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Pharology - Lighthouses of Asia - Myanmar (Burma)

AS05: Lighthouses of Myanmar (Burma)

On the western side of the Bay of Bengal lay the vast tropical forests of Burma. Burma has many signs of civilisation that stretch back for over 2,000 years. It was first unified under a monarch in the eleventh century, but was over-run by Mongol hordes of Kubla Khan in 1287. A second dynasty was established in 1486, but internal disunity and intermittent wars with Siam were a threat to her existence. King Alaungpaya united the country once more in 1752 and successfully staved off a threat from China, but this part of southeast Asia was the subject of intense quarrelling between Britain, France and China for centuries and Burma was eventually incorporated into British India during the period of three Anglo-Burmese wars between 1824 and 1886. The British sent the last king into exile and abolished the monarchy.

Situated 20 miles up the Rangoon River, the capital, Rangoon, was established under the name of Dagon in the sixth century. It became an international trading centre from 1753 onwards, established on the sale of rice and teak. The River Rangoon was navigable for almost a thousand miles upstream of Rangoon. It was not until 1937 that Burma was freed from India and given a limited measure of autonomy, though still under strong British influence. It became a fully independent nation in 1948, after a brief period in the occupancy of the Japanese during World War II.

In 1826, a border dispute between the rapidly developing British colony of Bengal and the natives of northwest Burma led to a military clash. Naturally, the far superior British forces won, and their territory was extended to include the new lands of what was known as “British Burmah” until 1886. Although Rangoon was the centre of influence for Burma, the country was actually ruled in all respects by the Governor of India.

In 1853, the Governor conceived a programme of lighthouse building, and through the offices of the East India Company, he despatched Lieutenant A Fraser back to Britain to consult with experts in lighthouse building. This was to prove a major event in the history of lighthouses beyond British shores, which has received such scant attention from authors, for the Governor commissioned several reports from Alan Stevenson of Messrs Stevenson and Company, of George Street, Edinburgh. It would appear that this was the first time that the Stevenson Company had been invited to consult in lighthouse design in distant lands, and because of the great amount of coverage that has been given to the marvellous work of this family of engineers, the work of Fraser has been very neglected. Most sources give the impression that it was the Stevensons who were responsible for the drawings, but an illustrated article of 1866 attributes the work on the Alguada Reef to Fraser [6].

Alan Stevenson is famous for the design and building of Britain’s tallest lighthouse, the wonderful Skerryvore, completed in 1843. Son of the great Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) who built the famous Bell Rock lighthouse in 1811, Alan headed up a powerful and experienced company of engineers that included his younger brothers David and Thomas. Always in fragile health, by 1853 it had deteriorated to such an extent that he was forced to retire when only 46 years old, but it was almost certainly with the help of his brothers, their senior engineer, Alan Brebner and other employees that they, as a Company, drew up plans for Fraser’s system of Burmese lighthouses. They began with the Alguada Reef. This is one of the most significant lighthouses ever to have been built beyond British shores. It was modelled on the Skerryvore lighthouse, and although it was nominally taller by some six feet (2 m) this minor difference could undoubtedly be ascribed to the extra height of the rock on which it stood. The programme commenced in 1859. On the death of Alan Stevenson in 1865, aged 58, Alan and Tom Stevenson supervised the work on other members of the series.

We must not undervalue the work carried out by Fraser in the building of this important series of lighthouses, for it was he who originally persuaded the Governor of India that the lighthouse to be built on the Alguada Reef should be such a grand structure – of stone, rather than the cast iron that was popular at that time. It was also Fraser who arranged for the purchase of the design from the Stevensons, who oversaw the designs for the other lights in the series and who, not least, supervised their entire building. There is no evidence that any of the Stevensons themselves travelled to India or Burmah. We must regard Fraser – the British Army Officer from the Royal Engineers - as the first great Imperial Lighthouse engineer.

Thus began a period of intense lighthouse development described in a report in the Engineer [7].

Within the last few years six lighthouses have been constructed by the Indian government in the Bay of Bengal along the previously unlighted coast of British Burmah. Two more have been designed and will probably shortly be put in hand. They are as follows

(1) Alguada Reef, at the mouth of the Bassein River (23/4/1865)

(2) Double Island lighthouse in the Gulf of Martaban (12/1865)

(3) Cocas Island lighthouse in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal (15/2/1867)

(4) Krishna Shoal in the Gulf of Martaban (11/6/1869)

(5) China Buckeer in the entrance to the Rangoon River (15/9/1869)

(6) Eastern Grove in the entrance to the Rangoon River (15/9/1869)

(7) Oyster Reef, off Aracan (1871/2)

(8) Great Savage, off Aracan (1844)

At the close of the year 1853 the attention of the Marquis of Dalhousie, the then Governor General of India, while on a visit to the newly acquired province of British Burma, was drawn to the perils of the Alguada Reef, a dangerous line of rocks to the southward of Cape Negrais and lying on the direct course of vessels sailing from Calcutta to the Irrawaddy. After some correspondence on the subject with the court of directors of the East India Company, the government of India deputed Captain Alexander Fraser, R.E., to England to confer with Mr. Alan Stevenson and other eminent lighthouse engineers, after which designs were to be prepared for a lighthouse on the Alguada reef. In his report of February 1857, Captain Fraser, after giving his reasons for preferring stone to iron as the material to be employed, pointed out the island of Caligouk, distant 210 miles from the reef, as the source of supply which he would propose. In a subsequent report he stated "I think the Honourable Court can do no better than authorise Mr A. Stevenson's design for the lighthouse on the Skerryvore as the model of form on which to build the one for the Alguada reef. Financial difficulties, consequent on the mutiny (1858), prevented the immediate commencement of the work, that during the northeast monsoon of 1859-60 work was really begun, and consisted in cutting out the foundation to a depth, at the lowest part, of seven and a half feet below high water spring tides, and the removal of about 700 tons of rock. It was not until the 14th of February 1861 that the first granite stone was actually laid, and 104 stones, weighing 74 tons, were laid before the setting in of the monsoon caused the stoppage of work for the season. By the end of the third season (1862) the seven and the work courses of stones were duly laid, each stone varying in weight from half a ton to three and a half tons. They were all lifted into position by a crane by means of Lewis holes previously cut. The outside stones were laid in Portland cement, and the inner ones in lime and soorkhee.