|The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company|
The IFC as it was commonly known was conceived in 1852, with preparations by the British Government for an attempt to conquer all sea ports of Burma (now reverted to the original Burmese name Myanmar) after the 1824 treaty of Yandabo between the British and the Burmese king fell through. The British already had control of Lower Burma up to Thayet Myo, but the province of Bago, under the rule of the Burmese king, has access to the sea which the British wanted to block.
To facilitate communications between Rangoon (now reverted to the original Burmese name Yangon) and Thayet, a distance of 300 miles on the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwaddy River), the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie ordered four steamers and four accompanying flats to be sent out from India. They were the Lord William Bentinck, Damoodah, Nerbudda and Juma. The first steamed out from the dockyard of Lambeth on the Thames where all were built but the rest were dismantled and shipped over to be reconstructed in Calcutta.
Twelve years after the success of the operation the flotilla minus one flat was put up for sale by the British government, which believed that the expansion of trade between Upper and Lower Burma would be faster in private hands. King Mindon had ascended the throne by then and he had cordial relations with the British and the French. The foreign merchants were vying with each other for rights to the treasure trove of the Mogok ruby mines as well as free access to Bahmo, a riverside trade station leading to the Yunan Province of China, but Mindon had continued to deny their wishes firmly if graciously.
Todd, Findlay and Company was already running the Burma Steam Tug Company among other enterprises and James Todd with the agreement of Thomas Findlay bought the fleet for £16,200. The contract was signed in May 1864, in which the British government stipulated that the fleet must sail twice a month between Rangoon and Thayet Myo and that it must leave Rangoon within 24 hours after the mail ship arrived from Calcutta or otherwise the penalty could be as high as £500.
The new owners however soon found out that operation costs were higher than they could afford, and brought in more partners. The decision was made to turn the company public and on the New Year's Day of 1865, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was formed.
Although facing some birth pains, the IFC grew from strength to strength. Much of the credit must go to Dr. Clement Williams, the IFC representative in the new capital Mandalay, built by Mindon, and he was on good terms with the king.
Relations however were not as good when the reign of Mindon's son and heir King Thibaw began in 1878.
In November of the same year, 30 royal slaves escaped from the palace in Mandalay and boarded the IFC vessel Yankintaung. Authorities tried to stop the boat but it had already sailed downriver and when it docked in Myinchan, the governor of the town who had received news of the escape tried to retrieve the slaves. As he had no written authorisation sent from Mandalay, the captain refused. but the governor came with 200 armed men and forcibly invaded the ship. Letters of complaint were sent to the from the British IFC management to the British Foreign office and to the Mandalay court, and the matter died down after some time but resentment on both sides remained.
The IFC began to expand tremendously, and in 1888 the expenditure over the three preceding years was £1 million. The directors could state with confidence that "there is now no such river fleet in the world."
The IFC headquarters by 1990 was a substantial building on Phayer Street, replaced in 1933 by a magnificent three storey building with soaring pillars. 'Belmont' the residence of the IFC manager was built on Signal Pagoda Road as were surrounding houses for other staff members. The half-teak Belmomt was replaced by a brick mansion and later became the residence of the British ambassador.
The IFC operations were seen everywhere: at its dockyards, its feet of steel cargo barges, double-deckers plying along the numerous creeks of the delta, special flats to carry oil from central Myanmar to the refineries in the south, passenger boats on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) Rivers, an express service between Rangoon and Mandalay as well as the popular bazaar boats with goods from the big stores of Rangoon
The company that began with four steamers and three flats in 1864 owned over 600 vessels by 1930, moving up to 9 million passengers annually which at the time was about half the population.
Disastrous fate was to intervene a mere 25 years later, not only for the IFC but to everyone in Burma, indeed in SE Asia. World War II broke out and on Christmas Day of 1941 Japan bombed Rangoon, resulting in thousands of causalities caught by surprise. By early 1942, the British were leaving the country, many sailing up the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers as far as they could and walking the brutal overland route to India and safety. Many died on the way, both the British and the cheap Indian labour they had been importing into the country since 1824.
All the IFC vessels were scuttled. John Morton, the manager of the IFC wrote in his diary of 28 April 1942 that "Mandalay was evacuated yesterday, the IFC the last to go. We are being chased out quicker now than was expected and I have orders for more sinkings here at Kyaukmyaung. There are over two hundred of our fleet sunk at Mandalay. Imagine how I felt drilling holes in their bottoms with a Bren gun."
Their group travelled along the Chindwin River on a few remaining ships to Katha, where they disembarked on 3 May, and the next day destroyed the last of the IFC fleet and walked across the India border to safety.
The Allied troops re-captured Rangoon on 3rd May, 1945. Six months later a civilian government has been formed and the IFC was once again in operation. Although the people welcomed the allied forces, it was apparent that the country wanted independence. A delegation of Burmese politicians led by General Aung San went to London in 1947 and returned with a promise of freedom. The Burmese leaders had already declared that after independence they would nationalise the IFC as well as the timber and oil companies owned by the British.
At dawn of 4th January 1948 the British left Burma and in June of the same year, the IFC handed over their fleet to the Inland Water Transport Board. The days of the IFC were finally over but their vessels continue to ride the mighty rivers for many more years to come.
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|* The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company|
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