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The harrowing tale of two British ships wrecked on an Andamans island in 1844

The castaways’ encampment on John Lawrence Island.

The castaways’ encampment on John Lawrence Island.   | Photo Credit: Hullmandel & Walton Lithographers

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The castaways’ experience was just one of the factors that made the East India Company colonise the islands, finally resulting in the extinction of many tribes

On August 12, 1844, the 80th Regiment of Foot of the British Army marched out of Australia’s Sydney barracks and set sail for Calcutta on four ships — Briton, Enmore, Lloyds and Royal Saxon. With 431 people on board, including 35 women and 43 children, Briton sailed smoothly.

A month-and-a-half later she called at Timor Island to replenish water and other provisions, and reached Singapore three weeks later. Briton then entered the Strait of Malacca, where she withstood some strong winds and squalls.

Briton faced some hostile weather the next month too, with the onset of the northeast monsoon. On November 10 winds turned into a raging storm and battered the ship before subsiding. The soldiers and crew cleared the debris and captured scads of birds — hawks, kingfishers and nightjars that were blown on board from nearby islands. After a brief lull, the storm returned vigorously. Briton rolled heavily. Soon, the quarter boats, meat safe and hencoops were blown away; one horsebox was thrown down the hatchway, snapping the horse’s forelegs.

The cyclone did not let up even the next day: Briton lost its longboat and cooking coopers, another horse was crushed in its box and several soldiers were injured while bailing out water from the ship. When the storm subsided partly, the men noticed a vessel behind them, about half a mile away.

The winds picked up again and amid thunder and lightning, Briton laboured and rolled. Despite the soldiers’ best efforts to prevent leakage, the lower deck was flooded by midnight. Briton trembled from stem to stern and looked like it would break any moment. Families of the soldiers gathered in panic; someone read from the Bible, and the group prayed for safety.

Shipwrecked

The night was pitch-black, almost nothing was visible. And then, during the flashes of lightning, the crew spotted trees — the ship had drifted ashore. The frightened souls on board were relieved. After a 50-hour-long stormy voyage, everyone was finally able to sleep.

The next morning, the 776-ton Briton was found perched high on the shore, in a mangrove swamp. About a quarter of a mile away from it lay the vessel that the crew had spotted the previous day. It was Runnymede, a troopship, transporting the 10th and the 50th Regiments of Foot of the British Army from England to Calcutta.

Runnymede had left Gravesend in England on June 20, 1844, with about 200 people on board, including 12 women and 14 children. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the vessel entered the Indian Ocean, called at Penang in October and left for her final destination on November 3. The cyclone in the eastern Indian Ocean badly hit Runnymede and finally threw her onto a reef of rocks.

Briton and Runnymede had wrecked on the same island — John Lawrence. It was unbelievable that almost everyone had survived the raging tempest. But it was not the end of the ordeal. The castaways were in the Andamans, a dreaded archipelago the very mention of which would send chills down any sailor’s spine. Several parties of seamen that had unwittingly landed or shipwrecked off these desolate islands in the past were never seen again.

Dreaded islands

The Andaman Islands were infamous as an abode of ferocious ‘cannibals’. Marco Polo, in The Travels of Marco Polo, portrays them thus: “[these] people are without a king and are idolaters and no better than wild beasts… all the men of this island have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! ...they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.”

Andamanese people catching turtles.

Andamanese people catching turtles.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

It poured on November 12. The crew assessed the damage and mustered the stock of food on Briton, a large portion of which — flour, bread and sugar — was already spoilt. All the animals and poultry, barring one pig, had either washed away or perished. The crew cooked and fed the famished passengers, who had eaten nothing in the past 72 hours barring a few biscuits and some rum.

Now a strong gale was blowing. Briton seemed stable and safe, but Runnymede was in a precarious state. Fearing that the ship might sink at night, all its soldiers, women, children and crew were accommodated on Briton.

The weather cleared up the next day. Runnymede, which had a fair stock of provisions, did not go down at night. Over the next few days, the soldiers and crew offloaded the food, cleared the jungle, dug wells and rigged up tents on the shore.

The castaways found the island hopelessly inhospitable. The weather was hot and the islanders hostile. Water was scarce and tasted bad; mosquitoes, flies and snakes were everywhere. Thick vegetation covered the island that bore no fruit or vegetable. There were, however, plenty of wild hogs and shellfish to keep the people alive — at least for some time.

Hostile reception

The island’s inhabitants, the Andamanese of the Aka-Bale tribe, surrounded two sailors who had gone to collect shellfish; the soldiers chased them away. At night, the indigenes tried to approach Runnymede but fled when shots were fired in their direction. One day, a fatigue party was ambushed while collecting shellfish on the beach.

The islanders’ unprovoked antagonism and the scarcity of food and water perturbed the castaways. Shellfish, initially abundant, quickly became scarce some two miles around the coast near the camp. The soldiers tried to befriend the indigenes so that they could procure food from them, but the latter remained implacably hostile.

In a quest for resources, some soldiers ventured deeper into the island. But the thick jungle and fear of getting ambushed held them back. The islanders desperately wanted to exterminate the castaways and ransack their ships for iron, nails and other useful material. But the soldiers’ muskets had so far kept them at bay.

Maladies were rife in the camp. Runnymede was turned into a hospital where some patients had already passed away. There seemed little hope of survival without assistance from outside. The carpenters, who were instructed to revamp the only remaining boat in sound condition, got it ready by the end of November. She was named The Hope. A party left the island for the nearest port.

The Hope departs in search of assistance.

The Hope departs in search of assistance.   | Photo Credit: Hullmandel & Walton Lithographers

The Hope was gone for 20 days, but there was no sign of succour. The marooned people were now nearly on a starvation diet.

In mid-December, an earthquake struck the island. Hardly had the tremor abated, when a man shouted from a lookout tree — “a sail! a sail!” Suddenly, the camp was in commotion, everyone wanted a glimpse of the sail. Runnymede’s ensign was hoisted and a gun was fired to attract the vessel’s attention. After two hours, a schooner approached the bay. The entire camp cheered, and the soldiers gave her a 12-gun salute.

The Hope had reached Mergui, an archipelago off southern Myanmar, in 12 days. The schooner then set sail, loaded with meat, rice, tea, sugar, salt, fish, yams, young buffaloes and ghee. The camp was euphoric.

On December 28, a brig and two schooners arrived with more supplies. In the next two days, two ships, Ayrshire and Elizabeth Ainslie, arrived. They left the island with the 80th Regiment within the next few days.

On January 3, another ship, Agnes Lee, arrived to rescue the remaining soldiers, women and children. That night, scores of Andamanese surrounded the camp. A picket opened fire to drive away the party; one brig zeroed in on a large gathering and fired two shots and a shell. The indigenes disappeared in panic.

Agnes Lee left two days later, ending the 55-day sojourn of the castaways on the hostile island. Before departing, the soldiers engraved a rock tablet with the names of their comrades who had died on the island.

Over a decade, the crews of many vessels had similar harrowing experiences in the Andamans — Emily (1849), Flying Fish (1849), Tenasserim (1852), Sesostris (1854) and Faiz Baksh (1855). Finally, the East India Company resolved to intervene. The British had first manoeuvred to colonise the Andamans in 1789 by establishing a settlement on Chatham Island in the southeast bay of Great Andaman. In 1792, the settlement was shifted to the northeast part of the island but the inhospitable climate led to its closure in 1796, and the islands were left alone for the next 62 years.

The regular massacre of crews was the excuse for the Andamans’ reoccupation, and this was expedited after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. A penal settlement was established at Port Blair in 1858, which expanded steadily and thrived until Japan colonised these islands (1942 to 1945) during WWII.

An Andamanese wedding ceremony.

An Andamanese wedding ceremony.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Extermination

The re-occupation of the Andamans created a haven for the shipwrecked crews — but it exterminated the islanders. When the Andamanese resisted the colonisation, punitive as well as friendly measures were undertaken to ‘tame’ them. Their organised resistance culminated in the Battle of Aberdeen on 17 May 1859, when scores of indigenes were annihilated.

Soon, the Andamanese were confined to ‘Andaman Homes’ where alien food, clothes, tobacco and alcohol were imposed on them. Consequently, epidemics — syphilis, measles, pneumonia, ophthalmia, mumps, influenza and gonorrhoea — critically depopulated them from 3,500 in 1858 to 90 in 1931. Of the 10 Andamanese tribes, six became extinct.

The Andamanese population in December 2017 was 56. These remnants of a once-strong hunter-gatherer community that inhabited almost all of Great Andaman are now confined to permanent settlements in Strait Island, where they survive on government doles.

Postscript

The Andaman archipelago, until it was colonised, remained terra incognita. The inhabitants of the islands were dubbed fierce cannibals. Their hostility towards strangers was interpreted as a manifestation of their inherent wickedness. In reality, it was nothing but a survival strategy. In the past, Malays, Burmese and Chinese had visited the Andamans for slaving expeditions; they had captured indigenes who they later sold as slaves in Ceylon, Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula. It created an enduring hatred and distrust among the Andamanese for all outsiders.

So the unprovoked attacks by the Andamanese on the castaways of Briton and Runnymede were only a reflection of their fear of strangers and their motives. A fear that was far from misplaced. Following the colonisation of the Andamans, the entire Aka-Bale tribe, which had inhabited John Lawrence Island for millennia, suddenly became extinct soon after 1931.

The author is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 10:52:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-harrowing-tale-of-two-british-ships-wrecked-on-an-andamans-island-in-1844/article30533448.ece

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