The Nicobar Islands
The Austrians in the Nicobars
by Astrid Kuffner
The following article was originally written in German by Astrid Kuffner and published in the July/August 2005 issue of Universum, "Austria's Colonial Empire", p.109.
The article has been translated into English by George Weber
The start was made by Maria Theresia and Joseph II who, in the 1760s, wanted to set up trading posts in Asia for the distribution of Austrian products. It was more a whim than a serious project since the largely land-based Austrian empire did not have adequate sea power to acquire, defend and supply remote possessions. More serious actors on the world wide colonial stage at that time were Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Holland and France.
The Austrian Habspurg rulers chose the Dutchman William Bolts as advisor. He had been active in the British East India Company but had been convicted for trading with opium and dismissed. In 1774 he travelled to Vienna to convince the inexperienced Austria of the feasibility of trade between Trieste and the Far East.
What had started as a secret project with a falsely British-flagged ship very soon collapsed. However, in 1778, after surmounting enormous difficulties, the Austrian vessel "Joseph and Maria" finally reached the Nicobar islands which had only recently been abandoned by the Danes. The Danes had given up there after losing most of their people to malaria.
On 12th July 1778 the natives signed (with three crosses and in in front of witnesses) a document that ceded the four islands of Nancowry, Kamorta, Trinket and Katchal to Austria. The Austrian flag was run up on a nearby hill and 6 men besides cattle, arms and slaves were left behind to start the new Austrian colony.
In 1781 the colonists complained about a lack of drinking water and food but Vienna took no notice and left its outpost to its fate. When the leader of the colonisation died in 1783, the first attempt at starting an Austrian colony died with him.
Motivated by an urge to explore, Arch-Duke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria in 1857 sent the frigate "Novara" on a trip of scientific discovery around the world. On board was a team of the Austrian Academy of Sciences that had also received the additional task of looking out for possible locations for penal colonies. [Translator's note: in 1858 the British annexed the neighbouring Andaman islands and set up a penal colony there].
In February 1858 the "Novara" reached Car Nicobar where the native had already learnt to hide their womenfolk at the approach of foreign visitors. The Austrian team sailed around the islands of Nancowry and Kamorta but did not try to occupy them. The ethnologist Karl von Scherzer brought back 400 objects but despite his proposals, his plans of setting up a new Austrian colony there came to nothing.
In 1886, the Austrian corvette "Aurora" anchored in the harbour of Nancowry before continuing her voyage to the Far East. By that time the islands had already become British in 1869 and there were no more Austrian plans for annexation. The dream of an Austrian colonial empire was dead.
Last changed 12 March 2006