11. The Andamanese
The Role of Women
by George Weber
Living in what quite possibly was and is the oldest of all living societies, the role of the traditional Andamanese woman does not support those who see a matriarchy at the early roots of human development. As far as we can follow the Andamanese into their past, they have lived in a mild but definitive patriarchy. Women had a great deal of influence and it would have been a brave, if not foolish, chief who ignored their advice. Yet for all their influence, women held an inferior position in their society. It is only in contrast to the often degrading situation of women in many of the higher civilizations around the Bay of Bengal that their position can be called strong. In the end, it was always the Andamanese women who had to carry the heaviest loads during the frequent migrations so that their lords and masters could be free to pursue any game animal that crossed their path.
A young Onge mother with her baby.
A woman could not become chief herself but the chief's wife held the same position over the women that her husband held over the men. While her husband acquired his position through force of personality, his wife's was determined through marriage. Women were not chattel, however, and no husband could dispose of his wife or of her property. Divorce was not common but possible and apparently without social stigma if it took place before the first child arrived. It was extremely rare afterwards and probably all but unknown before 1858. It goes much too far, as some early observers have done, to call Andamanese women the slaves and drudges of their men -their simple society did not have much drudging to do. A woman reached her full personality and status only as mother while a man could rise in society through his hunting prowess and personality.
We have an authentic voice of how the men saw their wives. Unfortunately there is no counterpart giving the female position. In 1867, a recently widowed Aka-Bea man called Moriarty by the British had the following to say on the subject:
A wife is a great help to an Andamanese as she does all the home duties, providing the man with shelter, matting, taking care of his food, fetching firewood, water, shellfish, carrying his loads, shaving him, and taking care of him in sickness. The man's duties are, protecting his wife, making canoes, hunting pigs, and spearing fish. Boys will now have to attend to Moriarty's wants.
Equally authentic is the remark of a British administrator who, while bewailing the unwillingness of Andamanese men to settle down to cultivation and a life of industry, noted that their women were more accustomed to work under subjection. But even they would not consent to prepare thatching leaves, make blankets or sew clothes for the British. Whenever the men were drawn into doing work at Port Blair, they liked to fade back into the jungle as quickly as possible. The women generally lasted a little longer but not much longer.
Traditional Andamanese societies knew (and among Jarawa and Sentineli still know) only two major social roles: that of men and women. The division of labour between the sexes was clear-cut: men hunted and women gathered. The construction of huts involved the cooperation of both sexes while each sex had to make its own tools. The men did the communal cooking that went with feasts and the women cooked the daily family meal. Firewood was collected by the women exclusively. There is no way around it: Andaman society fits the patriarchal cliché to an almost embarrassing degree.
Outside daily life, the women played a major role in any peace-making process. After 1858 it did not take the British long to discover that an all-male welcoming party was more likely to be an ambush, whereas the presence of women usually signified genuinely peaceful intentions.
Fighting was male business, making peace the women's task. Local feuds could be ended only with the help of women; males, even if beaten, were quite incapable of admitting defeat or asking for peace. Whenever the women had had enough of male posturing, they would set off to visit the women of the enemy camp to see if they, too, were ready to let bygones be bygones. The Andamanese way of war is described in Chapter 18 "Crime, Quarrels, Feuds and War". Suffice it to say here that the aim was to kill as many enemy men as possible. Women and children were never a specific target but sometimes they got in the way of a raid and were accidentally killed.
The peace-making ceremony was arranged by the women and had to take place in the village that had made the last attack:
In the village of this group the dancing ground is prepared, and across it is erected what is called a koro-tsop. Posts are put up in a line, to the tops of these is attached a length of strong cane, and from the cane are suspended bundles of shredded palm-leaf (koro). The women of the camp keep a look-out for the approach of the visitors. When they are known to be near the camp, the women sit down on one side of the dancing ground, and the men take up positions in front of the decorated cane. Each man stands with his back against the koro-tsop, with his arms stretched out sideways along the top of it. None of them has any weapons.
The visitors, who are, if we may so put it, the forgiving party, while the home party are those who have committed the last act of hostility, advance into the camp dancing, the step being that of the ordinary dance. The women of the home party mark the time of the dance by clapping their hands on their thighs. I was told that the visitors carry their weapons with them, but when the dance was performed at my request the dancers were without weapons. The visitors dance forward in front of the men standing at the koro-tsop, and then, still dancing all the time, pass backwards and forwards between the standing men, bending their heads as they pass beneath the suspended cane. The dancers make threatening gestures at the men standing at the koro-tsop, and every now and then break into a shrill shout. The men at the koro stand silent and motionless, and are expected to show no sign of fear.
After they have been dancing thus for a little time, the leader of the dancers approaches the man at one end of the koro and, taking him by the shoulders from the front, leaps vigorously up and down to the time of the dance, thus giving the man he holds a good shaking. The leader then passes on to the next man in the row while another of the dancers goes through the same performance with the first man. This is continued until each of the dancers has "shaken" each of the standing men. The dancers then pass under the koro and shake their enemies in the same manner from the back. After a little more dancing the dancers retire, and the women of the visiting group come forward and dance in much the same way that the men have done, each woman giving each of the men of the other group a good shaking. When the women have been through their dance the two parties of men and women sit down and weep together.
The two groups remain camped together for a few days, spending the time in hunting and dancing together, presents are exchanged, as at the ordinary meetings of different groups. The men of the two groups exchange bows with one another.
The North Great Andamanese peace dance.
Women were thought to have a very special relationship with the spirit world. The female genitals were taboo, they were the place wherein resided the same power that made the spirits of the dead so dangerous. The women of both the Onge and the Greater Andamanese hid their genitals with bundles of fibres made of the leaf-stems of a specific palm-tree. Fibres from the very same species of palm were used to make ritual keep-off markers on graves and other places where dangerous spirits were thought to dwell, at the entrances of villages temporarily deserted because of a death and during peace ceremonies. The use of the same material for ritual purpose and to cover female genitals among both Onge and Great Andamanese cannot be coincidence. The custom must be of high antiquity, going back to the time before the Onge on Little Andaman were separated from the Great Andamanese.
The suffering caused especially to women by the death and destruction that came with the arrival of outsiders is thrown into sharp relief by Corbyn's report on a visit to an Andamanese camp in 1863:
An aged woman now came up, a fierce looking virago; she appeared idiotic, and talked loud and angrily, as if cursing. I made the usual salutation which she returned, but after doing so gnashed her teeth close to my hand, and then contemptuously flung it from her, as much as to signify that she had a good will to bite and tear me if she could. She exhibited the same animosity to other Europeans. I concluded that she was insane, and she may possibly have been rendered fierce by losing a son or other near relative in affrays with Europeans.
In his reprint of the same report Portman added the following poignant comment:
Such cases are often seen. She did not approve of strangers, and her husband, child, or some relation had probably been killed or injured by us.
Not many Andamanese men come alive as persons in the dusty colonial records. Fewer still are the women that are more than insubstantial shadows. The woman Hina, called Topsy or Madam Cooper by the British, was one such. We first meet her when her husband Tura (called Jumbo by the British and described as a mild and not very intelligent man) was unjustly imprisoned and even put in irons for several months. He had killed a British sailor, Pratt, after the latter had tried to rape his wife Hina. We will return to the Pratt case in a later chapter. Hina was brought to Ross island off Port Blair where her husband was kept prisoner. The Officer in Charge of the Andamanese, British clergyman Corbyn, decided to teach her and some other Andamanese women sewing and English. His draconian discipline went some way to overcome the natural resistance to concentrated work on the part of his charges but it made for a depressing atmosphere. Happily or not, Hina learnt enough English during this time to be invaluable to the British later.
She must have been a very strong, intelligent and determined character. In one remarkable incident, an exploring party under Corbyn found itself surrounded by many furious Andamanese men, clearly determined on wholesale slaughter. Taking Hina by the hand, Corbyn bravely advanced towards the Andamanese leader whom he later described as the picture of savage hatred. Hina forcefully addressed the headman in such a manner as to make him hand over his bow and arrows to Corbyn and meekly follow Hina and Corbyn to Ross island with two of his followers.
At an Andamanese party for British visitors in the jungle a dagger was borrowed to kill a pig. The dagger was not returned to its owner Corbyn who, for educational reasons, decided to make a big fuss about it. The aboriginal thief was clapped in irons and brought to British headquarters on Ross island. Hina conducted the delicate negotiations with consummate skill, explaining the British actions to her fellow Aka-Bea. As a result of her efforts, the dagger reappeared and the thief was set free. Hina became a widely popular and respected figure among her people and an important channel of information between aborigines and outsiders. She was rightly proud of her high status which, uniquely among Andamanese, she had acquired through her own intelligence and talent.
Hina subsequently went on several British exploratory expeditions, sometimes very much against her will. As Corbyn coolly noted on one occasion, she had to be forced to act as guide against her pleading, screaming and crying. She seems to have been very fond of her husband and could not bear to be parted from him for long. When forced aboard ship she kept her eyes fixed on the dwindling figure of her husband who ran along the shore until he was out of hearing.
It was Hina who first mentioned a terrifying tribe living in the interior around Port Blair. The British had not before been aware of the Jarawas' existence. When one of Corbyn's expeditions turned into an unexplored creek in what is today called Corbyn's Cove southeast of Port Blair, Hina became highly agitated and made Corbyn understand that the way he was heading would lead directly to a terrible tribe. She then acted out a dramatic death scene to illustrate what would happen if they met the dread Jarawas.
Hina could also be quite devious: Andamanese men had acquired the habit of hiding their bows and arrows in the jungle from the thieving parties that visited them. For unknown reasons (perhaps she had an old grudge against the owner) Hina betrayed the hiding place of a large bundle of arrows to Corbyn, asking him tell everyone that he had found the hoard himself. The owner of the arrows had no choice but to accept the situation. It would have caused much ill-feeling if he had found out who was really behind his misfortune.
Corbyn also took Hina and Tura to Calcutta, along with another Andamanese man Jacko and 5 children. For a month they were a great attraction there with crowds clamouring to see the famed "cannibals" and "monkey people." The Andamanese did not show astonishment or interest at anything shown to them. Later, back in the Andamans, this was found to have been show and deception: in reality, they had been most attentive but would not admit their interest to the many strangers that watched their every move. The group was also taken to a meeting of the Asiatic Society and to a visit of the Calcutta museum.
When Corbyn was at pains in his official reports to stress that the Andamanese on Ross island were there of their own free will, he was stretching the truth. He used harsh methods, even by the standards of his time, to keep the Andamanese there. In his own ominous words "any disinclination to work was soon overcome by firmness." It was this excessive firmness that led to Hina's death. We do not know (but we can imagine) why one night in 1864 she and her husband Tura decided to swim ashore. They were both free to go, officially, at any time, but Corbyn may have refused permission or to supply a boat. Her husband made it across the few hundred meters between Ross island and the Port Blair shore but Hina did not. Her body was found floating in the sea a few days later. Tura was forcibly returned to Ross island. He was later appointed raja of a sept, dying a very old man in 1882.
We know Hina's life only for the two years 1863 and 1864 without any idea of her age . A British report after her death was her epitaph:
It is a pity that more care was not taken of the woman Topsy who seems to have been invaluable.
Another - indeed the only other - Andamanese woman who is more than just a name is Ruth. Neither her original Andamanese name nor her origins are known. We first hear of her as domestic servant of Mr. Homfray. After her employer's death she never stayed in any employment for long because of her tendency to "form liaisons" with other servants and for getting pregnant. Victorian society could be stuffy about such things, colonial society was stuffier still but stuffiest of all were outlying colonial societies on remote penal islands. Ruth's character in the official reports was denigrated ("about her character, the less said the better," "not all that could be wished" and "a bad character") but at least credit was given to her for the attention and love she lavished on her little daughter. The child's father was an Indian convict, an hospital official.
Ruth refused to return to her own people in the jungle when officialdom requested this of her. We do not know the background to the unusual refusal; most likely she wanted to stay with her lover, the father of her child. The official report coldly and unsympathetically stated merely that there seemed nothing for it but to permit her to marry the convict "for whom she had an affection." A convict needed permission to marry and he did not receive it. In a crowning burst of official callousness, the same report noted that Ruth's children should be "interesting scientifically."
The reports on Ruth were written by Portman himself. Elsewhere, he comes across as a humane observer with a sense of humour and a genuine sympathy for the Andamanese. These qualities seem to have deserted him completely in the case of Ruth.
Ruth was obviously talented, high-spirited and very emotional - anything but a stuffily moral Victorian character. She was employed at the Aberdeen School where her work was said to be far superior to that of other seamstresses. A strict watch was kept over her movements by officials concerned about public morals. Later, after an unspecified misconduct, she was dismissed from her post at which she had been so much better than others and instead was given old clothes to mend. When last heard of she was still at Port Blair and her little girl was learning English and Hindi as well as picking up some Andamanese from other children at the Andamanese Home. Nothing more is heard of Ruth nor what became of her daughter.
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Last change 28 March 1999