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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 22, 2014

Up the Irawaddy Part III


Part I
Part II
September 10th. — Dodged the mosquitoes after dinner by taking a nap in the stem sheets for a couple of hours, whilst they, for a wonder, were not on wing; these, unlike most others which repose themselves by sunlight, being insatiable, ready to draw blood generally at any moment throughout the day. All officers and men enjoyed the anchor being down this afternoon, to have a couple of hours' much needed refreshing sleep, coiled up in the most economical dimensions; the urgent need for which will doubtless appear from the fact, that some 50 officers and men were destined to live for an indefinite period in a small open boat, not near as large as many of our family pleasure barges on the Thames, in this fiery climate, provisioned, accoutred, and fully armed. Within a foot or two of the cooking stove, and howitzer, and underneath the seats, were 14 days' complete provisions, rum and pork, salt beef and biscuit, with ample magazines of ammunition, shot and shell, grape, canister and shrapnel, with rockets, and ball cartridge. To sum up, the only thing we still required was water, good drinking water, for which we had to substitute the pea soup-like element that floated us (a fertile source of dysentery by the way), dipping it from alongside the boat as we required it, and frequently obliged to strain this thickish mixture with our lips when drinking, as horses do. However, this could not be helped, for even had we the water handy to carry, we yet had not the room to stow it.

So, when ashore, in the neighbourhood of spring water, be sure we made the most of it, "camel fashion," as Jack says, "having a regular blow-out thereof." To make matters worse, the dead Burmese floating down from the scene of various skirmishes, carrying each his loathsome load of gorging vulture passengers, sometimes even got foul of us in bathing, or "Hoogly-like" got jammed across our hawser, scenting the air for miles around, for half an hour before their actual advent with any fragrance but the "Millefleur." Meanwhile, the filthy "harpies," roused from their hurried feast, hovered grudgingly above our bamboo mast, until each corpse resumed, half dissected by their beaks and talons, its eddying voyage, when their feast commenced afresh — Oh, horrid ! To day we passed several villages quite close, with beautiful Pagodas, and enormous stone "Sphinxes," on either side of the massive marble steps leading to the elevated platform, on which invariably is erected the graceful shaped Burmese Pagoda. Each Sphinx was close on four-and-twenty feet in length, and twelve feet high, beautifully carved out of one solid stone; though in that stoneless country, where that stone came from! and what the means of transport! is a puzzle itself, a perfect "Sphinx" to me, known only to the former native generations that built such mighty temples, sometimes of brick and stucco-work, but often of solid masonry, in a country where there are no roads, nor draught save of the elephant, as a rule, unless at the largest towns, and which for the most part are half-year under water in the rainy season, the streets being traversed by boats between the piles on which the bamboo houses are built. Possibly some archives in embossed and curiously gilt chests, in the Temples of "Donaboo" and other places, might, properly interpreted, let in a ray of light on the formation of these structures. There were in the sacred chests strong paper scrolls, as records of some kind, jet black, with round hieroglyphic characters in white writing, running from right to left.

 These strong, mighty monuments, now hidden in tangled bush, incline one to associate the Burmese in a somewhat similar common origin with the degenerate denizens of the "Central American" forests; the countenance, "Aztec-like," the posture handed down on their idols, the carved log canoe, are much the same, all differing widely from the Indian proper, the Chinese, and Chin-Indian. Marble and wooden josses, and silver, too, from a couple of inches in size, the latter up to the former twenty feet in height, gilt, and inlaid with mirrors and precious stones, and various strange grotesque devices, the smaller ones often placed upon the projecting portions of the others, like votive offerings, were all guarded most zealously from our defiling touch by watchfull "Poonges," whose stealthy, vigilant dance seemed to say most plainly, " look on, but touch not." These Poonge priests, I may observe, like many of their brethren in other lands, are certainly the best conditioned of the natives. The Poonge houses are the best in all the country, verandahed, two-storied, highly decorated with carvings, the whole of solid teak as well. The "Dagon," however, and its acolyte pagodas, several in number, all around, surpass all else in size and gilding, apparently of brick, and cemented underneath the gilding. It stands on an immense platform, approached by many terraces and flights of steps; solid it is said to be, and has been gilded over every tenth year by customary golden contribution from the country generally. A strange coincidence I may mention here: — I turned one day, whilst holding a pantomimic conversation with an aged Poonge, to seek a light for a cheroot, on which he drew from out his odd-and-end-containing sash across his waist a short cylinder and piston of hard wood, and fixing a piece of cotton in a depression on the piston's end, by a rapid stroke, and the consequent aerial concussion within the tube, he unfailingly drew forth, with chuckling glee, a light — repeating the experiment (to my amazement, as he thought) with it; an instrument I saw in use with only one other man before, and that a priest too, but of the English church, and in a distant land. The Burman Poonge's wonder was excited to find in me no stranger to this effect produced by science from the "lightning theory:" and by an imperfect interpreter, much to his delight, I explained to him the cause of the phenomenon, before unknown. Here we were attended by a convoy of canoes, with one or two, or half a dozen Burmese in each, loaded with rice or sugar cane, or plantains, or some such article, who were afraid to try the passage up the river by themselves, in consequence of the "dacoits" or river pirates, who, they made signs, were killing all before them and burning the villages, which we shortly found to be too true, by the dead floating bodies and other relics in the river.

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