12. The Andamanese:
Of Matters Sexual
by George Weber
Scientific curiosity and the prudery of the time battled mightily within the 19th century authors on matters Andamanese. Prudery usually won, leaving sex and sexual mores as a particularly under-reported field. Moreover, with one major exception, all information we have on Andamanese sexual behaviour came from tribes whose culture had been significantly altered and that were on the brink of extinction when first investigated.
The one significant exception refers to the Sentineli. During a visit to North Sentinel island on 29th March 1970, a group of Indian anthropologists including the doyen of Andamanese studies, T.N. Pandit, observed sexual behavior never before (or since) reported from any Andamanese group. An eyewitness observed the following scene from his boat off a Sentineli beach:
... we were about to return when a couple of natives were seen on the land, apparently keeping a vigil. We approached closer, keeping a safe distance from the shore, when more men came out of cover armed with their usual weapons, threatening to shoot at us. We had taken a few large fish caught during the previous night to offer as an appeasement gift to these people. We exhibited these, with gestures of offering. Meanwhile, men were converging on the spot from all direction. Some were waist deep in water and threatening to shoot. However, we approached closer and threw a couple of the fish towards them. They fell short of them and were being carried away by the water. This gesture had a mellowing effect on their belligerent mood. Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics. In their height and stature they were equal to the men except that the lines were softer and they carried no arms... There were 20 children. We approached the coast a little further from them and managed to land a couple of fish on shore. A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude. Again we approached the group. They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened - a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship...
How is this unique incident to be interpreted? Situations are known from other Andamanese groups when over-excited males were calmed down by the women; none is known to have involved group sex.. In the absence of any hard information about Sentineli behaviour, it is pointless to speculate further. What the incident tells is that we don't know the half of it yet.
Radcliffe-Brown researched and published in the early decades of the 20th century, a sexually rather less restrictive time. He also had the added advantage of being an outside visitor, independent of the local establishment. But even he was later upset by the gaps in his own field work:
I am unfortunately obliged to leave a big gap in this chapter and in the book, owing to my inability to discuss the Andamanese notions about sex. The natives of the Great Andaman at the present time show an unusual prudery in their conversation and dealings with white men, but there is good reason to suspect that this is due to the influence of officers who have been in charge of the Andaman Home in former years. At the present time all the men except a few of the oldest in remote parts are very careful never to appear before a white man without some covering although formerly they wore nothing. In their conversations in the presence of a white man they are careful to avoid reference to sexual matters. The men of Little Andaman who have not come under the influence of the Andamanese Homes, still go naked and unashamed, and indulge in obscene gestures and jokes. At the time I was in the Andamans [1906-1908] I failed to realize the very great importance of a thorough knowledge of the notions of a primitive people on matters of sex in any attempt to understand their customs, and therefore failed to make the necessary inquiries.
The difficulty of deciding what was traditional and what was altered post-1858 behavior must be part of any description of Andamanese society. In most cases we simply do not know. The problem is nowhere more acute than on the subject of sex. The sexual freedom said to have been enjoyed by local youths of either sex before marriage among the Greater Andamanese is a case in point. Free love was said to be the rule among the unmarried but that strict fidelity was expected after marriage. The same sources also report that girls were usually married soon after the first menstruation while on the other hand young men who wished to marry before their 18th year were generally held in low public esteem. This leaves the question as to just when precisely the two sexes could make use of their alleged sexual freedom.
We hear of problems that stern guardians of public morals had with their young: they do not sound as if free love was generally accepted. The explanation is likely to be a mixture of traditional and altered sexual behavior, along with the Andamanese propensity to misinform on subjects that were none of the outsiders' business. Andamanese youngsters were not much different from youngsters of any other human group, today or in the past. In spite of all the precautions taken by their seniors, a good deal of flirtatious activity and sometimes more went on in the darkness surrounding the Andamanese village. The young tried not to arouse the suspicions of their elders but did not always succeed. Suspicious guardians would interrogate a suspected party but were lied to as often as any parent of today. Those with a particularly strong moral streak even laid traps for suspected couples. Sometimes the traps worked and the exposed couple had to marry or break up. Much of this hide-and-seek may have been a game between the generations, the rules of which were understood by all participants but not the earnest outside observers. In the claustrophobically close community that was the traditional local group, amazing powers of dissembling would have been required to hide anything from anyone for any length of time. It is more likely that the oldsters knew perfectly well what was going on but owed it to tradition to pretend that they did not. They must have remembered the goings on of their own youth, smiling quietly to themselves.
Perhaps being a little selfish also helped boost the moral fervour of older people: every marriage removed a pair of valuable helping hands each from two families. Worldly possessions the Andamanese had few but they were not blind to their own material interests and bodily comforts.
While unmarried young people may have had a limited amount of sexual freedom, married couples definitely did not. All we know of traditional Great Andamanese society points in the direction of a strict moral code after marriage. The code was enforced by peer pressure that prevented both partners from straying from the straight and narrow path of virtue. Early British observers hardly ever mention the behaviour of the men, choosing instead to go on and on about that of the women who were praised as models of decorum, constancy, delicacy and chastity - after marriage. Whatever the aboriginal women were really like, the Victorian ideals and prejudices of our sources show only too clearly.
Rare though adultery may have been during the old days, it was not entirely unknown. Cuckolded husbands regarded and punished it traditionally as a form of theft. As in all societies, including those that regard themselves as the most advanced, it is impossible to disentangle injured self-esteem from jealousy. If an Andamanese husband found his wife in flagrante delicto, his reaction could range from angry words to the immediate murder of both errant wife and lover. However, too strong a reaction could create a feud with the wife's or her lover's family and friends. Since there was no tribal authority to administer justice, it was left to the aggrieved parties to take any steps they thought appropriate, up to and including the murder of the murderer. We merely note in passing that there is nothing in the early sources about unfaithful husbands; we must assume that Great Andamanese wives never caught their husbands with other women.
The following case dates from a relatively late date, after traditional society had experienced traumatic changes and most Great Andamanese tribes were dissolving. It cannot be typical of traditional society but the reversal of roles between wronged husband and wife's lover is unusual. The incident also gives an idea of the relationship between British authorities and Great Andamanese subjects, showing the enormous discretionary powers that colonial officials held over the lives of subjects during the last decade of the 19th century.
In May 1892 a party of Andamanese came into the Settlement and brought two Andamanese who had committed an attempt to murder in the middle Andaman. One of them (they were both bachelors) had an intrigue with the wife of a man living in the same village, and used to frequent the woman's hut when her husband was absent. One day the husband returned earlier than usual and caught the lover and his wife, but, contrary to all the customs of other countries, it was the lover, and not the injured husband, who took umbrage, and the former, assisted by a comrade, fired two arrows into the village, wounding the husband and a child who was in the way, and then went off to the jungle with the other bachelors of the village. The wounds inflicted were slight, but as the comrade had already been concerned in the murder of Orderly Habib, in October, 1885, I detained the two men at my house and kept them at hard work for some years, as I consider this, and flogging, to be a better mode of punishing the Andamanese than sending them to Viper Jail, where they would associate entirely with Indian convicts and learn nothing but evil. I also insisted on both of them marrying, in order that they might be able to appreciate matters from the husband's point of view.
Onge women were seldom if ever left without company: they were either with their husbands or with groups of other women, even when going into the jungle on a call of nature. The practical obstacles to any kind of extra-marital sexual relations, therefore, were considerable. Premarital sex was also not easy or common since young women were married off as soon as they reached puberty. Frowned upon by all right thinking Andamanese, human nature being what it is from New York to the Andamans, nevertheless found ways as the following case shows:
In Tokoebue communal hut a young and attractive woman was sleeping with her husband. Another married man living in the same hut stealthily approached her and had sexual intercourse with her. The woman at first thought in her sleepiness that the man was her husband and so accepted him but she was later able to recognize the man. In the following morning she related the incident to her husband. The husband became extremely angry and chased the culprit who fled into the jungle. The culprit climbed on a lofty tree and hid himself among the leaves, but the aggrieved husband searched him out and shot an arrow which inflicted a deep wound in his buttock. The angry husband was soon pacified by the elderly persons of the camp. When the wounded man returned to the communal hut his own wife, instead of taking care of him, scorned him and kicked him repeatedly.
Research into Onge society was conducted mostly by Indian scientists after 1950. They were, on average, a little less prudish than the early British. One particularly daring anthropologist even tells us the favourite position for sexual intercourse among Onge: the woman would lie on her side with her back to the man who would penetrate her from the back. It must be assumed that this position was the traditional one among other Andamanese groups, too: among Onge and among Great Andamanese the female breast has no erotic significance.
We do not know whether or how the Great Andamanese, Jarawa or Sentineli made and make the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Only the beliefs of the Onge in this respect are known. The Onge ritual of getankare involves the carving of wooden phalli to be thrown into the sea, the selection of trees to be made into canoes later, images of "offensive dryness causing work," of secretion, the collection of honey, of playful interaction between the sexes and a ritualistic imitation of pregnancy. The getankare commences at the turn of February to March. The Onge believe that the ritual alone ensures the pregnancy of women. The male organ is not involved in conception but is nevertheless necessary to unblock the womb from the "wind" created when a spirit tries to turn into an unborn child. If the husband did not copulate with his wife, the exhalation of the spirit would accumulate in the womb, making the pregnant women feel highly uncomfortable. We will discuss the role of wind and weather in the religious beliefs of all Andamanese groups in a later chapter; as we can see from this one instance alone, it is a major role. Although matters of clothing are dealt with in a separate chapter, this is the right place to lose a few words on the Andamanese sense of modesty and shame. Many, especially early observers have accused them of shamelessness on no other grounds than their near-nudity. As such, the accusation is more a reflection of the observers' own cultural prejudices if not narrow-mindedness, than on Andamanese morals. It took an unusual intelligence and insight for a Victorian worthy to admit, as Man did, that modesty and morality do not depend on the amount of clothes worn.
Far from shameless, within their own traditional parameters all Andamanese were strictly moral societies, societies that were so buttoned-up (if that is the right word) that in many ways they would have appealed to the Victorian guardians of public morals had they but seen through all that distracting nudity. Far from shameless, traditional Andamanese women were very modest, almost prudish. A married Great Andamanese or Onge lady would never appear without her genital cover, nor would she dream of removing or replacing it, not even in the presence of a member of her own sex. The Jarawas and probably the Sentinelis seem not to have the same taboo on the female genitals which their few items of clothing do little to hide. We do not know Jarawa, let alone Sentineli, society well enough to do more than note the facts. Based on anthropological experience with other nude or near-nude traditional societies from Africa, South America to Australia, it would be quite wrong to interpret a lack of genital cover as shamelessness. Neither can the remarkable Sentineli sexual activity on the beach as described above be called shameless. All known human cultures know the concept of shame and shamelessness but the concept is applied in different cultures to quite different things, by no means limited to nudity or sexual matters. We do not know what might cause shame in Sentineli or Jarawa society but we can be sure that they know.
The overall evidence, then, points to a fairly but not totally restricted sexual life of the traditional Andamanese. The restrictions seem to have melted away progressively under the impact of outside societies. Early reports of unrestrained lust in the bushes should be taken with a pinch of salt. Victorians of both sexes were used to struggle through life at home and in the colonies buttoned and covered up from head to toe. The near-nudity of their Andamanese subjects must have had an exciting and stimulating effect, especially on male observers that, whether acknowledged or not, could have led to exaggeration. A little wishful thinking may also have been involved.
The Andamanese enjoyed what the early writers delicately called "Elizabethan topics," i.e. they laughed a dirty jokes and freely discussed sexual subjects. As late as the 1950s an exchange of obscenities as well as erotic dances were unfailing sources of amusement to the Onge. They helped to break the ice between locals and visitors and made subsequent negotiations and dealings easier. The parallel to modern businessmen taking clients to night-clubs in the hope of clinching the big deal is quite inescapable. Kissing was almost unknown among adult Andamanese of all tribes. Only children were kissed. Instead, as part of sexual foreplay as well as a sign of general sympathy, nose-rubbing was indulged in.
It is still debated whether homosexual urges are genetically predetermined, environmentally acquired or both. Since homosexual men are known to have occurred spontaneously in all human societies investigated, even in those that punished discovery with immediate and usually horrible death, it is likely that at least some cases have genetic roots. If this is so, then even the most traditional Andamanese society would occasionally have had a case of homosexuality in its midst. Unfortunately, we do not have the slightest idea what their attitude would have been during the old days. Apart from some cases among the Onge, homosexual activity (exclusively of the male variety) is reported only between aboriginals and outsiders. But then, internal aboriginal affairs would not usually have come to the attention of the authorities or would have interested them. For the Onge there is a controversial observation of the 1950s that they, especially when separated from their wives for prolonged periods, showed "homosexual tendencies," whatever this formulation may mean, exactly. Nothing is known of homosexual behavior among traditional Great Andamanese groups, just as we know almost nothing about sexual practices among them during the period of cultural disintegration following 1858. Even more than male-female sexual relations, the subject of male homosexuality deeply embarrassed Victorian writers. Female homosexuality for them just did not exist. When male homosexuality is mentioned at all, then only in a cloud of vague euphemisms. In the early sources there are merely occasional hints of "vices" learnt by the Andamanese from Indian convicts. The vice complained of could have been anything the Victorian officials regarded with disapproval: idleness, gossip, tobacco, alcoholic drink, adultery, homosexual behavior.
We have an unambiguous report on an attempted rape of an Andamanese boy serving as a waiter in the mess at Ross island by a male convict in 1882. In this case the boy seems to have been an unwilling victim and a scandal ensued. In another, better documented case of 1892, two Andamanese boys, Bira and Wologa, seem to have been male prostitutes. The two were taken into service by the Anglican vicar on Ross island after they had to leave the Andamanese Home where they had committed "unnatural crimes" over a long period. The reaction of the authorities to homosexual acts uncovered could be savage: an Indian convict involved, Phulla, was given 18 lashes and sentenced to 2 years in a chain gang for an "unnatural vice" with Bira. Both boys were then taken into Portman's home to be looked after.
The penal colony around Port Blair destroyed traditional Great Andamanese society within three generations. Imported diseases were the first agency of destruction, cultural influences the second. Penal colonies by their very nature are uncivilized, highly disagreeable places. Most of the early convicts were mutinous soldiers of the Great Indian Mutiny 1857 as well as common murderers and rapists. Only after 1900 do educated political prisoners appear at Port Blair. The vast majority of the convicts throughout the existence of the penal colony was not only rough and uncouth but also male. In 1906 among convicts there were 12,981 males against only 715 females, a ratio of nearly 20 to 1. In the same year, the free population including guards, the military and others, the situation was hardly happier: 2089 free males as against only 779 free females.
This grotesque and permanent imbalance between the sexes inevitably led to a great deal of human misery, tension, frustration, aggression, murder, a prevalence of "unnatural vices" and widespread prostitution. While the situation remained acute within the penal colony, its effects inevitably swapped over into surrounding aboriginal societies whose social fabric was corroded physically by syphilis and gonorrhoea and psychologically by rape and sexual brutality.
We know of a few rapes of Andamanese women by outsiders only because they led to murder and mayhem and could not be hushed up. The most dramatic case involved the remarkable woman Hina (Topsy), her husband Tura (Jumbo) and the naval brigademan Pratt. We have met Hina already. The case is unusually well-documented because it involved the central authorities of British India and turned into a famous case of Andamanese jurisprudence. We shall return to it again in a later chapter. What interests us here are the sexual aspects of the case. Characteristically, the details of the rape are not reported in official papers. All we know is that a boat-load of British sailors went to an Aka-Bea camp on instructions of the colonel in charge of the islands, Tytler. They were sent to establish friendly relations with the Andamanese but failed spectacularly in their mission when one, Pratt, attempted to rape Hina as soon as the boat had been beached. In the following altercation Tura and some other Andamanese men shot and killed Pratt with arrows. The other sailors rallied, fired into the milling crowd and then retreated. Tura was later arrested for murder and kept in irons for some months before the true facts came out and he was released. That the sailors could immediately identify the chief assailant, Tura, by name struck some British observers as an indication of considerable intimacy between the sailors and the Andamanese. It strikes us today the same way. Colonel Tytler received a withering official rebuke for his inept handling of the affair and for assuming Andamanese guilt without prior investigation.
Hina's case was unique in its repercussions. The number of unrecorded rapes and murders committed by convicts and other outsiders on Andamanese must have been considerable, not to mention the number of less violent hetero- and homosexual dalliances and commercial transactions. Even genuine love is reported a few times to have blossomed between races in the human cesspool of the penal colony.
Along with the accelerating breakdown of traditional Great Andamanese society came a much increased mobility. People who in the old days would never have left the area of their sept, now wandered all over the islands, spreading venereal and other diseases among tribes that had never even seen a convict or a British soldier yet. Syphilis was discovered in 1876 and the following investigation brought to light that the Andamanese had been aware of the disease for at least six years previously but had not sought help from the authorities from fear of being locked up in hospital. The convicts who had given them the disease also terrorized their Andamanese victims into silence while being themselves terrified of the punishment that would follow discovery. Before 1881 syphilis was widespread throughout the Great Andamans, so much so that in 1885 it was said that scarcely a person was free from it. A visitor to the northeastern Great Andamans reported the following distressing scene:
... the whole of the east coast of the Islands was visited and I spent some days at the Table Islands. All the aborigines were friendly but their numbers were much reduced, and I brought in many cases of syphilis. Some of these poor people were in a shocking condition, being covered all over with sores like small-pox pustules, and the smell from their bodies was so offensive that they could not be allowed on board the steamer, but were towed in a boat some distance astern.
It was quite beyond the medicine of 1885 to slow down, let alone halt or cure, the disease. Among the cases brought to light by the investigation was the case of a syphilitic Andamanese woman with a 3-year-old child from a convict father. Apparently the authorities had, at least officially, been quite unaware of all this. The poor innocents.
How even an educated person with an unusually sympathetic interest in the Andamanese could stumble over his own moral prejudices is illustrated by Man's final sentence in the following quotation, reported by Portman. The question mark in parentheses signals Portman's dismay at the statement:
I have no doubt that a good deterrent effect has been produced on the many who have witnessed the lamentable suffering and mortality which have occurred among the unfortunate patients, and that such immorality, as is believed to have formerly to some extent prevailed in their midst, has received a wholesome check (?).
Whether syphilis ever reached the Onge on Little Andaman is less clear. In 1894 hereditary syphilis was diagnosed with the relief of the authorities palpable when they concluded that the disease must have been introduced at an early time so that, as they put it, in this instance at least they had nothing with which to reproach themselves. Oddly enough, blood samples from Onge taken in 1953 showed no trace of syphilis nor did the Onge display any symptoms. Whether the earlier disease had been misdiagnosed or whether it had somehow disappeared from the Onge population remains an open question.
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