1902 Encyclopedia > Andaman Islands

Andaman Islands


Andaman Islands. These islands lie in the Bay of Bengal, 590 geographical miles from the Hoogly mouth of the Ganges, 160 miles from Cape Negrais in British Burma, the nearest point of the mainland, and about 340 from the north extremity of Sumatra. Between the Andamans and Cape Negrais intervene two small groups, Preparis and Cocos; between the Andamans and Sumatra intervene the Nicobar Islands all seeming to indicate a submarine range stretching in a curve, to which the meridian forms a tangent between Cape Negrais and Sumatra; and though this curved line measures 700 miles, the widest sea-space is les than 90. some zoological facts are held to point to the former existence of continuous land from Negrais to Achin Head. If we can accept the doubtful authority fo Wilford, Hindu legends notice this remarkable chain, and ascribe it to Rama, who attempted here first to bridge the sea, an enterprise afterwards transferred to the south of India, and accomplished at the place we call Adam's Bridge.

The main part of the group is a band of four islands, so closely adjoining end to end, but slightly overlapping, that they have long been known as one, viz., "the Great Andaman." The axis of this band, almost a meridian line, is 156 statute miles long. The four islands are (north to south) -- North Andaman, 51 miles long; Middle Andaman, 59 miles; South Andaman, 49 miles; and Rutland Island, 11 miles. Of the three straits which part these four islands, the two most southerly, Macherson's and Middle Straits, though narrow are navigable. Andaman Strait, between Middle and North islands, is at low water a fetid swampy creek, not passable by a boat.

Little Andaman, 30 miles by 17, forming the southern extreme of the group, is detached from Great Andaman by Duncan Passage, 28 miles in width. One considerable island (Interview Island) lies immediately west of Great Andaman, and may islets are scattered round. The highest point in the group is saddle Mountain, in North Andaman, approaching 3000 feet. From this southward the hills sink in height.

People. These islands, so near countries that have for ages attained consideration civilization and have been the seat of great empires, and close to the track of a great commerce which has gone on at least 2000 years, continue to our day the abode of savages as low in civilization as almost any known on earth. Our earliest notice of them is in that remarkable collection of early Arab notes on India and China which was translated by Eus. Renaudot, and again in our own time by M. Reinaud. It accurately represents the view entertained of this people by mariners down to our own time. "The inhabitants of these islands eat men alive. They are black, with woolly hair, and in their eyes an countenances there is some thing quite frightful·. They go baked, and have no boats. If they had, they would devour all who passed near them. Sometimes ships that are windbound, and have exhausted their provision of water, touch here and apply to the natives for it; in such cases the crews sometimes fall into the hands of the latter, and most of them are massacred." The traditional charge of cannibalism has been very persistent; but it is entirely denied by themselves, and rejected by all who have taken part in our recent colony. Of their massacres of shipwrecked crews, there is no doubt; such horrors have continued to our own day on these islands, as well as on the Nicobars.

The people are Oriental Negroes, and idle stories were one current of their descent from wrecked cargoes of African slaves. Races of somewhat like character are found in the mountain of the Malay peninsula (Semangs) and in the Philippine group (Ajitas or Aetas); there is a reason to believe a similar race exists in the interior of Great Nicobar; there are recent rumours of the like in Borneo; and, strange to say, lat research has shown a possibility of near connection with the Andamaneers of the aboriginal race of Tasmania, recently extinct-circumstances which seem to indicate a former diffusion of this variety of mankind over a large space of the south-eastern world. But, in truth, accurate comparison of these tribes has yet scarcely been attained. The Andaman countenance has generally impressed Europeans at first as highly repulsive, and as African in character; but when we come to particulars, it has usually neither the exaggerated blubber-lip, nor to a like extent the prognathous profile, of the true Negro; nor has the Andamanner the Negro's large or ill-formed feet. The ear is small and well-formed; the hair grows in short detached tuffs, curled in small rings close to the head, but is declared not to be woolly. (There are tribes of a long-haired race on Interview Island, and it is also said on Rutland. These are of superior statutre, and may have been modified by alien blood from shipwrecked crews). The skin is of a lustrous black; the people, especially the mane, are often robust and vigorous, though their stature is low-seldom 5 feet, and generally much less. In this respect they can look down on the Cape Boschmen alone. The general resemblance of countenance ascribed to the people in some accounts is entirely denied by those who have become familiar with then. Professor Owen, in a skull which he examined, found none of the distinctive characters of the African Negro. The people, as a rule, are absolutely devoid of clothing. The men's nearest approach to it is to twist a few fibres round the forehead or neck, or below the knee; the women sometimes make a slight attempt at decent covering with leaves or tails of plaited fibre-the last appearing to be only a modern innovation, and the result of partial contact with our settlement. Adult males are alleged to be tattooed, or rather cicatrized 9though photographs do not confirm the universality of this). The process begins about the age of eight, and goes on at intervals. It used to be done with a flint; now usually with bottle-glass. Till the process is complete, the youth is ineligible for marriage. With both sexes all hair is shaven off, except a narrow strip from crown to nape, which is kept cut close. The men rarely have beard, and in general their eye lashes are few. The people are neither long-lived nor healthy. Indeed, few are believed to pass forty. They suffer especially from fevers, colds, and lung complications; but also from bowel complaints, headache, toothache, abscesses, and rheumatism. The malarious influence of newly-cleared jungle affects them as violently as Europeans: Formerly their almost sole remedial treatment was to coat themselves in whole or part with mud and turtle-oil. This mud daubing in various forms is also used as mourning, and as a protection against mosquitoes or the sun's rays. Paint made from ferruginous red earth is used as a decoration. Of late the natives round the colony appreciate quinine highly.

They have nothing whatever approaching to agriculture, nor does their rude shelter of leaves deserve the name of hut. Their chief food in the hot season consists of turtle, wild fruits, and honey, which they procure with great dexterity. In the rains the seeds of an Artocarpus are a staple, and in the intermediate season the wold hog; when the hog becomes scarce, fish and turtle. They have large appetites: a man will consume 6 lb of fish at a sitting, ands soon be ready to begin again. At their haunts kitchen-middens are formed from bones and shells till the stench becomes unbearable; then they shift quarters. Col. Man mentions a kitchen midden at Hope Town 15 feet high and nearly 50 in diameter, almost exclusively composed of shells. They seem kindly among themselves, and capable of strong attachments; and though irritable, they are not vindictive. They are very fearless, and are formidable archers, shooting strongly and truly with a bow between 5 and 6 long, of tough wood, hard to bend. They shoot and harpoon fish with skill, and catch it also by hand; and have hand-nets, and stake-nets for turtle.

Monogamy seems the rule. A young man proclaims himself a candidate for marriage by eating a special kind of fish (a species of ray), whilst marriageable girls wear certain flowers. The young man, if a pig-hunter, abstains pork for a year; if a turtle-huntre, from turtle; and during the probationary year honey is forbidden. The wife provides shelter and mats to lie on does the cooking (all food is cooked), procures water and shell-fish, carries loads, shaves and paints her husband, and tends him when sick. The husband protects his wife, makes canoes, weapons, &c. and sometimes goes in search of food; but this generally devolves on the unmarried. They per their children, but many perish. A family of three living children is rare. If an adult dies, he is quickly buried, and the tribe migrates 8 or 10 miles for about a month. Some months later the bones, as they dry, are taken up, and these the skull especially are carried about by the kinsfolk-for how long we are not told. Mourning is shown by a daily daubing og olive mud, particularly a thick coat on the head. It lasts a month. During their sorrow they are silent, refrain from red paint and decoration, and from much food, especially from pork and honey; but have daily to throw a piece of honey-comb into the fire.

A notable eccentricity with these people is crying, as an utterance of emotion. It is an expression of reconciliation with enemies, and of joy at meeting friends after long separation. Something similar is known in New Zealand, and, it would seem, among the Patagonians. When two Andaman tribes meet under such circumstances, the new-comers begin the process, the women weeping first; their men then take up the lugubrious function; finally, the tribe on whose ground the scene occur reciprocate, commencing with their women. This doleful antistrophe is continued long -- "sometimes through several days" -- and then they take to dancing.

They are said to have no idea of a God or future state, though Colonel Symes in his narrative gives a different account, and perhaps information on this points is still too imperfect. We find reference made to their belief that evil spirits cause disease, and to their dread of the ghosts of the dead.

They were always very hostile to strangers, repulsing all approaches with treachery, or with violence and showers of arrows. This may have originated in ancient liability to slave raids. Not till five years after the establishment of Port Blair colony did they begin to abate hostility. Robberies were frequent, and the murder of persons straying into the woods. The Government established homes for the aborigines in the environs of the settlement -- viz., sheds for shelter, with some aid in rations, &c., and this conduced to a better state of things. An orphanage also has now been established under European matrons.

They are perfect swimmers and divers, and expert in managing canoes. These are neatly formed, and according to Mouat, some are fitted with outriggers, which enable them to go seaward for considerable distances. Two centuries ago, according to Captain A. Hamilton, they used to make hostile descents on the Nicobars, and this is confirmed by a Nicobar tradition mentioned in the Asiatic Reseurches. But there is apparently no later evidence of such expeditions, and they were probably confined to March and April, when the sea is generally like a pond.

The number of aborigines is unknown, and conjecture has varied form 3000 up to 10,000, or even 15,000. Dr Mouat, in 1857, whilst steaming rapidly round the islands, everywhere saw natives in considerable numbers, and was induced to believe that the older and lower estimates had been much under the truth; but there is reason to believe that the population is on the coast only. They are divided into tribes or groups, not usually containing more than thirty individuals; and among these the country is partitioned in some fashion, for we are told that trespasses are a common ground of war between tribes. Each tribe has a depot, or headquarters, where the sick are tended and surplus stores are kept.

The name Moncopie is applied to the Andaman race in books, originating with a vocabulary given by Lieutenant Colebrooke. One suspects some misunderstanding about this. Of the language we have as yet little information. It is said to be very deficient in words, and there is the tendency usual in the circumstances to strong dialectic differences. Thus the people of Little Andaman are said not to understand those of South Andaman. Those near the settlement begin to incorporate English and Hindustani words. It is stated positively that they have no numerals. It was once believed that they have no proper names, but this proves erroneous. The child is named before birth: hence names seem of common gender, and as they are few-some twenty in all -- a special epithet is prefixed to each, personal or local in origin.

Climate. -- this is very moist, as might to expected. The islands are exposed to the full force of the south-west monsoon of summer, and also in some seasons share that rainy effect of the north-east monsoon of the late autumn which characterizes the Coromandel coast in the same latitude. Hence Colonel Kyd, who was chief of the se ttlement abandoned in 1796, says only four month's fair weather could be counted on, and a later explorer uses nearly the same phrase. The native divided the year into three seasons -- (1.) The dry, literally "the northern sun," February to May; (2.) The rainy, June to September; (3.) The moderate season, October to January. There is, however, rather a remarkable want of uniformity in the seasons. The rainfall at Port Blair for four years is reported as follows:-

1869 155.7 inches.
1870 119.9 inches
1871 100.09 inches
1872 103.02 inches

The annual mean temperature, reduced to sea-level, is about 81o Fahr.

Geology, &c. -- The islands appear from the sea as a series of low hills. These being covered with dense and lofty forest, we have as yet little information on the geology. The surface us excessively irregular, and the islands are too narrow to have rivers. There has been no alluvial deposit, and in many places the rocky formation is bare. Near our settlement in South Andaman the principal rocks are grey tertiary sandstones, identical with those prevailing in Aracan. This sandstone affords excellent building material. Traces of coal have been found, but only small pockets in the sandstone, without seam. Serpentine rock occurs on the east coast south of Port Blair, and on Rutland. A broad strip of indurated chloritic rock extends from Port Blair north-north-east to the east coast of Middle Andaman. Coral reef barriers gird the islands on all sides. The general dip of the rocks is to the westward, and thus the depth of sea on the east is much greater. On the west the corals are continuous and very extensive, forming patches of reef even 20 or 25 miles from shore. Agate flakes have been found on the site of an old encampment. It is curious that Captain A. Hamilton speaks of an adventurer known to him who made money by quicksilver obtained from these islands, but no confirmation of this has been reported. No fossils have yet been got.

Vegetation. -- On the east the prevailing character is of forest trees with straight stems of 100 feet in mean height, often entirely covered with climbing plants. On the west vegetation is not so lofty. Deciduous trees are everywhere sporadic, and large tracts of them occur, robbing the landscape in the hot season of its tropical richness by their grey sterile aspect. These trees are generally of little utility. Bombax malabaricum is abundant among them. The immense buttressing of the stems of many of the trees is notable. Extensive tracts are also occupied by bamboo jungle, 30 to 35 feet high, almost entirely of Bambusa andamanica, from which lofty forest trees stand out, very far apart. The bamboo seems to attach especially to the indurated chloritic rock. Mangrove swamps fringe the little bays and straits, with many orchids. Behind the swamps are palms, Phoenix paludosa and Licuala paludosa; also Barringtonia and Excoecaria Agallocha, recognized by their red decaying leaves in June and July, and Lagerstroemia and Pterocarpus by their rich lilac or yellow blossoms. Arborescent euphorbias, screw-pines, and a Cycas pf considerable height, give a remarkable aspect to the coast vegetation in many places. Above these are the coast forests, on the slopes of hills, and valleys influenced by the sea. Mimusops indica, believed to be a very valuable wood, forms whole forests; sometimes in equal proportions with Hemicyclia andam. Around these are tropical mixed forests, through which it is hard to force a way from the multitude of climbers. Dipterocarpus loevis is the typical tree here. Palms are numerous -- e.g., Licuala peltata and Areca triandra. On one small island (Termooklee) there is a gigantic Corypha with leaves 30 feet long, but stemless. The high forests of the interior are little known. The quantity of intricate climbers is less, and the uniformity of vegetation greater. Treeless spots are confined to craggy islands completely exposed to wind and weather. The general character of the vegetation is Burmese, altered by some unfavourable circumstances, principally the scarcity of running water. But there are also a number of Malayan types not found on the adjacent continent. There are no tree ferns, apparently. There are a considerable number of edible wild fruits. No indigenous coco-palms exist, though these are so plentiful on the adjoining Cocos and Nicobars. Much of the scenery of the islands is very beautiful.

Animal Life. -- This is greatly deficient throughout the whole group, especially as regards Mammalia, of which the species are very few. There is a small pig (S. andamannensis), important to the food of the people -- perhaps that foundon the Nicobars; a Paradoxurus; a rat with spiny hairs (M. andam); a small frugivrous bat (Cynopterus marginatus). A "wild cat" is alleged, but there seems doubt about it. No Quadrumana have been seen. Of birds several species seem peculiar to this group, or to the Nicobars, or to the two together; and some of the Andaman species are considered by Mr. Blyth to accord better with corresponding species at a distance than with those on the adjoining part of the continent. Thus, Artamus and Oriolus of the Andamans seem identical with those of Java, not with those of India or Burma; and a shrike of these islands agrees better with a species of China and the Philippines than with the nearest species in Bengal, Aracan, and the Malay peninsula. Caves on the coast are frequented by the swift, which forms the edible nest of the China market. Pigeons, kingdishers, and woodpeckers are numerous. Reptiles are pretty numerous, both as regards species (15 to 20) and individuals, including eight Ophidia and several Geckoes, of which four or five are peculiar. Among these is one (Phelsuma andam.) the immediate kindred of which is known only in Madagascar and the adjoining islands. The Indian toad is common. Turtle are abundant and now supply Calcutta. The species of fish are very numerous, and many are peculiar. They have been especially studied by Dr F. Day. It is much to be desired that these islands should have a thorough scientific exploration whilst the type of their productions is still substantially uninfluenced by foreign agency.

History. It is uncertain whether any of the names of the islands given by Ptolemy ough to be attached to the Andamans; yet it is probable that this name itself is traceable in the Alexandrian geographer. Andaman first appears distinctly in the Arab notices of the 9th century, already quoted. But it seems possible that the tradition of marine nomenclature had never perished; that the Agathou Daimonos [Gk.] was really a misunderstanding of some form like Agdaman, while Nesoi Baroussai [Gk.] survived as Lanka Balus, the name applied by the Arabs to the Nicobars. The islands are briefly noticed by Marco Polo, who probably saw without visiting them, under the name Angamanain, seemingly an Arabic dual, "The two Angamans" with the exaggerated but not unnatural picture of the natives, long current, as dog-faced Anthropophagi. Another notice occurs in the story of Nicolo conti (circa 1440), who explains the name to mean "Island of Gold," and speaks of a lake with peculiar virtues as existing in it (the natives do report the existence of a fresh-water lake on the Great Andaman). Later travelers repeat the stories, too well founded, of the ferocious hostility of the people; of whom we may instance Cesare Federici (1569), whose narrative is given in Ramusio, vol. iii. (only in the later editions), and in Purchas. A good deal is also told of them in the vulgar and gossiping, but useful work of Captain Hamilton (1727). In 1788-89 the Government of Bengal sought to establish in the Andamans a penal colony, associated with a harbour of refuge. Two able officers, Colebrooke of the Bengal Engineers, and Blair of the sea service, were sent to survey and report. In the sequel the settlement was established by Captain in Balir, in September 1789, on Chatham Island, in the S.E. bay of the Great Andaman, now called Port Blair, but then Port Cornwallis. There was much sickness, and after two years, urged by Admiral Cornwallis, the Government transferred the colony to the N.E. part of Great Andaman, where a naval arsenal was to be established. With the colony the name also of Port Cornwallis was transferred to this new locality. The scheme did ill; and in 1796 the Government put an end to it, owing to the great mortality and the embarrassments of maintenance. The settlers were finally removed in May 1796. In 1824 Port Cornwallis was the rendezvous of the fleet carrying the army tot the first Burnese war. In 1839, Dr Helder, a German savant employed by the Indian Government, having landed in the islands, was attacked and killed. In 1844 two troops-ships, "Briton" and "Runnymede," were driven ashore here, almost close together. The natives showed their usual hostility, killing all stragglers. Outrages on ship-wrecked crews continued so rife that the question of occupation had to be taken up again; and in 1855 a project was formed for such a settlement, embracing a convict establishment. This was interrupted by the great mutiny of 1857, but as soon as the neck of that revolt was broken, it became more urgent than ever to provide such a resource, on account of the great number of prisoners daily fallings into our hands. Lord Canning, therefore, in November 1857, sent a commission, headed by Dr. F. Mouat, to examine and report. The commission reported favourably, selecting as a site Blair's original Port Cornwallis, but pointing out and avoiding the vicinity of a salt swamp which seemed to have been pernicious to the old colony. To avoid confusion, the name of Port Blair was given to the new settlement, which was established in the beginning of 1858. At the end of 1871 the number of convicts in the colony was 7603. For some time sickness and mortality were excessively large, but the reclamation of swamp and clearance of jungle on an extensive scale by Colonel Henry Man when in charge (1868-1870), had a most beneficial effect, and the health of the settlement has since been notable. Of late years the European detachment of 120 men has sometimes been without a man in hospital. Cattle have been introduced in considerable numbers; extensive gardens have been planted, embracing many thousands of valuable fruit and timber trees. Mangoes, oranges, pommeloes, pine-apples, and jac-fruit are grown with especial success. The Andaman colony obtained a tragical notoriety from the murder of the viceroy, the Earl of Mayo, by a Mohammedan convict, when a on a visit to the settlement, 8th February 1872. Recently the two groups, Andaman and Nicobar, the occupation of the latter also having been forced on the British Government (in 1869) by the continuance of outrage upon vessels, have been united under a chief commissioners residing at Port Blair. Steamers run from Calcutta to both groups monthly.

(See, among other works, Lieut. Colebrooke in Asiatic Researches, vol. iv.; New Acc. Of the E. Indies, by Capt. A. Hamilton; Adventures and Researches, by Dr Mouat; Papers in the Journal and Procedings of the As. Soc. Bengal: Kurz, Report on the Vegetation of the Andaman Islands; and other official documents.) (H. Y.)

The above article was written by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, R.E., K.C.S.I., C.B.; Secretary of Public Works Department, India, 1857-62; Member of Council for India; edited The Book of Marco Polo for the Hakluyt Society; author of The African Squadron Vindicated; Fortification; and Mission to the Court of Ava, 1855.

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