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Cruising on the Irrawaddy – Scottish Review of Books
by Roddy Forsyth

Cruising on the Irrawaddy

August 14, 2015 | by Roddy Forsyth

WE Scots can be strangely careless with our dramas. How many of us knew about the Gretna Disaster of 1915 until its centenary in May? Virtually nobody, in my experience. Yet it has been called the Titanic of British railway accidents – killing at least 227 people in a carnage involving five trains. A similar forgetfulness folded over the wreck of the Iolaire, the worst peacetime loss of life in British waters since – yes, the Titanic again. In the first minutes of New Year’s Day 1919, the Admiralty yacht Iolaire sank with the loss of 205 servicemen demobilised after the First World War, when it struck the Beasts of Holm, a reef close to the entrance of Stornoway Bay. Many of the dead had glimpsed the lights of home for the first time in years just before the ship foundered. Again, the tragedy barely registered beyond its locality, although John McLeod produced a fitting account – When I Heard the Bell (Birlinn Press) – on the ninetieth anniversary in 2009. 

Both calamities occurred on the fringes of Scotland at a time when the country was awash with bereavement and grief. Still, it defies belief that such events would have vanished from view had they occurred in Edinburgh or Glasgow, never mind the Home Counties. And then there is the extraordinary tale of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). This is arguably the greatest uncelebrated Scottish epic, a tale of the biggest privately owned river fleet in history, administered from Glasgow along the lines of a self contained local authority on Burma’s main transport artery between 1865 and 1948. At its peak, in the 1940s, the IFC had 650 vessels on the Irrawaddy. The river bisects Burma along its 1350 mile length, of which about 900 miles is navigable between its mouth in the Andaman Sea and Bhamo in the northern Kachin State, where it meets the overland trail to China. The Irrawaddy is powerful, wide, shallow and capricious, switching course dramatically from season to season to present a severe test for mariners and shipbuilders alike.

The problem was solved on the Clyde – where shallow draught paddle steamers were prefabricated for reassembly in Rangoon – and in the choice of Scottish commanders and engineers. The larger IFC vessels could contain multitudes of up to 4200 deck passengers (the Titanic carried 2224 passengers and crew) and in the 1930s the Flotilla carried nine million people – equivalent to 75% of the Burmese population of the time. The spectacle of those powerful ships plying the Irrawaddy, tethered to 250-feet long flats which bore teak logs and general cargo and which could also ferry 24 elephants at a time, is a potent image of the British Empire in its pomp. Nemesis arrived in 1942 in the form of the Imperial Japanese Army and when it became clear to the IFC officers that Burma was lost, they faced the excruciating choice of preserving their fleet to the advantage of the enemy or scuttling the vessels.

Over a few days in the spring of 1942, a small group supervised by the fleet manager, John Morton, shot through the thin hulls of their flotilla with Bren guns and sank more than 500 ships. Meanwhile, a column of IFC staff, their families, plus Burmese employees and servants, set off on an incredibly arduous overland trek to Imphal on the Indian border and reached safety just ahead of the advancing Japanese troops. Most of the refugees assumed that they would return to Burma if the war ended favourably for the British. It did, but the newly independent Burma became an introspective state, tourism evaporated and the heyday of the IFT receded into fast fading memory. It would have been consumed by obscurity but for Paul Strachan.

From personal experience of Strachan, I do not imagine he will mind if I suggest that he is a maverick and adventurer and the sort of Scot who would have flourished while Burma was a province of the Indian Raj. You can judge for yourself from his memoir The Pandaw Story, an account of an infatuation with the country which began when, at the age of 18, Strachan took a gap year from his work at John Brown Engineering to live in a socialist work camp outside Prome, where he helped build a gas turbine power station.

The Burma encountered by Strachan was a closed country, except to those who, like him, were granted access through occasional foreign aid projects which the government of General Ne Win permitted, despite the junta’s suspicions. He paints a beguiling portrait of Rangoon society with its abundance of lending libraries and teashops, where gentlemen scholars discussed Burmese translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Such a genteel ambience, however, was the benign by-product of a profound resistance to change – and fear of foreign interference – imposed on the Burmese people by a succession of repressive regimes, the most sinister of which was the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). SLORC was the military’s response in 1988 to mass demonstrations by students protesting against ethnic conflict and a stagnant economy.

SLORC’s leaders called an election in 1990, but were stunned by the landslide victory of the NLD Party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was promptly placed under house arrest. Strachan’s account of this period is illuminating, not merely in the surface detail of a suddenly efficient military bureaucracy energised by young officers parading in Ray-Bans and trim uniforms, but also in what he describes as the ‘voluntary amnesia’ of the Burmese people, who have never established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to exorcise the spectre of SLORC’s brutal repression of dissidents.

By the time SLORC seized power Strachan and his Spanish wife Roser had, in the argot of the Raj, gone native, despite periods of enforced exile when their chances of imprisonment – or worse – increased abruptly. Strachan is proud to have been the first western publisher of Aung San Suu Kyi but his admiration for her does not extend to the call she made for a comprehensive boycott of the country while she was shut away at home. He testifies to the deprivation suffered by ordinary Burmese while SLORC’s principals were sheltered from anything approaching discomfort.

Strachan’s principal engagement with Burma occurred through his revival of the concept of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, under whose name he inaugurated river cruises – the first for foreigners since before the Second World War – during the brief period of liberalisation during the mid-1990s. He began in 1995 with a locally built ship which literally began to fall apart within six months. For the next two years, Strachan recounts, he was able to carry enough passengers to break even, but only just. At which point in his narrative, he reveals that an article by this correspondent in the Daily Telegraph ‘filled the ship for the whole of the next season’. The things one learns.

Strachan later achieved his Irrawaddy epiphany when he casually boarded a derelict vessel which had become home to squatters, complete with naked children and vagrant pigs. An old sailor was still at hand, though, and disclosed that the ship had been built in Scotland and had once been glorious in shining brass, long since melted down. ‘It was then that lightning struck – we would restore her to her Clydebuilt glory,’ writes Strachan. He and Roser did exactly that, at which point the narrative embarks on a voyage which includes womanising captains with a taste for Ruritanian uniforms, squadrons of sarcastic Swiss female travel agents and disappearing pursers. It also traverses a Kafkaesque world where official approval depends on a volatile mix of bribery, deferment to power, the placation of endless egos and observance of complex religious rituals.

Burma’s feared Military Intelligence cadres operated as mini-Mafias. One of their extortion rackets ensnared an innocent, shy young Burmese girl working in Strachan’s office. The absence of a single, trivial document led to her being sentenced to seven years in prison, despite Strachan’s diligent bribing of lawyers, prosecutors and judges. She was released after a year but her family was shattered. Strachan’s commercial rivals tried to sabotage the IFC – and almost succeeded – while he was embroiled in trying to remedy the miscarriage of justice.

He survived, nevertheless, as did he and Roser when their adoption of a Burmese boy – officially sanctioned but subject to the usual sinister variables – forced them to smuggle Toni (now 17 and at school in Scotland) out of the country with the covert aid of the French ambassador. Strachan stuck firmly to the principle of sustainable tourism and his passengers explored the riverbanks by bicycle – sturdy Chinese boneshakers – in contrast to the Land Cruisers favoured by later incomers, like the American proprietors of what he refers to as ‘Gin Palace Cruises’. Ultimately, rather than lease from the Burmese government, he built his own ships and extended his river cruises into Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

His apotheosis came in May 2008 when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta, killing 150,000 and leaving 2.5 million homeless. Western aid agencies who had heeded Aung San Suu Kyi’s entreaties had no infrastructure in Burma. Strachan converted his vessels to hospital ships, enlisted the help of a British medical charity, raised $750,000 through an appeal to former passengers and recruited Buddhist monks for their experience of distributing rice to supplicants. The Pandaw Family Box was devised, a start-up kit which included plates, cooking utensils, candles, matches, towels, mosquito nets, instant noodles and rice, plus a couple of longyis, the ubiquitous cloth worn skirt-like from the waist.

He bought up low-price pharmaceuticals made under licence in China and India. The high-capacity water treatment plants on Strachan’s ships ensured clean supplies to the endless stream of supplicants who were sustained by noodle soup dished out at the feeding stations on deck. Meanwhile, the stupefied, but still paranoid, ruling regime refused to accept aid from two American destroyers moored off the coast. The flow of the Strachans’ emergency efforts was sustained after some sort of normality was restored. Their Pandaw Hospital Ship still operates in the Irrawaddy Delta and they have built seven clinics in areas so poor that there is no other medical provision for 250 miles. They support two orphanages and have constructed 10 schools with more to come.

All proceeds from The Pandaw Story go towards the upkeep of these projects, an entirely fitting means of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ‘old Flotilla’ of Kipling’s verse. Pedants be warned – proof reading is not one of the author’s strengths. This is a text in which one can jump on a ‘plain’ to escape the rigours of our old friend, ‘Marital’ Law. That reservation aside, Strachan narrates an account of buccaneering antics in a country whose association with Scotland gave birth on both sides to romance, devotion and self-sacrifice. An auld acquaintance has once more been called to mind but it should be far better known in the country which produced those estimable Irrawaddy mariners, amongst whose company Paul Strachan can claim a merited place.


Paul Strachan 

Kiscadale Publications, £12.99, ISBN 10: 1870838432, PP 272

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