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A blog of Nineteenth Century history, focusing, but not exclusively, on the American Civil War seen through the prism of personal accounts, newspaper stories, administrative records and global history.
A thousand tales. A miscellany. A maze of historical tangents.

A Capitol View

A Capitol View
Images of 1861 juxtaposed- Union Square, New York vs. Capitol Square, Richmond

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Up the Irawaddy Part I


On a fine September morning, a gallant ship's company, coursing across the Bengal Bay, sighted for its first time the islands of the "Andaman group," painfully notorious for the hostility of their savage denizens to the Indian steam expedition, devoting the "Bengal mutineers" and their reprobate chiefs as convicted felons, to the tender mercies of these "cranium-flattened" worthies, whose idea of full- dress is a disc of red clay on top of the head, and whose appetite for cannibalism even more than suspected, yet loathed, and rightly too (a proof by the way of some indigenous, discriminating taste), the presence of the nauseous Sepoy morceau. Next, within a few days, after voyaging over a sea replete with napping, alderman-suggestive turtle, tiny nautili, and voracious "hammer-headed" sharks, hove up at length to view the welcome scattered palm trees on one of the many low-lying sandy estuaries of the broad "Pagoda-laving" Irrawaddi. Having now bid adieu to the blue water, and for a time the blue firmament as well, with nothing, far as the eye can see, except this belt of low land, and over it a murky-leaden sky, with a muddy, light green channel immediately ahead, the good ship, with her eager world of daring spirits on board, awaited the skilful pilot, who guided her cunningly across the bar ; and next day found her in the river proper, deep and rapid, brushing past verdant pastures and "paddy fields," and quaint old wooden villages of "teak," hewn teak, not at all unlike the Swiss toy-cottages of childhood, only dark oak-colour, unpainted, yet ornee with various knowing outside cornices and mouldings, and near them the eternal flagstaff, surmounted by a wooden gilded "cock," flapping his wings — the emblem, I suppose, of braggarts pompous Ava; and highly decorated China-fashioned temples, with dominating priests or "Poongee" houses and wooden terraces, with water-stairs to each, which our ports in passing all but touched in places, to the admiration of the gaping natives, who now above, below, viewed for once, broadside, en passant, a foreign vessel's war- like batteries and decks. These, many times repeated, in varying succession on either bank, or, truer still, almost continuous the entire day, a native high-pooped monstrous teak canoe, with swamping nudose, yelling, tattooed Burmese men, with here and there a half- dismantled snagly stockade, to frown across the river at its fellow on the other bank a solitary fisherman or woman, in a log canoe, lying the angle silently; or hungry-looking Burman paddling home is store of rice in bulk, the one thing needful in the East for food, comprise the shifting panorama; till at evening rises towering to the view, athwart the anchorage of Rangoon, the mighty Dagon pagoda, par excellence, gilded from base to tinkling summit, compared with whose glittering "sugar-loaf," in girth, "St. Paul's" seems but a "Minie bullet;" and besides, the "Syrian" Pagoda seems rather picturesque, placed on a small wooded hill, circumstanced so as one may occasionally see a country church to be in England. It is apparently very huge, conical, broad at the base, running up spiral to the top.
The country alongside the river looks very pretty, green jungle, interspersed with rich-looking plains, and delightfully fresh paddy- fields, with native huts made of bamboos, and placed on piles at the water's edge, but mosquito-haunted to the extreme of irritation. We were boarded (says the "Diary") last night by hurrah! a "British gun-boat," with two officers, having a kind of cabin, impromptu, on deck, made of a large bamboo mat (which useful, natural production enters into the composition of almost every article of furniture, house material, et cetera — nay, even clothing in many eastern localities). They lay alongside us last night, and came aboard this morning, Sept. 6th. They talk of an attack to be made on Prome on the 15th of this month, when we shall have a reinforcement of troops and steamers, with their boats. Our people are shortening in the cable, making a deafening clatter at the capstan bars, to the music of the eternal fife, so that we shall be under weigh for another stretch up the river directly. Thermometer 84, shade.
September 7th, — At last we got a fair sight of the far-famed town and pagodas of Rangoon, which, by the way, appear to be now still more numerous and of all sizes. The celebrated "Dagon" is now most plainly to be seen, enormous at the base, and tapering up to a spire, surmounted by a parasol-like structure of iron, gilded over, hung all round with tinkling, triangular flaps of the same material; which, agitated by the light air, keep up a series of sweet chimes, both day and night. The country appears remarkably well-wooded, with fertile, intervening plains. Just below the present anchorage stands the remains of a stockaded fort of teak logs and bamboo stakes, with moat outside, most formidable-looking, seared, and blackened. I took it to be a remnant of the former Burman war, but which I find, on inquiry, to be of a later date; it is on a bold, commanding position, in a space cleared of jungle, much higher than the adjacent country, though, like all sublunary affairs some time or other, now only a few blackened stakes remain. During this night the mosquitoes were intolerable. Several "canards" are going the rounds; one of which is, "that we shall in a few days commence in force another grand advance on Ava." However that may be, I had on this evening an announcement that I was to leave next morning in medical charge of a boat expedition, comprising a launch, barge, pinnace and gig, fully manned, armed, and provisioned; destination and duration uncertain, possibly for six weeks or more. Force to consist of about one-hundred officers and men, all picked. Thus I find myself in a most responsible post, one of great adventure, as being not the least in import of a grand series of operations against the haughty subjects of the "White Elephant," hitherto all but inaccessible to us barbarians of the "outer world." It is stated that the Burmese are stockading the villages along the river, which promises badly for provant, as in them lies our prospect of foraging till our return. "We leave, I see, on to-morrow night, sixty blue jackets and forty marines, all volunteers and picked men. Nothing but bustle and preparation on board. Every tailor in requisition, making blue serge suits (capital wear for boat service, by the way), and "cholera belts," which "Jack" facetiously calls the "cholera morbus," but, nevertheless, being of sound new flannel, are most useful in protecting the loins and stomach in the vicissitudes of this deadly climate; the men are all furnished with them, as well as with a matutinal ration of bark or quinine, in solution, for this river service — a stomachic which, by the way, " Jack" thought was most deletenous in combination with the accompanying half-ration of rum, though very good, immediately followed by the aforesaid "nip" Many hold Burmah to be most deadly, but I aver the influence of its climate worked miracles with our sick list. The halt, the maimed, the lame, the blind, all found their health fit for any duty immediately. Those that could eat none at all for weeks before, were vastly benefited by six hours of the Rangoon air; nay, obstinate "ship ulcers" that had never diminished one hair's breadth for months before, now promised to heal and granulate, too, rapidly. Stiff joints became limber all at once, and rheumatic swellings disappeared as marvelously as though our magazines were filled with "Holloway's all-curing pills and ointment,"— coughs, purgings, palpitations, all were swept clean from amongst us, never to return — the panacea — the muster-roll for active service. The grindstones whizzed and whirred, and flashed the hissing sparks from off the cutlass blades, grasped by a hundred brawny arms, bare to the shoulder; the armourers and carpenters toiled through the night, and then the pipe was "Man and arm boats! Three cheers; cast off! Hurrah! " Weather very wet; sky leaden and cloudy between the showers. Thermometer 83 degrees in the shade.

- From Colburn's United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, 1861

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