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Stuart Macdonald, who died in Sydney on May 3rd 1999, aged 92, was the last manager of that great imperial enterprise, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and had the melancholy task of handing it over to a newly independent Burma.
The IF Company, as it was known, was founded in 1865 to provide transport in a country where rivers were the highways. In 1890, Rudyard Kipling, who had visited Rangoon, paid a tribute “Come you back to Mandalay / Where the old Flotilla lay: / Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ / From Rangoon to Mandalay?”
The company fleet, built for the rivers and estuaries, was said to be the largest in the word, 644 vessels. 258 of them powered craft. Express and cargo steamers, up to 326 feet long, plied the River Irrawaddy from Rangoon to Mandalay and smaller craft ran on to Bhamo. Special shallow draught steamers were employed on the Irrawaddy’s great tributary the Chindwin. Over 9,000 staff were employed in the fleet, the five dockyards, the godowns (warehouses), the offices and more than 50 agencies in river towns.
Stuart Macdonald was born in Greenock on February 10th 1907. The elder son of a Glasgow coal merchant, he was educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond and began with Paddy Henderson’s shipping company before heading east to join the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in 1927 as a shipping assistant.
If the sun was soon to set on the Empire, it was not clear to Macdonald. The tropics suited him: he fell in love with Burma and embraced colonial society. Six feet two inches tall, lean, black-haired and handsome, he was a popular figure at Scottish balls, parties and government receptions. He golfed, played tennis and was a splendid swimmer.
In 1936 he married, with the company’s permission, Brenda Groves, of Herne Bay, Kent, whom he had met in Burma.
In December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Rangoon, he as well up the management ladder. As the city fell to the Japanese Army less than four months later, the IF Company was stretched to the limit, evacuating civilians and supplying the defence of Burma. Company headquarters were now in Mandalay and the Japanese advance up river from Rangoon, taking port after port, was steadily reducing the Irrawaddy Fleet’s movements. Macdonald worked with the company’s rearguard units as they burned, scuttled or demolished any property that might be useful to the enemy.
There were some close calls. At Monywa, on the Chindwin, the company was out by 6.30 a.m. on May 1st, the British forces were gone by 8.00 and by 8.30 the Japanese were taking possession.
In the last few days at Mandalay, on the main Irrawaddy, Macdonald’s group sank more than 100 powered boats and many other craft in the harbour. Finally, they burned the dockyard. At Katha, almost the last port on the Irrawaddy and 900 miles from Rangoon, they heard that the Japanese were ahead of them as well as behind. But Macdonald was satisfied with the job he had done. He calculated that during the campaign the company had carried at least 150,000 evacuees, 30,000 troops and tens of thousands of tons of food and army stores. Almost nothing of the great fleet remained for the Japanese; of the powered craft, fewer than 20.
From Katha, the only escape lay in Assam, a 250 mile trek westward. For three days, Macdonald and his party of a dozen, drove, dragged and otherwise persuaded two small cars to crawl along bullock tracks and jungle paths, across streams and paddy fields, further than any car had ever reached in Burma. They kept up their spirits with tea, cocoa and choruses sung to a ukulele. Abandoning the cars, they tramped through thick jungle, struggled down rivers and narrowly escaped disaster from a herd of charging water buffalo. Then it was into hill country, climbing 5,000 feet and descending exhausted down steep valleys. They had eked out their rations with food from villages and with the plains of Assam in sight they sat dawn, bearded and unkempt, to eat the last army biscuits. With some of the party in their fifties, they had nevertheless come through in less than a fortnight.
All Macdonald’s hopes were pinned on a return to Burma. Immediately after the war he did return, now as manager, but in an uncertain climate of nationalism. His fate was to negotiate the transfer of the company, in 1949, to the government of an independent state.
Next year he returned to Britain. He was not afraid of starting again from scratch and took a job packing eggs for a small company in Sussex. Before long he was managing director and proceeded to expand the company, Stonegate Farmers, into a substantial operation.
On retiring in 1968 he migrated with his wife to Sydney, where he did clerical work for stockbrokers and insurance brokers into his late seventies.
Macdonald believed firmly that young men should make their own way, as he had, and he turned out his sons at an early age to do just that. To the end of his life his favourite song remained “On the Road to Mandalay,” Kipling’s poem set to music, in which the old soldier in London longs for the Burma he knew: “For the temple-bells are callin’ / An’ it’s there that I would be...”
Stuart Macdonald was survived by his wife and a son; another son predeceased him.
From the Daily Telegraph