A forgotten Scottish explorer of colonial-era Burma helped Andrew Marshall discover a land of startling human diversity
It was the diaries that brought me to Myanmar. They were kept in the British Library in London, and only a handful of scholars had ever dusted them off before me. I could understand why. Blotched with jungle mould, and unimproved by later decades in a damp English attic, the diaries were virtually illegible. But I read them with growing excitement.
They belonged to Sir George Scott, a forgotten Victorian adventurer who hacked, bullied and charmed his way through uncharted jungles to establish British colonial rule in what was then called Burma. Born in Scotland in 1851, Scott was a die-hard imperialist. He had a fondness for super-sized pith helmets and a bluffness of expression that bordered on the Pythonesque. “Stepped on something soft and wobbly,” he records in his diary one dark night. “Struck a match, found it was a dead Chinaman.”
The diaries noted jungle firefights with angry natives, bullets flying everywhere, and as Scott strode unarmed into a hail of spears and buckshot there were manly exchanges like this:
“Have a revolver if you are going on,” called out the Colonel.
“Send me a box of matches, my pipe’s out,” returned Scott.
Reading the jungle diaries, I formed an impression of Scott as rough and artless. But that was only half the story. As I discovered by retracing the explorer’s footsteps, Scott was also a pioneering photographer, as well as a gifted and prolific writer. His masterpiece, The Burman, published in 1882 was still in print today. It is an unrivalled authority on everything Burmese, from ear-boring and exorcism to monastery construction and the funeral requirements of sacred white elephants.
Scott spent half of his working life in the remote and rugged mountains of Shan State. Ancient migration routes between India, China, Tibet and Assam had seeded this wilderness with a baffling array of ethnic groups, each evolving outlandish customs quite distinct from those of the majority Burman people who populated the lowlands. Some tribes ruled mountain fiefdoms half the size of England; others occupied a single hilltop and spoke a language unintelligible to their neighbours in the valley below.
Scott plunged into this great unknown to record tribal customs and photograph a way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries. One of these tribes was known as the Wild Wa – headhunters with betel-blackened teeth who lived in skull-ringed mud fortresses and, rather incongruously considering their savage reputation, claimed to be descended from tadpoles.
Negotiating jungle paths strewn with decapitated corpses, Scott became the first European to study them in depth. Cunningly, he once disarmed a party of headhunters by telling a joke so funny that it survived being translated through four separate tribal languages before reaching the Wa tongue. “They are an exceedingly well-behaved, industrious, and estimable race,” Scott wrote of the Wa,”were it not for the one foible of cutting strangers’ heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves.”
After months spent deciphering Scott’s diaries, I found myself embarking on an obsessive quest to rescue this singular Scotsman from obscurity. My travels took me from the moldering colonial splendor of Yangon to the fabled royal capital of Mandalay, then up into the tribal highlands where Scott had his greatest adventures and closest shaves. Along the way, I discovered that foreigners were nicknamed “the trouser people” by the country’s sarong-wearing civilians.
Part of Scott’s job was to map Myanmar’s lawless frontiers with China, and for years its eastern border was marked by something called the “Scott line.” But he also widened the imperial goalposts in another way: he introduced football to Burma, where today it is a national obsession. The boisterous Burmese loved the game, Scott noted, “because it’s just like fighting.”
In 1891 Scott began work on his great five-volume Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Brick thick and turgid with detail, gazetteers were the blunt instruments of colonial administration. Today they squat, massive and many-volumed, on forgotten shelves in library basements, dusty reminders that the Empire was won not just by force of arms, but also by sheer tonnage of paperwork.
They are psychotically fastidious. Scott’s Gazetteer records every man, woman, child, bullock, buffalo, cow, pig and pony in the Shan states, along with the geography, ethnicity and chief produce of even the smallest village. Nothing escapes its omniscient sweep. It knows, for example, that the saopha’s revenue from opium and liquor in Hsipaw State in 1897-8 was 18,132 rupees. It knows that in Kengteng five annas will buy you four duck eggs and still leave change for a custard apple.
But Scott’s Gazetteer was much more than a dry imperial stocktaking. It was a fathomless resource on the origins, customs and languages of Burma’s ethnic peoples, written not in the stilted prose of a bureaucrat, but with the flair and passion of an experienced journalist. Even a century after its publication, the Gazetteer had an almost biblical authority. In Burma I met an American gem-dealer and a Canadian Red Cross worker who both swore by Scott’s magnum opus. I bought my treasured copy at a Yangon bookshop. It wasn’t great bedtime reading; that would be like propping the Ten Commandments on your chest. But with a firm table, and some quality time, the Gazetteer was endlessly absorbing.
I now knew that Kachin warriors usually make war just before the moon rises, and make love in purpose-built “bachelor huts” – the love hotels of the jungle. I had learned the crucial difference between the Banyok people (who worshiped their dogs in an annual ceremony) and the En (who ate them). I had followed Scott’s brief exegesis on the Karen’s use of chicken bones to divine the future. I knew that the Kachin believe that the movement of giant subterranean crocodiles causes earthquakes, while the Eastern Tai are convinced that eclipses are the work of a moon-swallowing frog who must be frightened off by gong-beating and gunfire. I no longer confuse the Yindu people with the Yaw, the Yao or the Yo.
Even the index was a rewarding read. Looking up one eye- catching entry – “Headhunting, rules for its conduct” – I read that, among the Wa, “to behead a man from a community even on the same range of hills is looked upon as unneighbourly and slothful.” The Gazetteer also scotched the myths of earlier observers, disagreeing, for example, with a rival’s flamboyant contention that the Ling tribe solves the problem of coping with elderly relations by eating them.
How could Scott – who had once been a living legend in Myanmar – be so little known today? The answer was obvious: Scott had been forgotten because Myanmar had been forgotten. Now, after nearly half a century of isolation, the country has become one of Asia’s hottest tourist destinations. Once again, foreigners are pouring into this little-known land of startling human diversity. So begins a new – and much more welcome – invasion of the trouser people.
A fully revised edition of The Trouser People: Burma in the Shadows of the Empire is published by River Books and available on Kindle and at all good bookstores. Andrew Marshall is a Southeast Asia Special Correspondent for Reuters news agency. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his journalism.
For more information: www.thetrouserpeople.com
This article was first published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine InDepth, Feb 2015.