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Flotilla Fleet Tales
The IFC steamers carried many an important personage, and one among them was the ill-fated King Thibaw on his way to exile in November of 1885 on board the Thooriya after the complete annexation of Burma by the British.

 

The next year Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of India travelled to Mandalay on the steamer Mindoon, and when the captain heard that this very important guest liked ox tail soup he gave orders to the ship's chef to make sure of getting a good supply. There was indeed no lack of oxtails on the trip for a dozen live oxen were carried along to probably lose their tails one after the other along the trip.

 

In 1889 the 25-year-old HRH the Duke of Clarence, Albert Victor Christian the-duke-of-clarenceEdward whom his doting grandmother Queen Victoria called Eddy, came to India and afterwards stopped off in Burma, travelling on the new IFC vessel Beeloo. His father was the Prince of Wales at the time who later became King Edward VII, and after his father the Duke was next in line to the throne of the British Empire. He was probably taken to see the ancient temples of Bagan, but no doubt he had other things on his mind.

 

According to one official biography, the Duke's private lifestyle was "dissipated" and he was known to frequent brothels with his aristocratic friends. In 1889 several grisly murders of prostitutes began the hunt for the first known serial killer "Jack the Ripper" and wild rumours began to circulate of the Duke being him. The Royal Family sent him on a tour of India to avoid further embarrassment but unfortunately, the trip was to lead to more.

 

In India, he met and apparently fell in love with Mrs. Margery Haddon, the wife of an engineer. The next year she gave birth to a son she named Clarence Guy Gordon Haddon. After the Duke's death, and with a few divorces behind her, Mrs. Haddon declared the child to be the bastard son of the Duke.

 

Being second in line to the throne after his father such accusations were disastrous especially since he was single at his time of death. Investigations were made official reports given as to the falseness of the accusations. The boy when he grew up also wrote a book and made other public outcries that were soon stifled. In 1891 the Duke became engaged to a beautiful princess but had died of pneumonia the next year. His brother George, one year younger, became the heir to the throne and became King George V. While still the Prince of Wales, he married the princess intended for his brother. They were the grandparents of the present Queen Elizabeth II.

 

This royal couple the Prince and Princess of Wales, also came to visit India and Burma in 1906, taking the IFC steamer Japan from Mandalay to Rangoon. In the same year the Crown Prince of Thailand, then called Siam, took the vessel Siam on his travels on the river.

 

By 1911, tourists have arrived in Myanmar and "E.M.P-B"…. what could be her name, this lady…Evelyn? Emily? Emma? …. wrote of her trips on board an oil vessel captained by her husband in delightful book "A Year on the Irrawaddy."
The ship carried barrels of crude oil from Yenanchaung oil fields of Central Myanmar to the refinery in Syriam (now reverted to its original Burmese name Thanlyin) in the south for the Burmah Oil Company.
She referred to her husband only as "Skipper" and thus we remain in the dark of their names. Apparently only on oil tankers could the skipper bring along his wifeIn her book published in 1911 she remarked on a group of American tourists she saw while having 'tiffin' or lunch at the Strand Hotel: "they are unmistakeably Americans and their wide sun-helmets with long gauze veils hanging down behind, their cameras, blue goggles and umbrellas look very serious and business like."

 

The IFC carried many varieties of cargo such as bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of jade, lacquerware, silk, tamarind, elephants, woven mats, maize, Jaggery palm sugar, bullocks, marble Buddhas, oilcake, tobacco and timber. Goods brought into Rangoon port by sea going ships from Europe and carried upriver by the IFC were automobiles, corrugated iron, the very necessary condensed milk, matches, aluminium ware, sewing machines, bicycles, soap, cigarettes, cement and the most essential of drinks, whisky.

 

The first time the IFC transported elephants was in 1884, carrying them from Prome (now reverted to the original Burmese name Pyay) to just across the river. The charge was a hefty one hundred rupees for each of the six mammoths for this barely one-mile trip. The crew had some difficulty getting the elephants to board the flat attached to the steamer: the gangplank had to be heavily camouflaged with vines and creepers before they would set one foot on it.

 

Once the steamer reached the other shore the six walked off quite calmly and stood waiting on the bank as the steamer returned to Prome. The captain however made the mistake of sounding the horn when his ship reached the middle of the river, at which point all of the elephants, perhaps thinking the sound was some sort of mating or distress call, trumpeted in reply and swam after the steamer until they were all once again back in Prome. There were no records of additional freight charges paid for their second crossing.

 

After that early fiasco, the ship's horn was not sounded in the vicinity whenever elephantine cargo had been unloaded. Special flats had to be made for them on long trips, for the iron flats became hot in the sun. A four-inch deck of teak was always placed on the flats when transporting elephants and they had enough water splashed on them the whole day to keep them cool. Their handlers travelled with them, keeping them happy with juicy stalks of sugar cane, sweet bananas or ripe tamarind fruit. The captains usually docked a bit further away from human inhabitation when they carried elephants, for hordes of excited and noisy people would flock to see them, some paddling their canoes close to the flats and unnerving the large and alive cargo.

 

In 1937 one Major Raven-Hart, a keen British canoeist who had already paddled down the Nile and the Mississippi decided to do the same on the Upper reaches of the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina to Mandalay. As he was building his canoe at Myitkyina, first he had to go upriver by steamer as far along as he could and then take the train to his destination. Paddling upriver on that particular stretch of the Irrawaddy would be impossible, because if the many weirs and rocks; it would be bad enough coming down. A very observant and humorous writer, he had a grand time on the IFC Java which he wrote had "two decks, a main deck over the shallow hull; an upper deck on a light, superstructure. The forward part of this deck was open, as an observation lounge."

 

The food, he wrote in his book "Canoe to Mandalay", was very Scottish "with Dundee marmalade and porridge daily." Dinners were elaborate meals, and accommodations were excellent, "with nets and fans and real beds."

 

After one cold and grey drizzle the sun came up. He went for a stroll to the 3rd class deck and saw the scene "unwrapped itself like a gay butterfly": everyone was dressed in silks and fine linen, the family circles sitting on woven mats with "boxes and pillows marking off and comfortably furnishing off each temporary abode."
The men wore 'skirts' of clear-greens, blues and pinks with white shirts. The women were in "gayer skirts, figured and striped and patterned, below white bodices of fine muslin, and wore gay flowers in their shiny black hair, usually done in flat coils. Wherever I looked, someone in the group seemed to be laughing and the rest smiling in sympathy." He and a few of his companions who were living in India, were astounded at the friendliness of the people.

 

The locals preferred to travel in family groups on the wide-open decks if they were not on official or business trips, and on these occasions, they would normally take Upper or Second Class cabins.

 

One famous Burmese nationalist and editor U Chit Maung who lived in the colonial era and who was a shy workaholic, was once persuaded by his wife the equally famous writer Daw Ma Ma Lay to take a holiday. They took an IFC steamer for part of the journey.

 

In the biography of her husband "A man like him" that she wrote after his death in 1946, a book that remains a classic, she said that in the Upper Class of the boat there were only the two of them and two English gentlemen from the Burmah Oil Company.

 

"At dinner", she wrote, "The captain sat at the head of the table and he introduced us to the two English men. They too were dressed for dinner. Ko Ko (endearment name for husband or lover but meaning in fact 'Elder Brother') sat with great dignity and silently ate his dinner. I wondered if the others would think he knew not a word of English as he sat there eating whatever the steward put in front of him, and I alone carried the conversation.

 

The gentleman sitting directly opposite asked me if I were Burmese and I said yes, pure Burmese. He said that western dress suited women only if the person were well-formed but that Burmese dress complements anyone, plumb or slender, and that the style and designs were elegant and beautiful.

 

“The dresses worn in court are different from what we wear nowadays,” I told them. “The royal costumes are more beautiful and intricate.”

 

One of the English gentlemen described to his companion the court dress he had once seen, and marvelled at the gold and silver embroidery. I glanced sideways at Ko Ko and smiled at him discreetly. Bit by bit I managed to bring Ko Ko into the conversation and as soon as he got on the subject of British rule, Ko Ko talked at length. Both English gentlemen listened with interest to his views. The captain excused himself as he had to look after the ship but the two sat on asking him questions until late into the night."

 

For nearly a hundred years, the IFC ran on Burmese rivers and their vessels still do, plying up and down the mighty rivers of Myanmar.
 
Built in Scotland on the Clyde
in 1947 by the famous ship-builder
Yarrow & Co with the same design of
the pre-war Quarter Wheller
steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla
Company.

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