Moken man in his boatThe following Mergui Archipelago article is the first instalment in a series of blogs. It is an extract from Travel Magazine, published in 1905.  Clive White found a hard copy of this the article on a popular bidding website, so purchased the manuscript out of his keen interest in the Mergui Archipelago. The article is written by R. N. Rudmore Brown, possibly a naturalist at the turn of the century and certainly a lecturer at Sheffield University. Rudmore Brown divulges his observations of daily life and how he sees the Moken and local people in the Mergui Archipelago at the beginning of the 20th Century. This article provides a fascinating tool for comparison when we visit the area on Burma liveaboards in the early 21st Century. 

Part One – The Mergui Archipelago

The Mergui Archipelago In 1905

There is probably no part of the lands bordering the Bay of Bengal which today is so seldom visited and remains so little explored as extreme lower Burma and the Mergui Archipelago. Lower Tenasserim lies apart from the travel routes of the East, while its own productions are too small to bring into prominence.

1905 Map of the Mergui Archipelago

1905 Map of the Mergui Archipelago

It fell to my lot to spend some months in this district while investigating, with my friend and colleague, Mr. James J. Simpson, the pear fisheries of the Mergui Archipelago on behalf of the government of India. In attempting to give some insight into this archipelago and its remarkable inhabitants I can choose no more suitable starting point than the town of Mergui the “big town” of the coast and the capital of the archipelago on one of those islands it stands.

Nestling between river and jungle Mergui is half hidden until one comes abreast of it. Unless one arrives on Friday, the mail-boat day, the town seems peacefully asleep in the heavy scent-laden air, and one wonders why so drowsy and quiet a community continues to exist. A mile or more along the shore stretch the brown palm-thatched houses, among which rise palms and flowering trees, while beyond this is a background of towering jungle.

However Mergui is not the sleepy place that it looks from the sea; there is plenty of life and stir in its streets and market places.

Its bazaar is alive with a glowing panorama of half the races of the east – China man and Burman jostle one another; Madras coolies, Malays and Siamese are all to be seen, each in his native dress; while among them move Japanese and Filipinos, both in white ducks, and former especially haughty with their self assured superiority, a few wild looking Selungs clad in the scantiest of raiment, from the islands beyond and last and least frequent the European.

Each element of this cosmopolitan crowd seems in its own way seems to be busy, for Mergui is a thriving town which is growing year by year. And it does not take the stranger long to find out that the source of his prosperity is the archipelago and principally its pearl shell fishing, with which of course is allied in minor capacities the trade in bech de mer, Turtle shell, edible birds nest and other products of the island waters.

During the pearling season the talk and gossip are all of the Mergui Archipelago, of this or that pearl, of a certain divers luck or of another’s exploits.

It is the same wherever there are pearl fisheries: the risk and uncertainty, the strong element of chance which makes a stroke of fabulous luck quite possible any day, have an irresistible appeal and one whose infection is very contagious.

Leaving Mergui by a narrow channel between the jungle clad shores of two large islands and past half a dozen quaint little fishing villages we reach the waters of the Mergui Archipelago. For near three hundred miles this island studded sea extends from North of Tavoy Point southward to beyond the Anglo Siamese frontier an area little short of ten thousand square miles. Among the two hundred islands are umbered those of every size, from mere islets, little more than rocks, to a few of five, ten or even twenty miles in length, and of every outline from flat sandy cays to hills of several hundred feet. But practically all are covered with dense jungle interwoven with lianas into an almost impenetrable mass.

Old town of Mergui, Mergui Archipelago, Burma

The town of Mergui, Burma

Very generally the islands meet the sea in steeply sloping rocks or in vertical cliffs, but every here and there is beautiful shelving beach glittering in the sunshine save where the tall jungle trees cast their shadow; places of idyllic charm in themselves, and doubly so in contrast to the noisome evil smelling mangrove swamps that normally fringe the mainland. As a rule tropical scenery, more especially on the coasts, is monotonous and often unbeautiful, but here is no sameness;

the diversified scenery has always some new charm or unlooked-for wonder for the traveller.

Yet wildlife is scarce but for the troops of monkeys the harsh crying horn-bills and the pigeons. It is not surprising to find most of the islands uninhabited, but there are nevertheless several exceptions, apart from the nomadic fishermen of whom I shall speak later. On Tavoy Island is a large community of Christianised Karens, with a native schoolmaster in there midst. One Sunday when I visited them they held a service in a jungle glade that served for a church, and most charming did the congregation of maidens look – for no men attended all gaily dressed in coloured silk, their black hair decked with orchids.

Many of the islands near the mainland have temporary settlements of Burmese fishermen during the fine season, but during the rains all these are abandoned. Built on stakes above the mud banks these villages are very picturesque externally, but not so nearly so desirable when one enters them. The only means of access is a rickety vertical ladder, the foot of which one reaches by boat. At the top is a frail platform of bamboos, on which numerous huts are built: at low water the foul smell of the mud pervades the atmosphere, and the eerie sound of the crackling mangrove oysters is ever present, while a false step or too heavy tread would precipitate one to the mud twenty feet below. The fish are caught in large traps formed converging lines of stakes, which is common form in Eastern waters.

Among various other stragglers in the Mergui Archipelago I must make mention of certain Malay fishermen in the south whom the natives insist, and I think with some reason, are more pirates than anything else. In bygone days sailing ships dreaded to be becalmed near these pirate infested islands; but while the day of large scale robbery is past, in these seas at least,there is plenty of scope for piracy of a meaner sort against the pearling boats and Chinese junks which frequent the archipelago. When I visited that region our Burmese diver and his coolies were only reassured by the presence of a government launch, and I think they were glad to leave for more northern waters when our work was done. Nor is that an isolated case of fear on the part of the pearl divers.

The Mergui Archipelago

By R.N. Rudmore Brown

Lecturer in Geography, Sheffield University

1905 article from Travel Magazine.