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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Ngapi and Balachung; or how I learned to love rotten fish

 

Dried fish at a market on Inle Lake, Burma

Dried fish at a market on Inle Lake, Burma

If I had to describe Burma as a smell, it would be ngapi. At times, walking along Rangoon’s streets, the smell seemed to rise up from the ruined pavements. Every food market had its ngapi and dried fish booth which perfumed the air. It is one of the ingredients of fish sauce, which is used in Burmese recipes and also put on the table mixed with garlic and chilli flakes, as we would put out mustard or ketchup. It is also the key flavour in balachung, a Burmese condiment I learned to love. So, what is ngapi you ask? It is fermented (read “rotten”) fish or shrimp paste, mashed with salt. Moulemein used to be the centre of ngapi production, and early travellers used to comment about the fish or shrimp spread out on the beach to rot in the sun.

“Ngapee is a condiment made of preserved fish, which is universally eaten by the people of Burma, and for which there is consequently a very large demand. It is a sort of paste which mixes with rice like chtnee. Having never been induced to taste it, I am unable to offer any experienced opinion as regards its flavour, but judging from its appearance I should think anchovies should be preferred by Europeans.”

From “Journal of a Voyage Up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and Bhamo,” by James Talboys Wheeler, 1871.

Balachung is a Burmese condiment made from dried shrimp, fried garlic and onions, chilli pepper and ngapi. It was popular with Europeans in Colonial times, as it had a milder rotten fish taste compared to pure ngapi or fish sauce. Nevertheless, it is still intensely fishy and salty (think anchovies on steroids) as well as pungent. So pungent that no one would dream of making it indoors. My Dad did it once, and was banned from making it indoors ever again. The pungency comes from just a small amount of ngapi in the recipe.

 

Ingredients for balachung

Ingredients for balachung

We had balachung on curries, or just a spoonful on plain rice. My mum used to like white bread balachung sandwiches. I had it the other day mixed into a simple chicken and vegetable stir-fry, and it lifted the plain dish to ambrosial heaven. I didn’t like it as a child, but one day my Dad said to me, “Never mind. You have to have been born in Rangoon to like this stuff.” Although that didn’t make me an instant convert, I remembered the comment much later and asked Dad to give me some of his balachung the next time he made it. He was overjoyed. My family? Not so much. To this day, more than twenty years after opening that first jar, no one except me eats it. My daughter practically has to leave the room; my husband puts up with it but not without comments like, “When are you going to tell CSIS you’re making chemical weapons?”

Every summer I set up a mini kitchen outside, in order to make balachung. The recipe my family has always used is from Charmaine Solomon’s classic, “The Complete Asian Cookbook.” All the ingredients are available at any Chinese food store. The ngapi is usually from Thailand and labelled “Shrimp Paste.” Read the label on the side of the pot – there should be nothing in it except shrimps and salt.

My outdoor kitchen

My outdoor kitchen

Balachung

Ingredients:

20 cloves of garlic

4 medium onions

2 cups peanut oil

8 oz dried shrimp. Pick the pinkest, largest, softest brand you can find.

2 tsp. chilli powder

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ngapi

1/2 cup vinegar

Peel the garlic and cut into thin slices, from top to bottom, not across. Cut off the stem and root ends of the onions, then cut them in half from top to bottom. Now it is easier to peel off the brown skin. Slice across into very thin strands. Soak the shrimp in warm water for 10 minutes, drain and pat dry. To turn the shrimp into powder you can use a food processor or mortar and pestle. Process until you have a fluffy shrimp pile. Dissolve the ngapi in the vinegar by stirring vigorously, and add the salt.

Processed dried shrimp

Processed dried shrimp

Heat the oil to medium or 340-350 degrees F in a large saucepan or deep wok. I used to use an electric wok, but this year I used a large enamelled cast iron saucepan on a portable induction burner. Do this outside!

Fry the garlic slices till they are golden, then lift out into a colander set over a bowl. This will take just a few minutes and you must be careful not to let the garlic burn.

Fried garlic slices

Fried garlic slices

Now fry the onion in the same oil. At first it seems as though all the slices won’t fit, but gradually most of the moisture is fried out of the onion, it turns golden and reduces to a pile barely larger than the garlic. This step takes a bit longer, about 15-20 minutes, and you need to stir occasionally at first, then constantly towards the end. Lift out the onion and drain in another colander. You can put the excess oil from the onions and the garlic back in the pan and let it come up to the heat again.

Onions reduced in volume after frying

Onions reduced in volume after frying

Add the shrimp fluff to the oil. It will bubble up. Fry for five minutes, then add the chilli powder and the ngapi mix. It will bubble up again, a strong fermented fish odour will permeate the neighbourhood, cats will come running into the yard, the neighbours will call out the hazardous waste disposal team……not really, I made those last two things up. It will be a pungent smell at first, but will mellow. Fry this mixture until it has darkened to a toasty brown. Take off the heat and let it cool. Mix in the onion and garlic, then put it into small sterilized jars. I keep the jars in a cool cupboard, but once opened they should be refrigerated.

This recipe yielded four cups or 32 fl. oz.

 

Finished! Recipe made 32 fl. oz or 4 cups.

Finished! Recipe made 32 fl. oz or 4 cups.

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School’s Out For Summer

Just like everything connected with my Dad’s childhood, his school experiences were not remotely like mine or anyone else that I knew. First of all, his long ‘summer’ holiday was from December to early March. This was the so called cool season in Burma (I was there in January and the daily high temperature averaged 90 degrees Fahrenheit!) All the studio photographs I have of him and the family were taken during these months. They always included one of the two brothers in their school uniforms. Until they were eleven years old they attended a local school called The Diocesan Girls’ School, despite there being a Diocesan Boys’ School. From the pictures it seems to be co-ed, and there are more Minus cousins attending, so maybe it was just tradition to send family there, or maybe it was closer to the house, I don’t really know. Dad had no stories to tell about this school so it was a lovely surprise from Arthur when he sent me this photograph.

Diocesan Girl's School. Rangoon, 1932. Dad is front row, second from right. Arthur is back row, second from right.

Diocesan Girls’ School. Rangoon, 1932. Dad is front row, second from right. Arthur is back row, second from right.

After turning eleven, each boy was sent to private boarding school in India. Arthur, the oldest, spent two years in Darjeeling at St. Paul’s School. When Dad was of age, both boys were sent to The Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, situated in southern India, high in the Nilgiri Hills. Dad always referred to it as “Lovedale,” which is the name of the nearest railway station. These schools were run very much on British boarding school lines, with a bit of military instruction thrown in at Lovedale.

Waving bye-bye to Dad and Arthur from Rangoon docks, March 1933

Waving bye-bye to Dad and Arthur from Rangoon docks, March 1933

Imagine you are their mother. You have to organize the purchase of their uniforms, other clothes, toiletries and supplies into a tin trunk each, because they won’t be coming back for nine months. You make sure they have haircuts and their photos taken. You admonish them to behave and to write to you weekly. You then accompany them on their three day journey across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta, catch the train at Howrah Station, get the connecting train at Madras, then finally board what is fondly called the Toy Train that tackles the switchbacks of the mountain by going backwards, to eventually arrive in Lovedale, three days later.

Except you don’t.

Current Railway Map

Current Railway Map

Dad and Arthur (and later, Shelagh, their younger sister) did this journey unaccompanied by adults. In an upright seat, not a sleeper. They were met at the Calcutta docks by an uncle and transferred to the train station, but that is it. The boat journey had lots of other children with parents going to India, plus regularly scheduled meals, so that wasn’t too bad. The train journey, however, is the source of three of Dad’s greatest stories.

The Monkey Who Stole My Lunch

Monkey at Indian train station. Courtesy The Sunday Times

Monkey at Indian train station. Courtesy The Sunday Times

Sounds like Rudyard Kipling, doesn’t it? Come with me O My Best Beloved, and I will tell thee a tale of the Mischievous Monkey of Metupalaiyam.

He did not eat in a dining car. Dad laughed himself speechless when I asked him if he did. He was given a small sum of money at the start of the journey to be spent buying food from the itinerant food sellers you see at every Indian railway station, the chai wallahs, mango sellers, dosai peddlers and others. Sitting in his compartment at a railway station he had just purchased a snack through the window from a peddler with a tray of treats carried on his head. Dad turned to put his change away and turned back to see a monkey swoop down from a nearby tree, grab his food and escape. That was that until the next stop, although knowing Dad, I expect he turned his big brown eyed charm onto the other passengers in the compartment and cadged some food.

The Budmash

From 'Hobson-Jobson, The Anglo-Indian Dictionary' by Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, first published in 1886

From ‘Hobson-Jobson, The Anglo-Indian Dictionary’ by Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, first published in 1886

Dad’s compartment had a full complement of passengers. The window was open to let the breezes in and as they chugged slowly away from a station a budmash dropped down from the roof outside and tried to get inside. They knew he was up to no good because:

a) He had an unorthodox method of entering the carriage.

b) He had a great curved knife clenched between his teeth.

For a moment everyone froze. Just as the budmash got his lower legs into the carriage while his upper body was still outside with his hands clinging to the window edges, a gentleman got up from his corner and pushed him powerfully in the chest. The budmash dropped from sight as the train was now running at speed. The gentleman dusted his hands and received congratulations from the little travelling party with modesty.

The Toy Train

 

Arthur, Norman and a friend on the Toy Train in Lovedale. December 17th,1937. Dad turned 15 the next day.

Arthur, Norman and a friend on the Toy Train in Lovedale. December 17th,1937. Dad turned 15 the next day.

This train is now famous as a tourist must see, but to Dad and his schoolmates it was the last stage of the journey to school. It operates on a very narrow gauge of 1 m, isolated from any other gauge, as well as using a toothed rack on the steep bits. From Metapalaiyam it runs about 29 miles, rising to 7000 feet at Lovedale, its penultimate stop before the final station, Ootacamund. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hogwart’s Express, eat your heart out.

For train spotters read more here.

Hope Grant House at Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, 1937. Dad is sixth from the right in the back row, Arthur is third from the right in the middle row.

Hope Grant House at Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, 1937. Dad is sixth from the right in the back row, Arthur is third from the right in the middle row.

Many years after graduating, Dad made contact with some of the old boys through an alumni group. In 1997 he toured the school again, where much had remained the same. A friend had written a book about his life in the school and Dad was thrilled to find he had been mentioned in it five times. I will save those stories for another post.

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My Mango Chutney

Ingredients for Mango Chutney

Ingredients for Mango Chutney

I said in my “About” page there would be food descriptions and recipes, so as I was making chutney this weekend I thought I would make it my first recipe in the blog.

I love food. I love shopping for it, cooking it and eating it. I love talking about it. When I was a poor student, living on rice mess (rice, vegetables and grated cheese) shared in a communal house,  I dreamed of one day having  my own kitchen with cupboards full of  cooking gadgets and doohickeys, plus shelves full of food I had made. I used to read cookbooks like other people read novels.

In our first small apartment after I married, I made all the jams, pickles and marmalade, baked bread and produced pies, cakes and cookies. I made my own mincemeat and the recipe I used for our Christmas pudding came from my Nan’s adaptation of one from a British Army cookbook, that originally served one hundred. I also made curry, at first using basic curry powder, then learning to mix the different spices together for a more authentic flavour, as my Dad used to do.

Dad’s curried chicken dinners were legendary and probably deserve a post all to themselves, but suffice it to say, after one of them all the guests, many of them curry haters, were converted and the kitchen looked and smelled like a small battalion of Gurkhas had camped in it.

So, here is my recipe for a mildly hot Indian style sweet mango chutney. If you clean up as you go, your kitchen won’t end up looking like my Dad’s.

Sharman’s Mango Chutney

Ingredients:

6 lbs. mangoes, slightly underripe (6 large ones) peeled, pitted and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 large onion, finely diced

8 cloves of garlic, minced

1/3 c. puréed fresh ginger root

1 red chilli pepper, cut into fine slivers, no seeds

4 c. golden or palm sugar

4 c. apple cider vinegar

Whole spices to be dry fried:

2 tsp. whole coriander seeds

1 tsp. whole cumin seeds

1 tsp.  whole cardamom seeds, no husk

Ground spices:

1 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. cloves

Other:

2 tsp. nigella seed, aka onion seed or kalonji

2 tsp. salt

 

Method:

Put the vinegar, sugar, ground spices, nigella seed and salt into a large pan and simmer gently until the sugar is dissolved. If you use the palm sugar which comes in hard pellets, you may need to stir from time to time. Turn off while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Finely dice the onion and add to the pan. Add the minced garlic, slivered chilli pepper and ginger purée. Prepare the mango by using a mango pitter (pictured) or slice down each side of the narrow pit with a sharp knife to get two halves of mango. Score the mango into cubes leaving the skin intact, then push inside out. The cubes will spring apart and you can slice them off with a knife. You can get a little more fruit off the remaining pit by slicing carefully. Add to pan.

Cutting a mango

Cutting a mango

Now, heat a dry frying pan over medium heat and toss in the whole spices for a minute, until they are fragrant. Immediately pour them onto a cold plate. When cool, grind them to a powder in an electric coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. I use a Braun coffee grinder I bought at a thrift shop just for spices.

Dry frying whole spices

Dry frying whole spices

 

Add these ground spices to the pan and turn up to medium. When it begins to boil, turn down to a light simmer, lid off. It needs to boil down to about half its volume. The mango and onion will be very soft and the juices thick. It will not be as thick and dry as a jam mixture. This time it took about two hours. Toward the end I kept checking and giving it a stir, but it didn’t seem as though it would stick.

Ready to simmer

Ready to simmer

Finished simmering

Finished simmering

Take off the heat and let sit for five minutes. Seal in hot canning jars with boiled lids. I used some recycled commercial jars with their lids and have stored chutney in a cool cupboard quite safely for a year or so this way. The sugar and vinegar act as preservatives. Officially, though, one should can in a boiling water bath with two piece lids. The chutney should now age for about a month before eating. If you can’t get cheap mangoes, I have used apples, plums, peaches, green tomatoes and even rhubarb with good results. Each fruit adds its own special taste.

Makes 6 x 12 oz. jars or 9 cups.

 

Finished jars

Finished jars

 

 

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The Trek of the Great-Aunts

My family came to Canada when I was very young, so I did not have the usual extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, although I was lucky to have my maternal grandmother living with us. I think because I was an only child, unused to extended families, I never felt much interest when Dad mentioned his aunts had done a trek. I got the impression they had trekked from Armenia to Burma before he was born; for whatever reason, he did not go into any detail about the trek. He must have known all about it, because after his only trip back to Burma in 1997, he told me there was a plaque in the Armenian church about them ‘because of the War,’ as he put it. Again, he didn’t explain and I just assumed it was the usual burial plaques one finds in Christian churches all over the world. That assumption could not have been more wrong.

At the end of 2012, I decided to visit Burma very suddenly, without too much planning. A friend put me in touch with a lovely Burmese travel agent, who suggested itineraries and booked flights and hotels. She was aghast that I wanted to spend so much time in Rangoon, three days either side of our tour. What would I be doing? Well, armed with old maps of the city, Arthur’s hand drawn map of Coffee Grove and the address of the Armenian Church, I was going on the ‘Minus Trail,’ as we called it. Due to researching the family tree, I had stumbled on a story that explained the aunts’ mysterious trek.

For those of you as unfamiliar as I was with WWII in Burma, I give a short background below:

On the 23rd of December, 1941 and again on Christmas Day, the Japanese bombed Rangoon. Although it was known they were in the country, they had confined their previous attacks far to the southeast. It was a complete surprise. and set in motion a tragedy that is often referred to as ‘the Forgotten War.’ There are many learned books about the fall of Rangoon, but the one I found most readable and accurate is ‘Last and First in Burma (1941-1948)’  by Maurice Collis. I will be quoting him extensively over the next few paragraphs.

Rangoon in 1945, after bombing by the Allies and the Japanese

Rangoon in 1945, after bombing by the Allies and the Japanese. Photo courtesy of Thant Myint-U

‘The streets were crowded with people, the Burmese, Indians and Chinese who made up the population of 400,000. They did not at once realize their danger; the planes seemed so high and far away. An official account states: ‘Along Strand Road hundreds of Indian coolies were interested spectators of the dog fights overhead; on these unfortunates stick after stick of anti-personnel bombs rained down.’ In a moment the pavements were strewn with the dead and dying. There followed a terrible panic. The civil defence, rescue and medical services broke down because nearly all their staff fled the city…. Altogether 2,000 people were killed, 750 died later and 1,700 were wounded.’

Forty fires were started and only by a supreme effort was the city full of teak houses prevented from burning to the ground. The second bombing on Christmas day wiped out nearly all the military aircraft at Mingaladon airport. After this there was a stream of refugees heading north to India. Over the next two months the Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith tried to get troops from Churchill, the Australians and our Chinese ally, Chiang Kai-Shek, but did not succeed. Things deteriorated; there was uncontrolled looting, the shops, bazaars and banks were shut and every ship that tried to take away refugees was in danger of being swamped by refugees who clambered over barbed wire, stepping on women and children. Some lucky people flew out when the planes were still operating, but as time went on it became impossible. Eventually the order came on March 8th to completely evacuate Rangoon, while making sure anything the enemy could use was destroyed. So, charges were laid in the docks and the great oil refineries across the river in Syriam, then set off by the last-ditchers. The inmates in Insein prison were released and so were the inhabitants of the lunatic asylum, because there was no food left and no one left to look after them. The man who gave this order was so disturbed at the chaos that resulted that he committed suicide the next day. At the leper colony the nuns said they would stay and God would provide. Even the Zoo was not spared; dangerous animals like the tigers, crocodiles and snakes were shot and the rest set free.

My great aunts had no government connections. They were solid middle class families, whose husbands ran their own small businesses or worked for the great British corporations. The aunts were used to having servants and spent their time visiting, shopping, doing good works for the Church and raising their children. At some point between Christmas 1941 and the end of February 1942 they left their comfortable houses, their cooks, chauffeurs, punkah-wallahs and ayahs and began their trek.

My belief, after reading about many others who did the same, was that they either left Rangoon late, or stayed in one of the towns in the north too long, because the route they chose over the mountains into India was through the Hukawng Valley. This route was infamous.

Hukawng Valley terrain

Hukawng Valley terrain. Map courtesy of Merrill’s Marauders

“In its [Myitkyina, a city in northern Burma] latitude was the Hukawng Valley, an exit to India in name only, as it involved a march of a hundred and fifty miles (as the crow flies) to the Indian border over roadless mountains, unmapped and largely unexplored, uninhabited, foodless and rank with malaria, a route which would for a well equipped exploring expedition (in the fine season) have been quite an adventure, but which for straggling refugees in the monsoon (due 15 May) was going to be like entering the Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

 The refugees not only endured endless steep climbs, but endless deep mud and leeches. A leech would drop from a branch, climb up a stalk of grass or be brushed from a leaf onto a passing body. It would make a hole in the skin, latch on an d suck blood until it was engorged like a small cigarette. The holes became septic and turned into jungle sores. There was no way to dry out shoes, clothing or packs, no level dry camping spot to sleep in overnight.

“What it is like to be drenched in the monsoon when marching through a tract of jungle-covered mountains two hundred and fifty miles wide is difficult for us here to imagine. It means mud to the knees on the level, slippery ascents hardly possible to climb, malaria in its worst forms, dysentery, assault by leeches (both the ordinary and the brown tiger breed) that drop from the trees, start from the grass, reach out from the bushes, and by sandflies, a worse torture than mosquitoes. It means, too, streams that become cataracts and cannot be crossed; nights in soaking clothes in a dripping lean-to; impossibility often of lighting a fire; and a cruel depression of the spirits.”

The deputy commissioner of Myitkyina, Robin McGuire, who trekked out with a party of seventeen men and women noted:

“There were plenty of dead bodies on the side of the road, but worse than these were the people tottering along or sitting by the wayside suffering from pneumonia and exhaustion.”

 Another diary from a refugee states:

“And then we saw elderly men and women standing weeping at difficult corners which they had not strength to go round. Then as we climbed further we came across dead animals and dying people… At one corner I tried four times to get round, finally clawing up on hands and knees.”

 The last quote on this terrible tragedy is from Professor Pearn:

“Few of the refugees had any experience of jungle life, and these wild and inhospitable hills must have filled them with terror….The longer the journey lasted, the more the strain began to tell….If a member of a party fell by the wayside he was left; husbands deserted wives who could not maintain the pace, sons deserted parents, even mothers deserted children.”

There were seven great-aunts, all sisters to my grandfather, Mackertich Minus. Three died on the trek. Here is what I know of some of them and their children from the 1942 Trek casualty lists published on the Anglo-Burmese Library website:

Mr. and Mrs. Lawson (nee Gladys Minus, 1900-1942) and a daughter died on the hill route from Sumprabum to Shinbwiyang. Reported by Miss G. Marshner at Margherita. The other daughter is reported by Miss G. Marshner to have been murdered by Kachins at Daikpone. Mr. Lawson was of the Motor House, Rangoon.

Miss Ester Minus (b.? d. 1942) died on the way to Shinbwiyang on the hill route from Sumprabum. Reported by Miss G. Marshner. Margherita report, dated 6th Nov. 1942.

Mr. Seymour, 17 years (son of Bertha Seymour, nee Minus) murdered by the Kachins at Daikpone. Information given by by Miss G. Marshner at Margherita.

Here is what I know about the others who aren’t on any lists:

Constance Abraham (1895-1942) was married to Victor “Vahoo” Abraham. He worked for the Irrawaddy Flotilla company, whose boats were a lifeline in Burma,  where there were few major roads. Early in 1942 he was asked to stay on in Rangoon as long as possible and he agreed to do so as long as his wife and children could have a free passage to safety on one of the company’s boats. At the last minute the company did not honour their pledge, so Connie and her children trekked out and all of them died. Vahoo met my uncle after the war. He had had a nervous breakdown and was never the same again.

Phyllis Fairley was the daughter of Bertha Seymour, nee Minus, one of grandfather’s sisters. Phyllis died, Bertha survived and was the first relative to welcome my uncle Arthur back after the war, in 1946.

As I said earlier, I knew this before I went to Rangoon. I had told my daughter, who accompanied me and of course, we felt sad about these women we had never met, but whose genes we shared. I looked forward to seeing the plaque.

The day after we arrived we walked to the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John the Baptist. The temperature at 9:00 in the morning was already in the 70’s. We arrived twenty minutes later and entered the side gate to be met by the Father in charge. The plaque was in a breezeway, sort of a large porte-cochere. It was made of a dark wood with the details painted in white. I started to read it and then stopped. I couldn’t go on.

I cried, no – I sobbed. I cried for the great-aunts and cousins I never knew. I cried for the horrible sacrifices and decisions they must have made on the trek. I cried because there shouldn’t be any wars, but if there must, they should be fought by soldiers, not civilians. I cried because I had been disinterested in the family history until it was too late to ask the people who knew.

I had to walk away and look into the unkempt garden before I regained control. Everyone was embarrassed, but too polite to say anything. At that moment I knew I would do everything I could to preserve their history, tell their story and make sure it was never forgotten.

The Plaque

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The Armenian Connection

 

In my previous posts I have mentioned that my forbears were Armenian. How in the world did they end up in Burma? Most people have a hazy idea that there was an Armenian genocide during the First World War, which forced the survivors to find sanctuary in many other countries. I had heard that some of the family members had  ‘trekked out,’ and assumed that was what we had done. It was more complicated than that. The ‘trekking out’ I will deal with in another post, but for now, (pay attention at the back) here is a condensed version of my research on how the Armenians settled in Southeast Asia.

No history of Burma could be written without mentioning the importance of the Armenian traders to the East, specifically India, Siam, China and Burma. In the late sixteenth century the Armenians in Julfa, in what was then Caucasian Armenia, were driven out by Shah Abbas I of Persia (ruled 1587-1629) and the country was divided up with the Ottoman Turks. Although many Armenians were killed, the merchants of Julfa were given land on the outskirts of Isfahan (about 340 km. south of Teheran) and encouraged to settle there. Their settlement was christened ‘New Julfa,’ and here in the 1640’s, a traveller describes it:

“Zulpha [Julfa] …is so much encreas’d for some years since, that it may now pass for a large City, being almost a League and a half long, and near upon half as much broad. There are two principal streets which contain near upon the whole length, one whereof has on each side a row of Tchinars, the roots whereof are refresh’d by a small Channel of Water, which by a particular order the Armenians bring to the City, to water their Gardens. The most part of the other streets have also a row of Trees and a Channel. And for their Houses, they are generally better built, and more cheerful than those of Ispahan.”

(Tavernier, Jean Baptiste, The Six Voyages… Through Turkey, into Persia and the East Indies, for the Space of Forty Years, London, 1677.)

Another traveller of the same era, Sir John Chardin, wrote:

“He [Shah Abbas I] brought into the Capital City a Colony of  Armenians, who were a Laborious and Industrious People, and had nothing in the World when they came there; but in the space of thirty years they grew so exceeding Rich, that there were above three score Merchants among them, who, one with another, were worth from an hundred thousand Crowns, to two Millions, in Money and Merchandize.”

What was the reason for their success? Shah Abbas had a raw silk industry that he wanted to expand. The Shah’s intention to use the Armenians for the advancement of his silk industry was not an accident of war but a purposeful act, as evidenced by the fact that the accompanying peasantry turfed out of old Julfa were immediately put to work in the silk industry.

The Armenian merchants, known as ‘Khojas,’ from the sixteenth century on had an extensive trading network that reached over most of the world. From their strategically located homeland they travelled routes from the Mediterranean and Black seas to reach Europe, including Venice, Amsterdam and London. Other routes travelled through Central Asia to China, north to Russia and southeast to India, Burma and Southeast Asia. They also travelled by sea from eastern Africa on the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Philippine  Islands in the Pacific. One of the most well known shipowners was Khoja Minas.

I know – exciting isn’t it? When I learned this, there was no living with me for several days. “I could be a world famous trader ‘cos it’s in my blood. I’ve always liked garage sales and auctions. This could be the start of something!” My husband threatened it could be the end of something if I didn’t stop the proud Khoja act, so I went back to my normal existence of retired housewife, sans ship, trade routes and servants.

Many centuries of upheaval in their homeland had not affected their trading abilities, so by the end of the 16th century their reputation was set as honourable (if somewhat astute) traders for themselves and also representatives for major European commercial interests in the silk and cloth trade.

Their methods were to settle trusted family members in key trading ports and cities and build cordial relationships with the inhabitants. The Armenian merchants were known for their  proficiency in languages, and often took on duties as official interpreters for the rulers of the lands they traded in. Burma was no exception. If you start digging into Burmese royal history, Armenians pop up in the roles of court interpreters, foreign liaison officers and tax collectors.

Makertich J. Mines

Makertich J. Mines

One of these, Makertich J. Mines (a variant spelling of Minus) b. 1809, d. 1862, was governor of Melloon, and customs collector at Pegu, under the reign of King Mindon Min, born 1808,  ruled from 1853 to 1878. He acted as the interpreter and guide for the 1855 English mission to the court of Ava, and was called a Woondouk in his capacity as advisor on foreigners to the Court. You can read more about him at the British Library website Here

This is the man we believe was the starting point of the family tree my father completed before he died, all researched before the internet. We know that Mackertich Minus came from Isfahan to Burma in the early 1800’s, married a Margaret Johannes, a wealthy Armenian rice merchant’s daughter nearly twenty years younger, and had at least four children who grew to adulthood. These four became the ancestors who eventually settled in Rangoon, with the eldest son being my great-grandfather.

I now also know that Margaret was a wealthy widow in the 1880’s when she applied to the British government to have the deeds to properties she owned in Ava, Amarapura and Mandalay (all these towns have Burmese Royal associations) re-issued because of their destruction in the Third Burmese War. Her application is written in Armenian and English. She had by this time bought the thirty acres of ‘Coffee Grove’ in northwest Rangoon as I saw on a map of the city dated 1880, and as I read in Thacker’s Indian Directories of the period, listing the inhabitants as being ‘Minus.’

More about Margaret, her eldest son, my great-grandfather, and his only son, my grandfather later. Also more about ‘trekking out’ in my next post. There might be an exam later, so I hope you in the back kept up.

The long rectangle below the words Coffee Grove, with diagonal lines, shows the property Margaret Minus bought.

Map of northwest Rangoon. Coffee Grove marked by me.

Map of northwest Rangoon ca 1860. Future sites of Coffee Grove and Government House marked by me.

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Being a Minus can be a plus

 

Dad and I. 1976

Dad and I. 1976

We have a very unusual family name: Minus. My father always explained it to people, “It used to be Terminussian but no one could pronounce that so they used the two middle syllables. It’s Armenian.” The ancestors dropped the “ian” at the end which was a common thing to do at the time, and the “Ter” was dropped because that was a separate honorific indicating  a descendant from a priest. In older documents I have seen it written as Ter Minassian. I used to wish they had picked two other syllables. Termin sounds strong like determined or the Terminator. Ussian still sounds interesting but also homely, like hessian, but Minus just gets no respect. Things I’ve heard many, many times followed by huge guffaws from the speaker (my thoughts in italics):

So that’s why you’re so short. Using that logic, Mr. Chubb is fat, Miss Long is tall and Mrs. Ramsbottom is….?

You must be looking for Mr. Plus. No, I’m just looking for someone with better repartee.

Minus, eh, what are you missing? Sigh…..

Even when I got married, the local paper reported it as “A Plus Day for Miss Minus.”

Whenever we travelled, Dad’s first action on arriving was to look up Minuses in the phone book. He claimed if they were called Minus they were relatives. This led to interesting phone calls where Dad would try to establish which branch of the family they were from. On a trip to Disneyland when I was eight, we ended up at his cousin’s place for dinner, in a wonderful sprawling house on the side of a hill. I can’t remember much of the conversation, but I have always remembered the warmth of their welcome.

The decision to research the family tree a couple of years ago was easy to make. How hard could it be, considering the scarcity of the Minus name? Very difficult indeed, as it turns out. There were way too many Minuses. Sometimes it was spelled Minas or Minos or even mis-transcribed as Minns. On the LDS  website (a great free research tool that I highly recommend) there were a multitude of Minuses. Some had lived in Rangoon, others in Toungoo, Mandalay and also in Calcutta, India. They were teachers, pleaders, doctors and clerks in Armenian businesses like Balthazar’s and Gaspar’s, or government workers, like the jailer in Mandalay. One became Registrar of the High Court in Rangoon. I found a mention of my grandfather and his brother-in-law running a taxi firm in 1920’s Rangoon. I also found the matriarch of the family’s petition to the British Government in 1886 to legalize her ownership of lands in Mandalay, Amarapura and Ava. As she puts it, “the above three pieces [of land] have no documents as they were lost at the last war when all the Kallas were looted by the Burmese.” (Kalla or Kala is a derogatory term for foreigner in Burmese.) She signed the document in Armenian, Margaret Mackertich Ter Minus.

At times it can be useful having a memorable, if risible surname. When I have to pick up something at the P.O. or a store, or phone about an appointment, or inquire about  a previous reservation, it is found/dealt with right away. I never realized how useful that could be until last November, in London. I had spent the morning at the British Library looking at Thacker’s Indian Directories, an annual publication, and only succeeded in getting up to 1915. My head was reeling with Minuses living all over Burma. Surely we couldn’t possibly all be related? That night my husband and I went to a dinner given by the Britain-Burma Society. I was introduced to some Burmese ladies about my age, who had spent many years living in London. One frowned at me after the introduction, “Minus, did you say?” I braced myself for the usual jokey comment, ready to go into the tale of shortening the Armenian name, but she then said something that made me want to kiss her. “Are you related to the Minuses who used to live behind that department store in Rangoon?”

And you know what? I was.

 

46390_std

Dmitry Ermakov Armenian from the militia
1880-1885 Albumen print 11 x 14 cm
Georgian National MuseumLL/46390

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Discovering Coffee Grove

No. 7 Windsor Road, Rangoon, 1926. Coffee Grove

No. 7 Windsor Road, Rangoon, 1926. Coffee Grove

 

In my last post, Attacked by a Peacock I ended with my desire to see where and how Dad had lived in Rangoon. By the time the opportunity to visit Burma came, he had been in a nursing home for a few years with dementia, so I couldn’t explore the family history with him as I wanted. I phoned his brother Arthur, who lived in London, frequently, and he would send me copies of old photos and old maps of Rangoon. In January of 2013, on our second morning in Rangoon, my daughter and I hired a taxi with an interpreter, and armed with Arthur’s map, off we went to Windsor Road (now renamed Shin Sawpu Road.)

I should have had an idea from the map that the property was bigger than I thought but maps and I don’t get on. I always have to turn them in the direction I am travelling, which means reading them upside down, and scales mean nothing to me.

Government House, Rangoon

Government House, Rangoon

The taxi stopped near the corner of Shan and Windsor roads, where the property started. It was a busy corner, full of billboards advertising instant sweetened coffee, skin lightening creams and Ovaltine, the health drink. We got out and started to walk up the road. Arthur had told me where to look, “You can’t miss it, it’s opposite Government House. Our house was bombed in the war, but there might be others still remaining.” Others? Yes, this had been a compound of several houses, all owned by family members. It stretched along the road for three quarters of a mile, until the boundary in line with a pair of gates, opposite. They belonged to Government House. The penny dropped. This was the neighbour’s house with the peacocks. Dad had forgotten to mention that one important fact – Coffee Grove, all 30 acres of it, was opposite the toniest address in Rangoon. The huge grounds of Government House were beautifully maintained (including peacocks) and was open to the public at certain times of the year.

 

Government House Gates on Windsor Road

Government House Gates on Windsor Road

Sadly, Government House was torn down by the repressive military government and replaced with an ugly residence. The gardens are neglected and barracks have laundry drying on the verandas. I posed for a picture by the gates and we took a picture of the dilapidated house opposite, on the edge of the Coffee Grove property. Beside it, a pink stucco guest house called “Hotel Windsor” was having another storey added to it, to cope with the influx of visitors.

Hotel Windsor

Hotel Windsor

I sent the photo of the last original house standing in Coffee Grove to Arthur after we got back. “Ah yes, that was the house we always rented out. I think the Jordans lived there.”

A postscript to this story: While doing some research at the British Library, in Thacker’s Indian Directory for 1895 I found the name of my great grandfather, ‘resident at Coffee Grove.’

Last original house in Coffee Grove

Last original house in Coffee Grove

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Attacked by a Peacock

image Photograph by Rina Caffarella

Another of my favourite tales from Dad’s childhood was “How I Was Attacked by a Peacock.” My experience of peacocks then was limited to the handful of bedraggled birds in the local park, pinioned so they couldn’t fly very far. They rarely displayed the full panoply of their feathers, and we spent fruitless hours stalking them for photo ops. By the time Dad had organized his camera, they had either disdainfully turned their backs on him, or scattered away, shrieking.

“See this scar here?” Dad would say, tilting his chin right up and pointing to one side of his neck near his Adam’s apple. I got attacked by a peacock!” He was eleven years old and was playing in the neighbour’s garden. He loved birds and had been following this peacock for some time, to see if his mate’s nest was nearby. “All of sudden, the damn thing flew at me, feet first, and used its spurs to cut a gash in my neck. There was blood everywhere.” “I expect you were teasing it,” my mother said, raising her eyebrows. Dad fought between telling a good tale and telling the truth and came up with a compromise. “Well maybe a little, but still…..”

He ran back home and there was consternation in the household. The servant went for the doctor. Stinging disinfectant was poured over the wound while they waited. Eventually, he had stitches, and it healed into a thin, thread like line.

“We lived in Coffee Grove. There was a lake we used to fish in and a little island we could camp on.” Dad smiled, dreamily. “Was it a coffee plantation?” I asked. “No, no, it was just where we lived in Rangoon. We had mango trees in the back yard.” Mango trees! I had only eaten mango that came in cans, its turpentiney tang fighting with the oily flesh and sweet scent until I decided I quite liked it, after all. “We would climb the trees and get heck from Mum, coming in all dirty. We also had jackfruit, papaya, banana and coconut.” What the heck was jackfruit? “It’s sort of…,” and Dad would describe a shape in the air with his hands, like a rugby ball. “And it was spiny, but inside it was so sweet and soft.”

image

 

I thought of the trees in our yard. We had plums, apples and a pear. I wanted to visit Coffee Grove, right now. More than fifty years later, I did.

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One time we were so poor…

 

The car, 1931. Licence plate RA 5011

The car, a Bullnose Morris Cowley, 1931. Licence plate RA 5011

When I was growing up I liked to hear my Dad tell stories about his childhood in Rangoon, Burma. He was not a natural storyteller, nor an imaginative man, so his stories were always the same, with the same details. No amount of questioning could get him to flesh the tales out, and he would usually stalk off saying, “I can’t remember, it was a long time ago!”

One day he was telling one of my favourites: When I Was 13 I Made the Chauffeur Let  Me Drive the Car and I Knocked Down the Indian Sweet Seller. It was after dinner and Mum was washing the dishes at the sink after a long day at work. It was the early 1960’s and few mothers had full time jobs, as she had throughout their marriage. She turned around and asked him with all seriousness, “If your family were so rich, why have I never seen any of that money?” My father earnestly replied, “But you don’t understand – one time we were so poor we only had three servants: the cook, the sweeper and the chauffeur.” Mum stared at him for a few moments, then a smile crept across her face. Next thing, she snorted. I began to giggle, then we both started laughing. My poor Dad looked totally confused which only added to our merriment. We laughed so hard our sides ached and tears came to our eyes. Dad interrupted, trying to explain, “But no, really, we were poor….” and that kicked us off again. For the rest of my life my Dad only had to look at me and say, “One time we were so poor…,” and I would laugh.

What I did not learn until much later was how true this was of my father’s family and their up and down fortunes. In fact, going to Rangoon and seeing how my father used to live was the biggest revelation of my life.

To be continued…

 

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