CANOE TO MANDALAY BY R. RAVEN-HART, 1939
Roland James Milleville Raven-Hart (13 November 1889 – 1 October 1971) was an engineer and a Major in the British army rewarded with the OBE and Croix de Guerre for his service in intelligence during the 1st World War (which also led to a friendship with Lawrence “of Arabia”). Born in Glen Alla, Ireland and for long resident in Argentina, from 1947 to 1963 he lived in Ceylon. When a ship with the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke docked there in 1954, it was he who convinced Clarke to settle there too. Clarke, who described him as “A remarkable linguist and lover of exotic places, cultures and customs” and one who “easily tops my list of ‘The Most Unforgettable Characters I’ve Ever Met”, shared his partiality for teenage boys and they became great friends. He died in Durban, South Africa.
The following synopsis of the first half of his Canoe to Mandalay (1939) was copied from the now-defunct website, The World History of Male Love, and is presented for its rare hints into how Greek love may have been practised by some colonials and local boys in Burma.
Several other of Raven-Hart’s books, especially Canoe Errant (1935), make clear his devotion to nudism, canoeing and other activities with adolescent companions and unabashed appreciation of their beauty, as is well-reviewed here. Inevitably, considering they were mainstream publications in Great Britain, they are never clear as to their author having had a sexual interest in his young friends; indeed, from the perspective of the luridly-suspicious 21st century, it is surprising that they were as frank as they were about the middle-aged author’s strong liking for the company and physique of teenage boys.
Major R. Raven-Hart
The Major is a bit worried. “I had hoped … to borrow a youngster as a companion,” he writes, but the crew on the river-steamer ARE Indians. The Major explains clearly that the purpose of this companion is “the chance to learn a little Burmese,” making Indians quite unsuitable. This is on the second page of “Canoe to Mandalay”, as the intrepid Major sets off to paddle all the world’s major rivers. Fortunately, as he makes clear on page 3, things worked out in the end, and “it prov[ed] far easier than I had expected to find English-speaking boys to accompany me.” The instrument of the Major’s relief turns out, surprisingly, to be the American Baptist Mission School in Myitkyina, who line up their boys so that Major Raven-Hart can take his pick. Ma Tu is fifteen, “stocky, not good-looking until he smiled,” which he did “explosively, when I patted his solid brown shoulder on choosing him, and I knew then that I was going to like him.”
And he does. The Major and Ma Tu set off paddling down the Irrawaddy, fifty miles in ten hours the first day (the Major is a bit stiff, but Ma Tu gives him a massage), an easier trip the second day with time for a swim on a sandbank (the Major is disappointed that Ma Tu won’t follow his example and strip off). They have adventure (a whirlpool draws them in but Ma Tu paddles the Major out of its deadly grasp), towering cliffs shut out the sun (and the Major can’t get a photo), and they meet Nature in the raw (Major Raven-Hart: “I say, are those tiger tracks?” Ma Tu: “Naw, that not tiger, that monkey. This tiger!”) At Bhamo the Major has their photograph taken in a studio: here he is opposite page 57, tweed jacket and sensible boots and a tie, pith helmet on his knee and huge beard covering half his face, looking remarkably like Lytton Strachey, and here beside him is Ma Tu, small and neat and very serious, in native dress (which the Major favours), a turban round his head and a great knife at his side, holding the Major’s hand.
At Katha Ma Tu has to catch the train back to Myitkina. Too bad, Major. But there’s another young companion, this one called Nyo. (There was also a “young friend” back in London, known as Sunshine, who seems to have been mighty pissed at having been left behind). Off we go again, paddling and swimming (Nyo proves willing to strip off for his daily dip – he looks sixteen, says the Major, but is actually 22, “the skin of his cheeks as soft as that of his arms … and as little pubic hair as a just-adolescent European or American boy”) their way down the river. At a village they stop for tea with a Mr Parry, who has a teenage servant-boy with some interesting tattoos: the Major and Mr Parry get the boy to strip naked so that they can take photographs for ethnological purposes (photos not included).
By the time we reach Pagan (Bagan in modern spelling) the Major’s relationship with his co-pilot appears to have advanced to a level never attained with Ma Tu: “I lay beside Nyo’s quietly sleeping, sturdy body and watched the dawn wind blow out the stars…” It’s a romantic moment and we’d like to learn more, but in the next sentence we’re back on the river again, a light breeze whistling through the ventilation-holes of the Major’s pith helmet. And there we’ll leave Major R (for Roland) Raven-Hart, halfway down the Irrawaddy and halfway through his book. He went on to write many more books and paddle many more rivers, penetrating far up the Nile, far into the Pacific, writing on history and architecture and the customs of far-off lands, always with his young companions, until at last he retired to Ceylon with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), a boon companion of Arthur C. Clarke, a must-meet attraction for visitors, “a fusion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Summerlee and the traveller Sir Richard Burton.”
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Major R. Raven-Hart, Canoe to Mandalay (Frederick Muller, 1939). This is the fourth of Raven-Hart’s many travel books, the previous titles being “Canoe Errant,” “Canoe Errant on the Nile,” and “Canoe Errant on the Mississippi.” All seem to be out of print. There seems to be no biography.
 Arthur C. Clarke, The View from Serendip, New York: Random House, 1977.
 Presumably The Times and other newspapers that reviewed Raven-Hart’s books approvingly assumed that his linking for boys and admiration of their bodies was innocent and jolly fun, and perhaps also that he would not have been so forthright if he had something to hide from the law. As is usually the case, one can only guess at what happened in private and it is just about possible to argue that this view of him was sound and that suspicions now to the contrary are the anachronistic product of a much more prurient age. What one cannot reasonably do, however, is to argue that Raven-Hart was unaware that others at the time did not view his activities as innocent:
Major Roland Raven-Hart (51), retired, of Guildford Street, Bloomsbury, said to be a sculptor and author now employed as a censor in the Ministry of Information was fined £10 and £10 10s. costs at Bow Street to-day for sending indecent photographs through the post.
Detective-Inspector Owen said Raven-Hart had been associated with another man in taking photographs of boys in the nude.
Mr. C. Grobel, defending, said that Raven-Hart’s view was that the photographs were works of art. He sent them by post to a sculptor friend in America. As a censor himself, he was well aware that the packets would be opened by the Censor’s Department. (Yorkshire Evening Post, 5 October 1940).
Raven-Hart was very far from being either faint-hearted or stupid. Taking this, his life-long enthusiasm for boys, his knowledge of what some suspected, his friendships with other lovers of boys, it is surely much easier to see his forthrightness in his published books as a spirited man being as open as he thought he could get away with over feelings for which he knew he had no reason to be ashamed.. That many of his readers supposed he was “innocent” is beside the point.