IRRAWADDY FLOTILLA COMPANY

 


The F.C. Kennedy Presentation Sterling Silver Service – Weight 7.3 kg

Introduction

On 6th December 1903 a gift of Burmese sterling silver was presented to Frederick Charles Kennedy as a ‘mark of esteem’ by the Commanders of the venerable Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Ltd. (I.F.C). The occasion marked the retirement of F.C. Kennedy as General Manager of the I.F.C after twenty-six years of service to the company in Burma. This Magazine article illustrates and describes the silver gift and offers a geographical and historical context to the legendary story of the I.F.C.

 

The F. C. Kennedy Presentation Silver Service – 1903

The Commanders of the I.F.C. presented F.C. Kennedy with a grandiose, hand-crafted, five-piece silver tea and coffee service, weighing 7.3 kg, and consisting of a rectangular salver, tea pot, coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl. Each piece is English in style and decorated with traditional Burmese figurines, mythological animals and floral iconography. The service was probably made by a Burmese silversmith in Rangoon over 110 years ago. It remains in near-new condition, although many years of polishing have rubbed away some minor detail of the high relief decoration. The artistic and technical quality of the decoration suggests the silver service was made by an accomplished silversmith rather than a master silversmith. In contrast, the fabrication of each piece - the metal forming, the soldering and the casting work – is all executed with precision and consummate skill. As is customary in Burma, the silversmith’s name is not inscribed on the silver service.

 

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The silver salver with an engraved base and ornately decorated rim
Size – 58 x 38 cm Weight 3.1 kg

From an historical perspective, the silver salver is the most important piece of the silver set. It is large, measuring 59 cm in length and 38 cm in width, heavy, weighing 3.1 kg, and engraved to record the detail of the gift to F.C. Kennedy. This detail is contained within a plain, burnished silver panel in the centre of the salver. Engraved on the panel are the words “Presented to F.C. Kennedy C.I.E. – General Manager Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. Ltd – As a Mark of Esteem – By the Commanders of the Flotilla Co. Ltd”. Under these words is the name of the Marine Superintendent, J.J. Cooper, and below, three columns with the names of 28 flotilla commanders. At the base of the engraving is the presentation date “6th October 1903”. A flag pole flying the ensign of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is engraved each side of the commander’s name list.


The central panel of the silver salver engraved with the presentation detail

The oval panel containing the inscription is slightly raised in a dome-form above the base of the salver. A narrow decorative band of stylistic lotus buds surrounds the panel. In the four corners of the salver are square frames with a scalloped outline. Each frame contains a chased sketch of a Burmese animal in its natural habitat – a tiger in grassland, a lion on the plain, an antlered deer in the forest observed by a small snake in the grass, and a mythological garuda bird clinging to a tree branch. The background to the engraved panel and the four animal frames is a chased pattern representing scrolling, acanthus stems and flowers. The stems ‘grow’ out of a flower vase above and below the oval panel in the centre of the salver.

An 8-cm wide raised rim with a sharply scalloped edge surrounds the base of the silver salver. The rim is decorated with repoussé figurines in high relief that are decorated in detail with chased costumes and facial features. There are 29 figurines in total on the salver’s rim, comprising 28 with either a human or demon form and one bird. The iconography of the decoration is from the Ramayana poem – an ancient Indian epic. It is difficult to discern a contiguous story in the decoration, although many of the main characters in the Ramayana are present, including Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Ravana and the rakshasa Maricha in the form of a golden deer. The four corners of the rim are decorated with a mythological garuda bird framed in a narrow, scalloped silver fillet band.

The form and decoration of the tea pot, coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl are all similar. Each hollow spout is in the form of a mythical hintha bird, a Burmese variant of the Sanskrit hamsa bird, most commonly understood to be a goose-like bird, although it may also represent a swan. The hintha, or hamsa bird, is mentioned in the Ramayana epic. The large handles on all four pieces are cast silver deities with a human form. They are identified as deities, or gods, by the small ornament on the head of each figure. There is a large cast silver finial on the lid of each piece of the service. A deity with arms outstretched adorns the lids of the tea pot and the sugar bowl, and a female figurine in a dancing pose embellishes the coffee pot and milk jug. The surface of each piece in the service are all decorated in repoussé scenes from the Ramayana with a background pattern of Burmese style floral design.

 


The tea pot (1,242 g)

 


The coffee pot (1,621 g)

 


The milk jug (750 g)

 


The sugar bowl (594 g)

An interesting footnote to the F.C. Kennedy silver salver is the historical involvement of two listed Commanders in key events of the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war of 1885.

J.J. Cooper was the Marine Superintendent of the I.F.C. when the silver service was presented to F.C. Kennedy in 1903. Earlier in his career, Cooper had captained the P.S. Ashley Eden steamer and personally delivered the British ultimatum to King Thibaw in Mandalay in October 1885. No reply was received until the ultimatum was due to expire on 5th November. Finally, Kinwun Mingyi, Thibaw’s Chief Minister, delivered a response and Cooper returned unharmed to Rangoon on 9th November. King Thibaw’s reply was not satisfactory to the British and they immediately declared war on Royal Burma. Captain Cooper received a gold watch from the British government for his services, a seemingly rather paltry gift in compensation for a civilian who had risked his life on such a critical government mission.

The P.S. Palow 1879 – employed as a gun boat to bombard the Minhla Fort 1885

The P.S. Palow 1879 – employed as a gun boat to bombard the Minhla Fort 1885

Captain W.N. Beckett, the last name engraved on the silver salver, commanded the steamer P.S. Palow in the war of 1885. He disguised his vessel as a Burmese prize of war by flying the royal peacock ensign and ran the gauntlet of Burmese river forts in advance of the British flotilla. A few days later, the P.S. Palow was engaged as a gunboat in the attack and capture of the Minhla Forts on 17th November 1885. This was the first and last serious military resistance offered by King Thibaw’s forces. The king surrendered on 27th November 1885.


The P S Japan – A Siam Class Steamer – Painted white for the visit of the Prince of Wales

Captain P. de. La Taste is also listed on the F.C. Kennedy salver. His somewhat minor claim to civilian fame is that he commanded the Siam class P.S. Japan when it served as the royal steamer to carry the Prince and Princess of Wales on a visit to Burma in 1906. This Prince of Wales, crowned Edward VIII in 1936, abdicated the same year to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson – a constitutional crisis at the time for the British monarchy.

 

Frederick Charles Kennedy – A Short Biography

F.C. Kennedy was presented with the silver service as a ‘mark of esteem’ for his critical role in managing the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Burma from 1877 until his retirement from service in Burma in 1903. He was a Director of the company in Scotland for a further ten years.

Kennedy was born in Leith, Scotland in 1848. He started his career in Scotland as a Civil Engineer but soon discovered that his many skills and entrepreneurial talent could be better utilized beyond the borders of Scotland. Accordingly, when courted in 1877 by James Galbraith, a founder of the I.F.C., he did not hesitate to accept the position in Burma of Assistant Manager to another Scot, George Swann, the I.F.C’s Rangoon Manager since 1871. Kennedy’s employment opportunity in Rangoon was occasioned by the sudden and untimely death of the previous Assistant Manager, Archibald Colquhoun, at the age of 30. The photo below of the Rangoon office was taken in 1877 and features George Swann in the centre and Colquhoun to his left as viewed. This image was taken only months before Colquhoun’s death and the subsequent arrival of his replacement, Frederick Kennedy.

 

Kennedy was married in Falkirk, Scotland in 1881 and on his return to Burma he was appointed Rangoon Manager, with Swann taking the role of General Manager back in Scotland. As Manager, Kennedy energetically explored and pioneered new routes for the I.F.C. on the Chindwin river, in the creeks of the Irrawaddy delta and in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy itself. In 1885, the Irrawaddy flotilla was requisitioned by the British government under Kennedy’s management to serve the interests of the British army in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War. The war ended quickly following the capture of Mandalay in November 1885 and the exile of King Thibaw and his family to India. Kennedy was awarded an India General Service medal and created a Companion of the Indian Empire for his services during the military campaign.

Swann retired as General Manager of the I.F.C. in 1894 and Kennedy stepped into his shoes with a commitment to expand the business on the Irrawaddy, the Salween and three rivers near Moulmein. He was also involved in the design and construction of new steamers, including the largest, shallow draught side-paddle, double-deck steamers ever built – the 100-m long Siam Class, licensed to carry 4,000 passengers.

After 26 arduous years in Burma, Kennedy retired and returned to his home in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1903. He was appointed a Director of the I.F.C. in 1907 and continued to participate in the company’s affairs until his death in 1916 at the age of 68. His wife survived him by 16 years. The couple had no children. Kennedy’s legacy was the expansion of the flotilla to create the largest fleet of river vessels in the world. When Kennedy was appointed General Manger in 1894 the fleet size comprised 200 vessels. On his death in 1916 the Irrawaddy Flotilla numbered 500 vessels.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company – A Brief History

The River

An account of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company must begin with an introduction to the celebrated Irrawaddy river (now the Ayeyarwady) that runs the length of Burma from north to south. The river’s source is high in the Himalayan massif and it reaches the sea in the Bay of Bengal where it forms a broad delta. The name of the river is believed to derive from the Pali word ‘airavati’, meaning ‘elephant river’, which is appropriate both as a figurative and literal name.


The Irrawaddy and its Principal Tributaries

The Irrawaddy proper comes to life at the confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers at a latitude of 28 North, about 50 km north of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The two head-streams rise close together in the eastern Himalayas, one issuing from Myanmar and one flowing from Tibet. In total, the drainage basin of the river encompasses an area of 404,200 km2. There are two river ‘lengths’ – from the source of the N’Mai head-stream to the Bay of Bengal, the Irrawaddy is about 2,170 km, and from the confluence of the head-streams, where the river becomes the Irrawaddy proper, the distance to the Bay of Bengal is 1,770 km. Over this distance, the river only drops about 150 m in elevation. The Irrawaddy ranks as the 55th longest river in the world.

There are two seasonal water flows on the Irrawaddy. Snow melt starting in the Himalayas in April casues the water level to rise rapidly, and in turn, the southwest monsoon in May-June adds a massive water volume to the already swollen river. This high water season persists until the river begins to fall in about October with the advent of the hot, dry, northeast monsoon. Water levels decrease rapidly and the low water season extends from about November until the following  March when the snow melt in the Himalayas begins anew. The range between the river’s high and low water marks is up to 11 m. According to the local geography of the landscape and the time of the season, the width of the river varies from approximately 250 m at its narrowest to over 4 km at its widest point. There are three river defiles on the Irrawaddy, one 60 km north of Bhamo, one between Bhamo and Katha, and the third about 100 km north of Mandalay.

Above all, the Irrawaddy river is the historical and commercial highway of Myanmar that has flowed through the cultural and economic heartland of the country for over two millennia.

The Company

The Irrawaddy flotilla was born out of the 2nd Anglo-Burmese war of 1852. Four small paddle steamers and and their flats, shallow draft barges with covered decks, belonging to the naval arm of the British East India Company, were brought to Rangoon from Calcutta to transport and supply British troops. These vessels remained in Burma after the war and were utilised by the government for mail and transportation services. Later, in 1863, the government decided to privatize the small fleet, offering the vessels for sale and a 5-year exclusive contract for the carriage of troops, stores and mail between Rangoon and Mandalay. The Glasgow enterprise Todd, Findlay and Company recognized the business opportunity and purchased the small fleet and agreed terms for the contract in 1865. Thus was born the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and Burmese SN Co. Ltd.


Original House Flag 1865
Peacock in his pride surrounded by name and incorporation year

The original contract with the government was renegotiated in 1868 with the extension of the services to Bhamo in Upper Burma and into the creeks of the Irrawaddy delta. This required an expansion of the steamer fleet and the required capital was quickly raised in Scotland. The first of two new paddle steamers purchased by the company was the P.S. Colonel Phayre, named after the Chief Commissioner of Burma responsible for negotiating the opening of new routes with King Mindon in Mandalay.

The next corporate milestone occurred in 1875 following a dramatic increase in trade brought about by the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. However, the proposed expansion of the company’s fleet to support this new trade was constrained by the scope of the original Articles of Association of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and Burmese SN Co. Ltd. Accordingly, the Directors in Glasgow decided to incorporate a new company with increased capital under the simplified name of the ‘Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’. This entity was registered on 1st January 1876 with assets comprising 13 paddle steamers and 29 flats.

 


Flag of the line from 1876 – a Union Jack on a red, white and blue striped background

The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (I.F.C.) expanded rapidly after 1876 and by 1885 the flotilla operated 24 steamers and 23 flats. After 1876, the new steamers were all constructed by Denny’s dockyard in Dumbarton, Scotland. Francis Kennedy, who had joined the I.F.C. in 1877, was instrumental in both the design and management of the new vessels.

In 1885, the entire I.F.C. fleet was requisitioned by the British to support the 3rd Anglo-Burmese war. The vessels were used as gun boats, transportation vessels, hospital ships and command boats. In all, the I.F.C. carried to war 9,500 troops, 7,000 camp followers, 77 guns and a large number of mules. The British forces were under the command of General Prendergast.


British troops disembark from I.F.C. paddle steamers – Mandalay 1885

 


P.S. Thambyadine 1879 – Army HQ, 3rd Anglo-Burmese War 1885

The unique service provided to the British army by individual I.F.C. vessels is well documented and two specific examples are described above in the description of the silver salver presented to F.C. Kennedy. One other event with notable historical significance was facilitated by the P.S. Thooreah under the command of Captain Patterson. On the evening of 29th November, 1885, King Thibaw, his two principal sister queens, Supayalat and Supayagyi, his daughter and the Queen mother were escorted aboard the P.S. Thooreah in Mandalay by Colonel Sladen of the British army. Defeated in war, King Thibaw and his family were transported to Rangoon, transferred to the RIMS Clive and exiled to Ratnagiri on the west coast of India. Thibaw died a broken man in Ratnagiri in 1916. He was an omnipotent King who lived most of his life in the palatial isolation of the Mandaly Fort. It’s dificult to imagine his thoughts and emotions as he steamed down the Irrawaddy river on the P.S. Thooreah, never to see his kingdom again.


King Thibaw boarding the P.S. Thooreah – 29th November 1885
(from the Illustrated London News – 6th February 1886)

 

The I.F.C. resumed normal business soon after the short 3rd Anglo-Burmese ended in November 1885, although it would take the British army another 10 years to quell resistance to colonial rule and bring a full measure of stability to Burma, now designated a full province of British India. The peak of economic prosperity in Burma occurred during the 1920’s following the disruption of World War I which saw the requisition of I.F.C. vessels for the war effort in Turkey and the temporary depletion of senior staff who enlisted for military service. Over eight million passengers and 1.25 million tons of cargo were carried annually by the I.F.C. in the heydays of the 1920s. This capacity was achieved with a fleet comprising 622 vessels, including 267 powered paddle steamers and and 355 flats and barges. It was the largest inland water transportation company in the world with over 4,000 staff.


The former head office of the Irrawady Flotilla Company on Phayre Street, Rangoon
(now occupied by the state owned Inland Water Transport company)

The beginning of the end for the Irrawaddy Flotilla started in January 1942 following the invasion of Burma by Japanese forces. In multiple acts of denial to the rapidly advancing Japanese army divisions, the I.F.C deliberately scuttled almost the entire fleet of 600 vessels. The largest number of vessels went down in Mandaly (112) and Katha (96) in May and April 1942. The preferred method of sinking the vessels was to open the main injection valve and then machine gun a hole in the hull at the water line. After the final acts of denial, the surviving I.F.C. staff made a harrowing trek through the jungles of northwest Burma to Assam in British India with the Japanese army and airforce in close pursuit. This was the effective end of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s operations and business existence.


The hulk of the paddle steamer P.S. Nepaul - scuttled at Katha in May 1942
On 25th December 1941 the P.S. Nepaul was machine gunned by Japanese aircraft
at a jetty in Rangoon and her relief commander and chief engineer killed.

After the war there was a short attempt between 1945 and 1948 to resurrect the I.F.C. However, the era of colonialism in Burma was rapidly drawing to a close and independence from Britain was quickly negotiated and celebrated on 4th January 1948. The new government nationalized the remains of the I.F.C. in June 1948 and the venerable old company metamorphosed into the more utilitarian Department of Inland Water Transportation. The shell of the I.F.C. remained a legal entity until the company was voluntarily liquidated by the shareholders on 26th June 1950 at the age of 85 years.

The F.C. Kennedy presentation silver service is a minor piece of I.F.C. history. However, the commanders’ names engraved on the salver speak to a history of extraordinary human achievement and endeavour in the service of the company, the colonial British and the Burmese people.

‘Mandalay’ - Immortalized in Poetry

A memory of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is poignantly immortalized in the first and last stanzas of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘Mandalay’ which was written in April 1890 when he was just 24 years old.

Kipling (1865-1936) was traveling from Calcutta to San Francisco in March 1889 and his ship made a scheduled three-day stop in Rangoon. For reasons unknown, the ship also made a short unscheduled stop in Moulmein after departing Rangoon. In Moulmein, Kipling went ashore as a ‘tourist’ and visited the Kyaik-Than-Lun Buddhist temple and pagoda. Here he was inspired by an encounter with a beautiful Burmese girl to write the now famous poem ‘Mandalay’. The poem speaks to the bitter-sweet longings and nostalgia many British men felt for Asia when they returned to the grey, cold, damp climate of Britain. Kipling never in fact visited or came close to Mandalay, although he would almost certainly have experienced the sights and sounds of the Irrawaddy Flotilla’s steamers in Rangoon and Moulmein.

Kipling’s invocation of the paddle steamers is penned in lines five to ten of the first stanza of ‘Mandalay’;

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay ?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

 

A second reference to the ‘flotilla’ is found in the last stanza. The much acclaimed poem is reprinted in full at the end of this article.

Of his visit to the Kyaik-Than-Lun pagoda, Kipling’s attention was quickly drawn to the beautiful Burmese girl who inspired the poem and he seemingly lost all further interest in the Buddhist temple. He wrote, “I should better remember what that pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever and owning a pair of elephants.”.

The first line of ‘Mandalay’ transports the reader to the steps of the Kyaik-Than-Lun pagoda looking ‘eastward’ at the sea. This is a trivial directional error in Kipling’s recollection of the visit – the sea lies to the west from the pagoda. The view today is probably little changed from 1889 when Kipling gazed out dreaming of his ‘Burma girl’.

 


Kipling’s view looking west to the sea from the Kyaik-Than-Lun pagoda, Moulmein
Unchanged in 2013

 


The Kyaik-Than-Lun pagoda, Moulmein – 2013
 
Irrawaddy Flotilla Memorabilia
A company postcard with private I.F.C. postage stamps franked on the 21st August 1906
On the reverse are printed lines in Burmese from Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’.

 

The poem ‘Mandalay’ - first published in 1892.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward at the sea,

There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! "

Come you back to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay:

Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay ?

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

 

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,

An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat - jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,

An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,

An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:

Bloomin' idol made o' mud

Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd

Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!

On the road to Mandalay...

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,

She'd git 'er little banjo an' she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!

With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin my cheek

We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.

Elephints a-pilin' teak

In the sludgy, squdgy creek,

Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!

On the road to Mandalay...

But that's all shove be'ind me - long ago an' fur away

An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;

An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

No! you won't 'eed nothin' else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay...

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,

An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an' grubby 'and -

Law! wot do they understand?

I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay...

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

O the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay !

By Rudyard Kipling - 1890

 

References

The historical information and images in this article are primarily sourced from the following two publications;

  1. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company

Maritime Monographs and Reports, No. 7

By Captain H J Chubb and C L D Duckworth

Published by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London – 1973

 

  1. Irrawaddy Flotilla

By Alister McCrae & Alan Prentice

Published by James Paton Limited, Paisley, Scotland - 1978