The Last of the Old Irrawaddy Flotilla

A small Irrawaddy Flotilla ferry full of passengers. Click on the box below to see more photos. (Photo: Tim Willasey-Wilsey)

BAGAN/LONDON—Burma is seldom out of the news these days. In the past few months we have had President Obama’s visit after his re-election, the recent film about Aung San Suu Kyi and the extraordinary story about the Spitfires which were supposedly buried in 1942. But for 60 years Burma disappeared from view under a military dictatorship.

In spite of natural resources such as oil, gold and rubies little of the nation’s wealth was spent on the people or infrastructure. As the country begins to open up there is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to see Burma in the raw before it becomes an Asian Tiger economy, as it surely will; with six lane highways, high rise buildings and fast food joints.

If you take the Irrawaddy River route from the ancient temples of Bagan to the second city of Mandalay you will see, moored to the bank, a large old paddle steamer that used to belong to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It is the Minthamee ordered in 1948 from Yarrow of Scotstoun, a shipbuilding firm in Glasgow, Scotland.

Renamed the Moiat Yadana it was commandeered by the late dictator General Ne Win, who ruled Burma from 1962 until 1988, and used as his private yacht and later as a restaurant. It is now the last surviving paddle steamer on the Irrawaddy.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), which operated in Burma from 1865 until the late 1940s, was once the finest river fleet in the world. A hundred years ago it comprised over 500 vessels of which about 180 were powered paddle steamers and the remainder barges and “flats” for carrying cargo.

The IFC payroll included over 11,000 men; engineers, crew, dockyard workers plus head office staff. Its self-confidence is demonstrated by its colonnaded head office, one of the finest buildings in Rangoon, and “Belmont”, the house of the General Manager, which is now the Residence of the British Ambassador.

There was always a strong Scottish connection. Until independence in 1948 most of the 200 British staff in Burma were Scots, almost all the powered paddle steamers were built in Glasgow. The company itself, founded in 1865 and reconstituted in 1876, was incorporated in Glasgow but administered locally from the imposing building at 50 Phayre Street, Rangoon, now renamed Pansodan Street, Rangoon. The company behind the IFC was Paddy Henderson of Glasgow.

To operate on the Irrawaddy is no easy task. It is one of the mightiest rivers in the world but also, for much of its length and for much of the year, it is extraordinarily shallow. Starting in the Himalayas it carries the melted snow towards the Bay of Bengal from April supplemented from May by the monsoon rains which swell the river until October. The high water mark is reached in August. Then the river begins to fall and between December and April reaches its lowest levels in February; some 11 meters lower than August.

At Hinthada the river is up to 4 miles wide but in the last 1100 miles to the sea there is only a contour drop of 500 feet. Nonetheless there is also a vast amount of alluvial silt carried downstream which ends up in the large delta where nine separate branches reach the sea. In the far north it is almost impossible to use the river above Bhamo during the dry season.

Even today, when the railway provides competition, the river remains the most important transport artery in Burma. Huge teak logs are shipped down from the north, rice grown in paddies irrigated by the river is sent for export, and imports from China arrive via Bhamo before being distributed downstream to Mandalay and Rangoon.

Large numbers of passengers travel on the river, particularly in the busy Irrawaddy Delta. It was estimated that about 44 percent of Burma’s freight was carried on the river in 2002.

The company pamphlet published in the 1930s described the diversity of cargo carried by the flotilla “Great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of jade, lacquer ware, silk, tamarind, elephants sometimes, woven mats, maize, jaggery, bullocks, marble Buddhas, oil cake, tobacco, timber.” In upward-bound cargoes would be found all the various imports from Europe; motor cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches, aluminum-ware, sewing machines, piece goods, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla’s history runs parallel to many of the events during the British colonial period. On occasions the paddle steamers carried British troops up and down the river. They also carried Burma’s last king Thebaw into exile in 1859 and the Prince of Wales (the future King George V) during his visit in 1906. He travelled on the steamer ‘Japan’ whereas the Viceroy of India took the ‘Mysore’ in 1937 and the Crown Prince of Thailand, appropriately, the ‘Siam’ also in 1906.

The ‘Japan’, ‘Mysore’ and ‘Siam’ were three of the largest and fastest steamers in the fleet; The ‘Siam’ and ‘Japan’, built in 1903 and 1904 respectively, and the ‘Mysore’, built in 1913, were all over 300 feet long. All three were built by William Denny and Brothers Limited, a Scottish shipbuilding company in Glasgow.

Indeed over 75 percent of all IFC vessels were built by Denny, whereas most of the remainder was constructed by other old Scottish shipbuilders, such as A and J Inglis Limited, Robert Duncan and Co of Port Glasgow, and Yarrow of Scotstoun.

With over 600 vessels ordered over a period of 90 years the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was a significant customer for Glasgow shipbuilders.

William Denny and Brothers Limited’s were known for innovation and they produced river boats for some of the world’s great rivers; the Indus, Tigris, Ganges, Hooghly, Nile and even the Mississippi. Denny and Yarrow would build the craft and then disassemble (“knock down”) them for reassembly on arrival at Rangoon.

The IFC had a shipyard called Dalla just across the river from Rangoon with several slipways and a smaller repair yard in Mandalay. These shipyards still operate and much of the equipment is unchanged since the 1940s some of it made in Glasgow.

Building craft for shallow rivers is complex because they rely for their hull strength on a steel box construction instead of a keel. This may explain the slightly concave shape which many of the vessels have developed sixty or seventy years later.

The nadir of the Flotilla’s fortunes came with the Japanese invasion of Burma in March 1942. As the Japanese forces swept northwards it was decided to use IFC vessels to evacuate British and Indian troops up the Irrawaddy and then as far as possible up the Chindwin until the waters became too shallow. From there the troops had to march back to India.

To stop the fleet from falling into Japanese hands, 200 vessels were sunk at Mandalay and the remainder scuppered at Katha. The ‘Siam’ and the ‘Mysore’ were used as hospital ships and then sunk with all the others. A manager wrote on May 3, 1942, “Katha is a sight, vessels anchored ten abreast and all deserted. The last train has gone, the town is evacuated. Parties are told off to sink every vessel.” It was a tragic end to the mighty Irrawaddy Flotilla.

When the British and Indian Armies recaptured Burma from the Japanese three years later, they inherited some vessels which the Japanese had managed to salvage. However, the IFC only took control of a small number of the craft. The majority were controlled by the British military government.

This led to an argument when Burma obtained her independence in 1948. On June 1, 1948, the Irrawaddy Flotilla was nationalized and replaced by Burmese state-owned enterprise the Inland Water Transport Board. The Glasgow owners were only compensated for the 105 salvaged vessels (only 19 of which were powered craft) plus some buildings and equipment. The military fleet was not included, nor were any vessels built since the war.

Nonetheless, Glasgow—itself recovering after wartime bombing—was grateful for the new orders. William Denny and Brothers Limited built four 200 foot paddle steamers, whilst Yarrow of Scotstoun constructed four more of the same class. One of these was the Minthamee. Then in 1956 Yarrow shipyard received the last order from Burma for five quarter-wheelers (with large paddles at the stern rather than at the sides).

Visitors to Burma today will be amazed to see that the remnants of the Irrawaddy Flotilla are still operating in what has been a remarkable exhibition of making do and patching up old craft with minimal access to spare parts and modern expertise. After all, for much of the past half century Burma has been in self-imposed isolation and more recently has been subject to international sanctions.

As well as maintaining the existing craft, Burma’s Inland Water Transport shipyards have actually constructed some new vessels and a considerable number of flats and barges. The shipyards themselves are a marvel, a throwback to the 19th century with large vessels literally supported on wooden trestles. Shipyard workers operate welding torches on the river banks without any form of protection, and no work benches.

All the other paddle steamers and stern-wheelers have been converted to stern propellers, many of them built by the British company Sykes Marine of Thurrock. Their Hydromaster engine is like a giant outboard motor but is telescopic so that the propeller can be raised in particularly shallow waters.

It is to the great credit of the Inland Water Transport that they still run 400 vessels, of which 200 are powered, and they still employ 4000 staff. The captains and pilots have to be more skilled than ever because river levels are now even shallower due to silting and, it is claimed, to climate change. The captains have no electronic aides and still use the old technique of bamboo poling to find the deeper channels.

However, with Burma increasingly opening up to the world and with some sanctions gradually being lifted, there is a brighter future ahead for the Inland Water Transport. The strong likelihood is that it will begin to acquire new vessels and access to training overseas. Furthermore, there are opportunities to explore options for dredging the river and increasing access north of Bhamo.

The days of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla craft are surely numbered. One has been bought by a private company which offers luxury cruises on the Irrawaddy and the Mekong. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is that the Inland Water Transport management is proud that the whole fleet sports the original black and red funnels of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla and the Glasgow connection.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a former British diplomat who lives in London. He recently visited Burma.

18 Responses to The Last of the Old Irrawaddy Flotilla

  1. R Boudville Perth Western Australia

    These double decker River Boats were part and parcel of the colonisation of Upper Burma in 1885 (not 1859 as stated in your article). General Prendergast requisitioned several flat bottomed River Steamers from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co (I.F.Co) to transport the troops up the river to attack Mandalay and dethrone King Thibaw. Some of the older ones did have rear paddles. The one depicted in your picture shows no paddle on the rear or on the side. Later river boats were propeller driven.

    • I remember In the early fifties, there were both side and stern paddlers, and I believe the side paddlers with shallower draft were used for the Chindwin river, and the stern paddlers were used as mail steamers from Rangoon to Mandalay service. I travelled on one in 1952.Later when steam propulsion was superseded by diesel, all were decommissioned after introduction of pusher tugs for the barges, but diesel propelled smaller double deckers were maintained to this day and gradually replaced with Chinese built craft.

  2. Its most interesting to read about the IF.Company and recall its glorius past history. I was fortunate to have known its last Scottish Marine Superintendent, Capt. Alastair Campbell, who was my navy skipper during WW II, Capt. G.W. Medd ex-Rangoon pilot who commanded the paddler ” ASSAM” during Japanese occupation, and first Myanmar Marine Superintendent, Capt. Kyaw Din.

    When the Country was at the height of insurrection in 1948/1949 , our Navy was extremely short of craft navigable in the waterways. A few of the IF/IWT double decker steamers were hastily converted and armed with 20mm Oerikon cannons and commissioned as River Gunboats ” Shwepazun” ,”Saban” and “Sabay” to keep the river lanes , the delta and Twante canal open for rice and timber exports, and our economy barely survived, thanks to these crafts.

  3. The picture shown is a T class double deck boat , diesel driven and used from 1950s onward ,and the names started with T such as Taing-maw, Tain-nun, Tawwin etc and not paddle driven old ships , steam driven with names started with M such as Min gyi, Min thamee etc.The colonial days boats were stream driven using old boilers which consumed a lot of timber as fuel. In upper Burma , many of hilly ranges along the big river Ayerwaddy route became deforested mostly because of these wood devouring steamships during 1920-1950s,
    Maung Maung Myint

  4. What an interesting article about the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. My father worked for this company for years until the Japanese occupation. He continued after the occupation and worked on the Assam. His name is Eric Dender.

  5. “They also carried Burma’s last king Thebaw into exile in 1859 and…”

    Just to correct the fact that King Thibaw was carried away by British Indian Troops on the 29th of November 1885, after the annexation of Mandalay on the 25th the same month and year.

  6. How old are you guys? Good that you guys are still around.

  7. I served as Shipyard Apprentice at Denny’s of Dumbarton, from 1956 to 1961, with two fellow apprentices from Burma. Denny’s built hundreds of paddle steamers for Burma, India, Argentina, Belgian Congo, Bolivia and USA. I graduated as a Naval Architect in from Royal College of Science & Technology, Glasgow (now Strathclyde University) in 1962. I was born in Calcutta, India.
    Findlays of Boturich, whose family home is on the banks of Loch Lomond near Balloch, and who were for more than 50 years rich teak merchants in Moulmein near the Irrawaddy Delta.

    With shipbuilding pioneer Peter Denny, whose imposing statue still stands today in the gardens of the Municipal Buildings in Dumbarton’s College Park Street, the Findlays were founders of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.
    The steamers were mostly shallow draft vessels less than 350 feet in length. With huge steam boilers and engines powering the paddle wheels of Indian, Burmese and South American waters.
    Dumbarton was a very clannish place right up to the 1960s. It was dominated by Denny’s and the Ballantine distillery. I can remember one provost of the town telling me that he was the second generation born there and was still an outsider. Catholics and Protestants were parallel societies, and mixed marriages were something you went away and did in secret elsewhere. Dumbarton is a very different place nowadays, but at least the new residential areas out near the castle are redeeming the environmental sins that have been committed in the town centre.
    I saw the last of the shipbuilding and engineering in Dumbarton (remember the Cutty Sark was built there) when the market for Denny’s specialized cross-channel ferries and Clyde steamers collapsed. I also remember the end of the turkey red cotton industry in the Vale of Leven, when there were still lots of remaining textile samples, printing blocks and other souvenirs going around. No doubt the River Leven now more closely resembles Tobias Smollett’s ‘pure stream, in whose translucent wave my youthful limbs I wont to lave’, than it did in its industrial heyday, but a large part of the communal life has gone out of the place with the departure of the manufacturing cohesive force. It is really a microcosm of Scotland.

    A few years ago I became involved with others in suggesting that the offices of the former Denny shipyard (already demolished) should escape the same fate. Now, Denny’s was a big name in Clyde shipbuilding and marine engineering, and they also gained a progressive reputation for the provision of good quality housing for their workforce. But I was shocked by the number of people, many of whom had been employees, who shunned the whole idea; I remember one especially sour individual who snarled, ‘I’ll be glad to see the back of that name in the town’. The building was demolished.
    I now live in San Juan Capistrano, California on the shores of the Pacific, but I keep hearing the old refrain:
    “Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay:
    Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay”

  8. Hello Mr. Maung Maung Myint,
    Were you an apprentice in Denny’s of Dumbarton, in the 1950s?
    I was there in Denny’s Ship Drawing Office. Mr. Cotton was the boss.
    Murshed Alam-Ahmed/San Juan Capistrano, California
    Contact me, please!

  9. Respects to all ! my father is not from the Navy but he was working in Irrawaddy Flotilla before WW 2. His name is Mr. Francis Nicholas (known as U Win Pe). After he moved to IWT office in Pansodan Street.

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