“He never really bit anybody, but the engineer felt it was safest to get rid of Lala. He got off one day at the village near the defile and took the bear a mile and a half away into the jungle and “lost” him. Soon after the villagers petitioned the engineer to take the bear on board again. It seemed that Lala was haunting the village and stole chickens persistently. So there was nothing for it but to take him on to the steamer again. Then he gave him to the Rangoon Zoo.”
– Alfred Hugh Fisher, Through India and Burmah with pen and brush, 1911
The statue visible in the older image is Sir Arthur Phayre, the first Chief Commissioner of Burma. In this article we’ll trace the journey of the statue across Yangon, from Myanmar’s first museum to its first zoo, and then its current home today.
Chief Commissioner was the highest office in British Burma’s colonial hierarchy. Phayre held the position from 1862 to early 1867, during a relatively peaceful period between the second and third Anglo-Burmese wars. He was fluent in Burmese, showed real interest in the country’s culture, and wrote the first English language history of Burma. He also hoped to establish a national education system, based on the almost universal presence of monastic schools in villages across the country.
Four years after he retired, the Phayre Museum was completed and dedicated to him, with his statue erected outside. It was situated in the grounds of the Rangoon Agri-Horticultural Society, today the site of Yangon General Hospital.
The museum was the first of its kind in Burma. Although most accounts of its collections are somewhat critical of its organisation and significance, visiting public could see pottery from the ancient Burmese cities of Bagan and Tagaung, Buddhist statues from Pakistan, antique Indian coins and stone age tools from Melaka. Commenting on the ‘tolerably good’ collection of stuffed animals in the natural history section, one visitor noted that the climate of the country was testing the skill of the taxidermist. I dread to imagine.
Not all the animals were stuffed though: it was in the grounds of the Phayre Museum that the first collection of wild animals was exhibited to the public, before being gradually transferred to the zoo. The museum was eventually demolished to make way for Rangoon General Hospital, and the statue then followed the animals to their new home.
The zoo was originally part of a larger park dedicated to Queen Victoria, but over time grew to fill it entirely. It was formally opened in 1905 during a royal visit by Princess Mary and Prince George (later King George V). The park seems proud of its history – photographs from the royal visit are posted around the park, including on the tiger cage itself.
The royal tour spent six days in Burma, split between Rangoon and Mandalay. In the capital they visited Shwedagon and enjoyed ‘illuminations’ in Kandawgyi park, a favourite of Victorian England where special displays and existing buildings were lit with electric lighting. A recent Lighting Festival in Yangon’s People’s Park was a modern day equivalent, though in Victorian times I doubt they had a giant octopus.
In Mandalay they visited the palace, browsed a market, watched a boat race, and on their return journey down the Irrawaddy spent half a day duck hunting. Thankfully they didn’t find the time to hunt tigers. Prior to their arrival in Burma, George killed three or four tigers while in India, but a planned trip to Nepal to hunt more was cancelled due to a cholera breakout. During a later visit to Nepal in 1911 George made up for the missed opportunity, with 39 tigers shot dead by the hunting party.
The park has another royal link – the King Edward VII Carnivora House. Built in 1915 and dedicated to the recently deceased king, the building has survived and today houses the zoo’s white tigers. This is perhaps the one heritage building in the city I’m not so happy to see still standing. Built according to Victorian ideas around duty of care for animals, the individual rooms are far too small and designed purely to exhibit the animals rather than comfortably house them.
Still, they’ve had it worse. As the Japanese began to bomb Rangoon in 1942, the staff at the zoo fled. Fearing that desperation from starvation or damage to the park might lead to the escape of dangerous animals, the tigers, panthers and poisonous snakes were all killed. Harmless animals like the deer were released into the park, so they would hopefully at least avoid starvation.
On the hill opposite the Carnivora House is an old pavilion, probably dating from around the same time. The dedication is only partly legible now, but it appears to have been paid for by an Abrahim Ally Moolla. This is likely to be the same Moolla listed in a 1910 account of prominent individuals in Rangoon as the head of the entire Muslim community of Rangoon.
Originally brought to Burma to work in his father’s company, Moolla became one of the largest property owners in the city, and was the chairman of the board of directors for the Surati Burra Bazaar Company, which we previously looked at here.
In 1951, three years after independence, the park became Rangoon Zoological Gardens and Park. Presumably around the same time the statue of Arthur Phayre disappeared from the entrance. Happily though, unlike the previous statues we’ve looked at (Victoria, Edward VII), we actually know where this one ended up: Arthur Phayre has finally retired to the garden of the British Ambassador’s residence.
Known as Belmont, the residence was built in 1855 and was the home of George Swann, manager of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. With over 500 craft of some kind making their way up and down the river from Rangoon, the company had a near monopoly on the important Yangon-Mandalay river journey. During the royal visit it was an Irrawaddy Flotilla Company boat that carried Prince George back down to Rangoon, and waited as he hunted duck. That boat was named Japan, which is slightly ironic given that some decades later the entire flotilla was purposefully destroyed to prevent the Japanese using them.
The Ambassador’s residence is not normally open to the public, except during special events like the Big British Day Out. Held annually in February to promote Britain’s modern relationship with Myanmar, the residence hosts various entertainment and food stands. It’s a popular family event, and with hundreds of children playing games, hunting treasure, and generally making the Ambassador’s Residence a bit of a zoo itself.