Burma’s Climate and ‘Masculine Nerves’

The other day I was going through the massive pile of scrappy bits of paper that are my old PhD research notes looking for something I could distinctly remember having, but was inevitably unable to find, when I came across a poem. Written in 1911, it succinctly summed up a major theme in my research. It would have been helpful to have had it to hand a couple of years ago when I was writing up this research for publication! But anyway. The poem was by J. M. Symns, an old Burma hand, and it was dedicated to ‘any Mem-Sahib who appreciates it’s point.’ It begins:

Ere you married you learned how our climate annoys,

With its sticky monotonous rain,

How it slowly but none the less surely destroys

Your beauty and deadens your brain.

But you failed to discover that Burma reserves

Her most exquisite torture for masculine nerves.

The poem then goes on to describe scenes of marital strife, hinting at the husband’s infidelities with Burmese women. But Symns is not condemning such indiscretions. Instead he is urging any British wives in Burma to be patience with their menfolk. After all, they’ve lost their beauty and the judgement of their husbands has been impaired by the heat.

Symns’s poems were widely published in Burma, appearing in the Rangoon Gazette. He cast himself as an irreverent chronicler of Anglo-Burmese society. Like many who claim to be irreverent, Symns’s views were socially conservative but presented in a no-nonsense, common-sense, straight-talking, worldly-wise tone. There was nothing in his poems that challenged imperial bourgeois sensibilities (in contrast to some writing, such as the 1901 novel Anna Lombard that I wrote about a month ago). He poked fun at and teased Anglo-Burmese society, but in manner that reinforced their assumptions and social norms – particularly regarding gender roles.

Although it was not much liked by high ranking officials in India, it was common for British officials in Burma to arrange ‘temporary marriages’ with Burmese women. A frequently used justification for these breaches of racial divisions was the effect of the climate on an official’s health. John Nisbet, a forest official in the late nineteenth century, wrote that because of the ‘depressing effects of the climate and the dismal, soul-deadening solitude’ of a posting in Burma, compounded by ‘human nature, and the facts of medical science’, these temporary marriages were ‘the least pernicious of all the vices in its immediate and its ultimate effects on that noblest of temples, the human body which enshrines the soul, the image of God.’

In contrast, even hints that there could be relationships between white women and Burmese men were viewed with alarm by British officials. The state attempted to regulate the employment of European barmaids because it was felt white women serving Burmese punters alcohol was inherently inappropriate. And in the case of a German female inmate of the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum, interracial sexual relations was viewed as a symptom and cause of her mental deterioration. Burma’s climate was not used to excuse or explain women’s desires.

Other poems published by Symns describe pretty, young Burmese women from the perspective of admiring fresh-faced British officials. These fantasies show how intrinsic ideas about gender were to British imperial culture. In these poems, as in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Mandalay, the young Burmese love interest was often to be found in a pagoda, and they were described as part of their intoxicating Oriental surroundings. British officials associated Burmese women with the broader culture. They saw themselves as masculine imperialists conquering the feminine East.

A picture of a Burmese woman at the entrance to a pagoda, painted by R. Tablot-Kelly in c.1908
A picture of a Burmese woman at the entrance to a pagoda, painted by R. Tablot-Kelly in c.1908

But what I find interesting in Symns’s and Nisbet’s writings is how climate has been used to absolve British officials from responsibility for these desires. The heat made them weak willed and easy prey to, what they believed to be, seductive Burmese temptresses. The domineering nature of imperial masculinity has been tempered by the claim that men were particularly vulnerable to the effects of Burma’s climate. As Ann Laura Stoler has argued, colonialism created desires for the exotic ‘Other’ that needed to be policed to maintain racial social divisions. In Burma, the climate was used to establish mitigating circumstances for those men who couldn’t police themselves. Even the manly Englishman might succumb to temptation when ‘in heat’, so to speak…

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