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Special feature: Mawlamyine Time Machine

1942

Surtee Sunni Jamae Mosque

2018

Other than Yangon, Mawlamyine is my favourite city in Myanmar. It’s actually the fourth biggest in the country, and before the construction of Nay Pi Taw was the third. That fact surprised me – the city has a slightly sleepy feeling, much less frantic than the crowded urban grids of its larger siblings (Naypidaw being a very eccentric cousin in this analogy).

Sleepy it may be, but Mawlamyine has a long history of invasion and rebellion. Originally a Mon city, it was first captured by the Burmese in 1541. After fifty years the city rebelled and sided with Thai forces, only to be captured again twenty years later. It remained in Burmese hands until the first British invasion in 1824, and was also temporarily taken by the Japanese during the second world war. I believe the soldiers in the original image are part of these Japanese forces.

After the first Anglo-Burmese war, Britain took control all land south of the Thanlwin river, including Mawlamyine. That said, after the border agreement was made it wasn’t completely clear which of two branches of the river was the main one, and so which should be considered the actual border. To decide it, some coconuts were apparently “solemnly floated down the stream, and the frontier determined by their course”.

Mawlamyine was made capital of this first British Burma in 1826, and was referred to as Moulmein, drawn from the original Mon name. Many older buildings that remain in some form today were first built during this period, including the prison and some of the churches.

Part of a 1945 map of Moulmein, via an interesting New Mandala article

Several other European countries opened consulates during this period, and immigrants arrived in greater numbers from India and China. A large Anglo-Burmese population developed, and the first newspaper in the country was published. This rapidly developing city on the frontier of Britain’s Indian empire was a diverse and dynamic place.

One of the churches built in this period was the work of the legendary missionary Adoniram Judson and his three wives. A hugely significant figure in the history of the American Baptist faith, Adoniram came to Burma in 1813 with his first wife, Ann. They spent three years learning Burmese, and Adoniram tried to adapt his evangelism to local norms, including wearing a white version of a monk’s robe, and building a traditional bamboo shelter to preach from.

The march of Christianity was slow: it took six years to make their first convert, and after ten years they had 18. Life was generally challenging for the Judsons. Their first child miscarried on the boat to Burma, and the second died at 8 months. When the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out Adoniram was jailed for 17 months under suspicion of being a foreign spy.

Ann visiting Adoniram in prison

Ann tried relentlessly to free him, moving close to his prisons and living in challenging conditions – all while caring for their third, newborn child. Soon after Adoniram was released, her health gave out, and both she and their third child died. Quite a miserable tale!

Adoniram continued his work in Burma, and nine years later married Sarah Boardman. Sarah was the widow of another missionary; but rather than return home when her husband died, she had stayed in Myanmar to continue the mission. Ten years and eight children later, she also fell ill and died on a boat back to the US for treatment.

Adoniram continued home and used his celebrity status to tour and raise money for missionary work. He also commissioned a writer, Emily Chubbuck, to write the memoirs of his second wife. Less than a year later she then became his third, and they returned to Myanmar. She must have been a brave woman, to accompany Adoniram to the country that had seemingly killed his two previous wives. Ultimately however she outlived him, with Adoniram dying four years later, after which Emily returned home.

The four Judsons – Adoniram and Ann at top, Sarah and Emily at bottom

The latter two iterations of Judsons met with greater success in their missionary work by focusing on the Karen region. Today Myanmar has the third highest number of Baptist Christians in the world, and most of these are Karen and Kachin.

Though the structure has been rebuilt over the years, Judson’s church stills stands in Mawlamyine. When I last visited the World Monument Fund was rushing to complete work on the roof before the onset of the rainy season. A wall plaque inside lists the four Judsons, alongside other missionaries and supporters of the church in Myanmar.

The present day Judson church

The rigid dedication of the missionaries of this period is striking: Adoniram lost at least eight children and two wives to his mission, but continued with his work until his own death. One of these lost children has a surviving grave marker just outside the church – his final child with his second wife Sarah.

A second grave commemorates the grand-daughter of Adoniram and his third wife, Emily. Though Emily stayed in the US after Adoniram’s death, their daughter and grand-daughter later returned to Myanmar. There they seem to have continued an extended family tradition of both preaching and perishing in Myanmar – both died in 1911, just a few months apart.

c.1876

Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda

2018

Finally, since this is an article written by a foreigner about Mawlamyine, we inevitably turn to Rudyard Kipling and that poem. The Kyaik Than Lan pagoda features in the opening line of his interminably quoted ‘Mandalay’, written after a visit in 1889. Replete with colonial era sentiments, it was quoting this poem that got Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister of the UK, into a spot of bother during his 2017 visit to Myanmar.

Even more perplexing is the fact that Frank Sinatra performed a cover of the poem. It is a strange experience hearing lines like “Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?” set to a jazzy, big band musical arrangement and delivered in Sinatra’s crooning voice. Even more distracting is the replacement of ‘Burma girl’ with ‘Burma broad’. Highly recommended.

Mawlamyine fell in importance after Yangon was made the British capital in 1852. This loss of political clout was followed by an economic decline: much of the city’s prosperity was based on the teak trade which had grown hugely under British control, but shrank as metal replaced wood as the primary material used in ship-building.

Mawlamyine was returned to Burmese control on Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. That same year it was briefly lost again to Karen and Mon forces: some of the opening shots in a civil war that continues elsewhere in the country today.

A local organisation, Memories of Mawlamyine, has recently been begun documenting Mawlamyine’s rich but largely overlooked history. This is a really worthy endeavour that I hope they’re able to keep going. Currently they appear to have a Facebook page, though an article in the Myanmar Times also makes mention of website I wasn’t able to find. They also seem to be doing some then-and-now photographs, which is exciting.

While it will never replace Mandalay and Bagan on tourist itineraries of Myanmar, if you do spend longer in the country I enthusiastically recommend a visit to Mawlamyine. Walk along the crest of pagodas and monasteries overlooking the town, or wander through the town spotting colonial-era buildings and churches. Rent a motorbike and visit the bafflingly large reclining Buddha nearby or head across to Bilu Island, where amongst other handicrafts, elastic bands are handmade in impossible quantities. I hope it all charms you as it did me.

Published inBefore/after sliderNot YangonThe World Wars

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