Named for the Chief Commissioner of Burma, Fytche Square was a last minute addition to the design of Rangoon. The plot was left empty following its reclamation from the swamp that preceded it, and it became a public park around 1868. The initial design seems to have been a fairly low effort piece of work. The terrain was uneven, and a rickety wooden fence ran around the perimeter. The south-east quarter of the park was taken up by an ugly water tank that preserved the original atmosphere of swampland.
In 1885, J. Short (of Kandawgyi and moustache fame) removed the tank and landscaped the park properly. Around the same time, two local businessmen commissioned the marble statue of Queen Victoria visible in the photograph. The bandstand was added soon after, and outlasted the statue past the end of World War II.
Victoria was queen for 63 years, and Empress of India (and so Burma) for 24, but never visited her empire – largely due to the practical considerations of travel. In 1872 she did however meet with a delegation of Burmese visitors. They were envoys of King Mindon, sent in the hope of achieving a direct treaty with Victoria. Success would provide greater recognition and security for the Burmese kingdom, and hopefully prevent further British incursions.
The treaty never materialised, though between various meetings and tours of industry, the delegation did visit the British Museum, Tower of London and Madame Tussauds. 150 years later, these are still part of the standard tourist itinerary of the city. There’s unfortunately no record of them having a curry on Brick Lane, then getting into a fight on the night bus home.
Besides these visitors, the closest Victoria ever got to a piece of Burma was in the many rubies that made their way into the royal collection. At some point that collection may also have included the most infamous Burmese ruby of all: the Nga Mauk.
The Nga Mauk was an enormous ruby that belonged to the final king of Burma, Thibaw, and disappeared in his forced departure from the country. The prevailing theory is that it was taken by a Colonel Sladen, who personally gave it to Queen Victoria, and soon after became Sir Sladen. There is a fantastic article about the search for the ruby here.
The park has hosted many speeches over the years, and not just those made by the famous names of Myanmar history: from the late 1950s there was a ‘speakers’ corner’ in the south west of the park. The original speakers corner is in Hyde Park in London, where members of the public can give speeches and hold debates on any they subject choose. I was surprised to learn that there is actually still technically a speakers’ corner in Yangon today – though I doubt it continued uninterrupted through the intervening years of political turmoil and censorship.
The current speakers’ corner is at Kyaikkasan stadium, in the north-east of the city. In 2015 a Yangon MP suggested it be moved to somewhere a little more practical, but the President’s Office rejected the idea, noting that the area had been set aside so that assemblies and protests would not add further to traffic congestion. It also conveniently makes protesting a lot less accessible and visible.
Given its location at the heart of the city, the square is prime real estate for monuments. During the Japanese occupation of the city, the park was host to a cenotaph, and Victoria was presumably removed. Where and how her statue ended its days is unclear – I assume the answer is buried in an archive record somewhere in Japan. Unsurprisingly the British then also made short work of the Japanese monument after they retook the city.
Today the park is named after Maha Bandoola, the celebrated general who led the Burmese armies in the first war with the British. The park was actually renamed before independence, as a result of lobbying by Burmese political groups. This was made possible by the 1935 Government of Burma act, which established a semi-democratic political system and allowed greater Burmese influence on the political sphere.
Burma became an independent country at the unforgiving but astrologically auspicious time of 4.20 AM on the 4th of January 1948. Flags were lowered and raised, national anthems were played, and then the British filed into a waiting ship and sailed away. At 8.30 the same day, a ground breaking ceremony for the independence monument was held in Maha Bandoola park.
Today the park is always as busy as the heat of the day allows. There are often people sat in the shadow of the monument, adjusting their position as the sun moves. The central needle is surrounded by five smaller ones – and if viewed from above is supposed to resemble the 1948 Union of Burma flag.
A recent piece of research asked Myanmar residents of Yangon which places in Yangon they considered the must-sees of the city, and Mahabandoola Park was one of the top two (the other top choice will be covered in our next post). It’s a successful public space at the heart of the city; one that hopefully will encourage the development of more.