“On this lake float many charming pleasure boats, some rowed by gay laughing groups, and others skim along with their glittering sails set, looking like large white birds”
– Among Pagodas And Fair Ladies, Gwendolen Trench Gascoigne, 1896
The cantonment refers to a British military zone around the Shwedagon Pagoda. As the only high ground in the vicinity of Yangon, Shwedagon has often found itself used as a strategic location in conflicts involving the city, and it was the core of the British cantonment.
The pagoda itself was fortified, with a moat, a wall with gun emplacements, and an armoury within the pagoda grounds. Besides the gardens to the south-west of the pagoda, now Kan Taw Mingalar Garden, the cantonment held a number of other interesting sites. There was a parade ground, now the Min Ma Naing neighbourhood; a golf club, now People’s Park; several water tanks, one of which is now Aung San Stadium; and barracks for military staff.
Burmese military buildings now occupy the site of the old barracks, and can be seen along the route to Alan Pya Pagoda, off Shwedagon Pagoda Road. These were abandoned when the resident staff moved to Naypidaw after its creation, including the imposing War Office. Some families seem to be living in and around the buildings, likely hired to guard or loosely maintain them.
Though Burmese could access the cantonment, and certainly did in order to visit Shwedagon, it’s unclear if there were barriers to entering the gardens, especially given their proximity to the barracks. Certainly the majority of visitors would likely have been Europeans, and the soldiers living nearby.
Though overshadowed by the grander Dalhousie Park around Kawdawgyi lake, the cantonment gardens seem to have be well liked, and hosted band performances in the evenings. In 1910 Arnold Wright described them as “small but exceedingly pretty”, and also suggested that the gardens were intended to be twice as large, but that unspecified ‘certain people’ were allowed to build houses on part of the site. A more detailed map of the cantonment might reveal who these perceived interlopers were, though I’ve yet to find one.
Today the gardens are further reduced in size, making space for some government buildings, a branch of the Happy World Amusement Park chain, and a large Chinese restaurant. Despite these additions however, the view from in front of that restaurant is the same one that has attracted photographers over the years. Of all views of the city, this is the one that I have seen recur the most.
The Rangoon cantonment existed until 1928, when the military moved north to a new site in Mingaladon. The move away from the bustle and activity of Rangoon wasn’t entirely popular with troops. Writing about the new cantonment, a Lieutenant Colonel Tabuteau noted “When you are asked what you do in Mingaladon, the answer is ‘Nothing’.”