As the world reels from the impact of COVID-19, evidence from the Amazon shows that the pandemic disproportionately affects remote indigenous people. Given this, a grave danger looms over the Andaman Islands, which are home to four historically isolated communities, and all of them belong to particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs).
Epidemics and diseases brought on by “civilisation” since the mid-19th century have wreaked havoc on the island’s indigenous communities. Delving into the Great Andamanese past, the annals show that the indigenes in the Andamans, already on the brink of extinction, are unlikely to recover from yet another blow to their health and way of life.
In January 1875, F.E. Tuson, the British officer-in-charge of the Andamanese people, noticed something peculiar at the Góp-l’áka-báng ‘Andaman Home’. A woman had developed a nasty bubo. Tuson knew what the symptom meant but chose to ignore it. One year later, several islanders at ‘Viper Home’ were found suffering from sores. The British quarantined them in an empty shed and inspected all the Andaman Homes where many inmates exhibited symptoms of an alien disease. As expected, it was an outbreak of syphilis.
Initially, about 16 indigenes were hospitalised. ‘Some have been already discharged, and the remainder are progressing favourably; only one woman and one child, who were suffering from the disease in its worst form before being admitted, have as yet died,’ remarked Major General Charles Arthur Barwell in his Annual Report of 1875-76.
The syphilis cases, in the beginning, appeared to be a handful, and the British believed that everything was under control. But an overlooked fact — that children were infected — implied the disease had been around for years. Soon, the worst was revealed — syphilis was not confined merely to the Homes but had spread even among the islanders of distant villages.
The East India Company colonised the Andamans in 1789 by establishing a settlement at Chatham Island, which was transferred to the North East harbour three years later. A hostile climate and high mortality rate led to its closure in 1796.
A year after the 1857 uprising, the British returned to the Andamans and set up a penal settlement, incarcerating hundreds of Indian freedom fighters. At this time, around 5,500 to 8,000 indigenes inhabited the islands. Among these were 10 groups of the Great Andamanese, who comprised the largest tribe (the others included the Jarawa, the Onge, the Sentinelese and the Jangil).
The Great Andamanese fiercely resisted the British — they raided and plundered the settlement, murdered the convicts, and obstructed the clearing of jungles. But their quixotic resistance against a militarily superior enemy was doomed from the start. Punitive and friendly measures eventually subdued them by the 1860s.
An institution named the Andaman Homes was established in 1863; deeply resented by the islanders, it played a pivotal role in their ‘taming’. Here, the British attempted to ‘civilise’ the ‘savages’ by coercively altering their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The islanders were trained in agriculture and performed a plethora of new activities — they acted as guards and manual workers, captured runaway convicts and participated in risky expeditions.
While the Andaman Homes furthered the expansion of the settlement, they were, as argued by German anthropologist Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt (who conducted fieldwork in the Andamans in the late 1920s), a door of death for the islanders. Here, the indigenes became dependent on alien foods, learnt to smoke and drink, experienced torture and abuse, and contracted several alien diseases.
The islanders had contracted syphilis at the Homes when convicts sexually exploited them by offering small rewards or simply by issuing threats. A senior petty officer named Shera, who suffered from syphilis and later died of it, was found to be ‘the chief, if not sole, offender’.
Measures were taken to contain the epidemic. A ‘special hospital’ and ‘a well-ventilated barrack, with concrete flooring’, were built. The infected were asked to stay away from their partners; the people in the Homes were instructed to bathe frequently. And parties were sent to far-flung areas to bring syphilitic cases in for treatment.
Amidst this chaos, the Great Andamanese were hit by another epidemic. Ophthalmia broke out in July 1876, leaving many islanders partially or entirely blind. In the meanwhile, syphilis began to surge. As per the Annual Report of 1876-77, 54 patients were admitted to the hospital, of whom seven died, five remained under treatment, and 32 were discharged (perhaps the rest ran away). Scores of indigenes chose to suffer alone rather than visit the settlement for medical aid. ‘Detention’, ‘discipline’ and a ‘long course of treatment’ at the hospital prompted many to flee to distant jungles.
In March 1877, another deadly epidemic broke out. A batch of convicts from Madras brought measles to Ross Island. The children at the Andaman Orphanage were infected first, then the rest of the Great Andamanese. In less than a month, 100 cases thronged the hospital. Around six weeks later, 51 of 184 patients were dead. ‘At the Viper Home, 71 Andamanese were attacked and 6 died. Of the syphilitic patients, 43 were attacked and 10 died. Of the visitors in hospital, 77 were attacked and 37 died. Self-treated in the jungle, say, 350 attacked and 56 died,’ wrote E.H. Man in his Annual Report of 1876-77.
Man’s report, however, had ‘considerably under-stated’ the ravage wreaked by measles. The epidemic had spread like wildfire from one end of the Great Andaman to the other, affecting all the indigenes except the (hostile) Jarawa. ‘Half, if not two-thirds, of the whole of the Andamanese in the Great Andaman died from its effects [measles and its sequelae]. All the people inhabiting the west coast of the South Andaman between Port Campbell and the Middle Straits [have] died,’ wrote the officer-in-charge of the Homes, Maurice Vidal Portman, who visited these parts three years later.
The outbreak of measles among the Great Andamanese and their impending extermination were not entirely accidental. The negligence of the officer in charge of the Andaman Orphanage and the medical staff at Ross Island played a crucial role in tipping the scales.
The massive death toll at the hospital and at the Homes was unnerving for the islanders. They believed that after death people turned into spirits who might harm them. This visceral fear turned them against the idea of the hospital. As soon as they were brought in for treatment, they thought they were ‘certain to die’. This ‘retarded’ their chances of recovery and the Great Andamanese began to die at an alarming rate. Estimated, conservatively, at 3,500 in 1858, their population depleted to 2,000 by 1883.
The islanders, who had thrived in their ‘inhospitable’ terrain for millennia, were suddenly being obliterated en masse by the mere touch of ‘civilisation’. Vast swathes of verdant rain forest in the Andamans, where generations of the Great Andamanese had hunted, were now devoid of human activity. Col. Thomas Cadell wrote: ‘The friendly tribes of Andamanese are, I regret much to report, rapidly dying out... Every year shows a decreasing population, the old and middle aged dying, and no children coming up to fill their places. It may safely be predicted that the friendly tribes will be extinct some thirty or fifty years hence’.
The government, in its Resolution on the Annual Report for the year 1883-84, remarked: ‘The Governor General in Council noticed with regret that the friendly tribes of Andamanese are said to be dying out, but the matter appears to be one which is beyond the power of the Government to remedy’.
In 1884, the British brought several islanders to the settlement for treatment. Many of them were rotting alive in the interior jungles. ‘[B]eing covered all over with sores like small-pox pustules, and the smell from their bodies was so offensive that they could not be allowed on board the steamer, but were towed in a boat some distance astern,’ described Portman.
There were 11 births and 38 deaths at the Homes in 1884-85. But the newborns hardly survived. ‘I always send the women to the jungle to be confined, as the very small babies seem to thrive better there,’ wrote Portman. Even those who survived were affected by hereditary syphilis. ‘It breaks out as hip disease, about their 10th or 11th year, and this would place the date of the introduction of syphilis among the Andamanese certainly prior to 1873,’ remarked Col. Cadell.
By now, almost all the men of the ‘friendly tribes’ in the South Andaman were dead. By August that year, the Great Andamanese were battling another epidemic, mumps. In 1886-87, the Homes recorded two births and 13 deaths. Five islanders died over the next year; and the year following it, wrote Portman, was ‘merely a record of sickness and deaths. 33 Andamanese died at the Homes, and there was no birth’.
There were 20 deaths and no birth at the Homes in 1890. Russian Influenza broke out in the month of April and 38 indigenes, including the last member of the Rutland Island Sept, were dead by June. Towards the end of July, 16 islanders came from Long Island, bringing devastating news — barring a few indigenes at the Archipelago Islands, Mount Kunu and Jurucháng, they were the ‘only survivors’ between Port Blair (South Andaman) and Rangat (Middle Andaman).
14 canoe loads
In August that year, Col. Cadell and Portman surveyed several islands. On the Stewart Sound Islands, they found that only 14 Great Andamanese had survived. A decade earlier, when Portman visited these islands, ‘14 canoe loads’ of islanders had come to meet him. ‘All the people on Rutland Island and Port Campbell are dead, and very few remain in the South Andaman and the Archipelago. The children do not survive in the very few births which do occur, and the present generation may be considered as the last of the aborigines of the Great Andaman. Even these have their constitutions to a great extent undermined by hereditary syphilis, and are unable to endure much exposure,’ remarked Portman in his Annual Report of 1890-91.
With 60 deaths, 1890-91 was one of the unhealthiest years. Then, in July 1892, the Andamanese were inflicted with gonorrhoea. Over the next two years, another 50 deaths were recorded at the Homes. Now, death among the Great Andamanese had become a regular phenomenon; birth, a rarity.
On February 26, 1894, Ríala, the chief of Áka-Béa-da tribe and the oldest man in the South Andaman, passed away at 57. He was one of the last survivors who remembered the times before the British colonised the Andamans and finally pushed the islanders on the road to extinction. Mébul-pé-lá-pich, ‘the last of the South Andaman eremtaga [forest dweller]’, succeeded Ríala as chief and died shortly on March 11. Soon, Polala, the chief of Bálé, also died from a heart ailment.
By now, the once fiercely independent and proud islanders were reduced to a ‘sickly remnant’. Around 245 Great Andamanese lived precariously in the Homes on the South Andaman. Besides them, no indigenes, except for the Jarawa, were left in the South Andaman.
With the extermination of the elders, the Great Andamanese’s rich traditional knowledge, oral histories and languages were also gone forever. The children, born or brought up at the Homes, lost connection with their roots and never discovered the splendid past of their community.
Over the decades, their numbers dwindled rapidly — 625 in 1901, 455 in 1911, 207 in 1921. And by the 1931 census, only 90 Great Andamanese were left. ‘The majority suffer from hereditary syphilis while the men are completely sterile. There are, however, a few healthy half-bred children, the result of unions between Andamanese women and the convicts,’ wrote M.C.C. Bonington, the Superintendent of Census Operations.
Two years after Independence, the Great Andamanese were relocated to the tiny Bluff Island and their traditional habitats were appropriated for the settlement of refugee and migrant populations. The islanders further shrank to 19 in number by 1961. In 1969, they were relocated to the tiny Strait Island, where 56 of them now survive on government doles.
As of July 16, 176 people from mainstream society have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the islands, of which 46 are active cases. The unprecedented crisis demands a speedy assessment and redress of the risks and vulnerabilities facing the PVTGs in the Andamans. Even slight negligence, as the history of the Great Andamanese extermination cautions us, could snowball into an unmanageable catastrophe.
The “civilised” world has brought many disasters that the islanders have somehow endured. But if this pandemic strikes them, it will probably be the very last straw.
The writer is assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.