In Pre-WW2 days when Burma was the rice bowl of the Subcontinent, those B.I. Officers based on the Calcutta side during
their Indian Coast service were likely to spend more time in Rangoon than any other port.
There were the "E's" - Ekma, Egra and Ellenga etc. On the Calcutta-Rangoon
mail service, the four "K's" - Khandalla, Karoa, Karapara and
Karagola on the Calcutta-Singapore weekly Straits Mail service, the Apcar Line ships, including the
Santhia and Shirala,on the Calcutta-Far East to Japan run and the old Rajula
carrying Indian labour for the paddy fields from Madras. All these ships made regular calls at Rangoon both outward and inward
bound but apart from these regular services the cargo ships, the "G's" and "Fields" etc. spent much of their time humping
coal from Calcutta to Rangoon, which was a bunkering port for the coal burners of those days, then after discharge and cleaning
up, a full cargo of rice to Ceylon and the west coasts, Malabar and Kathiawar, of India before returning to Calcutta to
repeat the same humdrum cycle.
After months of such voyages it is not surprising that an occasional trip to Australia was a little glimpse of Paradise.
I remember a long such spell on the old Nirvana, Capt. J. Drummond, C/O Jenvey, 2/0 Duncan, 3/0 Crow,
R/O a wild Irish lad from Bantry Bay and a great bunch of E/O's whose names I cannot now remember except that the Third
made a very fine Atholl Brose strained through a pair of his wife's silk stockings one Christmas.
On approaching Calcutta after one such voyage, Capt. Drummond announced at dinner that the ship was to go on the loading
berth for Australia and that as we had all been together for nearly a year he would try and see that we all stayed in her
for the Australian trip. On arrival he reported to the office and, alas, he was the first to be transferred. Within the
week we were all replaced by the Babu’s blue eyed boys. So much for our Australian trip.
The 'Old Man' was an elderly Scotsman who did not seem to have any interests outside the ship. In some ten months he went
to the office with the Butler (Purser) every morning in port and returned by midday. Once in all that time, at Rangoon,
he did not return and we got quite worried about him. It transpired that he had met a fellow captain he had not seen for
years and they had gone to the pictures together. He was obviously very careful with money, and not only his own. One
morning in Rangoon, as he was leaving for the office he overheard me giving my bank book to the Butler (Purser) and asking
him to draw out 20 rupees for me. He was horrified, "Mr. Crow, you should never, ever, draw money out of your bank. Do what
I did as a young officer and paste a strip of paper down the drawing out column so that you cannot use it."
In Rangoon only the mail ships were likely to be berthed alongside, cargo ships being moored in the stream where they
received their cargo of rice from the country boats from the various paddy fields up country. It was usual for loading
ships to be surrounded by a dozen or so such craft all made fast alongside and all clamouring for their cargo to be taken
first. During the monsoon rains loading could take, with the many stoppages for rain, several weeks to complete.
Another commodity exported from Rangoon was teak logs. Huge logs, whole tree trunks, would be formed into rafts and floated
down the river to alongside the loading ship for shipment.
I believe animals were also handled. There is the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, of a Mates Receipt being issued
in respect of "4 elephants, one in dispute, if onboard to be delivered".
The Irrawaddy River at Rangoon was a fast flowing stream, especially during the flood times of the monsoon, from memory
I should say at least five or six knots on the ebb and the journey to and from the ship to shore by means of small sampans
could be quite hazardous. A sampan would be allocated to each ship by the office, it would always fly the BI houseflag.
To board your ship the sampan wallah would work his craft upstream in shore out of the main stream of the current until
he estimated that, by rowing hard, he could fetch up at the gangway of your ship before the current swept him, and you,
away downstream. I do not recall any such misjudgements nor any accidents which is quite surprising.
In those pre-war days Burma was a delightful country, the land of "Pagodas", the magnificent gold clad Shwedagon at Rangoon
must have been one of the best. The country's transport was mainly by river craft, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. ran a fleet of
craft on the Irrawaddy and it's tributaries to Mandalay and beyond. At one time I toyed with the idea of joining them but
fortunately, as it turned out, did not, if I had my career could have been cut very short by the Japanese invasion.
Rangoon was the capital and principal port but there were other smaller ports too, Moulmein in the south, Bassein in
the south west and Akyab and Kyuak Pyu on the west coast. I recall that when I was 3/0 of Nirvana in
1939 our loading berth was transferred at very short notice from Rangoon to Bassein. At such short notice that all the
dunnage and cargo mats that would normally have been provided as the prerogative of the Cargo Superintendent and his
department in Rangoon had to be arranged by the ship with the local stevedores in Bassein, to the great delight of the
Captain and Chief Officer, in fact I seem to remember we all got a cut, mine being a few tins of cigarettes. Bassein,
little more than a village on another mouth of the Irrawaddy River to the west of Rangoon, was very rural. Moulmein to
the south was a rather larger town with some facilities. I visited Akyab and Kyuak Pyu while serving as 2/0 in
Varela. We were trooping and serving the Army in Burma during the campaign against the Japanese in
1945 but were only paying flying visits so I have no real recollection of those ports.
I believe most of the labour in Burma, in the paddy fields etc. was provided by contract labour from India (the Rajula,
to and from Madras/ Rangoon) the shopkeepers seemed to be mostly Indian and the taxi drivers were nearly all Sikhs. The Burmese
themselves were a delightful people who seemed to live a quiet life, often of a religious nature. I still have hanging in my
sitting room two delicate water-colour paintings of up country river scenes painted by a Burmese artist that I bought
in Rangoon in 1939.
In Calcutta I can remember Firpo's and the Great Eastern Hotel, who did an excellent tiffin for one rupee eight annas.
During one such meal I experienced what would now be called a "senior moment". A quartet of elderly musicians were playing
background music and they struck up a tune that I vaguely recognised. At that precise moment all the people at the table
in front of me stood up. Oh of course "the King" and I too rose and stood at attention. Then the people in front gathered
up their belongings and, having finished their meal, departed leaving me standing in solitary embarrassment. Hurriedly
sitting down I consulted the programme of music on my table, "Annie Laurie". I am deaf now but then was only tone deaf!
I cannot, however, remember any similar hotels or establishments in Rangoon. There was the Mayo Club, the Lakes, several
cinemas and some sort of Palais de dance halls but I have no memories of any particular hotel or of dining out. I do
recall that in Calcutta if one dressed to dine one wore a white dinner jacket and black trousers while in Rangoon the
reverse applied, a black dinner jacket with white trousers, Those were the last days of the Raj!
I saw my first 3D film show at a cinema in Rangoon in the 1930's, we were issued with red and green spectacles and the
whole show accentuated perspective, a railway engine rushing out of the screen towards the audience, a girl standing
against a door with a man throwing knives to outline her, and then one was in the position of the girl with the knives
flying out of the screen at you, very scary.
While I don't recall eating out in Rangoon I do remember that, when returning to one's ship after an evening ashore,
we sometimes had the taxi driver (usually a Sikh) call at Canal Street (I think that was the name), a street of small
dukas and eating houses. The driver would park his taxi (in those days mostly open roadsters, Fords, Beans, Buicks or
maybe a Chev), outside the one of his choice where, no doubt, he had a financial arrangement, whereupon a board would
be placed over your knees across the back of the open taxi and a very appetising Murgi Chop, complete with chapattis etc.
would be served. I never saw these places by daylight, if I had perhaps my memories would be less salubrious. The down
side was that, even at night, a horrible smell of rotten eggs or worse pervaded the whole area caused by a popular local
fruit, the Durian, which was supposed to be good to eat if you could ignore the smell. I couldn’t so don’t know. The
Oxford Dictionary says "The durian, a large tree native to SE Asia bearing oval spiny fruits containing a creamy pulp
with a fetid smell and an agreeable taste".
So much for pre-war Rangoon; the B I must have shipped thousands upon thousands of tons of rice from there in those days,
nowadays one of the charities supported by Christchurch Priory Church is "Rice for Burma" and, remembering the past,
I find it almost unbelievable that Burma should now not be able to provide enough rice for her own needs.