A short drive to the east of Yangon is the town of Thanlyin, once called Syriam, and the remains of a once impressive catholic church. Already abandoned when the early photographers of the late 19th century began to arrive, its red brick walls represent the earlier stage of European arrivals to Myanmar – long before the British laid out the modern design of downtown Yangon. Today the church is often incorrectly referred to as being Portuguese, due to Syriam’s history as a Portuguese settlement.
The Portuguese came early to Myanmar, making a series of trade agreements in the 1500s. Many entered military service with the kingdoms that then ruled the country. One of these soliders was Felipe de Brito e Nicote, who served the Rakhine king Min Razagyi. Brito was rewarded for his service with control of Thanlyin. He secured permission to build a modest custom house, and instead began work on a mighty fortress, from which he imagined conquering all of Pegu for the Portuguese.
Brito played the game of thrones well at first, making alliances and the occasional strategic betrayal. For a time, his success was such that his Mon subjects crowned him King of Pegu. A road in the town of Guimarães, supposed birthplace of Brito’s second-in-command Salvador Ribiero, has a street called ‘Road of the King of Pegu’.
Some stories of Brito’s exploits seem straight out of an adventure story – it’s possible they’ve become a little exaggerated over time. For example, in 1607 Brito was in direct conflict with the Rakhine king, and faced a dual assault from Rakhine and Toungoo forces, even as food stores in Syriam were running low.
Never without a plan, he threw a generous feast for his men, making sure that prisoners saw the excess of food. He then sent them back to their king with a letter offering supplies, as they had heard that the Rakhine troops were hungry, and he wanted to ensure that the women in the king’s camp would be very fat and beautiful when he captured them.
This so intimidated the Toungoo forces that they suspected the Rakhine forces would not fight, and so rather than be left fighting alone, turned around and headed home themselves. The Portuguese overwhelmed the depleted Rakhine army, and Min Razagyi was forced to retreat.
It was Brito who stole and lost the legendary Great Bell of Dhammazedi. The bell was supposedly the biggest ever made, weighing a slightly unbelievable 300 tons – that’s seventy-five average-sized Asian elephants. It was cast in 1484 and sat in the Shwedagon compound, until Brito decided that it would be better melted down and used to make cannons for his ships.
The bell was dragged to the river and loaded onto a raft bound for Thanlyin. Just off the eastern tip of the city where the Yangon and Bago rivers meet, the bell tipped, broke the raft, and sank down into the murky depths, pulling a ship down with it.
Though subject to the occasional treasure hunt since, the bell has not yet been found. Some researchers have begun to suggest that the bell may never have existed. Which can’t be true, as some Yangon residents have apparently seen the bell on nights with a full moon, rising to the surface to reflect the glow of Shwedagon once again before sinking back down into the river.
Brito’s luck finally ran out when facing the armies of the newly dominant kingdom of Ava. His strong walls and veteran troops might still have prevailed, but his Mon allies had tired of the many temple desecrations and forced conversions to Christianity. They betrayed Brito to his enemies. Due to his crimes against Buddhism, Brito was killed by impaling, and grimly survived for two days before finally expiring.
Some sources claim that the fort had also been short of troops, as Brito’s wife had been carrying on an affair with a Portuguese captain there, and she convinced him to send away many of the men to slow the spreading of rumours. I suspect however that this is an attempt to add a rather sexist morality tale to the story: after the fall of Syriam, Brito’s wife became a slave. How convenient to be able to blame this fate on her moral weakness, rather than her husband’s diplomatic and military failures.
The surviving Europeans were marched north as prisoners. When a new king took the throne of Ava, they were given land and wives, and served in his army – usually operating cannons. It was descendants of these Portuguese, known as the Bayingyi, that faithfully defended the final king of Burma from the British invasion in 1885. Today traces of Caucasian facial features can still be found in some villages in central Myanmar, as can the practice of Catholicism.
The St James church within the fortress was destroyed during the conquest of 1613, and no trace of it has ever been found. Indeed there is little physical evidence of this period of Syriam’s history, with the exception of the genetic and cultural legacy found in the Bayingyi. But then if the Portuguese didn’t build the ruined church we see today, who did?
This church was actually built in 1750; over 100 years after the end of Brito’s rule and the destruction of the St James church. It was commissioned by Paolo Nerini, an Italian missionary from the Barnabite order, and funded by an Armenian, Nicolai de Agualar. The church only survived six years before being destroyed by another king of Ava, Alaung Paya.
Like their church, the missionaries often didn’t last very long: Nerini came to Burma in a group of five Barnabites, three of whom were killed by suspicious locals in the first two years. Four replacements were sent from Italy on two ships, both of which sunk on the way. Nerini’s final companion was killed by a cannonball during Alaung Paya’s attack, and Nerini was beheaded after it.
Now under the control of the government Department of Archaeology, the church has been cleared of overgrowth but is otherwise largely unchanged from the original photograph in 1892. Looked after by a very pleasant groundskeeper, it receives occasional groups of curious visitors.
Inside the small shed in the centre of the church is a grave stone which is also sometimes mistakenly said to be that of Brito or one of his companions. It belongs to Maria Dias, who died in 1732; long after Brito, but before the construction of the church. This stone was actually found elsewhere in Thanlyin by the British, and moved here in the late 1800s. Above this stone is a Latin inscription regarding Nicolai de Agualar, who funded the church. Though their placement makes it look as if they are part of a single tomb, the two are entirely unrelated.
Thanlyin never recovered its importance after Alaung Paya’s conquest. He had founded nearby Yangon just one year prior, and soon this became the most important city in the region. Yangon’s dominance continued under the British, though they based their main oil refinery in Thanlyin. This was a target for Japanese bombing and was destroyed in the war. It was later rebuilt, but is no longer operational.
Than Lyin today is no backwater though: it hosts a Special Economic Zone, the largest deep water sea port in the country, universities, and Star City – a luxury self-contained housing complex that feels a lot further than three miles away from the bustle of downtown. My hope is that a water taxi begins regular service to Star City, making the church more accessible to visitors from Yangon.