Places in History

The Building that Dominated Inland Water Trade in British Burma

By Wei Yan Aung 27 February 2020

The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) monopolized inland river trade during the colonial period in Myanmar (then Burma). Originally, the company was based at No. 50 at the corner of Strand Road and Pansodan Street, which is the Myanma Port Authority building today. The white steel-framed building on Pansodan Street opened in 1933 after more than two years of construction.

The brick-built, five-story structure was designed by AG Bray and built by Arthur Flavell and Co.

The recessed neo-classical façade with 12 Corinthian columns provides an air of grandeur and stopped direct sunlight from entering the offices.

An enormous entrance canopy supported by gold-painted supports stretches across the sidewalk and some of the street. The tower stands out with a pitched roof and arched windows, reaching above the riverfront skyline.

Above the Pansodan Street entrances the words “Irrawaddy Chambers” remain carved into the stonework.

The interior was decorated with a graceful two-way staircase, chandeliers, office fitted with teak and glass, shining floor tiles and two elevators.

The old IFC office in Phayre (Pansodan) Street. in around 1900. / Scots in Burma

The IFC headquarters was one of the finest buildings in Yangon (then Rangoon) along with the house of the IFC general manager, which is now the residence of the British ambassador on Alanpya Pagoda Road.

The Scottish-run IFC was established in 1865 in Yangon. It put its many ships at the disposal of British troops when they annexed Upper Myanmar. It was with an IFC ship that the last monarch, King Thibaw, was brought to Yangon.

With the British having colonized the whole country, the IFC became the backbone of inland water transport. The IFC controlled trade along the Irrawaddy River up to Bhamo and Katha in the north. It transported the prince of Wales and viceroy of India during their visits, conveyed orders from London and transported colonial troops around.

From the headquarters, the British and Indian managers, including many Scots, sent instructions to regional offices across the country. They managed cargo and passenger transport, sending express mail and organizing exports such as rice, fuel and teak to the ocean-going vessels.

The four most senior managers lived on the top floor of the buildings with servants.

The replacement IFC office in Phayre (Pansodan) Street in 1933 / Scots in Burma

Ethnic Mon tycoon Nar Auk and Ma Hninzi and others used their wealth to challenge the IFC. However, they could not compete in the price war as the IFC provided free transport with presents and complimentary meals to passengers. The rivals eventually went bankrupt and had to sell their ships to the IFC. Ferry services owned by Indian firms also lost out in the price war with the IFC.

Despite a rising anti-colonial movement and violence against the Indian and Chinese communities in the 1930s, the IFC expanded its business, operating a fleet of more than 600 ships with over 10,000 staff.

Annually, the IFC transported 8 million passengers and half of the country’s freight, becoming a recognized global name in river transport.

An Irrawaddy Flotilla Company ship.

A company pamphlet from the 1930s described the diversity of cargo: “Great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of jade, lacquerware, silk, tamarind, elephants sometimes, woven mats, maize, jaggery, bullocks, marble Buddhas, oil cake, tobacco, timber.”

Goods coming from Europe included cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches, aluminum, sewing machines, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky.

However, World War II ended the IFC’s dominance.

Indian passengers on the Irrawaddy / Scots in Burma

The IFC building was taken over by the British military amid Japanese airstrikes as the command discussed how to retreat from the city.

Japanese troops sank the IFC’s ships and the company destroyed more than 500 vessels, almost the entire fleet, during the British retreat.

To stop ships falling into Japanese hands, around 200 vessels were sunk near Mandalay and the remainder scuppered at Katha. The Siam and Mysore were used as hospital ships but later were also sunk.

A manager wrote on May 3, 1942: “Katha is a sight, vessels anchored 10 abreast and all deserted. The last train has gone, the town is evacuated. Parties are told to sink every vessel.”

During the war, the IFC held discussions with the governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, about rehabilitating river transport in India.

Irrawaddy Flotilla Company ships.

The IFC headquarters was revived after the war but political changes signaled that the golden days would not return for the IFC.

On June 1, 1948, six months after independence, the government of Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League nationalized the IFC. It used the building for inland water transport. It was renamed the Water Transport Corporation in 1971 and then adopted its current name, Inland Water Transport, in 1989. The department is overseen by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

The 87-year-old building retains much of its grand exterior. But little remains inside. Offices have been fitted that fail to match the original structure. The elevator is still in use although it breaks down periodically.

“Ventilation is very good. The building has good natural light. We can even work with natural light even during blackouts,” said an official at the Myanma Port Authority.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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