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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

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Up the Irawaddy Part II


Part I

September 8th. — Provisioned for fourteen days, and armed to the very teeth, having — besides each man's small arms — musket, bayonet, pistol and cutlass to wit, a rocket-tube, and twelve or twenty-four pound howitzer in each boat. Our ultimate destination, we now believe, is Prome, and we may be absent likely for two months, or three Starting this day, we were luckily awned in from actual spouts, not showers of rain, by thickest canvass. No. 1, lashed like a roof on bamboo ridge and upright poles. That evening we anchored some five miles from Rangoon, off a thick village, the current being very strong against us, and the banks clothed most luxuriantly with trees, sugarcane, bamboo, plantain, and evergreens of every kind, now soaked in copious torrents — rain, in fact, peculiar to this river — so dense as one may seek for in vain elsewhere. The Burmese boats were very numerous of all lengths and sizes, and for the most part of a single log of monster teak, covered in, aft, with a bamboo thatch, and having a high, carved steering-seat astern, and a huge, round-bladed, long-levered paddle fixed on as a shifting rudder, at which the Head man takes his seat, and umbrella-protected by his slave alike from scorching heat and rain, in pride of "clout" and tattooed thighs, belabours with a long bamboo his howling, paddling crew. The natives seem far superior in intellect to the Indians generally, something, one would say, between a Chinaman and a Malay in the social scale. The males are exceedingly robust-limbed, broad-shouldered, wearing a "clout" only round the loins, and sandals on the feet, but, without exception, having a " nature's" pair of breeches of elaborate tattooing, according to a fashionable pattern, by a regular "government artist," from the knee to the waist, indelible. Many warriors have also ennobling honourable medalions and ribbons elaborately transcribed on their chests, some blue, some red, no doubt the Burmese "Orders of the Bath." They are of all shades of copper (the men), down to true "snow-ball," and wear their long, horse-like black hair tied in a hard knot on top of the head. Their features are only to be described by the gilded and alabaster "josses," now found in the museums and curiosity dealers' shops at all our naval ports where Jack resorts, and occasional grocers' windows of our towns — those figures seated, some-what like Egyptians, with the hands envariably across. The native women (Lord bless me!), they are like water-dogs, swimming and diving, and grinning and chattering, astern of our boats all day, and though reserved enough, and vanishing — goodness knows where! — when the boat touches the shore, yet, on one pretence or another to wash their clothes or bathe their infants, are otherwise always in the water, holding on sometimes by a rope astern in the rapid current. Their dress is easily adapted for fashionable watering places — simplex mundtitiis — a single square of a species of native cross-barred cotton, being wrapped tight round the body, beneath the arm- pits, and the end tucked in with a hitch. This envelope, therefore, is most easily laid aside, in stepping into the muddy bath, and donned again on walking out; to which, on state days and "sing-song pigeons," is sometimes added, as fullest dress, an " opera cloak," or short "polka jacket," of white linen. The fair sex, I need scarcely say, are not tattooed, but all, of either sex, piercing the lobes of their ears with tubes of horn, convert them (as we do a chimney vase in bachelors' houses) from childhood, into holders of tobacco, betel-nut, cigars, &c. Sometimes the nostril cartilages are turned to the same account, by no means thereby adding to their beauty, in our eyes. No sleep this night for the mosquitoes, which are most formidable here, the men spending the night singing and swearing at them alternately beneath the close packed awning; we aft, in the stern sheets of the boats, in much the same predicament, or rather worse, being " aft to leeward." However, at length in despite of the traps the lanterns were almost a solid mass of " stingers" around the candles, I perched myself outside the awning on the bamboo ridge pole, and, nodding like an owl the whole night through, I dozed and smoked, and smoked and dozed, Palinurus like, having tied a rope's end firmly round my wrist wherewith to bring me "up" again if "Somnus" should overbalance me into the dark and noisome gurgling flood below; a caution, as the sequel shewed, not lightly to be treated. However, the novelty of the scene had its effect, despite the want of rest and labour of the day in heat and rain, upon the spirit of the crews, who jeered, and punned, and laughed, and chaffed each other from boat to boat all night, as only British sailors can, in hearty, reckless style. Here, however, to remain all night at anchor was worse than the pains of purgatory, therefore, the men at last worn out, begged hard in the middle watch to get their well-crammed little vessels under weigh up stream again, in order that the friendly draught of air thereby might drift, in some degree, away from underneath the stuffy heated awning, the subtle clouds of sleep-repelling, torturing mosquitoes. 'Twas granted during that night of necessity.
Athough we double-banked some half-score oars on either side, pulling right lustily against the impetuous current, and resting the wearied oar betimes, sailed in, when wind permitted, close by the bush along the shore; sometimes, however, we were unable with sail and oar combined to stem the stream, when if perchance a stretch of bank was clear of bush along a pasture ground, we tracked the vessels along with hawsers, tackling on our gangs of rolicking human draught of sailors, in lieu of quadrupeds, (whenever it was light before the sun blazed forth in Eastern fierceness), scaring the natives by their quaint, outlandish sailor cut, and to them stranger antics, from their muddy amphibious dwellings pitched on poles some ten feet high, and much resembling the Malay nuts, only filthier, if possible, being reached by boats from all sides half the year, which now were grounded in the village streets, 'erst while no more nor less than aqueducts. Even the vicious water buffaloes, with horns diverging full six feet, from wallowing in the muddy dykes, turned tail and fled. The tortoise on the snag turned up his snout in mute amazement, pulled toes and tail within his "testudo," and toppled with a "flop" into the liquid mud. From this we passed several bamboo fishing traps along the bank; many the counterparts of our salmon-weirs in Britain; others Woven like our lobster-pots in shape, the interpreter said, for catching eels, perhaps it was; but the rascal was an ignorant, lying Portuguese "half-caste," picked up from some of the native coasters of Rangoon, one "Jose" something, who told the truth by very accident, for which, whenever happening, I believe he was most sorry, and lied the deeper next time as amends. The fire-flies are dazzling here at night.
The botany Is very new and beautiful, gorgeous flowers and flowering shrubs bathed in the stream, are creeping luxuriantly along the larger trunks, as parasites; most noble parks of chesnut trees o'erdot the plains like English parks, with here and there on bolder points, the palms and cocoa-nuts. In places, too, the banks are hedged with all-sustaining plantains and bananas; thus here 'tis the land of plenty, "pull and eat." The plantains, boiled like our potato, sliced and fried with navy pork, are not so bad, as many a hungry stomach testifies, most nutrient. Bananas, sweet and luscious, answer better for dessert.
After getting ashore several times, we anchored for the night, in a harrow nook close in shore, our anchors not holding in the open rapid stream. There, the mosquitos feast was repeated, if possible, with variations of the most blood-thirsty description on their part. In vain every expedient was tried to banish them, such as burning wet wood, tar, et cetera, in the boats beneath the awning, in &ct fumigating them as rats are sometimes banished from ship-board; but all to no avail, the attempt at remedy being almost as bad as the affliction itself. At length, again, I lashed myself on the ridge-pole of the roof as 'twere; yet wherever one's "sit upon" and heels were tangents to the canvass roof, there stung the mosquitoes through and through, clustering round the lantern at the inside of the awning. They poked and probed, and stung through the grain of the thickest canvas awning, upwards, through trowsers, stockings, seams of shoes; so that fain was I without delay to sadly sacrifice this "tangent posture" as affording the smallest mathematical surface for attack, and to do the sleeping for the rest of the night perched like a "bantam cock," or paddy bird on top of a bamboo frame to which the awning was stretched out astern. Again, to-night, the second, without sleep, though they had toiled at the oar two hot and long oppressive showery days, with little intermission; the men begged to set under way; though they were nodding over their oars, still with indomitable resolution on they pulled. We sadly lost a seaman overboard last night, by dropping from his mosquito's-dodging perch, out of the arms of "Morpheus" into the rapid circling eddy, from which he never to the surface rose, nor was heard of after, though the souse into the water and his shout in falling were plainly heard by many in the dark; doubtless, he stuck fast in the thick glue-like mud, head and arms impacted, or most likely was carried by the under-tow far down the stream beneath the surface before he came to upper air, if ever. A sailor's life soon brings oblivion on all such accidents; attached to their messmates as sailors are proverbially, yet the song and jest went round this evening almost as jovially as last night, tho' grieved his comrades not a whit the less on that account for him
Anchor is dropped for breakfast and dinner, after which we had a swim off the stem sheets, being most tenacious, however, in holding the while a tight grasp of a well-secured rope, first ascertaining by occular demonstration that the knot was safe and sound. So brisk was the current, that a piece of wood thrown over, never came up to view: a lesson on the laws of gravitation under peculiar circumstances not overlooked (one may vouch for it,) by me.

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