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A Walk in the Mergui

By Paul Strachan, Pandaw Founder

We flew down from Yangon to Myeik or Mergui on one of Myanmar's many fancy new airlines to join our coastal expedition ship, the Andaman Explorer. We spotted her moored some way out, glistening white against a gunmetal sea. My wife Roser and I were last in Myeik in 1994 and expected to find terrible change, as one does now in most Burmese cities. Surprisingly there was less change here than expected.

Mergui, as the town was known as until the military government changed all the names in 1997, goes back a long way. A southern outpost of the Pagan empire, following its fall in 1287 it was administered by successive Siamese kingdoms, latterly from Ayutthaya. Mergui was strategically important as it commanded the western flank of a trade route crossing the isthmus between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Siam. Goods moved up the river to Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) and then overland to the Siamese east coast. Both Chinese pottery and Roman coins have been found along this trail, indications of itsimportance in global trade from the earliest of times. The Arabs were here, their most northern outpost on the Malay peninsula, and some of the town's many mosques may date from this early period. By the 16th century the first Europeans arrived, initially the Portuguese and then French and English ships were calling and refitting here, taking advantage of abundant native teak.

In the 17th century an English pirate by the name of Samuel White was appointed governor by the King of Siam and built up his own trading empire, taking on the East India Company's monopoly of trade and shipping. Known as 'Siamese White', his life and adventures are described by the English author and one-time Burma civil servant Maurice Collis, who had been District Commissioner (equivalent to a governor) in Mergui in the 1920s. Collis's house was on the same hilltop spot as White's gubernatorial mansion three hundred years before, then more of a fort. Through his greed and rapacity White was eventually deposed and made his escape to India in 1687 whilst most of the English population were slaughtered in his wake. The Chevalier de Beauregard was then appointed governor reflecting a new period of French interest at the Siamese court, antipathetic to the interests of the East India Company.

In 1765 the Burmese retook Tenasserim and held the region until 1824, when it was ceded to the British as part of the spoils of the First Anglo-Burmese War. The governor-general of India regarded this addition to his empire as something of a poisoned chalice, it was expensive to administer with little potential profit. However, over the next 150 years the British found considerable wealth in the region: rich forests full of teak, tin mining, rubber plantations and pearl farms; on the islands of the archipelago there were granite quarries, rich fishing grounds and boundless possibilities for coastal trading. Moulmein was to become the greater and richer of Burma's southern coastal ports, but Mergui, as its rich architecture demonstrates, was hardly insignificant. Collis in his autobiography describes a European community of planters and traders that steps straight out of a Somerset Maugham short story. Mergui was a lost corner of the empire, its expatriate population peopled with shaky-handed aristocratic remittance men and rootless beachcombers taking native wives. The Mergui Club was hardly the pukka establishment of Raj India, with its dress code of longyis and vests and sneering at the conventions of empire. It was probably far more louche than any expat watering hole you find in Thailand today.

Harald Braund in his most read memoir of a life in Burma tells of such outrageous characters as club mainstays. There was the gruff Yorkshireman Benjamin Bateson Jubb who emigrated young to Australia, was sent to Gallipoli where he was injured, and on his way home landed in Mergui, married a Burmese and raised a family. Jubb was a successful businessman with various enterprises including mining. In the Second World War he escaped with his family in his yacht, crossing the Indian Ocean to Ceylon. After the war, he was one of the first Europeans to return and got the port going enabling relief supplies to prevent a famine for which he was honoured by the district commissioner. After Independence, he was suspected of assisting the Karens with food and munitions and eventually he was forced to return to Australia.

A Walk in the Mergui Archipelago 1

Braund describes how Jubb had fallen out with one of the aristocratic remittance men. He bided his time and planned his revenge carefully. Returning to England, he visited a tailor and generally scrubbed up, then paid a call on the family of his compatriot at their country mansion deep in the English counties. Presenting himself as a bosom friend of their son, who had been long ago disgraced and despatched to that furthest corner of empire. Enquiring as to their son's state of health, Jubb hinted that, out of concern for his friend, it would be best to reduce his allowance due to his predilection for the bottle. His objective achieved, Jubb returned triumphant to Mergui.

We first visited Mergui in 1994 in the hope of getting out into the archipelago. The town was controlled by the Burmese military, but it transpired that they had little hold over the seaways that were under the suzerainty of the sea gypsies, or Moken, who controlled the smuggling routes in and out of once closed Burma and prayed on all other shipping. We persuaded the local commander to allow us to go to King Island, the closest large island to Mergui and we were despatched somewhat gingerly on a heavily armed naval patrol boat that would only go as far as a navy base on the island and then come back again. We had to wait for twenty-five years to come back, and now the pirates have turned to more peaceful occupations, like fishing and seafood industries. But still the arm of the Myanmar government does not reach far in the wondrous archipelago. We were to discover that many of the islands are peopled by Karen loyal to the KNU, and are no go areas for the Myanmar navy, though they seemed very happy to receive visits from the Andaman Explorer, and we had a very warm welcome in Port Maria on Lun Lin island where we made a spontaneous stop.

My main memory of that visit was the smelliness of the hotel, which we found unchanged from the 90s, and which is still the nastiest building in an otherwise picturesque town. In those days it was very difficult to get flight tickets, and in the airline office I met a charming old gentleman who wanted to postpone his return flight to Yangon and gave up his seat to us. We got chatting and I learnt he was Andrew Mya Han, the Anglican Archbishop of Burma. When I told Andrew my name was Strachan he looked at me with newly found respect. For a Bishop Strachan was the first Bishop of Rangoon. When asked if I descended from the great man, I rather naughtily did not deny it and thereafter when visiting his cathedral in Rangoon, I received royal treatment. Andrew was then a well-known poet and much feted in Burmese literary circles.

The best way to explore Myeik is on foot. Log onto Felix Potter's wonderful website on your phone and use this to navigate around the town. Felix is currently researching a book on the history of Mergui and for now we must be content with his guide book that accompanies the website. Felix has identified nearly all the historic buildings and every single one has a story. You can for example see the aforementioned Benjamin Jubb's house, one of the oldest in Myeik. Felix took us to Maurice Collis's house, once site of Siamese White's stockade, where I came over all tingly with excitement and was then told by an officious little jobsworth that it was forbidden to take photos of government buildings (I told him in politest Burmese in no uncertain terms to crawl back into his hole). A short distance away on the hill we walked to the courthouse where upstairs Collis had his office, the District Commissioner also being the magistrate. The prison, now abandoned, conveniently next door.

Visit the residence of Mr E Ahmed MBE, who held the monopoly for pearling and clearly did very well judging by the size of his house and the splendid mosque he dedicated just down the street, both built in the 1920s. His family resides here to this day. Or visit the house of Mr Tan Guan Seng, a wealthy Chinese merchant, which has now been split into several residences, butdespite this it is well preserved and utterly splendid. Across the road is the Green Eyes café; this was the Portuguese quarter where the girls to this day have green eyes with the Catholic Church of the Assumption just around the corner.

The original church must date from the 16th or 17th century, and by the 19th century the priests were French, sent out by the Société de Missions Étrangèrede Paris (MEP). The current church was rebuilt on the site by George and Isabella d'Castro, a Portuguese-Indian couple whose tomb is behind the apse. There is a fascinating tombstone written in Portuguese and Thai that dates from before the Burmese annexation of 1765, the inscription reads:

Aqui está sepultado o corpo de Anna Paschoela, fllh de Aretun Paschoela, ede Vrula Toa: de [?] 3 annos, aqui falleceo aso 12 de Dbr de 1740 AD
Here is buried the body of Anna Paschoela, daughter of Aretun Paschoela, from Vrula Toa [mother?]: [?] aged 3 years, here died on the 12th of December 1740 AD

The owner of the Green Eyes café popped out to have a chat with us. A Chinaman, Mr Tang had some difficulty understanding my Burmese, but then I had the feeling he had not been long in the country himself, part of a wave of over a million Chinese immigrants who settled in Burma after sanctions were declared by the West in the 1990s and then the military regime opened the floodgate from China. Mr Tang also owned a smart new hotel across the road and insisted on conducting us to the rooftop restaurant where we could photograph the view. And what a view! Spread all around us was the town, studded with pagodas, mosques and church spires, and port with countless trawlers moored in the channel and the islands of the archipelago beckoning beyond.

Down by the port are the godowns and trading houses of old, little changed from when the tramp steamers would trade up and down the coast. Mergui was not connected to anywhere by rail or road and the only way in and out was by steamers of the British India Steam Navigation that plied regularly. Most famous of these was the Sir Harvey Adamson , a vessel eccentrically manned by a crew which had been there forever, never changing to a man, who all went down with her when she sank in a hurricane after the war and not a piece of wreckage was found. Think of the chatter in the wardroom as Surrey-born planters mixed with Punjabi pearl millionaires; the Armenian banker deep in hushed conversation with the Jewish gemologist; the Cornish tin miner sinking stengahs with the Scottish timber dealer; the 'heaven-born' administrator, fresh from Oxford, ogling the dusky Indo-Portugese temptress. All presided over by a Madrassi butler, irascible and ironically respectful, eavesdropping on every conversation. There on the bridge, coming up with the tide through the tricky Mergui straits, is the great bearded master, veteran of the British merchant marine, garrulous and standing no fools. Each and every cheeky lascar knows his place and hardly needs to be told what to do. Down below in the purgatorial bowls of the ship the chief engineer cusses the Bengali firemen in broadest Glaswegian and they admiringly smile back. Think of the crew of the Sir Harvey Adamson who could never be parted, refusing any attempt at transfer to another vessel, and who went down together, shipmates from all nations united in death as they were in life.

A Walk in the Mergui Archipelago 2

Here along the wharfs of Myeik you can feel the presence of that ghost ship. Indian chandlers sell rope and anchors, the boat yards are busy with caulkers and riggers. Trade is brisk for these days are no less than 20,000 fishing trawlers registered in Myeik. This must be the fish capital of Asia and a huge new fish market has been built just outside the town by an enterprising Frenchman. Seafood is chilled and packed and trucked into Thailand to appear fresh in the Bangkok markets the next morning. So the French are back, just over 300 years after the Chevalier de Beauregard's tenure.

Perhaps because of the town's wealth, Myeik has miraculously escaped the destruction that the bulk of Burma's colonial heritage has suffered in present day Myanmar. The old families who inhabited these great houses, partly out of sentimentality and partly out of financial security, did not need to sell off their houses to be bulldozed to make way for jerry-built apartments or ugly mirrored glass bank buildings, all financed by a flood of Chinese cash. Mergui as a port and crossroads has layers of wealth accumulated over half a millennium from the Arabs to the Portuguese, the British battling it out with the French, the Siamese battling it with the Burmese, then the British again and now, as Myeik, it is Myanmar once more but claimed by both the Karen and Mon independence movements. Meanwhile the people of Myeik - Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Muslim and Christian have happily coexisted busy trading away, oblivious to proconsuls from afar.

After a day of considerable excitement, in which we forgot to eat lunch, we found our tender by the wharf with Captain Brendan, our Irish-American skipper, waiting to take us out to the Andaman Explorer riding at anchor in the bay, itself a moment from Myeik's wonderful vibe of being a city with a living past or perhaps a past living on.

Click Here to view Paul's photos of Mergui

Books Mentioned

1. Maurice Collis, Into Hidden Burma: An Autobiography. London 1954.
2. Harald Braund MBE MC, Distinctly I Remember: A Personal Story of Burma. Victoria 1972 and in Tales of Burma, Ed. Alister McCrae. Paisley 1981.
3. Felix Potter, Myeik Heritage Walking Tour. Kindle Publishing, 2017 and http://www.myeik-walking-tour.com
4. On the Sir Harvey Adamson: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?30947

A Note On Names

People now get quite worked up about whether to use 'Burma' or 'Myanmar', or 'Rangoon' or 'Yangon'. The BBC followed the policy of Daw Aung San Su Kyi keeping to the old names as the name changes by military decree in 1997 were imposed by an undemocratically elected government. However, today nearly everyone in the country uses Myanmar rather than Burma and Yangon instead of Rangoon, not to mention Myeik instead of Mergui. In this article I have used the new names when describing places post 1997 and the old names for before. I hope the reader will tolerate this shuffling, but will come to appreciate that Burma of before 1997 was a very different place from the Myanmar after 1997.

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Comments

Would you like to leave a comment or give your feedback on this article? Please send your email to feedback@pandaw.com.

 

Ann Schantz posted in Apr 2018

It was interesting to read your blog on Mergui. I was born there and am the granddaughter of Benjamin Bateson Jubb. In 2014 I took a trip up the Irrawaddy river but could not get to lower Burma. I was curious to see a picture of my grandfathers house. I believe he owned several and I only have a picture of one of them. To end your story about him after he left Mergui he went, not to Australia, but to the Seychelles Islands and bought an island.

 

Sandy Hazzard posted in Apr 2018

Thanks Paul for a great insight to this part of Myanmar. I did have the privilege of sailing with Felix Potter whose book you recommend. His insight to his study into ancient trading routes was most interesting.

 

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