From the exhibition:

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935

In January 1935, the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition set out from Rangoon to explore the upper reaches of the “mighty Chindwin River” on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The three-month expedition gathered the museum’s founding biological and anthropological collections from an under researched area to the east of Burma’s border with Assam and to the south of Tibet. Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935 explores the complex social life of this extraordinary enterprise through an assortment of objects that were both carried to the field and collected en route.

“There were 110 mules, and the manner in which each of the Yunnanese drivers handled the five animals under his control was astonishing to witness. A driver would give a curious call and immediately his five mules would come to hand and be saddled. This process was repeated until all the animals were laden. The two lead animals were gaily decked out with brilliantly colored plumes of dyed goats’ hair, and a mirror was put into the harness to keep away the spirits. And away we went.”
—Arthur S. Vernay

“The mules kept up marvelously well in spite of the fact that some of the going was difficult: had they been less sure-footed, casualties would have occurred along places where the ground dropped steeply from the path.”
—R. C. Morris

Setting out on the three-month expedition to Northern Burma, leader Arthur Stannard Vernay (ca. 1877–1960) observed that the muleteers and their trappings were quite ingenious. Some twenty muleteers were charged with the arduous task of transporting the bulk of the provisions and specimens for the 1935 Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition (VHCE) on the backs of their mules and Shan ponies. The expedition was organized to collect the first natural history and anthropology collections for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) from an under-researched area to the east of Burma’s border with Assam and to the south of Tibet. The muleteers’ patience and skill impressed party members, and they became a key subject of collecting activities, published accounts, and photography.

Lightweight pine pack-saddles, like the one currently on display in Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935, are uniquely arched to grip mules’ flanks while protecting their spines from the weight of heavy loads. They are kept in place with a breast collar that embraces the mule’s chest and a beaded strap (crupper) that wraps around the animal’s tail. The beads roll along the mule’s back and under its tail to prevent friction burn while the animal is on the move. The underside of this saddle is padded with a canvas and burlap sack filled with fishtail palm (Caryota), a fiber native to northern Burma. The unique pack design allows mules to throw the saddle off in times of stress to avoid injury. During the expedition, the muleteers loaded and unloaded their packs with ease; they removed them when crossing rivers or at night when the mules were let loose to graze. While in camp, muleteers used their time to examine their gear, carry out repairs, and grease the leather work on the pack-saddles, for which a supply of oil was carried.

The VHCE explored the upper reaches of the Chindwin River, from Nanyaseik in the Kachin Hills, where the expedition assembled, to Sailung on the Chindwin River— where the party’s collections and provisions were transported downriver by rafts and then by steamer and train to Rangoon. The mules carried a cargo of sixty pounds on their pack-saddles, a standard transported by porters and pack animals on expeditions and safaris. The expedition’s archive reveals that John K. Stanford, a British colonial government officer and amateur ornithologist based in Myitkyina, contracted the muleteers at a monthly rate paid per mule. The muleteers were faced with the burden of transporting and creatively adjusting the organization of gear as the daily flux in supplies and specimens altered the weight of the mules’ loads.

Mule trains averaged fifty to seventy-five pack animals, usually controlled by one muleteer and ten to fifteen subordinate muleteers and guard dogs. (The VHCE mule train was larger than normal with more than 110 mules.) Typically, the mule trains traveled over long stretches of arduous landscape, in stages of twenty to thirty miles, which the muleteers knew intimately. No other form of transportation in the highland Southeast Asia could match their proficiency in carrying goods along these routes. The VHCE did not keep pace with these daily marches and never exceeded more than twenty miles in a single stage, in general averaging only thirteen miles a day, as party members halted to shuffle loads, set up camp, unpack, take a census of their belongings, and hunt for food and specimens.

A central priority of the VHCE was the labeling, packing, transport, and storage of equipment, stores, and specimens. The AMNH went to great trouble to have the crates custom built for transport on the backs of mules and to have field labels printed and preservatives and equipment purchased. The field journals, notes, specimens, and film relating to the expedition were important sources for later scientific studies and popular accounts. For Arthur Vernay and his collaborators, keeping records and specimens organized and safe was of the utmost concern. On all of his collecting trips, Vernay paid attention to even the minutest of details, and, as John K. Stanford wrote, “he was never happier than when he could spend hours ‘reorganising’ our stores, packing and repacking incessantly, with squadrons of tins and boxes all around him and half the camp hurrying hither and yon at his bidding.”

Yunnanese (“Haw” in Thailand and “Panthay” in Burma) muleteers were a common feature of northern Burma, where by the mid-nineteenth century they transported goods from November to April over an area extending from the eastern frontiers of Tibet through Assam, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Tongkin (or North Vietnam), and southern China. During the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, the most significant Yunnanese export commodities of the long-distance mule trains were opium and tea, whereas raw cotton from Burma (via Bhamo, a major entrepôt in the Kachin Hills), Kengtung, and Laos was more important than any other import item. John Stanford hired the muleteers because of their expertise in navigating difficult terrain and transporting precious provisions and collections.

European reports of muleteers and their mules date as early as the 1830s. The muleteers’ discipline of their mules was noted: “The animals march independently of each other, following the leading mule or muleteer heading the caravan; they obey calls and when there are many paths about, the man in front beats a small gong, the sound of which they follow.” En route to the Upper Chindwin, VHCE members admired the mule drivers for their skill and independence. Their adept handing of the mules and the colorful tack of the lead mules attracted the attention of Vernay and his men. Since then they have been a romanticized feature of highland travel, the most recent manifestation being adventure travel made increasingly popular through books about the “Tea Horse Road,” the ancient trade route that connected Yunnan to Burma, Tibet, India, and Nepal.

A typical muleteers’ outfit included a characteristic basketry hat, a cover, a pad, a pair of sandals, and a pack-saddle, items that are now in the AMNH. The expedition’s rationale for gathering the saddle and other personal effects from these itinerant travelers is not documented in museum correspondence or accession records. The muleteers’ belongings do, however, demonstrate that field-collecting activities were not limited to the peoples under study, as is typically assumed to be the case of ethnological collections in the literature on expeditions and collecting. These artifacts are “contact points”: they have intimate associations with the unnamed individuals who negotiated tough country, transported the weight of the expedition on the backs of their mules, and sometimes collected on behalf of party members. In Confluences, these expeditionary remnants foreground the contributions of a competent group of specialists who kept the group on its way as they couriered its supplies and specimens.

Erin L. Hasinoff is curator of Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935. Rebecca Mir received her master’s degree from the BGC in 2012.