of the British Period to 1947
Johann Wilhelm Helfer (1810-1840)
Johann Wilhelm Helfer was born on 5th February 1810 at Prague, then part of the Austrian empire, into a family of no particular distinction or wealth. After visiting local schools, he studied medicine at Prague, Vienna and Pavia and became a doctor in 1832. He married young, his wife being what was then called a good catch: Pauline Baroness Desgranges, later Countess Nostitz, a member of the aristocracy and, we can breathlessly reveal here, a niece of the Prussian Field Marshal Baron von Bülow. She brought a great deal more than just her social connections and money into the marriage. During the wide and adventurous travels that the couple embarked on from 1835 she had much need of her considerable courage and strong character.
The young doctor and his wife set off to explore far away countries and to learn about their people. For a woman of her place and rank to take an active part in such an undertaking was unheard of, almost scandalous. Helfer and his wife participated in the Euphrates expedition of Colonel Chesney in 1836 and later entered the services of the East India Company, exploring the Malacca peninsula, Tenasserim in today's Burma and the Mergui archipelago off the Burmese coast.
Dr. Helfer was the first scientifically trained person known to have set foot on an Andamanese beach and to have tried to establish contact with the aborigines - and the first to have been killed by them. The most likely version of the story of his death has already been told in the chapter "The Terrible Islands" of this book. There are several versions of what happened: according to a less plausible one, Helfer had only just set foot on the beach when a native concealed behind a bush skewered him with a spear; the same source then claims that Helfer's wife shot down one of the attackers before herself reaching the safety of the ship. The version given in "The Terrible Islands" is far more likely, especially as it gives a sort of motive (however murky) for the Andamanese attack. The original sources also refer to poisoned arrows - which the Andamanese are known not to have had. It seems that Helfer was struck by an arrow in the head while swimming, and then drowned. No poisoned arrows are needed for such a result. It is entertaining to reflect on the question why so many people then as today, seem unable to regard arrows as deadly unless they are "poisoned."
Helfer died on 30th January 1840, a week short of his 30th birthday. His body was never recovered. His widow left some of his field notes with the East India Company at Calcutta while others were placed with the Bohemian Museum at Prague. A few of his papers were subsequently published but they have remained sadly obscure. German is today not the most accessible of source languages in southeast Asian. Dr. Helfer had the potential of a major explorer and naturalist, perhaps even one of the stature of his contemporary Alexander von Humboldt. It was not to be.
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Last changed 14 January 2001