3. The Andamanese
The Terrible Islands
by George Weber
The author of a book on the Andamans in the 1930s started his work with the exclamation "Andamans! - the very name sounds dreadful and calls forth an exclamation of wrath and disdain." This may be putting it a little strongly but the fact remains that from the dawn of recorded history the islands were feared for their alleged cannibalistic natives, their dangerous reefs, violent storms and fever-ridden swamps. The penal colony established after 1858 did nothing to improve the tarnished reputation. As if to cement their negative image, the islands have twice provided the stage to historical dramas. The first was when the viceroy of British India was murdered at Port Blair in 1872, the second during World War 2 when the Japanese army of occupation in the islands set up a short-lived puppet government of a pseudo-independent India in 1943.
The Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy living in the 2nd century BC seems to have had some knowledge of an "Island of Cannibals" in the general area of the Bay of Bengal. Whether this really did refer to the Andamans is an open question. There is no clear and specific reference to the islands until the 7th century AD when Arab and other sources mention cannibalism and very black men. Thereafter, mentions of the islands become more frequent and all mention cannibalism. The most famous early reporter was Marco Polo; he seems to have passed close to the islands in 1290 but never set foot on them. He wrote, from hearsay, that the inhabitants had heads, eyes and teeth like dogs and were no better than wild beasts, eating everybody that they would catch anyone who was not of their own race. There is nothing to be gained by listing the hostile notices surviving from this time onwards. They all say more or less the same and they all appear based on yarns picked up from travellers around the Bay of Bengal.
The Andamanese are described and depicted with surprising realism
(in comparison, at least, to the nonsense written about the
Ethiopians or Indo-Chinese) in a 14th century medieval European
manuscript, Sir John Mandelville's "Travels":
The Andamanese (left): ... there are people who walk on their hands ... they are hairy and climb up trees as readily as apes.
The Ethiopians (middle): ... there are some who have only one foot ... it is so big it will cover and shade all the body.
The Indo-Chinese (right): ... when their friends are seriously ill they hang them on trees, so they can be chewed and eaten by birds.
Early collectors of trepang (sea cucumber, holothurians or bêche-de-mer) and birds nest were usually also pirates and slavers if opportunity presented itself. They used the many hidden anchorages in the Andamans while going about their business. It is highly likely that these early entrepreneurs deliberately spread tales of horror about the islands - to frighten off competitors. We have already mentioned the existence of isolated clumps of coconut palms in secluded anchorages as a clue to the existence of pirates' nests. Some must have found a modus vivendi for coexisting with the Andamanese, most likely based on the principle of keeping out of each others' way, perhaps occasionally expanding into silent trade or even active cooperation. Silent trade is the exchange of goods without the necessity of the parties speaking or even meeting each other. The goods are left at an obvious spot where they are later picked up by the other party, who in turn leaves goods in payment at the same spot. The trading partners need never meet face to face.
The accidental find of a buried treasure of 17th century Sumatran gold coins in a long-abandoned Andamanese kitchen midden (for kitchen midden see Chapter 24 "Archaeology") at Cadellganj, Port Blair in 1904 gives a strong hint that there were occasional Andamanese dealings with outsiders. They must have had a close enough relationship with at least one to allow him to bury his pirated or trading gold on their land. To the Andamanese, gold had no practical use and so was of no value. It is most likely that a pirate-trader was "doing a deal" with the locals. We can only guess what they received in return for guarding his treasures - coconuts perhaps - and how the trader managed to establish such a relationship with the "savages" in the first place.
Such direct contact, however, must have been very rare. How rare was demonstrated, tragically, by the Andamanese susceptibility to disease introduced by outsiders after 1858. Moreover, no Arab, Malay, Indian or Burmese loan words predating 1858 have been identified in any of the Andamanese languages. The old Andamanese word for trepang (sea cucumber) translates as "foreigners' slug".
More common and much safer for the Andamanese would have been indirect contact with pirates and traders. If the locals tolerated the ships' use of the many hidden anchorages, the visitors could provide iron (keenly sought by the Andamanese) through silent trade and perhaps protect "their" local natives from the predations of other pirates. The Andamanese themselves were profoundly indifferent if not totally ignorant of the outside world and barely aware of the existence of other Andamanese groups apart from their immediate neighbours. Their coexistence with a pirate in one area, therefore, would be no bar for the same pirate's slave-raiding in other parts of the islands.
To judge from the age of the coconut palms found on deserted anchorages, the last resident pirates abandoned the islands in the course of the 18th century, probably in response to the growing naval activity around the islands. The preference after the 18th century was for pirates, especially Malay and Burmese, to raid in the islands from bases in their home countries. A Chinese collector of edible bird's nests who was giving evidence in a case involving escaped Burmese convicts in 1862 knew the Burmese names for many geographical features in the Andamans. The names were widely known and obviously long-established. As late as 1884, the British authorities in the Andamans reported trouble with heavily-armed Malay vessels who were suspected of slaving activities. Their crews, when stopped and searched by British patrols, claimed to be collecting trepang (sea cucumber) and birds' nests.
That the locals suffered badly from slave raiding pirates over long periods there can be no doubt. There are too many references from early until quite recent times to "small black slaves" at Burmese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Thai courts. Not all need have been Andamanese Negritos or the victims of slave raiding but some undoubtedly were. Andamanese boats are known to have drifted out of sight of land by accident and such cases must have been fairly common from earliest times in view of the unpredictable seas and weather of the area. For one native adrift lucky enough to have been picked up by a passing civilized vessel, over the centuries thousands must have perished or fallen into the hands of slavers.
In 18th century Europe it was fashionable at courts and aristocratic houses to have "Negro" pages. Even Hollywood directors knew it and few are the period costume dramas without a decorative black page or two in the background. The historical pages seem to have stayed small and youthful for a very long time, so much so that the suspicion arises that they may not have been African blacks at all but, in fact, Negritos. The grandees who owned such living prestige objects did not care much about their origins. Africans and Negritos were not differentiated even in 19th century London as was made clear by the first Officer in Charge of the Andamanese, the Reverend Henry Corbyn, who mentioned in a letter of 1863 that an Andamanese man had for many years been carrying on trade as a tobacconist in London, passing for a "stunted African".
Until historically recent times, there was little to distinguish a pirate from a regular trading ship. Nor did all slavers in the Andamans come from nearby countries. In 1791, a French merchant navy captain is reported to have offered two Andamanese captives for sale in Ceylon. Captains customarily took what they could, when they could. It should not be thought that special slaving trips like the well-organized, large-scale slave hunts that devastated so much of Africa took place in the Andamans. The ships that visited the islands were there primarily to collect trepang and birds' nests along with wood and fresh water or else to seek shelter from storms. However, visitors would not be above kidnapping a party of Andamanese if they happened to surprise one at sea or could cut one off on an open beach. In their familiar jungle habitat the extremely nimble Andamanese could escape and hide with ease from any raiding party foolish enough to crash through the underbrush in search of them. In the jungle, native marksmen could also pick off intruders at leisure and so persuade the surviving rest to beat a retreat to their ship. Only crews without local experience could think of slave-hunting in the jungle - they would be unlikely to repeat the mistake. On the other hand, out at sea in their sail-less canoes, the Andamanese were defenceless against even the most primitive sailing ships.
Slave-raiding pirates have existed in southeast Asia from the distant past. However, with the decline of the Srivijaya maritime and trading empire on Sumatra after the 12th century, piracy became a way of life for many coastal communities. Pirate populations such as the Celates (Saleites) and Aru of Sumatra as well as various Orang Laut (sea people) throughout the Sunda islands and Malaya provided sundry kingdoms from Java to Siam with the prestigious black slaves. The chief victims of this peculiar hunting-gathering were the primitive forest dwelling tribes, including the Andamanese,. They were regarded by the more advanced groups not as human beings but as a natural resource to be harvested. It was Andamanese resentment against being harvested that must have contributed powerfully to their violent reaction to intruders.
If the British experience with captured Andamanese aborigines is any guide, the survival rate of those Andamanese who fell into the hands of a slaver would have been very low. The British captured natives in order to teach them Hindi or English and to impress them with the might of Empire before sending them back to their groups as intermediaries. While in captivity, the Andamanese were treated well and received the best medical care that contemporary science could provide. Despite all efforts, a large percentage of adult captives pined away and died soon. On a slaving ship the survival rate would have been much lower. Although Andamanese slaves undoubtedly existed, they can never have been numerous, indeed their very scarcity limited their use to only the very grandest of aristocratic houses and royal courts. The historical records are of course biased in favour of the outside world: for obvious reasons, details of atrocities committed by outsiders on Andamanese have not been recorded in writing with quite the same fervour as when the shoe was on the other foot.
Andamanese hostility was not entirely unvarying. A few occasions are on record when visiting ships actually met friendly and happily singing Andamanese boats whose crews even went so far as to help the visitors stock up with water, food and wood. We can only speculate that this uncharacteristic behaviour was caused by the cessation of slave-taking for long enough periods for local memories to have faded - until business as usual resumed.
Even more difficult to fathom at this distance in time is the erratic behaviour of the Aka-Kede on Interview island. When on 1st September 1849 the ship Emily was wrecked on the coast of this island, the Andamanese behaved in classical style when they attacked the moment the survivors reached the supposed safety of the beach. The shipwrecked crew fought them off, happily getting away from the island in two salvaged boats. One of the boats was never heard of again but the other, after much hardship, reached Burma to raise the alarm. In late October the ship Proserpine set off to look for the wreck of the Emily and to search for possible survivors. It discovered a looted Emily and the corpse of the second officer who had earlier chosen to remain behind on the wreck. He had been murdered and his corpse badly mangled, the top of his skull removed with a blunt saw-like instrument. Nevertheless, there was no indication of cannibalism. While the crew of the Proserpine investigated the wreck, it had to keep the hostile natives at a safe distance with cannon shot. So far it had all been Andamanese textbook behaviour. In November 1849 and again in June 1850 another ship, the Sea Serpent, twice visited the wreck of the Emily to salvage what she could. No account of the first visit has survived but on the second visit, the captain found oddly friendly natives. The Andamanese showed no aggressiveness at all, mixed freely with the crew, even going so far as to help in the crew's work and voluntarily returning looted items. Only after the Sea Serpent had left in this untypical cloud of good-will did the Andamanese set fire to the wreck, probably to get at the remaining lootable pieces of iron. The description of some Andamanese customs, of scarifying and of the use of knives made of sea shells in the captain's report were too accurate to have been invented: the crew of the Sea Serpent had indeed been on very close terms with the locals. The answer to the mystery may lie in the first visit of the Sea Serpent which we are unlikely ever to find. It may be noteworthy that the Interview islanders later showed similar unpredictable changes of mood between visits from outsiders.
In 1771 the surveyor, Ritchie, was reported to have been on friendly terms with an Andamanese group but no details are known and the friendly local group cannot be identified. Better documented and definitively involving the Interview islanders was the experience of Dr. Mouat in 1857/58 who found the locals relentlessly hostile. During a skirmish, Dr. Mouat's party captured an Andamanese boy who was taken to Calcutta in 1858. Unfortunately, no conversation was possible and the boy soon started to pine and fell ill. He was returned to the place where he had been captured and released with many presents. He vanished into the jungle and was never heard of again. While Dr. Mouat found the Interview islanders hostile and aggressive, less than 10 years later in 1867 the next known visiting party under the British Officer in Charge of the Andamanese, Mr. Homfray, received an unexpected friendly welcome. From then on, the Interview islanders remained friendly until disease had exterminated them all before the end of the century. In 1880, British officers tried to get to the bottom of the Interview islanders' odd behaviour. They made inquiries among the few survivors but there was no memory of these incidents alive then, nor could or would this last generation shed any light on the unpredictable behaviour of their ancestors.
It is true that the west coast of the Andamans has fewer suitable anchorages and in consequence may have suffered less from slavers but this cannot be the whole answer.
Despite the occasional inexplicable friendly interlude, the native Andamanese traditionally dished it out as much as they took it. Attacks on shipwrecked people and on ships' crews trying to collect wood and water were a very ancient local tradition and one that faded only slowly after 1858. Indeed, one of the reasons for the reluctant British annexation of the islands was the necessity to suppress the outrages committed on shipwrecked seamen. The earliest outrage of which details are known took place on 13th April 1790 during the first British attempt at settling the islands. Four Bengali fishermen belonging to the new settlement went missing on that day. Three days later the bodies of two of them were found on the beach with signs of "inhuman barbarity." Their bodies had been mangled in the Andamanese ceremony for rendering enemies and their spirits harmless, known in more detail otherwise only from the Onge. The fishermen's agonizing death was not an isolated incident, however, but was part of the continuous small-scale warfare waged between natives and outsiders, a war that had started within days of the settlement's establishment in 1789 when plundering raids from the Andamanese had been answered by force. During another skirmish in the same war, two young Andamanese had been taken prisoner. The British intended to teach them the customs and language of the settlers, to use them later as intermediaries with their relatives in the jungle. We find here practised for the first time in the Andamans what after 1858 would become the less-than-successful standard procedure.
The combination of dangerous coral reefs and frequent storms must have caused countless shipwrecks over the ages. We know of only a handful and details of still fewer. During the 19th century the presence of the British navy had increased the chances of rescue before the natives could lay hands on the survivors. The survival rate for shipwrecked people over the thousands of years before that time must have been close to zero. Only those who could repair their vessel quickly or build themselves a new one stood a tiny chance of getting away alive. Many would not even have realized their predicament and would have been taken unawares by the first attack. The relatively high population density in the Andamans before 1858 ensured that there were no unvisited islands within the Andamans on which a Robinson Crusoe could hide and survive undiscovered for any length of time.(23) Any shipwreck was bound to be spotted soon and any survivors dealt with briskly.
One of the very few shipwrecks about which details are known took place in November 1844. Two ships coming from opposite ends of the world and both full of British troops on their way to India were wrecked within sight of each other. The double-wreck took place on the east coast of John Lawrence island in Ritchie's archipelago. The story bears telling in some detail because, apart from its unique happy end, it throws light on the many tragedies that must have taken place on those very same shores before.
The British ship Briton, an American-built barque with 431 soldiers, their dependants and crew aboard, had left Sydney on 12th August 1844 on the way to Calcutta as part of a larger fleet of four ships. After an uneventful trip via Timor and Singapore, the Briton reached the Andaman sea in early November. The captain had expected the north-east monsoon normal at this time of the year but instead he found quite untypical and highly variable winds. The unpredictable winds increased to gale force on 10th November and the following day to hurricane force. For 50 hours the Briton was tossed about and battered by the raging sea, its masts gone, its superstructure reduced to matchwood. The crew had to pump for their lives with the ship threatening to break up at any moment. But miraculously it held. Nobody aboard had the faintest idea where they were when shortly after midnight on 12th November and with the storm still howling at full force, the ship struck what must have been a reef and was then lifted over the obstacle by a gigantic wave. Only then did it begin to break up. Sitting in total darkness behind the shelter of the unseen reef, the crew felt the violence of the waves abate and their vessel slowly settling into something soft.
The barque Runnymede had sailed from Gravesend in England on 20th June 1844 with 200 soldiers, dependants and crew aboard, bound for Calcutta. The journey had been very difficult from the start and contrary winds had delayed the ship so much that stores of food and fresh water were running low. Instead of going straight to Calcutta, the Runnymede had to make for Penang in Malaya to replenish. It was surprised by the same storm and went through much the same experience as the Briton. On 11th November, during a brief lull in the storm in daytime, the master of the Runnymede spotted two other battered ships in the distance, one of which may have been the Briton. At 0130 in the morning of the 12th November the Runnymede was thrown high up on what the crew thought was a reef.
At daybreak, the winds abated and the crews of the two ships found themselves not only in the middle of a large mangrove swamp but less than 500 m (550 yards) from each other. They quickly made contact and found to their delight that their surviving stores complemented each other well. They combined forces, built a causeway through the swamp to the shore and moved themselves and their stores to dry land. Two drowned aborigines and their wrecked canoe were found washed up on the beach and were buried. The havoc caused by the storm extended over the entire island. Trees were stripped of their leaves with even the oldest and largest lying in a impenetrable jumble of fallen trunks. On their 9th day ashore, the shipwrecks met their first living Andamanese: crew searching for sea-shells were attacked and four wounded by arrow shots. The attackers disappeared into the maze of fallen trees when soldiers went after them. The captain's report described them as "quite naked, regular savages and no doubt cannibals." Later, some aborigines were spotted near the wrecks, apparently trying to collect iron. When the crew tried to establish friendlier relations by hanging a jacket on a pole and making gestures for them to take it, the natives tore the jacket down and trampled on it before attacking the would-be peace-makers. Camp fires and large numbers of natives were observed in December gathering on a neighbouring island - hopefuls expecting a good loot. Repeated attacks followed but all were frustrated by the large number of soldiers available for defence. It was noted that the native seemed to be familiar with the effects of firearms: they vanished as soon as they spotted someone carrying one while they attacked anybody who went unarmed.
The crews of the two ships had prepared and provisioned the long-boat of the Runnymede. On 25th November, the boat, christened Hope, set off with a crew of eight to get help. During the following three weeks, the shipwrecked company kept itself busy fighting off native attacks, hunting, fishing, exploring, digging wells, erecting sheds as well as keeping the make-shift tents as waterproof as could be managed. If it was not for the uncertainty about the Hope, the whole would have been an adventure-picnic. There was even time to court-martial some unfortunates who had been caught pilfering beer from the Briton's stores. One exploring party to a neighbouring island discovered bundles of pigs' skulls tied together in heaps and stones suspended from tree branches by rattan. This was correctly taken to be some religious ceremony of the natives, none of whom were sighted.
On 15th December 1845, minutes after a severe earthquake had shaken up the encampment and only hours after the decision to half the rations in case the wait should be a long one, a sail was spotted on the horizon. This turned out to be the George Swinton with the empty Hope in tow. The Hope had indeed reached Mergui on 6th December and alerted the British authorities. Its crew was exhausted but well and had been taken to Moulmein for recuperation. At the same time, the George Swinton was dispatched ahead of a whole fleet of other rescue ships. On Sunday, 5th January 1845, 55 days after the shipwreck, the last survivors had been taken off the hostile island. At once, the aborigines swarmed all over the two wrecks that had so long been denied to them.
Fifty years later the remains of the Briton were still visible in the form of three anchors, some brass bolts and the ship's ballast which appeared as a tiny island of stones rising slightly above the level of the swamp. No trace of the Runnymede remained. A tablet set up for the dead by the shipwrecked crews had disappeared but steps cut into the rock and leading to the encampment were still visible.
Most unusually, we also have the Andamanese side of the story. The tribe occupying Ritchie's archipelago was that of the Aka-Bale, later regarded as the least aggressive and most docile of all Andamanese tribes. Thirty years after the events described, British officers questioned members of the tribe and were told that they, the heroic Aka-Bale, had fought valiantly with the soldiers, had killed many of them, had driven them from their ships and taken everything they wanted. A generation later memories of a specific event were still very much alive. That the tale had grown in the telling and with it the heroics of their ancestors and the glory of their deeds is, of course, a truly primitive trait quite unknown among people of higher civilizations.
More typical of the unceremonious slaughter often practised by the Andamanese during the pre-British days was the case of Dr. Helfer. Note that the aborigines were not immediately hostile and became so only after a pot had accidentally been broken. The incident took place in 1840 on the east coast of North Great Andaman in Aka-Kora territory:
[Dr. Helfer] wanted to visit the Andaman islands to investigate the aboriginals there, famous for their ferocity. He visited some islands there but did not meet any of their inhabitants. Only on 20th January 1840 did some savages show themselves on a northern island. Some of them came forward and received a gift of coconuts from Dr. Helfer. When a dish that had also been given to them to carry water broke in their hands, they withdrew and could not be persuaded to approach again. On the following day Dr. Helfer once more went ashore to try to re-establish contact but he and his companions were suddenly attacked by the savages. Dr. Helfer and his people hurriedly swam back to their ship which they all reached except for Dr. Helfer himself. He was hit in the head and mortally wounded by a poisonous [sic!] arrow that the savages had sent after him. He sunk immediately beneath the waves and his body was never recovered.
While the Great Andamanese seem to have attacked most if not all outsiders foolish enough to land or be shipwrecked on their shores, the Onge on Little Andaman were more treacherous. They are known to have at least occasionally encouraged boats to land by waving at them in a friendly way. Once the boat had pulled up on the beach the visitors were led into the jungle with all signs of friendship. Then, while one small group of warriors destroyed the visitors' boat behind their backs, the main welcoming party dropped the mask of friendship and attacked the visitors. No eyewitness accounts exist that describe these killing fields but we know that those that did not fall in battle were often killed with great cruelty.
Little Andaman had been ignored by the British authorities before 1867 because it was known to be inhabited by hostile natives and protected by dangerous reefs without a single safe anchorage. On 21st March 1867 the captain and seven crew of the Assam Valley went ashore on the southern tip of Little Andaman for wood. They were seen from their mother-ship to get safely over the reef, to land and to haul up their boat on the beach, after which they vanished into the jungle. An hour later, a crowd of natives were seen dancing on the beach. With sinking hopes, the Assam Valley waited outside the reef for two days and then sailed to Rangoon to report the matter. There were no telegraphic connections to the Andamans in those days and so the news of the incident did not reach Port Blair until 6th April. A ship was sent to Little Andaman but it had to return without accomplishing anything. It did, however, report that a blue sailor's cap was spotted on the beach near the place where the missing men had been last seen. The station ship of Port Blair, the Kwang Tung, was sent a few days later with Mr. Homfray, the British Officer in Charge of the Andamanese and some Aka-Bea men, women and children. The latter had been included to signal friendly intentions, in line with the instructions to avoid any action that might provoke the Onge. Mr. Homfray, his crew and some of his Andamanese managed to get over the reef in three boats, some Andamanese by swimming, but were attacked as soon as their boats had been pulled back into deeper water and they were left on the beach. The Onge were hostile and tried to cut them off but seem to have misjudged the moment to attack. The landing party had just enough time to wade back to the boats under covering fire. Two sailors were wounded by arrows but all managed to reach the boats alive. Nothing was seen or heard of the missing men. On return to Port Blair, the outcome of this expedition was judged to be unsatisfactory and a larger expedition with a small military contingent was decided upon.
This arrived, again on the Kwang Tung, at the ominous beach on 6th May 1867 or seven weeks after the Assam Valley men had disappeared. The next day, only one boat with 13 soldiers managed to land, shortly after 0830 hours that morning. The boat with Mr. Homfray and the Andamanese failed to get across the reef and took no further part in the events. A third boat with 10 men stayed at a distance to cover the landing party. Immediately after landing, the expedition was showered by Onge arrows, none of which hit, however. The soldiers fired back and killed a considerable number of Onge after which the locals showed themselves much less openly. From their behaviour it is likely that the Onge at that time had not before experienced firearms used in anger and at close range.
It did not take long to find the first evidence: a skull in the sand. It was pronounced "European" by the army doctor who noted that one side had been smashed in with a blunt instrument, that there were a few tufts of brown hair and putrefying bits of brain left. The remains of a boat and a military boot was also found nearby. An adjacent area had been cleared for cooking by the Onge; this need not indicate cannibalism (none of the remains found were burnt) but must have been the site of the big party celebrating a great victory over dangerous alien enemies, which is the way the Onge would have seen it.
Throughout that day, the Onge followed the landing party, firing arrows, mostly unseen from the jungle but occasionally popping up from behind bushes in a manner designed to draw the outsiders deeper into the jungle. The professional soldiers did not fall for this but stayed on the beach in sight of the covering boat. They kept up their fire but when ammunition began to run low and the covering boat was signalled to come in and pick them up. Manoeuvring towards the beach, the boat capsized and all aboard ended up in the sea with one British lieutenant who had only just been posted to the Andamans drowning. Things were now becoming desperate for the landing party. Marching further along the beach in an effort to find a break in the reef through which a rescue boat could come, they found four much decomposed European bodies, lying in a line next to each other at full length on their back with their feet towards the sea, only partially covered by sand. Although at this stage the soldiers had problems of their own and did not take much notice of the corpses lest they should end up the same way, one showed enough sang-froid to pick up a sailor's blue cotton jacket, much torn and rotted, to take with him as evidence. There can be no doubt that the four bodies as well as the earlier skull were from the missing crew of the Assam Valley.
The afternoon was spent in desperate attempts at getting off the island. A raft was constructed and pulled ashore but when trying to get it back over the reef, the surf washed most of the people clinging to it back into the sea. Two hundred Onge chose this dramatic moment to launch their major attack. Luckily, the soldiers could beat them off since new supplies of ammunition had come through on the very raft that was supposed to take the men away. At long last, a boat from the mother-ship managed to get the last of the soaking wet and exhausted soldiers back aboard the Kwang Tung by 1730 hours. Miraculously, the drowned British lieutenant was the only casualty on the British-Indian side that day. That the Onge shot at the intruders all day and never once landed even a grazing shot is remarkable and does not say much either for their bow-and-arrow technology or the level of their marksmanship.
The events described led to four Victoria Crosses and several commendations, medals and other honours. Personal bravery there unquestionably was that day but the main enemy was not the Onge but the reef. In this case the Onge attacked right away, there was no friendly waving and only a half-hearted attempt to lure the soldiers into the jungle where the advantage would have been on the side of the locals. The number of Onge killed was estimated by members of the landing party at between 30 and 100. Whatever the precise number, the loss must have been heavy in a population estimated at around 700. It was all for nothing, too: the Onge did not understand the lesson that the expedition was supposed to teach them. From their point of view, they had only defended themselves. Twenty years later, in 1887 when friendlier relations had been established, the Onge were asked whether they remembered this particular expedition but they could not, or would not, understand the question.
It was not until 1873 that Little Andaman again gave cause for concern. On 6th April of that year, the British General Stewart visited the island on a general tour of inspection. His party landed without problems and met no resistance. It also did not meet any Onge because they had all withdrawn into the jungle. The huts visited were inspected but nothing was taken. When the general returned to Port Blair he was told that on the day before he had set foot on the island, a group of five sailors from the junk Quangoon, trading between Burma and Malaya, had been murdered. The junk had been blown off course in a storm and its crew had no idea where they were. Needing water, a party of seven men was sent ashore. Leaving two men behind to guard the boat, the other five wandered into the jungle in search of a source of fresh water. They suddenly found themselves surrounded by Onge who shot at them with arrows. Two men were killed outright while one was so badly wounded that he had to be left behind. The two uninjured survivors fled towards their boat but found it hacked to pieces with no sign of their comrades and traces of blood all over the place. The two had to swim back to the junk which, on hearing what the men had to report, upped anchor and made straight for Port Blair.
An expedition to rescue possible survivors and to punish the guilty was immediately decided on. The expedition was ordered to confine its activities to the villages in the immediate area where the crime had taken place and to capture a few Onge alive so that their language could be studied and a means of future communication established with them. The expedition left on the Undaunted and dropped anchor on the east coast of Little Andaman on 11th April 1873, facing the place where the attack had taken place. A force of more than 30 British-Indian officers and men and a dozen Aka-Bea tribesmen were landed in four boats. Leaving behind a guard over the boats, the rest of the force moved along the beach towards the spot where they found the broken boat of the Quangoon. A search of the vicinity produced some blood-stained bits of clothing but no sign of the missing men. The search was widened but nothing was found, nor were any natives seen. By way of punishment, the village nearest the scene of the crime was burnt down. While setting fire to the huts, a large body of Onge warriors burst from the underbrush. A wild fight lasting all of ten minutes ensued which, as the reporting officer said, was decided unsurprisingly in favor of the Enfold rifles. The Onge fled, leaving behind most of their weapons. One uninjured Onge was taken captive and two Indian soldiers wounded with the British estimating Onge losses at between 10 to 12 men. The landing party wisely did not follow the warriors into the jungle but continued to burn down the empty village. While the British were so occupied, a new and larger force of Onge appeared, watched the destruction from afar and then withdrew again, probably because too many had lost their weapons in the earlier fight. Orders accomplished to the letter, the expeditionary force withdrew and, with the usual difficulties, managed to get across the surf and back aboard ship. The Undaunted was back in Port Blair on 12th April 1873.
Because the expedition followed so quickly after the attack on the Quangoon, this time the message was received and understood by the Onge. They did not heed it for long: only a year later, General Stewart was sorely disappointed by the Onge when they showed themselves at their treacherous worst. While waving in a friendly way at the approaching boat, they walked towards it in the shallow water, all the while dragging their weapons along underwater with their toes. The crew of the boat returned alive only because they suspected something was afoot, literally, and did not let the welcoming party get too close before turning back. General Stewart said after this, his second landing on Little Andaman, that the system of making hurried visits of a few hours and at uncertain intervals did little good and that much time and patience was needed if friends were ever to be made of the savages. This was the policy observed by Mr. Portman during the following years, a policy that led to the Onge becoming the least troublesome and most peaceful of all surviving Andamanese by the turn of the century.
On a lower level, traditional Andamanese cruelty showed itself in the way hunted animals were treated and killed; a pig hunt in the islands was not something for sensitive modern souls. The Great Andamanese tribes may have had fewer cruel practices but the reports tend to be less than clear on this point. With the Onge, however, only dangerous animals such as male pigs were killed outright, others were dismembered alive with appalling cruelty.Turtles were roasted alive over an open fire and as if this was not enough, ghastly rituals seem to have been practised on human captives. The cruelty did not come from the whim of individual sadists but was determined by a ritual designed to kill evil spirits, animal as well as human. Most reports of such cruelties refer to the Onge of Little Andaman but one early traveller is reported to have seen a human corpse burnt to ashes by natives on a Landfall island beach off the northernmost tip of Great Andaman while an incident involving four Bengali fishermen in 1790 has already been mentioned earlier in this chapter. However, quite straightforward killings of pigs seem to have been practiced,(33) too, so it is not clear when and under what conditions cruelties were inflicted.
Captive strangers and enemies (which to the Andamanese would have been the same) had their limbs chopped off and, at least on Little Andaman, the still living rump thrown into a large fire around which the natives danced and sang to celebrate the famous victory. It is in the nature of the subject that genuine eyewitness accounts of such fights and ceremonies are virtually nonexistent and when they do exist (as when a scene was observed from afar) would be distorted by shock and disgust.
It is easy to see how the ritual slaughter and the dancing around large fires would keep the charge of cannibalism alive for more than 2000 years. Any remaining doubt would have been squashed if a ship's crew had been lucky enough to observe a group of natives wandering on the beach or even establish friendly contact with them: many Andamanese used to wear ancestral bones in the form of necklaces. On Great Andaman they often carried the skull of an ancestor tied with string on their back; photographs exist showing that this custom was still alive in the late 19th century.
Are the Andamanese guilty or not guilty of cannibalism? Despite all the excited hear-say, the dancing around fires consuming human corpses, the carrying around of human skulls, despite all this evidence, the answer is almost certainly no. Cruel practices there were but no incontrovertible evidence for cannibalism has ever been found. All those who had direct and intimate contact with traditional Andamanese and who in many cases had started out with the belief that cannibalism existed in traditional Andamanese society, ended up firmly convinced that the charge was not justified. Archaeological examination of kitchen-midden also failed to find any trace. Andamanese confronted with the charge were shocked and denied it furiously. Groups at loggerheads often accused each other of cannibalism which at least shows that the thought was not completely novel. The Aryotos accused the Eremtagas and vice versa, the tribes of South Great Andaman accused those of North Great Andaman and everybody, of course, thought the despicable Jarawas capable of absolutely anything. In short, it was always the others. To accuse someone of cannibalism was meant and taken as an appalling insult. A case when an Andamanese murderer had drunk the blood and eaten the flesh of his victims has been reported but such genuine cannibalism was regarded as abhorrent and insane by the other Andamanese.
Summing up the case, it does seem likely that the ancient charge of cannibalism was the result of a misunderstanding of Andamanese rituals as seen from afar by uncomprehending observers as well as the result of horror stories spread deliberately by merchant sailors for reasons of their own.
Before we turn away in disgust from the savage and cruel Andamanese, cannibals or not, a little reflection on the wider issues may be in order. The unconscious cruelty of primitive people has long been known. It is, in essence, a failure of imagination. Primitive people at any level of civilization cannot or will not imagine themselves in place of an outsider. They see only their own limited point of view (which to them is the only possible one), they see only the need to satisfy their own immediate interests and urges (which to them are the only interests and urges that need satisfying). The difference between the natural primitive and the civilized primitive is that the former cannot and the latter will not see a point of view other than his or her own. In this sense, the Andamanese are indeed primitive but are they really that much more primitive than many civilized individuals fighting for their own side in, for example, a civil war?
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