HISTORY | A voyage on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Company ship

Artwork depicting passenger vessels on the Irrawaddy River in Burma in the early 20th century (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

By the 1920s, travel to Burma had become all the rage. To give an idea of the destination’s popularity, over 100 books were published about Burma travels, lapped up by the armchair-travelling public. There were lavishly illustrated books describing journeys through river valleys and coasts; books about plant-gathering in the mountains, from which came so many of our garden rhododendrons and azaleas; books about sporting in Burma, with its big game hunting that was said to rival that of Africa; there was even a book about mahseer fishing on the Upper Irrawaddy. Burma came late to the empire and, with its magical atmosphere and pristine ancient culture, it called out to those seeking the mystical east, with great unexplored tracts of country and of course great rivers that offered that soothing monotony.

After disembarking from a Bibby Liner or a Paddy Henderson steamer at the Rangoon docks along the Strand Road after a three-week voyage out, the traveller would transfer to one of the great Rangoon hotels, many of which were owned by the Armenian Sarkies family. The Strand survives, tragically “restored” so badly that little of the original, either architecturally or atmospherically, remains. Other options for accommodation were the Minto Mansions, British India or Oriental hotels. There was a Thomas Cook office on Phayre Street, close to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) office, and there mail or telegrams could be received, traveller’s cheques cashed, and onward travel arrangements made.

Any trip to Burma would include a voyage on an IFC steamer. Some visitors chose to go all the way to Mandalay from Rangoon on a great line steamer, which took eight days in the 1920s, while others booked a Rangoon-Mandalay cargo steamer, a slow boat that provided more time ashore in the many fascinating ports of call. Some would take the train to Prome and join the ship there, cutting the journey down to five days. Those wishing to go to Bhamo might take the train to Mandalay or even up Katha and jump on one of the weekly smaller shallow-draft steamers that plied this route. Whichever route was chosen, no one “did” Burma without a cruise on a flotilla steamer, which was a real highlight.

“An Irrawaddy voyage was not just a voyage through a country but a revelation of Burmese life and character.”

Major Raven-Hart made the trip in 1939 on his way up to Bhamo to paddle back down in his famous Canoe Errant, which flew the red ensign and travelled with him to various continents in order for him to canoe their great rivers. Raven-Hart remarked that “the food was good, and very Scottish with Dundee marmalade and Crawford’s biscuits and porridge daily and most of the officers were Scottish”. Raven-Hart loved his voyage, sailing on Java from Rangoon to Mandalay and changing ship at Bhamo.

He describes how on Java between the first-class section upper deck forward and the second-class on the upper deck aft sat the deck passengers on their woven mats with their baggage and goods piled around them, puffing on their cheroots, playing cards or chess as children ran riot and monks sat meditating. Raven-Hart happily kicked off his flip-flops to take up invitations to join groups on their mats, share cheroots, chew betel and play chess. Old India hands could not believe how open and friendly the atmosphere was – so unlike India, as here in Burma, a Westerner could be accepted and join in so easily. Raven-Hart would spend more time on deck getting to know the Burmese than up front with the Europeans with their “drab clothes and drab faces and raucous voices and yelling laughter”.

Likewise, for many a traveller, an Irrawaddy voyage was not just a voyage through a country but a revelation of Burmese life and character. Everyone agreed that there was no better way to understand Burma and the Burmese than by going on a steamer voyage, and this continued until very recently. Much of my own travelling up and down the country in the 1980s was by line ship, where I made countless friends and really got to know the country – regrettably, though, without the benefit of the full Scottish breakfast.

“You can’t escape your companions on an Irrawaddy steamer, construction of all of which, whether large or small, seem to be exactly the same.”

Old IFC ships (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

Stopping off every day to explore often charming little port towns or sitting on deck with a good book, this was the ultimate in relaxation. Scotsman Richard Curle, publisher and friend of Joseph Conrad, describes being cooped up on board:

The happy-party atmosphere draws all together, the honeymoon couple, the tired engineer from Rangoon, the American oil driller … the man like a Cambridge don who is arranging the census and discusses music, the major on a tour of inspection, the young officers of the ship with their realistic talk and sentimental love of banjo melodies, the robust missionary who looks at you as if he knew something about you not at all to your credit, the fever-stricken youths down on leave from the jungle…

No you can’t escape your companions on an Irrawaddy steamer, construction of all of which, whether large or small, seem to be exactly the same. The first-class accommodation is shut off entirely from the vessel; it consists of one long saloon, with cabins opening out to either side and a table down the centre, a saloon that bulges at the end, where cabins cease, into a sort of drawing room with easy chairs. Then through sliding doors you come to the bow of the ship, the observation post from which the expanse of the river opens before you. A cramped life, you will admit, in which one might be excused for sleeping too much.

Curle, like Raven-Hart, would escape this stuffy colonial atmosphere in the passenger decks:

Were it not for the comfort of the IFC steamers and the varied life that is about you on the third class deck and on the towed flats, one would miss nothing by the experience. But that life is Burma in little. The Burmese love to travel on the river. They compose themselves in huddled rows till the whole large deck resembles a tropical bean-feast. They squat down contentedly with their bundles and their merchandise, with their food and their cooking stoves, in a fantastic medley of gay colours. They talk, they sleep, and the subdued hush of that drowsy life passes over the ship sweltering down the Irrawaddy beneath her awnings. The smell of the tethered cattle in the flats, going to the delta for the rice harvest, mingles with the smell of curries and fruits, and chickens and dogs pick their way amidst the recumbent passengers.

As at that time the IFC ships did not have wheelhouses, the commander was able to move around his open foredeck and look up- and downriver without being closed in. But having the first-class travellers observing from the saloon and constantly popping out to ask questions must have been a mixed blessing. Some captains and their first officers were full of local information and colour, but others were somewhat more taciturn. There was a second steering position on the main deck below, which was mainly used at night as the searchlight was situated on the upper deck and it was necessary to get below it to see well.

“On any steamer you had a microcosm of colonial Burma’s political, economic and social hierarchy.”

Though quite small, the cabins were comfortable and well fitted out in teak and brass, and one photo shows an IF-monogrammed carpet. In the central saloon, gargantuan meals were served by a Madrassi butler and Burmese mealtimes were followed with an early light snack, followed by the “full Scottish” at about 11 a.m., which is when most Burmese have their main meal. Then there would be afternoon tea and a late supper accompanied by copious amounts of beer. I have a small collection of IFC tableware salvaged from ships sunk in the war, and a mint-condition water jug that Alister McCrae gave me, all of the best quality and emblazoned with the company logo.

After supper, a dram or two would be poured and the ship’s officers, all recruited from seagoing backgrounds, would sing shanties, accompanied no doubt by their banjos. Curle was perhaps being a little superior in his treatment of his fellow passengers – it might be that quite a jolly time was had as the ships moored up on a remote bank in the cool of the night. Captains of ships moored nearby would pop over for a game of cards and join in the sing-song. Up-country colonials, bored stiff in their riverside bungalows and desperate for news and companionship, would wander on board to join the fun for an evening.

The second-class section was situated in the aft section of the upper deck. Whilst up front was strictly for the European businessmen, civil servants, army officers and well-heeled tourists, the second-class section would be where Indian money lenders, Chinese pawnbrokers, Armenian bankers and German-Jewish merchants would be found. Then there were the 3,000 or so deck passengers, who would sit on their bundles of luggage on the open deck in the central section, picnicking or visiting a canteen in the aft section. Thus, on any steamer you had a microcosm of colonial Burma’s political, economic and social hierarchy: the European administrators and representatives of global business lounging serene with their chota pegs on steamer chairs in front; the Indian and Chinese money makers wheeling and dealing at the back; and the Burmans squatting on their mats, squeezed in the middle, chatting away and puffing on their cheroots.

As Walter B. Harris was to comment of his Irrawaddy voyage in East for Pleasure, “It would be ungracious to omit that the comfort of the traveller is studied in every way and that every consideration is shown to him.” Indeed, the flotilla, along with the travel agency Thomas Cook in Rangoon, was responsible for opening up Burma to tourism as the Edwardian romantic travel writer of the 1900s gave way to the American globetrotter of the 1920s, for whom a voyage to Bhamo was a must.

“The flotilla, privately owned, had a quasi-official status and took on many of the functions of government organisations.”

Actually, the first American tourist was probably Ulysses Grant, recently retired US president, who visited Rangoon in 1877 as part of a retirement world tour. (In 1904, a future American president, Herbert Hoover, who was a mining engineer, reopened the silver mines at Namtu, prompting the British administrator Maurice Collis’s remark, “He ran off with the silver”.) The majority of American travellers were, however, neither past nor future presidents, but rather prosperous adventurers in those carefree times in the decade preceding the Wall Street Crash. Sportsmen (as they were known at the time) came to Burma in great numbers, and it was often said that for big game, Burma rivalled Africa. There were wild animals everywhere.

The flotilla, privately owned, had a quasi-official status and took on many of the functions of government organisations, from sorting and delivering mail to undertaking river conservancy to ensuring the free flow of transport for all users of the river to providing ships in time of war. In addition to this, the IFC carried an assortment of royalty and important personages. Dalhousie, Curzon and most successive viceroys did a Burma tour and of course travelled on the Irrawaddy amidst great fanfare and pomp. For these voyages the ships would be repainted white and the funnels yellow, the official government colours.

Beloo (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

The first royals to travel on a flotilla ship were of course poor King Thibaw and his family, taken away into exile in provincial India. Then there was Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, who was packed off on an imperial tour in 1889 following a hushed-up gay scandal, and it was even rumoured that he was Jack the Ripper. He travelled on Beloo (“Monster”) under Captain Hole (whose descendants I am in touch with), and his last official act before leaving Burma was the opening of the Rangoon sewage works. Who says the colonial administration lacked humour?

The Prince and Princess of Wales on Japan, 1906 (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

The future George V and Queen Mary, as Prince and Princess of Wales, travelled on the steamer Japan in 1906, and can be seen relaxing on deck in one photograph. It was said that the prince was fond of oxtail soup and the commander, the well-known Captain de la Taste, instructed the butler to buy half a dozen. Later, the captain found half a dozen oxen tethered in a pen on the lower deck.

Japan (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

These royal cruises were splendid affairs with much pageantry as the ship called at ports along the way; triumphal arches of welcome would be specially erected, with military bands, guards of honour and local dignitaries of all races lined up for presentation. Think of Captain de la Taste at the summit of his career commanding the most splendid of all the company’s ships, commodore of the greatest privately-owned flotilla in the world, with royal guests on board whose safe carriage was his sole responsibility.

The Crown Prince of Siam travelled, appropriately, on the steamer Siam in 1906, and Lord Mountbatten of Burma made his first visit to Burma in 1921, travelling on Nepaul in the company of the then Prince of Wales (who later, as Edward VIII, was to abdicate). Alister McCrae, then a young manager with the IFC on Nepaul, was presented by the prince with a silver cigarette case as a thank you for taking care of the no doubt very smooth arrangements. On that cruise, flying boats belonging to the recently formed Irrawaddy Flotilla Airways met the ship along the way to deliver despatches and mail. Ashore, sycophantic banners read “Tell Daddy We are Happy Under British Rule” whilst the police kept independence agitators well away from the royal entourage. On returning to Rangoon the prince reviewed a regatta on the Royal Lakes from Scandal Point.

The last of Mountbatten’s many Irrawaddy cruises was on Mingyi (built by Denny in 1947) during the 1960s, when he visited as a guest of General Ne Win. The general kept Mingyi as his private river yacht, and for that reason, she retained her steam boiler and side paddles when, in the 1970s, all the other ships of the fleet were converted to diesel and outboard propeller propulsion.

“For the hermit kingdom, as Burma had been, the opening of the rivers was surely the single most important factor in the opening of the country.”

But what of the six million or so Burmese passengers who travelled up and down river in a year? As has been noted, the Burmese adored river trips; it was very much in their character to waft down a great river in a party atmosphere. As Norman Lewis noted in the 1950s, often people going to see friends off would impulsively decide to come along too. I have seen an upbound steamer meeting a down steamer and when they we heaved to for the exchange of provisions and information, people would spot friends, jump over the rails to join them and go back the way they came.

Here were a people who for millennia had never strayed far beyond their village boundaries taking trips to the sacred city of Mandalay that they had only ever dreamed off. When I travelled down the Chindwin in the 1980s, if I asked anyone why they were going to Mandalay they would say “Hpaya-pu” (“pilgrimage”) as they sat on great bundles of contraband. The spiritual and material could happily co-exist on these journeys.

Back in the 1880s, the river opened the country up to possibilities not just of pilgrimage and trade, but of ideas. As colleges and universities opened, bright village boys could travel to distant cities to be educated and learn about the world beyond Burma. For the hermit kingdom, as Burma had been, the opening of the rivers was surely the single most important factor in the opening of the country.

And all aspects of Burmese life could be found on these decks – groups of toga-clad hpongyis who always seemed to be travelling around visiting other monks in distant monasteries; prisoners shackled to their police escorts, who were generally to be found fast asleep and often had to be woken up by their charges when the ship arrived at their destination; ladies in their Sunday best holding up a tiny mirror and forever working away at their toilette with hair-combing and thanaka rubbing; the “a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot”, which was communal and passed around even to children and babies, with a tin underneath to catch the sparks. There would be the colourful, exotic sight of travelling circuses and pwe (theatre groups), ever on the move to various festivals.

As each river town had a pagoda festival, there was a terrific movement of people up- and downriver visiting each other’s festivals. Annually there was a massive migration of peasants together with their bullocks from upper Burma to work the delta rice harvest. Lawyers in black taipon jackets together with their ever-hopeful clients would be making their way to provincial capitals on the ferry services timed around court opening hours; this in a country that had happily embraced the British legal system to the point where litigation became something of a speculative hobby for many. F.C.V. Foucar, a British lawyer practising in 1930s Burma, describes how many of his Indian merchant clients would always have several lawsuits on the go at any one time in the hope that at least one would be successful. Happy times for lawyers!

“The birth of a baby on board was a common occurrence, giving rise to much joking over whether it had a ticket or not.”

Alister McCrae and Alan Prentice in their book on the flotilla describe first-hand experience in checking tickets when they would make a surprise boarding from an inspection launch:

Obtaining tickets for the check was not always easy. For this operation passengers could be divided into different groups. First there were those who did not know where they had put their tickets and could not find them. Next there were those who thought they knew where they had put their tickets, but still could not find them. Then there was the distrustful citizen who kept his ticket in some secret place, which required a long search for recovery. There were also those who had temporarily moved down to the lower deck for social or toilet purposes and had left their ticket on the upper deck. Finally, there were those who had actually lost their tickets through misadventure of having them blow overboard…

Elderly passengers often wore jackets with many pockets both inside and outside the garment, all of which had to be searched before a ticket would be recovered… Matchboxes were for some reason considered to be safe places to keep tickets, but frequently in river breezes both matches and tickets were blown overboard when tickets were presented. It was common to find groups of passengers who kept family tickets in tiffin carriers (food containers), sometimes immersed in the wet contents for added safety, but illegible and sticky when handled. Dainty Burmese women with pocketless eingyi (muslin jackets) often kept their tickets skewered to their tight under-bodices by a safety pin that gave an added security if the pin was rusty. But at least they knew where their tickets were.

The birth of a baby on board was a common occurrence, giving rise to much joking over whether it had a ticket or not. Childbirth was said to bring good luck to a ship, and was therefore encouraged with the offer of rewards. Soon the IFC found it was effectively running floating maternity homes, and had to withdraw the offer.

“On one occasion an elephant fell through the wooden deck into the hold below and the only way to get it out was to employ villagers to fill up the hold with sand.”

Whilst chickens and dogs roamed the upper deck, the lower deck and flats might contain pens of cattle, horses and sometimes elephants. The transport of elephants was a profitable income stream for the company, as the timber firms moved working elephants from area to area. This was never easy as it was extremely difficult to coax an elephant – averaging eight feet high and three tons – on board. In 1884 there was the case of six elephants carried across the mile-wide river at Prome. Having managed to get them onto a flat and across the river, the steamer returned to the other side and sounded its horn. The elephants, clearly thinking this was a mating call, dived into the river and swam back across.

I have seen elephants standing on deck whizzing down the river, and it’s quite a sight. On one occasion an elephant fell through the wooden deck into the hold below and the only way to get it out was to employ villagers to fill up the hold with sand.

On other occasions, to induce elephants to go on board, they would create tunnels of bamboo fronds and leafy branches to disguise a flat. In 1908 the company developed a special elephant flat with extra thick teak planks (steel decks being too hot for them) with piped water supplied to keep them cool. These flats were towed on the port side, avoiding the noisy engine drains on the starboard side, as it was essential to avoid anything that might disturb the elephants and cause a stampede.

“The great excitement of such a voyage to Bhamo was the fact that you were sailing upriver on what was effectively a floating market full of bustle and excitement in port and then serenely indolent between ports.”

Bhamo (Photo: Pandaw Cruises)

Nearly all early 20th-century travel writers embarked on a voyage to Bhamo enthused about the fortnightly zay-thinbo (bazaar boat), slower than the express steamer but far more fun. In essence, this was a huge mobile floating market, the steamer and flats filled with market stalls selling all manner of produce. These stalls were prized possessions and handed down from generation to generation and would have long-standing business connections in the villages. Scott O’Connor explains:

Thus if the Moung Bah (headman) of Moda village wishes for a new putsoe (sarong) of fashionable dog tooth patter, or his wife a tamein (lady’s sarong) of the new apple green and pink tartan, or Ma Hla (the village belle) a necklace of Birmingham pearls, they go down to the steamer landing and with much detail describe their requirements to Ah Tun (the Chinaman), or Sheik Ibrahim (the  Mohammedan trader) … and in the fullness of time, the “fire boat” trumpeting its advent, brings to each of them his heart’s desire.

The great excitement of such a voyage to Bhamo was the fact that you were sailing upriver on what was effectively a floating market full of bustle and excitement in port and then serenely indolent between ports. O’Connor captures the market at rest between stops: “seated on gay carpets, reclining on soft quilts, slumbering under silken tartans, flirting, gossiping, smoking contentedly, or playing animated chess” and this was in “a bountiful land where there were no paupers or poor law; in a smiling land where it was always afternoon”.

With the blast of the ship’s whistle, a village and its surrounding area would suddenly awaken and become frenetic as people rushed in excitement down to the landing stage. Even before the gangplank was down, people were wading into the water and clambering aboard. The ship would be invaded by the entire local population, bartering would begin, and the babble would get louder and louder. When the whistle for departure sounded, the transactions would reach a climax. Then the people disembarked and according to McCrae and Prentice, there would be “restoration of peace in the village again – until the next Bazaar steamer”.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Fabulous Flotilla: Scotland’s Adventure on the Rivers of Burma written by Paul Strachan. It is reprinted here with the permission of Whittles Publishing based in the UK.

Paul Strachan

Paul Strachan is an author as well as the founder and owner of Vietnam-based cruise company Pandaw Cruises.