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30 May 2023

Better than a Pearl: a letter to the Bayinkan of Burma from the people of Mergui

This guest blog is by Jim Potter, an independent researcher who studies the history of Tenasserim, and Ni Ni Aung, a resident of Myeik (Mergui), who assisted in the translation, transcription and interpretation of this letter.

Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907
Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

This extraordinary memorial (Or 16052) was presented to a bayinkan (ruler) who visited southern Myanmar around 1907. It is a beautiful letter in formal Burmese, printed in silk and encased in an oyster shell, but it was also clever diplomacy from a place that had dealt with capricious foreign kings for centuries. In fact, the region's port was founded by a distant kingdom in 1531 when Ayutthaya ended the long, autonomous history of Tāṇa-sirī (sometimes pronounced ‘Tenasserim’). Silt had shuttered the old roadstead at Tawnauklae, so the Thais established a new one at Khe Hill. They called it Marit. Myanmar called it Myeik. Europeans called it Mergui (Sein 1929, chs. 10-11).

detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands, 1688
Tenaserey, 1688: detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands on the scale of 8 leagues to an inch', by John Thornton, 1688. (This map was drawn shortly after the violent ending of Samuel White's tenure as shahbandar or harbour master of Marit, the true story of which remains to be told). British Library, Add MS 39178C Noc

After 1531, monsoons and geographic isolation meant that local lords remained little bothered by sovereigns in Ayutthaya, Bago, Ava, Calcutta or Rangoon. One imagines that the ok-phra Marit (official in charge of Mergui under Thai rule) who dealt with strange new Europeans in 1622 might have found sympathy with the Myeik myowun (equivalent official under Myanmar rule) who governed its beleagured stockade in 1780, or deputy commissioners who administered sleepy Mergui after 1825. All of these ‘mayors’ were granted a large degree of autonomy at the price of neglect from the capital.

For the latter rulers, Mergui became a backwater of the British Empire. Lacking teak and with its overland trade route displaced by steam power, it was a place where disfavoured civil servants were exiled into obscurity. When E.M. Ryan arrived in 1857 he called the assignment “a species of banishment” and demanded “any other appointment ... in a more civilized part of the world.” (Mss Eur F699/1/2/2/68). Maurice Collis half-agreed during his time there in the 1930s, though he wept when he left.

The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897
The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897. Photo by William Sutherland in his article, "South Tenasserim and the Mergui Archipelago", Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 14, no. 9 (1898). 

Arguably, this isolation allowed the town to retain its unique identity, vibrant culture, and admirable tradition of tolerant diversity. However, it slowed development to a crawl, and government reports included Mergui almost as an afterthought. Maps of Burma casually lopped off Tenasserim when it didn’t fit on the page.

An opportunity to counter the neglect came during a visit by Lieutenant-Governor Herbert Thirkell White. The dates are uncertain, but possibly he arrived in 1907 after seeing a report on Mergui’s progress (IOR/V/27/314/29), and prior to a tour of Burma by the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Though the viceroy did not venture to the far south, his visit was a grand affair judging by the entourage and security arrangements (Mss Eur E254/31). If this timeline is correct, civic leaders of Mergui were surely savvy enough to recognize the opportunity of direct appeal to the seats of British power.

Many others desired the same access, of course, and most were better placed for success. If the town wanted to get attention, how better than with a beautiful letter, written on silk stretched across ornate brass frames, enclosed within a huge oyster shell from the Mergui Archipelago where the ingaleik bayinkan (English governor) had enjoyed his recent holiday?

the back cover of the oyster shell book the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'
(Left) the back cover of the oyster shell book, and (right) the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

The red cloth wrapper of the shell book
The red cloth wrapper of the shell book; Myeik residents say the textile is Karen-style, though other ethnicities would wear it as well. British Library, Or 16052, wrapper. Noc

The letter is written in poetic phrases, but it is not a poem. Instead it mimics the way officials reported to Myanmar kings by humbly lowering themselves to the floor, raising their palms together above the head in letoakchi (signifying profound deference to a superior) and speaking short phrases interrupted by calm breaths. For example, to describe the dangers of the sea during the southwest monsoon, the authors wrote:

ဒေဝါသွန်းချိုး (rain drops come)၊ စည်မူရိုးဖြင့် (sound of Muyo-drum to represent thunder)၊ ထစ်ကြိုးအဟုန် (strongly strike)၊ လေပြင်းသုန်လျက် (strong winds blow)၊ အမ္ဗန်ညှိုးညံ (strike with anger)၊ ဂရက်မြန်လျက် (choppily)၊ သည်းထံစွာရွာသွန်းသော (rain heavily)၊ မိုဃ်းဥတုအခါဝယ် (in the rainy season)၊

This structure and language are troublesome for precise translation into English prose. We believe the version given to Lieutenant-Governor White would have been something like, “It being dangerous to travel in the sea during the strong winds, thunder and heavy, angry rains of the monsoon ....”

The second page of text of the shell book
The second page of text of the shell book. British Library, Or 16052, f. 2r. Noc

The letter also contains a notable contrast: respectful metaphors such as, “It gave us great happiness in seeing you, like a flower being watered”, are placed beside emphatic requests for costly improvements. Perhaps the authors knew their unique letter would be seen and decided to push the rare opportunity to the limit.

Their requests were well-chosen. Transportation had always been a problem in Tenasserim, so the letter begins by suggesting that recently built large roads should be connected by new smaller ones. Besides bringing ‘prosperity and happiness”, the authors note how this network would aid mining operations. In fact, a decade later Tenasserim became a major source of wolfram which was essential for munitions in the First World War (Myanmar National Archives MNA 1/7 1148 & 1162; IOR/L/E/7/1369-1370).

"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown907
"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown in “The Mergui Archipelago: its people and products.” Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 23 (1907).

Similarly, the people asked for a steamship “to run once a week between the towns of Palaw, Myeik, Bokpyin and Maliwun”. The first- and last-named places had promising tin mines, while Bokpyin was close to the pearling grounds. It was unnecessary to remind the governor that a steamer could also help secure the vast Mergui Archipelago, which had been a haven for pirates, poachers and plunderers for thousands of years. In turn, residents would finally be freed from monsoonal isolation and the leaky vessels that had been assigned to the coast (see, for example: “Rangoon Tavoy & Mergui”, c. 1892, James Caird Library, BIS/7/2).

Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago
Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago. Noc

Public health came next. Requests included a safe water supply, reclaiming swampy land in Nauklae Quarter, a new hospital, and a sewage system. The items seem especially targeted towards cholera. Reports showed that it was extant throughout the year across Tenasserim, and periodically erupted in terrifying epidemics with shocking fatality rates (IOR/V/27/44/3; IOR/V/27/60/87; Mss Eur G66; MNA 1/7 92).

detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885     Harbour map of Mergui 1945
Harbour maps: (left) detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885, British Library, Maps SEC.12.(218.) [digitally enhanced for viewing]; (right) detail of HIND 1036 Mergui, 1st ed., Great Britain War Office, September 1945. Nauklae Quarter is the southern part of town.

Residents stated plainly: “The many developments shown above will cost a large amount of money, so the municipality needs increased funding.” They were eager to do their own part by securing a loan to pay their way, and by establishment of a bilingual science school to grow the local economy. History and geography had made communities of Tenasserim exceptionally strong and self-reliant. In the new century, though, they needed help to keep pace.

Did the letter get the governor’s attention? We haven’t yet found correspondence on the matter in the India Office Records, but we do have a 1912 Mergui gazetteer by G.P. Andrew. He reported that road transport remained so poor that farmers were unable to develop agricultural markets. On the other hand, a series of bridle paths had been hacked through the forests in 1908-9, and more plans were either being drawn or “in contemplation”. Unfortunately, the government continued contemplating for another thirty years (IOR/L/MIL/17/19/23).

Better success occurred at sea. By 1909 the British India Steam Navigation Company had changed its fortnightly service from Rangoon into a weekly voyage. The BISN augmented this with a separate weekly steamer to Mawlamyine, while the paddleboat Amarapoora called at smaller coastal towns between Palaw and Victoria Point (Kawthaung). This network was connected to Penang by the Koe Guan Steamship Company, a Thai-Chinese family firm that employed old British shellbacks as captains (Andrew 1912; Blain 1940).

For public health, Andrew reported that a new hospital was “about to be erected”. This seems to be the same structure that now serves the administration of Myeik Public Hospital in Kankaung Quarter. Marks on old roof tiles lead to an Indian company that was founded in 1916, so either construction was delayed by the war or the new hospital was damaged by a massive town fire around 1913. As always, the people endured and rebuilt.

Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912
Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912. Photo by Jim Potter. Noc

Residents said they wished to combat the “ninety-six kinds of illness”. The hospital aided this traditional cause, and new scourges were slowly brought under control as well. The last epidemics of smallpox and cholera likely occurred during Japanese occupation in the Second World War, and in the terrible aftermath when Mergui struggled to rejoin the world (Mss Eur D1080/20–28).

Nauklae Quarter was slowly transformed from a swamp into a busy neighbourhood (MNA 1/7 1217 & 1248). Likewise, Myeik’s water and sewage systems were stabilised, though their construction was a process rather than a single event. Larger civic improvements were accomplished in the boom years of the 1920s and again after independence. In particular, the Myeik District Pyidawtha Association did extensive public works in the early 1950s (Maung Pye Chan 1989). Nonetheless many residents still rely on the town’s ancient wells for washing and bathing.

Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner
Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner.  Noc

Can we therefore conclude that Myeik’s beautiful shell letter to the Bayinkanmin-ashin-thakin-phaya (the full honorific title of the governor) was a qualified success? It would seem so, which might be a good thing to remember in our disposable days of spam and Instagram.

The full text of the Burmese letter in Or 16052 with a transcription and English translation can be found here: Shell letter transcription and translation.

Further reading:
U Gyi Sein. Tanintharyi Yazawin: the chronicles of Tenasserim. Thet Ko Ko, tr., Jim Potter and the people of Tanintharyi, eds. (James & Hook Books; 2023). Originally published as: တနင်္သာရီတိုင်းမြိတ်ရာဇဝင်တော်ကြီ : “Tanintharyi Division Myeik Chronicle.” (English-Myanmar Printing Press; Myeik Township; 1929). The Myanmar text is available on
Andrew, George Percy. Burma Gazetteer, Mergui District, volume A. (Gov. of Burma; Rangoon; 1912).
Blain, William. Home is the Sailor: the life of William Brown, master mariner & Penang pilot. (Sheridan House; New York; 1940).
Collis, Maurice. Into Hidden Burma. (Faber & Faber; London; 1953).
Maung Pyae Chan. ဓာတ်ပုံကပြောသော မြိတ်သမိုင်း မှတ်တိုင်များ, ‘Historical Landmarks of Myeik in Photos’ (Than Swe; Yangon; 1989). English translation forthcoming.

Jim Potter and Ni Ni Aung Ccownwork