Down the Malay Barrier 5.

Many different threads of history knot in the case of the steamship “Jeddah.”

First, there is geography.  On the one hand, trade between the Far East and anywhere to the West (the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, East Africa, Europe) must pass through one of two narrow gates: the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java) or the Malacca Straits (between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra).  On the other hand, the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, on the northern shore of the Indian Ocean, is a poor land called the Hadramaut.  It grows frankincense and not much else.  Then the River Clyde runs through southwestern Scotland.  Along its banks many shipyards grew up in the 19th Century.[1]  Clydeside became the heart of British ship-building.

Second, there is demography.  The Dutch held the Sunda Strait for centuries; in 1818, the English got the island and harbor of Singapore in the Malacca Straits.  They emphasized attracting Arab merchants already familiar with local people and trade.  It quickly became the hub of East-West trade.  At the same time, Hadhrami (people from Hadramaut) began emigrating to places all around the Indian Ocean.  Usually, they became merchants and sailors.  “Blood is thicker than water”: family networks were vital to success in long-distance trade.

Third, among the “pillars” of Islam, one is “Hajj”: the obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth-place of Islam.  In Britain’s “Indian Empire” (today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, there were many Muslims.  Many of them made the “hajj.” Sea voyages offered the least inconvenient route, but the small sailing ships commonly used for the journey were uncomfortable, slow, and sometimes dangerous.  A second “pillar” is “Zakat”: the obligation to give charity to the poor.

These threads came together when Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff, a Hadhrami, arrived in Singapore in 1824.[2]  He went into the spice trade, where he prospered.  His son and grandson followed the trade.  The grandson, Syed Mahomed Alsagoff, possessed great wealth and engaged in generous philanthropy.  In 1870, Alsagoff ordered construction of a steam-powered passenger ship to carry Muslim pilgrims to and from Jeddah, the port-of-entry on the Red Sea for Mecca in the interior.  The ship was to be named the “Jeddah.”

Fourth, British ships and British sea captains were the best in the world.  In 1872 a Clydeside shipyard[3] launched the “Jeddah.”   Alsagoff hired British officers to command the ship.  For eight years it plied its trade between Singapore and Jeddah.

On 17 July 1880, the “Jeddah” sailed from Singapore with 953 pilgrims aboard.  By 3 August the ship was approaching the Red Sea.  Then a terrible hurricane blew up.  The ship began to leak, lost most of its power, and began to list to one side.  On 7 August, believing the ship would sink, most of the officers abandoned the ship—and the passengers—in a lifeboat.  They survived and reported the ship sunk.  But the “Jeddah” did not sink.  The remaining officers and the passengers worked to save the ship, then were rescued by a French ship.

Fifth, Authority and Responsibility cannot be separated without disaster following.  It is an unwritten law of the sea that captains remain aboard until everyone else has been saved, or go down with their ship.  The officers had betrayed this duty and became outcasts.  Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) imagines the terrible fate of one of these men.

[1] Also a great many distilleries, although you shouldn’t combine the “twa”—boat-building and booze.

[2] The term “Syed” indicates that he was a descendant of one of the Prophet Muhammad and was, thus, of high status among all Muslims.

[3] David Byrne grew up there.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AINJTvRUk1w

Down the Malay Barrier 4.

The Ganges River flows across most of northern India, draining the Himalaya Range.  Near its eastern/lower end it is joined by the Brahmaputra River.  Then the mighty river flows into the head of the Bay of Bengal.[1]  Along the way, the rivers carry immense mounts of earth.[2]  When the river approaches the waters of the bay, it slows down and the silt gets deposited along the shores.  This has created a huge delta.  Actually, it is the biggest delta in the world.  It is more than 200 miles across at its widest point and covers more than 40,000 square miles.  Bigger than the Nile delta, or the Mississippi delta, or the Amazon delta, or the Google delta.  Like other great deltas, the flow of water-born sediment has pushed the delta out toward the sea.  Over time, the delta has advanced an estimated 250 miles to the south.

The silt is rich in minerals and nutrients, so that the soil that builds up is excellent farm land.  With the river and many streams close at hand, it is easy to irrigate the land.  The soil is so rich that between 125 and 145 million people live in the delta.  (That is two-thirds of the population of Bangladesh.)  That works out to about 520 people per square mile.[3]  They grow rice, tea, and sisal.[4]

In addition to the human beings, the islands are inhabited by deer, pythons, eagles, crocodiles, elephants, woodpeckers, leopards, and some Bengal tigers (which occasionally invade villages for take-out).

The delta is not one big mass of land.  It is a maze of islands separated by rivers and streams.  The many islands are connected by “traditional” wooden ferry boats, rather than by bridges.[5]  Most of the delta is between 30 feet above sea-level and sea-level.  Indeed, if global warming caused enough of the polar ice pack to melt to raise the sea-levels everywhere by 20 inches, then 6 million delta residents would lose their homes and land.

The delta gets a lot of rain.  The monsoons drop from 59 to 79 inches of rain on the western part of the delta and from 79 to 118 inches in the eastern part.  All that rain is one of the things that makes rice-farming possible.  The run-off causes streams and rivers to rise.

Lying at the head of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges delta is the frequent target of tropical cyclones.  In the Atlantic these are known as hurricanes.  High winds (typically about 80 miles per hour), lots of rain, and big storm surges (water pushed ashore by the storm).  Tropical cyclones start in the south of the Bay of Bengal, then move northward toward the head of the bay at the Ganges delta.  This shoves a lot of water from deep water toward shallow water.  When it reaches shore it is called a storm surge.  Another problem is that the Ganges delta is densely populated (compared to the Jersey shore during hurricane season).  If they get a big storm, the water level suddenly rises, and many people drown.

What we see here is human beings living at the edge of two great natural physical processes.  The river has created a land that can support many people.  The monsoons of the Bay of Bengal make farming possible, but the cyclones push back the line of safe settlement.

[1] Bengal is in north-eastern India, so the Bay of Bengal is on the eastern side of the Indian sub-continent.

[2] Also, the remains of dead people who were cremated upriver and cast into the stream.

[3] The population density of Conshohocken, PA, is about 13,000/square mile.  However, Conshy is purely residential while the Ganges delta is mostly devoted to farm land.  So the concentration of people in farm villages is much greater than it sounds.

[4] Sisal is a fiber used to make twine.  I bought a roll in the Dollar General to tie up a bunch of small branches that had come down in the yard for trash day and to attach gingerbread cookies to the Christmas tree.

[5] If you read the New York Times, the ferries are overloaded all the time, and capsize all the time, and lots of passengers drown all the time.

Down the Malay Barrier 3.

The Shan State forms one of Myanmar’s ethnic communities.  Located in the northeastern quadrant of Myanmar, it borders southwestern China (Yunnan), Laos, and Thailand.  Under other circumstances, a bunch of forested hills on the inland edge of a no-account country would be of no interest.  In fact, however, it is an important–and increasingly important—link in the international narcotics supply chain.

For one thing, the many small farms grow both produce and opium poppies.  Poppies grow easily in the poor soil often found in hill regions.  Poor peasants value poppies as a cash crop.  For another thing, part of the anti-Communist Chinese Kuomintang Army retreated from Yunnan into the Shan State after the Communist victory in 1949.  Rather than transit to join the other supporters of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, they settled down in Shan State.  There the refugee army embarked on opium and heroin production.  For yet another thing, since 1962 the central government’s effort to suppress autonomy movements has spawned local resistance groups.  As the old saying goes, “For success in war, three things are necessary: money, more money, and still more money.”[1]  Shan autonomists have relied upon drug sales to build up military forces more than capable of holding off the army of Myanmar on most occasions.[2]

If opium and heroin built the foundations of the Shan State drug trade, the producers have been alert to changes in global market conditions and new product development.  Take, for example methamphetamine and fentanyl.  Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant.[3]  “Crystal meth” is an alternative form of methamphetamine.  Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is far stronger than is heroin.[4]  All have become popular “recreational” drugs.  Much of production of the chemical components of both methamphetamine and fentanyl took place in China.  In recent years, pressure from the United States caused the Chinese government to restrict production in China proper.  Producers shifted their facilities outside China, including to Shan State.

New supply chain routes then developed.  Fishing villages dot Myanmar’s long coastline on the Bay of Bengal.  Doubtless the local fishermen feel the same eagerness to profit from the drug trade as do the peasant farmers.  Probably they carry their cargo to ports like Yangon and Singapore, while another route may run down the nearby Mekong River to Ho Chi Minh City.

Myanmar’s war with the ethnic groups has been a murky business.  To offer one example, the Kachin Defense Army, in Shan State, is suspected of having done a deal with the army of Myanmar involving the drug trade.  However, the trouble with criminals—even criminals in uniform—is that they’re dishonest.  The Kachins seem to have been sending some of their product to the Arakan Army on the west coast.  Discovering this betrayal, the army and police launched a series of raids into Kachin territory in Spring 2020.  They hauled in 200 million tabs of meth, 1,100 pounds of crystal meth, 630 pounds of heroin, and almost 1,000 gallons of methyl fentanyl.[5]  The army probably sought to remind the Kachins of the deal, not break the deal.

[1] Attributed variously to Marshal Trivulzio and Raimondo Montecucolli.

[2] You might enjoy and learn from “Proof of Life” (dir. Taylor Hackford, 2000).

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methamphetamine

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fentanyl

[5] Hannah Beech and Saw Nang, “Record Raids in Myanmar Point to Shifting Drug Trade,” NYT, 20 May 2020.

Down the Malay Barrier 2.

Geography and climate.  Burma is an up-and-down country sandwiched between India and Bangladesh in the northwest, China and Laos in the east, and Malaya in the south.  The Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal create long seaboards.

Just as Egypt is “the gift of the Nile,” Burma is “the gift of the Irrawaddy.”  Burma’s chief river runs most of the length of the country through a wide, lush valley.  Encircling that valley to west, east, and north are ranges of hills and increasingly rugged mountains.

Burma is in Monsoon Asia: there is a wet season and a dry season (October-May); it’s mostly hot and sometimes steamy.  For Western travelers, health dangers abound.[1]

 

The history that matters.  Burma began as a series of city-states in and around the Irrawaddy River valley between 200 and 100 BC.  Larger kingdoms rose and fell through the 800s AD.  All the while, new ethnic groups immigrated from China and India.  Then, during what Europeans would call the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1500 AD), a succession of still bigger kingdoms emerged to engulf many of the territories surrounding the Irrawaddy valley; and first Buddhism, then Islam spread from India.  All this created an ethnically and religiously diverse Burma.  From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, a series of empires and kingdoms sought to expand the boundaries of Burma and to impose strong central government on outlying ethnic communities.

This worked pretty well until an expanding Burma collided with an expanding British Empire in India.  Three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-1885) ended in British rule over Burma.

British rule increased the Western impact on the country: Buddhism was disestablished as the state religion; secular schools—largely staffed by Christian missionaries—were created; a fleet of riverboats and ferries sailed the rivers; and a railroad ran the length of the great central valley.  Furthermore, many new immigrants—Indians—settled in Burma, while the mixed race “Anglo-Burmese” later became an important sub-group.  The British administration granted enlarged autonomy to the “tribal” areas containing ethnic minorities.  By the early 20th Century, Burma had become a remarkably diverse multi-ethnic community.[2]

Naturally, British rule inspired a student-led nationalist movement.  Minor British concessions failed to appease nationalist demands before the Second World War.  The Burmese ethnic groups had composed their differences—for the moment—in a 1944 conference.  A war-exhausted Britain granted independence in 1948.

When the civilian government failed to squash demands from the ethnic minorities for greater self-government, the army overthrew the government (1962), then later changed the country’s name to Myanmar.  Burma has been a military dictatorship ever since.  The generals have wrecked the economy through socialist-inspired policies incompetently applied.  They haven’t done much better at either defeating or reconciling the ethnic minorities.  A host of ethnic “National Armies” dominate much of the country.  The recent persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas has attracted much attention, Burma/Myanmar is a cauldron of conflicts.  Prominent among the rebellious areas is the Shan State.

[1] See: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_Myanmar

Down the Malay Barrier 1.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they simultaneously attacked the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (what is today Indonesia).  Japanese naval air forces also raided Darwin in northern Australia.  Early Japanese victories drove Allied forces back toward Burma in the north, the Dutch East Indies in the west, and northern Australia.  Desperate efforts were made to hold this “Malay Barrier.”

Today the region is home to growing economies, societies under stress, Islamic radicalism, and crime.  What would a traveler see moving from Bangladesh to Darwin?

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia proper has a population of something over 10 million people, but the larger metropolitan area has a population of 30 million people.  A lot of people produce a lot of trash.  Much of the trash from Jakarta—7,000 tons a day–ends up in nearby Bekasi.[1]  A daily stream of 1,000 trucks dump their daily loads onto a 150 acre one-time rice field.  They’ve been at this for thirty years, so the loads have accumulated into a plateau dotted with hills.  Those hills can temporarily rear up as high as 150 feet until bull-dozers working ‘round-the-clock level them down into another layer of the plateau.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and not just for the company that runs the dump.  Many villages surround the mountain of trash.  Most of the villagers are immigrants, farmers who lost their land elsewhere and came to Bekasi in search of work.  They’re here because they had no other choice.  The villagers earn their living by trash-picking for anything that might have resale value.  They scramble up and down the trash piles, dodging around the bull-dozers, and loading their finds into baskets strapped to their backs.  Any plastic, metal, wood, or electronic waste can be sold to someone.  Middle men buy different types of recovered material, paying by weight.  Recycling companies buy what the middlemen purchase from the trash pickers.  Pickers can earn anywhere from $2 to $10 a day.

One kind of economy creates other ones.  Little stands sell cigarettes, and snacks and soda to trash-pickers taking a break.  Drug dealers and prostitutes meet other needs.[2]

The trash stinks, so the hundreds of trash pickers stink and so do the surrounding villages.  Flies are everywhere.  The ground water is polluted.  Working—or, in the case of children too young to work, playing—on trash leads to cuts and scrapes.  Sores, infections, and breathing problems abound.  Poor Indonesians haven’t had much contact with modern medicine.  Folk belief holds that living in these conditions strengthens the body’s immunity to disease.

The Indonesian government doesn’t do much to help to poor.  Muslim charities elsewhere pay for Koran study classes or provide scholarships for the occasional exceptionally good students to continue their education through university.  Non-profits provide other kinds of help, like additional food.

Is this an example of human triumph over difficulty or of complacent rulers ignoring inequality and suffering at their own peril?

[1] Aleasha Bliss, “Bantar Gebang: Trials and Tribulations of Indonesia’s “Trash Heroes”,” Jakarta Globe, 8 February 2019; Adam Dean and Richard C. Paddock, “Picking Plastic, Metal, and Bones from a Trash Tower,” NYT, 28 April 2020.

[2] See: Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future (2020).