18. The Andamanese
Crime, Quarrels, Feuds and War
by George Weber
Traditional Andamanese life was not wretched or miserable, but neither was it paradise or idyll. The hostility shown towards strangers and other intruders was reflected in violence between and within local groups. Among the excitable males with their somewhat over-developed self-esteem, violence in response to real or imagined insults was widespread. It took leaders of strong character to cool down the hotheads and to keep a check on the quarrels that could flare up at any time.
Only a minority of disputes escalated into violence, of course Most ended in sulks of dignified silence, soon patched up or quietly forgotten. The presence and peace-making talents of the women were a major factor in defusing potentially dangerous situations. Few quarrels got so out of hand that serious injury and murder resulted and those were usually limited to quarrels between males. Nevertheless, there was also occasional male aggression aimed at females. We know of one case in the 1860s when a boy of 8 ordered a much older girl to bring him some water; when she did not move at once, the young master shot an arrow at her, causing injuries just above her eyebrow.
There was a well-developed sense of right and wrong among traditional Andamanese, but there was no mechanism beyond disapproval for punishing misdeeds. In a closely-knit society disapproval can be a weapon with a painful cut but it is not an effective one to prevent the sudden outbursts of fury and the loss of self-control among Andamanese males that was behind most serious violence. Whenever an individual had been hurt during a quarrel, it was left to the aggrieved party to take any revenge he thought fit. If the guilty man had the support of his own friends, he might well get away, literally, with murder. Personal attachment among Andamanese men was so strong that even the most blatantly guilty and all but the most unpopular could rally at least a few supporters around him.
However, nobody could save a murderer from the traditionally prescribed cooling down period. The guilty man had to withdraw into the jungle for some weeks or months and was not allowed to feed himself or touch food with his own hands. His wife and some friends were allowed to live with him or visit him regularly to attend to his needs. There was a rigid taboo that the murderer could not touch a bow and arrow; he had to cover neck and upper lip with red clay paint and wear a plume of shredded wood in his belt before and aft as well as in his necklace at the back of his neck. If he broke any of these rules, the spirit of the person he had killed could make him sick. At the end of the period of withdrawal from society there had to be a purification ceremony during which his hands had to be rubbed in white and red clay and then washed. He could then return to his village and eat with his own hands again. For up to a year following his return the rehabilitated murderer had to wear plumes of shredded wood.
Given the explosive Andamanese temper and the special ritual associated with murderers, we must assume that murder was fairly common prior to 1858, although we do not know of any specific cases. After 1858 British justice moved energetically when a murder among Andamanese came to its attention. Sentences of flogging, hard labour in irons, imprisonment and in one case death by hanging were passed down. The Andamanese had no trouble understanding the principle of punishment and in many cases appreciated the preventive effect of a sentence swiftly matched to the crime. The prison sentences and other punishments handed down by the authorities were regarded by the Andamanese as an acceptable substitute for the traditional time a murderer had to spend in isolation.
Only once was a death sentence passed on an Andamanese man during the 19th century. The condemned man, Bia Lola, would without doubt be regarded as clinically insane today. It should be noted that the execution was widely accepted by the Andamanese with even the culprit's father agreeing that the sentence was justified. Bia Lola was the son of the headman of the Port Mouat sept of the Aka Bea tribe. In 1878 the young man had killed two children on the only grounds that they had disturbed his sleep. For this double murder he received two years of rigorous imprisonment but was pardoned and set free after serving 14 months. He killed again within seven weeks of his release: a young man, Riala, had accompanied Bia Lola's hunting party and had dared to eat a part of the pig that the leader had fancied for himself. Bia Lola did not immediately attack Riala but waited until early the next morning when he surprised his victim in his sleep, shooting two arrows into his stomach and killing him instantly. As there were no mitigating circumstances for this most unusual premeditated murder, Bia Lola was sentenced to death and died, trembling and pleading for his life, on the gallows at Port Blair on 19th May 1880 in the presence of M.V. Portman.
In another case of 1890, a small group of A-Pucikwar men and women were moving by canoe from one village to another in the early morning. The canoe carried , as usual, a small fire on its floor. An old woman found the morning chilly, raked the fire together and warmed herself over it. She did not notice that a newly made bow was near the fire and was getting charred. The bow's owner thought much of his new bow and was so enraged by the women's carelessness that he killed her with an arrow on the spot. The murder was reported to the British authorities who caught up with the man three months later and sentenced him to two years of rigorous imprisonment. The confined space within the boat must have been a contributing factor to the death of the woman who could not run away, yet many similar cases of enraged male adults shooting arrows at anybody near them, often injuring and killing innocent bystanders, are known.
Men and boys went armed most of the time so that quarrels involving them could quickly and easily escalate to murder. Knowing this, all but the hottest of hot-heads were careful not to provoke. Uninvolved bystanders tended to fade quickly and quietly into the jungle whenever they could see a serious quarrel developing.
The problems that the absence of a traditional system for punishing offenders caused the authorities as well as the use made of Aka Bea police auxiliaries are shown up well in the story of Kep and Chap:
On the 10th of July  news was brought to me from the Middle [Great] Andaman that, several weeks before, a party of Andamanese from the North Andaman and Interview Island had been encamped on the west coast of the Middle Andaman. One of the men, named Chap, who had gone up to his country from the [Andamanese] Home at my house [at Port Blair] a short time before, asked the women to give him some firewood. They refused to do so, and he, after the manner of the Andamanese, flew into a violent passion, seized his bow and arrows, and fired off several at random, hitting no one. Having exhausted his stock of arrows he ran down to the canoes on the shore, took up a heavy spear from one, and returning with it stabbed Kep, the Chief of Interview Island, on the back of the right shoulder. The wound was a very severe one, and after lingering in great pain for several days Kep died from the effects of it. Only one man, named Bui, who had been formerly trained at Port Blair, made any attempt to seize Chap, and he took away his spear, but being much smaller than Chap, was unable to arrest him as he wished to do. The remainder of the Andamanese ran into the jungle and hid, making no attempt to arrest or punish Chap, nor, though they had bows and arrows with them, did they fire a single shot at him. The camp of Andamanese dispersed after the row, and Chap, after burning down my big Trepang-drying shed, which had taken nearly a month to erect, went into the interior of the North Andaman.
Kep was an elderly man, of mild and peaceable disposition, and had always been most friendly with us since I first made his acquaintance at Interview Island in January 1880. Chap, too, had always appeared to be well behaved, though somewhat stupid and deaf, and was for some months at my house. He was one of the Andamanese who accompanied me to Calcutta in February 1895, and was presented to His Excellency the Viceroy in Barrackpore Park.
When I heard the above related story I made arrangements to arrest Chap, and as soon as the weather was sufficiently calm for me to send a party up the West coast, I dispatched Jemadar Jafar, and a number of trained Andamanese from the Haddo Home, to make inquiries. They returned on the 1st September with the information that Chap had gone to Tao Ket, a village on the South-west coast of the North Andaman, and gathering about a dozen of his fellow tribesmen around him, had threatened to kill any members of the other tribes who came near. I sent the party back to Tao Ket to arrest Chap. A number of Andamanese from the North Andaman and from Interview Island had previously come in, through fear of Chap and his people, to live at Lekera-Lunta, and these men, with three canoes, Jafar took with him. They had very stormy weather after leaving Lekera-Lunta, and their progress was hindered. On nearing Tao Ket Jafar sent one of the canoes, containing some of the principal men of the North Andaman, about a quarter of a mile ahead of him. These people, on coming to the village, found about 12 male Andamanese there, (among whom was Chap), who fired three arrows at the approaching canoe, hitting no one. On seeing Jafar come up the villagers ceased their fire and sat down quietly in their huts, while Chap ran away into the jungle. This occurred at mid-day, and Jafar took all the people of the village, and all their property and canoes, away to an outlying Island, leaving a man of the same tribe, named Ballo, whom he had brought with him from Port Blair, in the village to watch for Chap. According to the Andamanese custom, the latter, who had been watching Jafar's movements from the jungle, when he saw him go off to the Island, returned to Tao Ket during the night. Ballo, as previously arranged with Jafar, lighted a fire on the shore as soon as Chap arrived, and Jafar seeing this sent across a canoe with some friendly Andamanese from the South [Great] Andaman Tribes, who arrested Chap and brought him away to the Island. He made little resistance and did not attempt to escape on the way down to Port Blair, where he arrived on the 23rd. I at once held an enquiry into the case and found that the facts differed considerably from the one-sided version of the story I had been given in the previous July by the Interview Islanders.
Chap, after leaving my house in April, had been living with the Interview Islanders, and had formed an illicit connection with the widow of that tribe. To this the other members of the tribe objected, and Kep, the Chief of Interview Island, on several occasions reproached Chap for his conduct. In May the party were encamped on the West coast of the Middle Andaman, and a further quarrel on the same subject between Kep and Chap occurred. The latter got very angry, fired off several arrows indiscriminately among the collected Andamanese, careless of whom he wounded, and then, having hit no one, ran down to the canoe on the shore, snatched a spear from one of them and hurled it at Kep, inflicting a sever flesh wound on the back of the right shoulder. Some slight skirmish seems then to have taken place, in which Chap was wounded by an arrow in the right eye. All the Andamanese then, with the exception of Bui, ran away into the jungle, and Chap, after setting fire to the Trepang-curing shed, went off to his own country. Some weeks afterwards Kep died from the effects of the neglected wound, which might have been healed had he been brought in at once to the hospital, and his friends were anxious to kill Chap in revenge.
On the above facts being reported to the Chief Commissioner he was pleased to direct that, as Kep had been only wounded by Chap, and had died from the effects of the neglected wound; as Chap had been wounded himself in the row, and had since then only stood on his defence against the Interview Islanders who wished to kill him and his friends; and as no hostility had been shown to the government, and Chap readily surrendered to Jafar and came into Port Blair without attempting to escape or giving any trouble, he would be sufficiently punished by a flogging of 30 stripes and five years' detention in the Settlement, during which period he would have to work daily at the Homes. The flogging was accordingly inflicted in the presence of Andamanese from the North Andaman, Interview Island and the Southern tribes, on the 27th September 1895, and Chap has since been detained at work in the Homes.
Occasionally, males (very rarely females) would run amuck in a wild rampage of killing and destruction. Such outbursts left the Andamanese helpless with terror but no one would try to cut short the rampage by shooting down the madman. At any display of serious anger, the women and children took off into the jungle. If the cause of the disturbance was a particularly formidable or dangerous person or in the case of someone running amuck, the men would flee, too. In normal circumstances, Andamanese avoided face-to-face confrontations; even genuinely angry men were secretly grateful for the intervention of a higher authority, if only to let them break off their dramatic performance without loss of face. The slightest show of authority, be it that of the local headman or of an outside power, could normally bring an unpleasant scene to an end at once.
Women quarrelled among themselves, too, with much verbal and occasional physical violence. There would be loud swearing with the destruction of each others' crockery, physical fights with fists and sticks flying. The women did not have bows and arrows, so that there was little danger of serious injury. Men wisely kept out of such altercations which were usually settled through the intervention of a widely respected older woman.
Fights between the sexes almost always featured a husband and wife team as the chief participants. The wronged party was considered to have the right to punish the guilty by administering a more or less severe beating. If the punishment meted out was widely considered too severe in relation to the crime, trouble could be expected from the relatives and friends of the punished party. The institution of marriage among the Andamanese, as in other human societies, was a finely-tuned system of checks and balances, sadly prone to breakdown at times.
Flaws of individual character that did not hurt anybody directly such as shirking of duties, lack of respect towards elders, meanness or bad temper, were disapproved of by society but not punished directly. Young, unmarried persons would have their attention drawn to their shortcomings. No one would dare to mention such matters to a married adult person. If the misbehaviour did not disappear after a while, the guilty parties could find themselves quietly pushed to the edge of polite society and their status painfully diminished.
If ritual prohibitions were broken, the insulted spirits took their revenge in the form of bad weather or ill-health. Refusal to participate in traditional rituals would have been quite unthinkable in the old days but a few rebellious youths are known to have refused to undergo the hardships connected with the traditional initiation rites. Medicine men were credited with the power to make evil magic, to make other people sick and even to kill them. Such magic had to be handled with extreme care by its practitioners since any suspected of the practice would have to face the wrath of those who thought they had been injured. Black magic was regarded as reprehensible but, as with murder, it was left to individuals or their families and friends, to take whatever form of revenge they thought fit. Society as a whole could not and did not act.
The Andamanese prior to 1858 had a reputation for fearlessness and courage. On closer contact with them, the outsiders soon found the bravery and utter recklessness displayed to have been based mostly on ignorance: the Andamanese could not, in the early days, imagine an enemy more powerful than themselves, nor weapons more deadly than their own bows and arrows. Only after the first bullets from firearms had whistled around their ears and torn into their friends, did they realize their error. Those Andamanese who had seen firearms in action were terrified of them. They adopted the same attitude to any bearer of firearms that they had always had towards their local enemies: they were very careful and attacked only if absolutely certain of overwhelming superiority or surprise.
Quarrels between groups, rather than individuals, were common and caused mostly by poaching or insults. If a fight broke out at a meeting and without a strong leader to suppress the tumult, the whole could quickly escalate into a bloody battle between groups, with the wounded and dead having to be hurriedly evacuated by the women. The feud that followed such an incident could last for years. While it lasted, it played itself out in raids and counter-raids. Night attacks have been recorded but the favourite time of attack was daybreak when the enemy was still asleep or then the time of the evening meal.
There was a peace-making dance but no special war dance, nor indeed anything resembling a war cry.
The "peace-making dance" in which the men, sort of, apologize for the war to the women.
The peace dance was shown to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in 1906-08 and later described by him in detail (see the Chapter 11 "The Role of Women.")
It is likely that a war dance had existed in the islands during a remote past. Warriors setting off on a raid joined in an ordinary dance, decorated in a special way with red and white clay and wearing ornaments of pandanus leaves, netting or shells, holding in their hands plumes of shredded wood. During the early years of the 20th century, such shredded wood was often used by anybody at ordinary dances but it is thought that the plumes formerly must have been limited to use in special war dances. Similar plumes do seem to have been associated with death since they were also worn by murderers hiding in the jungle and were used as markers for a village temporarily deserted because of a death. When the warriors set off on their raiding mission, they all wore such plumes tucked into the back of their belts. They also rubbed their arrows on the plumes in the belief that this would make them shoot well and straight.
No weapons other than the hunting equipment of bows and arrows were used on raids. The Andamanese do not and did not know defensive shields or breastplates. Although they admired the few of their fellow warriors who had the brains to think up cunning tricks of war, local warfare tended to be extremely simple hit and run affairs - in fact, glorified hunting expeditions with extra excitement added by the prey's ability to shoot back.
During a typical raid, a handful of men would stealthily approach the enemy village, deploy quietly near it and then, at a signal from their leader, launch a sudden attack. The aim was simple: killing as many men as possible. Although rarely more than one or two were killed, the more adult males a raider had killed, the louder his boasting later. The raids lasted only a few minutes and still less if surprise was not achieved, resistance was encountered or if one of their number was hurt or killed. Taken by surprise, the attacked could do little but flee into the safety of the jungle and wait there for the attackers to withdraw. Withdrawal was no military operation but merely a run back into the jungle. If an attacker was caught or found wounded by the defenders, he would be killed immediately. Occasionally, children were captured by the raiders; they were treated kindly in the hope that they would become members of the captor's local group. Although not the specific target of the attack, women and children were of course at risk, Whenever a woman or a child happened to get killed in such circumstances, this was not thought sufficient cause for boasting. It could also prolong the feud.
Feuds between local groups might last for a few months with peace made after a few attacks. Alternatively, the raids and counter-raids might go on for years. Peace-making was woman's business: if women or children had been killed during a raid, the women would let the feud goon for years out of ill-feeling and revenge, often leaving the men willing and indeed eager to make peace but unable to do so.
There was a rather more deep-seated enmity between Aryoto (shore-dwelling) and Eremtaga (jungle-dwelling) Great Andamanese groups, whether of the same tribe or of different tribes. Their feuds were not so much personal quarrels that had gone out of control but were rather more in the nature of flare-ups in a permanent atmosphere of ill-feeling and tension. Unfortunately, we know very little about Eremtaga groups. Garbled versions of some of the fights reached the British authorities through exclusively Aryoto storytellers, weeks or months after the event. Many more clashes between the two groups must have taken place of which no word has ever reached the outside world. One of the few known clashes took place in 1877 between Eremtagas and Aryotos, both of the Aka Kede tribe. It ended with the death of four men, two women and two girls - a much bloodier result than that of clashes between Aryotos. Fights between Eremtaga and Aryoto did not end with a peace dance; it was always a case of the parties walking away to lick their wounds and to fight another day.
What we have said so far in this chapter relates mostly to the Great Andamanese. What about the Onge, the Jarawas and Sentinelis? Not much need be said about the Sentineli: isolated on their little island, they have no neighbours, hostile or otherwise, and we know nothing whatever about internal quarrels among them.
The Jarawas are a different matter: until very recently they have been by far the most warlike of all surviving Andamanese groups. Involved in a war to the death for centuries with their Aka Bea neighbors, as far as the Jarawas were concerned nothing changed when their traditional enemies succumbed to disease and a series of outside powers took up the Aka Bea role. It made little difference to them whether they had to fight the British, the Japanese or the Indian settlers. Until 1974 there has never been a truce, only a few lulls in the fighting. Well-meant, though ill-conceived and badly executed, official Indian contacts aimed at establishing "friendship" with the Jarawa have led to the desired friendship but also to a crisis in 1998 that will almost certainly mean the end of the Jarawa within the next few years or at most decades (see chapter 1 for details).
This leaves us with the Onge. They did not make a sharp distinction between Eremtaga (in Onge: Engeakwe) and Aryoto (in Onge: Embelakwe) nor were the two groups hostile to each other. Onge aggression seems to have been outwardly directed, with much energy invested in hunting expeditions as far as the southern tip of Rutland Island. They seem to have had little taste for internal fighting. At least, very little has been reported in this way from the Onge beyond a certain amount of dislike between some local groups.
If a dispute arose among Onge, for example about the distribution of game a successful hunt had brought home, a camp could break into factions who then glowered at each other in dignified silence. They did not keep this up for long and after a tearful reconciliation all was well again.
As regards outward relations, we have already heard stories of violent incidents on Onge beaches during the last decades of the 19th century. Clearly, the Onge could fight if it suited them and in the old days they were nearly as hostile to outsiders - or anyway to outsiders they did not know - as their Great Andamanese cousins.
The Andamanese fight against outsiders after 1858 must be the subject of a separate chapter. It was as a War for Survival. The widespread hostility towards anyone not of their own group and to all strangers was a state of mind, shared to a greater or lesser degree by all and deeply ingrained. Notwithstanding differences in detail between the various groups, whenever the sail of a strange ship appeared on the horizon or a canoe with strangers approached the local beach, all right-thinking traditional Andamanese immediately reached for their weapons and prepared for the reception. Occasional reports of friendly behavior towards strangers seem to be merely the exception to confirm the rule.
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