent many hours turning the tissue thin pages, absorbed by the depth of information contained within, and collected all the names and dates referring to the Armenian Church in Rangoon.

The spellings are as found in the directories. Note that the church lists itself in 1917 as being founded in 1858 and there is an address change in 1931. Any blanks are because no information was submitted that year, or the directory was missing.

Priests of the Armenian Church in Rangoon 1844-1941

Reverend K Felix, officiated from 1978 to 2011.

Links to other articles about the church (will be updated as I discover more of them):

Tracing the Last of Burma’s Once Influential Armenians

From the BBC, Aug. 27th, 2014:

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28867884
From the Irrawaddy Magazine Oct. 1, 2014

http://www.irrawaddy.org/feature/burmas-last-armenians-eagerly-await-visit-supreme-patriarch.html

 

Notes:

Note 1 – This was most likely Gregory of Ava, mentioned in letters in the East India Company’s archives as an adviser to King Alaungpaya. Gregory did everything he could to frustrate the EIC’s ambitions to trade in Burma, from mis-translating their letters to the King, to whispering in his ear rumours of EIC soldiers and armed ships using the factories (trading posts) to conquer the country. His machinations played a large part in the massacre at Negrais.

Note 2 – Although this happened in many areas where the EIC had a factory, including Singapore, subsequent research has proven it was not the case here.  King Alaungpaya granted the land to the Armenian community in the 1750’s, after he established Rangoon as a favoured port to replace Syriam which was quickly silting up.

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Posted in Armenian Church, Armenians in Burma | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments