Co-Constituting Imperial Glasgow and Rangoon

In the 1920s, the Henderson Line ran a regular steamship service between Glasgow, Liverpool and Rangoon. Source: Pinterest.

By the turn of the 19th century, Rangoon had become the third largest seaport in British India and was swiftly becoming an important regional manufacturing and distribution centre for rice, teak, and petroleum. Traffic in the port of Rangoon grew exponentially between the years 1900 and 1930, from 425,000 tons of imports in 1908, to 1,479,873 tons in 1927, and nearly twice that in exports. In that same year, the city became the largest immigrant port in the world, with over 480,000 new arrivals, surpassing even New York. These new emigres were mostly south Indian laborers who had come to work in the expanding rice frontier of the Irrawaddy Delta. A large number also settled in Rangoon to work on the city’s docks and in its major industries, and with the control of those industries firmly consolidated in British hands, it had begun by the 1920s to appear like the enormous British investment in colonial Burma would finally pay off.

From an architectural standpoint, the face of Rangoon changed completely in the years between the annexation of Burma in 1886 and the start of the new century. Imposing brick government buildings, law courts, banks, and merchant exchanges flanked its tree-lined promenades, and steel piers, go-downs, docks, goods sheds, and rail-yards blocked the view of the Rangoon River from Strand Road. Indian and Chinese merchants set up shop and built tenements throughout the city and the lower Pazundaung Creek, once a minor tidal inlet, was now lined on both sides with rice and lumber mills. The city could boast a zoo, an electric tram-line, two cathedrals, several luxury hotels and a fine European department store, Rowe and Co., called the “Harrods of the East.” To round out the picture, the shipyards at Dalla and the oil refineries at Syriam turned what was once a sleepy river town into a major industrial hub and Burma’s largest port.

Port of Rangoon. C. 1900-1939. Source: Chasing Chinthes

All of this growth, however, had to come from somewhere, and if we look at the historical record, we find that a disproportionate amount of the expertise, materials, and financing for Burma’s economic miracle came from one single city: Glasgow. Long before the rise of Rangoon, the Scots had been the premier merchants of the British Empire. Scottish entrepreneurs from Glasgow had set up some of the first trading firms to supply the teak-logging industry in Lower Burma, starting with D. Shaw and Co. (the forerunner to T.D. Findlay and Sons) in Moulmein in 1839. Later on, they would venture into imperial politics, as the Scottish businessmen that made up the majority of the Rangoon Chamber of Commerce were perhaps the greatest agitators for the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Ultimately, it was a dispute between the Burmese monarchy and a Scottish firm, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, that would lead to the war and the defeat of the last Burmese monarch Thibaw in 1885.

When the British conquered Lower Burma in 1853, what was left of the Burmese town of Dagon was destroyed, the streets were levelled, and hundreds of tons of earth were moved to create Rangoon’s colonial “core”. The swamp in the area of Fytche Sq. (now Maha Bandoola Park) was drained and trenches dug for a system of sewers and canals that would carry fresh water to the city and waste water away. From the outset, then, Rangoon was based upon European ideas, but the city quickly grew to accommodate the different ethnic communities that arrived from other regions of the Empire because of Burma’s appealing prospects for trade. European-style town planning combined with South Asian modes of living to create an entirely new kind of environment – the colonial Southeast Asian port city. A Chinatown grew up in the streets around the Hokkien and Cantonese Temples and a Little India in the area of Mogul and Merchant Streets. In addition to the Indian and Chinese communities, there were Armenians, Arabs, Persians, and Jews, all living together in the cosmopolitan mosaic that was Rangoon. These communities were tied to others across the Bay of Bengal and down the straits of Malacca, creating a web of colonial connections that traversed languages and crossed empires.

Aerial view of Rangoon and the port, 1900. Rangoon Air Survey. Source: Chasing Chinthes.

At the same time, Glasgow was experiencing a similar boom in manufacturing and industry to that of Rangoon, not least because of its links to other ports around the world. With the advent of steam power in the 1830s, the city had become one of the shipbuilding capitals of the world, seated as it was above the great iron ore deposits of Lanarkshire, and by 1870 more than half of all British shipbuilding was based on the banks of the River Clyde. The population of the city quickly surpassed that of Edinburgh, and contemporary growth of the pig-iron, railroad, textile, and ceramics industries meant that Glasgow could, by the turn-of-the-century, lay claim to the title of “second city of the Empire.”

glasgow broomielaw 2
The quays at Broomielaw, Glasgow. c. 1900.

The connection between the port of Glasgow and Britain’s imperial conquests accounted for the greater part of this wealth, as natural resources from the colonies like oil, foodstuffs, and rubber landed on its wharves, and Scottish manufactured goods like plates, sewing machines, and motor cars were loaded onto its ships for export. It was an imperial city with imperial ambitions, evident in the grandiose Gothic and neo-Classical architecture of its banks, insurance companies, and merchant exchanges.

Many of these buildings were designed and built by the same architects (and for the same companies) that built offices in Rangoon, resulting in an uncanny architectural resemblance between the two cities. For instance, the Scottish firms Bulloch Brothers, J. and F. Graham and Co., Finlay, Fleming and Co., and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, all had their headquarters in Glasgow with offices in Rangoon.

(The buildings of 19th century Glasgow bear a striking resemblance in style to those of colonial Rangoon; clockwise from top left: Burmah Oil Co. Offices, West George St. Glasgow; Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. Head Office, Bothwell St. Glasgow; Burmah Oil Co. offices, Merchant Road, Rangoon; Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Chambers, Pansodan (Phayre) St., Rangoon). Source: Yangon Architectural Guide.

In its early days, Rangoon was laid out by a Scotsman, Captain Alexander Fraser, along a grid system similar to that of Glasgow, and often the offices of the trading firms occupied similar positions within the grid, near to the quays that provided both cities with the material wealth and ease of transport that enabled them to grow. More concretely, many of the building materials that were used in the construction of the Rangoon offices of Scottish firms were imported direct from Glasgow, from the iron for their elaborate porticoes and spiral staircases, to the elevators, doors, doorknobs, and even the keys themselves.

Falkirk Iron Foundries, in nearby Lanarkshire, forged the iron posts of the entrance to the General Accountant's office, now Yangon Division Court
Falkirk Iron Foundries, nearby to Glasgow in Lanarkshire, forged the iron posts of the entrance to the General Accountant’s office, now Yangon Division Court. Source: Chasing Chinthes

The imperial connection between Scotland and Burma was perhaps most evident in the transportation and industrial sectors, where whole locomotives, mill machinery, and ships were produced in Glasgow and then shipped to Rangoon. In the rice industry, the steam-powered engines that separated the rice grain from the husk were built in the iron foundries of Lanarkshire and then distributed throughout Burma by Scottish firms. The blog International Steam has located and documented many of these amazing machines, a surprising number of which are still in use today.

Cowie Bros. Glasgow steam engine photographed near Shwebo source - Temples of Steam
Cowie Bros. Glasgow steam engine photographed near Shwebo, Burma. Source: International Steam.
Garrett and Taylor Ltd. Glasgow and Rangoon on a steam engine
Garrett and Taylor Ltd. Glasgow and Rangoon on a steam engine. Source: International Steam

Likewise, many of the locomotives that steamed along Burma’s nearly 2,000 miles of track were built at Duns and Co. in Glasgow. The Burmese market required Glaswegian industries to adapt their technologies to suit the local environment. To give just two examples, service on the tidal Irrawaddy required a steamboat with a much shallower draught than was common in Europe, and Burma’s narrower meter-gauge track led to the development of an entirely new kind of locomotive. Other industries such as ceramics adapted themselves to the tastes of their would-be Burmese clients (or, at least, to what they thought the Burmese might like) by including “Oriental” patterns featuring dragons, pagodas, and elephants. John Bell’s Pottery in Glasgow was well known for exporting such ceramic ware to India, Burma, and Malaya, under names like “Burmania”, “Pegu”, and “Bhamo.”


Source: Henry E. Kelly, Bell’s Pottery, p. 106


In the realm of shipping, most of the 600-strong fleet of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. steamships that prowled Burma’s rivers and waterways were built at Denny’s Shipyard on the Clyde. In Rangoon, the managers at the Irrawaddy shipyard at Dalla were largely from Denny’s and so too were the skippers and engineers of the boats. The travel writer V.C. Scott O’Connor wrote of these men that, considering the difficulty of navigating Burma’s rivers he expected them to be “imperious,” but when he boarded an Irrawaddy steamer he found the captain “a plain man, very simple in his habits and ways…to say nothing of the Clydesmen who rule the throbbing engines, and say even less than the skipper.” Thousands of young Scots (mostly men) were lured by the prospects for advancement in the Burma trade, as well as the allure of “adventure” in the “exotic” East. These men created an elitist imperial culture centred around the Club and the Polo ground, but they were also often escaping the choking restraints of the rigid class hierarchy back home.

Denny’s Shipyard at Dumbarton on the Clyde. 1891. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, under the auspices of the British empire, the lines between “home” and “abroad” were rapidly blurring. By the 1920s, the Bibby and Henderson cruise lines ran a regular service between Glasgow and Rangoon, linking the two cities across space, while the advent of the imperial telegraph network in 1902, the All Red Line, linked them across time. Consumer goods, literature, films and information passed back and forth between Burma, Glasgow, and the other nodes of empire – creating a global imperial culture. 

The fate of these two cities was so entwined during the period, that Glasgow and Rangoon could be called “co-constituted landscapes”. I have borrowed the term from Andrew Friedman’s path-making book on American imperialism, Covert Capital (University of California Press, 2015). In it Friedman suggests that two places can be “co-constituted”, that is, shaped and molded by the same geopolitical forces, with the same actors moving through them, building the same sorts of structures according to the same imperial logics, and thereby linking the two sites via a world of cultural, military, and economic imperial connections.

In a chapter on the CIA and the Vietnam War, Friedman suggests that the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia and Vietnam war-era Saigon were “co-constituted landscapes,” that is, they met “in the vortex of the U.S. imperial project, a physical instance of the way that, through the movements of imperialism, ‘the domestic and the foreign mutually constitute one another,’” (20). War-era Saigon and Virginia were not cousins, then, but sisters, consciously constructed by the same agents for the same purposes, and reflecting those intentions in everything from their architecture, to their urban planning, to their interior design.

But where Friedman refers to Virginia as a “landscape of denial” of American imperialism, the buildings of Rangoon and Glasgow could not have declared the goals of British imperialism more loudly or more clearly. Friedman’s “co-consitution” theory, then, is particularly well suited to discovering the hidden connections with Rangoon that might be lurking under the surface of the urban environment in Glasgow. Such an approach has already been taken for London by the historian Jonathan Schneer, whose book London: 1900 chronicles the ways in which empire was made and adapted on the home front, and how London as the metropole (mother city) was continually shaped by her colonies.

The same might be done for Glasgow. In Scotland, the Burmese had been visiting at least as far back as 1871 when the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce hosted a dinner for the Kinwun Mingyi, King Thibaw’s emissary to the West. Events in Glasgow often had a ripple effect in Rangoon, as when City of Glasgow Bank collapsed in 1878 leading to the closure of several firms in Burma. Burmese students traveled to Britain for education, though the first Burmese students did not enroll at the University of Glasgow until 1913-14 (they were Moung Soe Minn from Rangoon and Maung Kyaw Htin from Bassein, studying medicine and botany, respectively). Like their compatriots elsewhere, these young Burmese men would have been exposed to new ideas about what constituted “modernity”, while at the same time having to come face to face with racial discrimination in their new home.

Player's Cigarette Cards
Player’s Cigarettes British Empire Series No. 37, “Home of a Kachin Chief, Burmah.”
The Burma Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Glasgow, 1938.
The Burmese Pavilion at the 1938 British Empire Exhibition. Source:

Aside from direct contact with Burmese people, which admittedly would have been rare, Scottish citizens may have been familiar with Burma through advertisements glorifying Burma among the many dominions of the British Empire (such as those found on Player’s cigarette cards). Exhibitions at the city’s art museums and singular events like the 1938 British Empire Exhibition would have further familiarized Glaswegians with Burmese culture.

Like the 1924 Exhibition at Wembley, the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition included a Burmese Pavilion where the art, architecture, and natural resources of Burma were put on display for the consumption of fee-paying Britons. The placement of the Burmese exhibit in a separate pavilion at both Wembley and Glasgow no doubt signified the Province’s increasing importance within the Empire (and especially to the prosperity of Glasgow). This exhibition was the crowning achievement of a city that claimed to have connections around the world. Further research is required to determine the extent of Glasgow’s imperial connections, especially with respect to Burma, but a cursory comparison between the colonial cityscapes of Glasgow and Rangoon suggests that such a project would be rewarded with many fascinating new discoveries.

Burmese envoys in Scotland, 1872.

3 thoughts on “Co-Constituting Imperial Glasgow and Rangoon

  1. Pingback: Burmese and Scottish Lighthouses – Thamine

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