Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) Tortured in Burmese Prisons

[ABOVE—Judson in prison at Oung-pen-la, from George Winfred Hervey’s The Story of Baptist Missions in Foreign Lands (St. Louis: Chancy R. Barns, 1884).]

Adoniram Judson was a pioneering American missionary, and for a many years a household name in the United States. When Burma was battling Britain, Judson was seized as a spy because he was white. In vain Judson protested he was an American. His defence fell on deaf ears.

His confinement was so cruel that afterward he did not care to speak of it, saying he would fain consign his memories to oblivion. His son recorded what little Judson had to say about it and added details from the accounts of other victims.

Here is Judson’s brief account.

I was seized on the 8th of June, 1824, in consequence of the war with Bengal, and in company with Dr. Price, three Englishmen, one American, and one Greek, was thrown into the death prison at Ava, where we lay eleven months—nine months in three pairs, and two months in five pairs of fetters. The scenes we witnessed and the sufferings we underwent during that period I would fain consign to oblivion. From the death prison at Ava we were removed to a country prison at Oung-pen-la, ten miles distant, under circumstances of such severe treatment, that one of our number, the Greek, expired on the road; and some of the rest, among whom was myself, were scarcely able to move for several days.

It was the intention of the government in removing us from Ava, to have us sacrificed in order to insure victory over the foreigners; but the sudden disgrace and death of the adviser of that measure prevented its execution. I remained in the Oung-pen-la prison six months in one pair of fetters; at the expiration of which period I was taken out of irons, and sent under a strict guard to the Burmese headquarters at Mah-looan, to act as interpreter and translator. Two months more elapsed, when on my return to Ava, I was released at the instance of Moung Shwa-loo, the north governor of the palace, and put under his charge. During the six weeks that I resided with him the affairs of the government became desperate, the British troops making steady advances on the capital; and after Dr. Price had been twice dispatched to negotiate for peace (a business which I declined as long as possible), I was taken by force and associated with him. We found the British above Pah-gan; and on returning to Ava with their final terms, I had the happiness of procuring the release of the very last of my fellow-prisoners; and on the 21st instant, obtained the reluctant consent of the government to my final departure from Ava with Mrs. Judson.

The following account occurs in Adoniram Judson: A Biography by his son, Edward Judson. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1894.

…For most of the time of his confinement he was shut up in a loathsome, wretched place. It derived its remarkable, well-selected name, Let-ma-yoon — literally interpreted, Hand, shrink not — from the revolting scenes of cruelty practiced within its walls…The Let-ma-yoon was a building about forty feet long and thirty feet wide. It was five or six feet high along the sides, but as the roof sloped, the center of it was perhaps double that height. There was no ventilation except through the chinks between the boards and through the door, which was generally closed. On the thin roof poured the burning rays of a tropical sun. In this room were confined nearly one hundred prisoners of both sexes and all nationalities. Dr. Price thus describes the impressions he received on entering the prison:

“A little bamboo door opened, and I rose to go toward it. But oh! who can describe my sensations? shackled like a common felon in the care of hangmen the off scouring of the country, turned like a dog into his kennel, my wife, my dear family, left to suffer alone all the rudeness such wretches are capable of. The worst, however, was yet to come; for making the best of my way up the high steps, I was ushered into the grand apartment. Horror of horrors, what a sight! never to my dying day shall I forget the scene: a dim lamp in the midst, just making darkness visible, and discovering to my horrified gaze sixty or seventy wretched objects some in long rows made fast in the stocks, some strung on long poles, some simply fettered; but all sensible of a new acquisition of misery in the approach of a new prisoner. Stupefied, I stopped to gaze, till goaded on, I proceeded toward the farther end, when I again halted. A new and unexpected sight met my eyes. Till now I had been kept in ignorance of the fate of my companions. A long row of white objects, stretched on the floor in a most crowded situation, revealed to me however but too well their sad state, and I was again urged forward. Poor old Rodgers, wishing to retain the end of the bamboo, made way for me to be placed alongside of Mr. Judson.

“‘We all hoped you would have escaped, you were so long coming,’ was the first friendly salutation I had yet received; but alas, it was made by friends whose sympathy was now unavailing.”

The following description of the interior of this jail is given by an English fellow-prisoner of Judson:

“The only articles of furniture the place contained were these: First, and most prominent, was a gigantic row of stocks, similar in its construction to that formerly used in England, but now nearly extinct, though dilapidated specimens may still be seen in some of the marketplaces of our own country towns. It was capable of accommodating more than a dozen occupants, and like a huge alligator opened and shut its jaws with a loud snap upon its prey. Several smaller reptiles, interesting varieties of the same species, lay basking around this monster, each holding by the leg a pair of hapless victims consigned to its custody. There were heavy logs of timber, bored with holes to admit the feet, and fitted with wooden pins to hold them fast. In the center of the apartment was placed a tripod, holding a large earthen cup filled with earth-oil, to be used as a lamp during the night-watches; and lastly, a simple but suspicious looking piece of machinery whose painful uses it was my fate to test before many hours had elapsed. It was merely a long bamboo suspended from the roof by a rope at each end, and worked by blocks or pulleys, to raise or depress it at pleasure.

“Before me, stretched on the floor, lay forty or fifty hapless wretches, whose crimes or misfortunes had brought them into this place of torment. They were all nearly naked, and the half-famished features and skeleton frames of many of them too plainly told the story of their protracted sufferings. Very few were without chains, and some had one or both feet in the stocks besides. A sight of such squalid wretchedness can hardly be imagined. Silence seemed to be the order of the day; perhaps the poor creatures were so engrossed with their own misery that they hardly cared to make any remarks on the intrusion of so unusual an inmate as myself.

“The prison had never been washed, nor even swept, since it was built. So I was told, and have no doubt it was true, for, besides the ocular proof from its present condition, it is certain no attempt was made to cleanse it during my subsequent tenancy of eleven months. This gave a kind of fixedness or permanency to the fetid odors, until the very floors and walls were saturated with them, and joined in emitting the pest. As might have been expected from such a state of things, the place was teeming with creeping vermin to such an extent that very soon reconciled me to the plunder of the greater portion of my dress.”

Surely it was enough for Mr. Judson to be shut up in the hot, stifling stench of a place like this without having his ankles and legs weighted with five pairs of irons, the scars from which he wore to his dying day. He could say with the Apostle Paul, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” In each pair of fetters the two iron rings were connected by a chain so short that the heel of one foot could hardly be advanced to the toe of the other; and this task could be accomplished only by “shuffling a few inches at a time.” The five pairs of irons weighed about fourteen pounds, and when they were removed after being long worn, there was a strained sensation, the equilibrium of the body seemingly being destroyed, so that the head was too heavy for the feet. Then at nightfall, lest the prisoners should escape, they were “strung” on a bamboo pole.

“When night came on,” writes one of Mr. Judson’s fellow-prisoners, “the ‘Father’ of the establishment, entering, stalked toward our corner. The meaning of the bamboo now became apparent. It was passed between the legs of each individual, and when it had threaded our number, seven in all, a man at each end hoisted it up by the blocks to a height which allowed our shoulders to rest on the ground, while our feet depended from the iron rings of the fetters. The adjustment of the height was left to the judgment of our kind-hearted parent, who stood by to see that it was not high enough to endanger life, nor low enough to exempt from pain.

In the morning, our considerate parent made his appearance, and with his customary grin, lowered the bamboo to within a foot of the floor, to the great relief of our benumbed limbs, in which the blood slowly began again to circulate.”

When Mr. Judson was subjected to these indignities and tortures, he was in the very prime of life — thirty-six years old. He had come to that age when a good physical constitution is thoroughly seasoned and well qualified to endure hardship. He had always taken the best care of his health. Even before leaving America, he had adopted the following rules: First, frequently to inhale large quantities of air, so as to expand the lungs to the uttermost; secondly, daily to sponge the whole body in cold water; and thirdly, and above all, to take systematic exercise in walking.

Again, he had that tough, wiry physique which endures unexpectedly even during prolonged crises. All this was in his favor. But on the other hand, he was a student, unused to suffering hardship. His naturally vigorous constitution had been somewhat enfeebled by ten years of close application to study in a tropical climate, and of late years it had been completely shattered by repeated attacks of fever and ague. He was reared in the cold, bracing air of New England, and during the tedious hours of imprisonment, how often must his memory have projected the sufferings of the Oriental jail against the background of the cool, green hillsides of his childhood!

He was possessed moreover of an active, methodical nature, to which the enforced idleness of twenty-one months must have brought the keenest torture. There was his Burman Bible unfinished, and ten years of work in Rangoon going to pieces in his absence. He longed to be preaching the gospel. Now that he had at last completely mastered the native tongue, he was filled with Jeremiah’s consuming zeal: “His word was in mine heart, and a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

Endowed with a nervous temperament, his nature was exceedingly sensitive to discomfort. One of his fellow-prisoners says: “His painful sensitiveness to anything gross or uncleanly, amounting almost to folly, was an unfortunate virtue to possess, and made him live a life of constant martyrdom.”

A nature amply endowed with these fine sensibilities must have instinctively shrunk from the filth of the dungeon and the squalor of the prisoners; while the constrained and crowded position, night and day, and the galling fetters were almost unendurable.

There was also much to shock his moral nature. He found himself thrown into close association with the basest criminals of the Burman capital. His pure look rested upon their repulsive features, his reluctant ears were filled with their vulgar and blasphemous jests. Besides this, again and again be saw the wretched prisoner tortured with the cord and mallet, and was forced to hear the writhing victim’s shriek of anguish.

He was likewise a man of the strongest and tenderest affections. What keen mental anguish must he have experienced at the thought of his beloved wife threading alone the hot, crowded streets, hourly exposed to the insults of rude Burman officials; day by day bringing or sending food to the jail; assuaging the wretchedness of the prisoners by bribing their keepers; pleading for the release of her husband with one Burman officer after another, and with such pathetic eloquence that on one occasion she melted to tears even the old governor of the prison; carrying her little Maria all the way in her arms to that place never to be forgotten, Oung-pen-la, her only conveyance a rough cart, the violent motion of which, together with the dreadful heat and dust, made her almost distracted; nursing her infant and the little native girls under her care through a course of small-pox: and at last, breaking down herself and brought to death’s door by the same loathsome disease, succeeded by the dread spotted fever!

Add to these horrors of Mr. Judson’s imprisonment the daily and even hourly anticipation of torture and death, and it will be difficult to conceive of a denser cloud of miseries than that which settled down on his devoted head. The prisoners knew that they were arrested as spies. The Burman king and his generals were exasperated by the rapid and unexpected successes of the English army, and Mr. Judson and his fellow-prisoners had every reason to suppose that this pent-up fury would be poured upon their heads. It was customary to question the prisoner with instruments of torture — the cord and the iron mallet. Rumors of a frightful doom were constantly sounding in their ears. Now they heard their keepers during the night sharpening the knives to decapitate the prisoners the next morning; now the roar of their mysterious fellow-prisoner, a huge, starving lioness, convinced them that they were to be executed by being thrown into her cage; now it was reported that they were to be burned up together with their prison as a sacrifice; now that they were to be buried alive at the head of the Burman army in order to insure its victory over the English. The following description by Mr. Gouger of the solemn hour of three, shows the exquisite mental torture to which the prisoners were subjected:

“Within the walls nothing worthy of notice occurred until the hour of three in the afternoon. As this hour approached, we noticed that the talking and jesting of the community gradually died away; all seemed to be under the influence of some powerful restraint, until that fatal hour was announced by the deep tones of a powerful gong suspended in the palace-yard, and a death-like silence prevailed. If a word was spoken it was in a whisper. It seemed as though even breathing was suspended under the control of a panic terror, too deep for expression, which pervaded every bosom. We did not long remain in ignorance of the cause. If any of the prisoners were to suffer death that day, the hour of three was that at which they were taken out for execution. The very manner of it was the acme of cold-blooded cruelty. The hour was scarcely tolled by the gong when the wicket opened, and the hideous figure of a spotted man appeared, who without uttering a word walked straight to his victim, now for the first time probably made acquainted with his doom. As many of these unfortunate people knew no more than ourselves the fate that awaited them, this mystery was terrible and agonizing; each one fearing, up to the last moment, that the stride of the spotted terror might be directed his way. When the culprit disappeared with his conductor, and the prison door closed behind them, those who remained began again to breathe more freely; for another day, at least, their lives were safe.

“I have described this process just as I saw it practiced. On this first day, two men were thus led away in total silence; not a useless question was asked by the one party, nor explanation given by the other; all was too well understood. After this inhuman custom was made known to us, we could not but participate with the rest in their diurnal misgivings, and shudder at the sound of the gong and the apparition of the pahquet. It was a solemn daily lesson of an impressive character, ‘Be ye also ready.'”