In August 1866, a brig named Futteh Islam sailed for Rangoon (Yangon) from Penang, Malaysia. The turbulent weather forced the captain to call at Nancowry harbour in central Nicobar. With a crew of 24, the brig anchored about a quarter of a mile from shore.
Soon, the indigenes of Nicobar, the Nicobarese, loaded their canoes with coconuts, vegetables and poultry and approached the vessel to strike an exchange deal for tobacco, alcohol, cloth and knives. The inhabitants of these isolated islands had established an early barter relation with the outside world through visiting ships. They were known to reach out to any vessel anchored off the islands.
Equations were fairly cordial between the Nicobarese and the Futteh Islam crew until the fourth day, when a group of 30 Nicobarese approached the ship. Their chief went on board to talk to the captain, while the rest waited in their canoes alongside.
After some time, the Nicobarese chief asked his men to bring him fire for his pipe, which they brought in a thick bamboo. The chief lit his pipe, and then, to the bewilderment of the captain, knocked him down with the bamboo. Within moments, all the men in the canoes boarded the ship with clubs and spears, and began an indiscriminate massacre.
Assured that the entire crew was slaughtered, the Nicobarese cleared the corpses, ransacked the vessel, and left for home to return later. That evening, three sailors, who had been hiding behind mats and logs of wood, emerged. They took control of the ship and after an arduous eight-day voyage, returned to Penang.
The authorities in Penang were aghast to learn about the unprovoked massacre of 21 crew members, and in June 1867, the British ship HMS Wasp sailed to Nicobar to make inquiries. At Nancowry, the captain of Wasp, Norman B. Bedingfield, saw two vessels anchored at harbour, engaged in trade with the tribal people. The master of one of these vessels told Bedingfield that many white women were enslaved on the islands, abducted by the Nicobarese from various ships.
Long and bloody history
The attack on Futteh Islam was not the first such incident in Nicobar. Several vessels in the past had met with a similar fate, some even worse. H. Bush’s Journal of a Cruise Amongst the Nicobar Islands , which was kept on board the schooner, L’Espiegle, in 1845, briefly recorded the footprints of piracy in the Nicobar.
On December 23, 1839, the whaler, Pilot, of London, had been attacked at Nancowry harbour. Both sides fought fiercely. Several indigenes were severely wounded, and of a crew of more than 40 on the whaler, only five escaped. Six days later, a ship reached Nancowry to rescue Pilot and avenge the crew. Twelve villages were destroyed and the inhabitants fled into the jungle.
In 1843, the Nicobarese had cut off a small craft at Nancowry and decimated its crew of 25. The following year, the schooner Mary was plundered at Teressa Island. The entire crew was killed and the vessel set on fire. The same year, another vessel was attacked at Nancowry harbour. The captain was killed but the Nicobarese fled after one or two were shot.
Bedingfield returned to Penang. On July 22, 1867, two British ships, Wasp and Satellite, commanded by Bedingfield and Capt. Edye, respectively, reached Nancowry for a punitive expedition. The vessels anchored near Trinket Island and landed a large number of seamen and marines. It terrified the inhabitants, who fled into the jungle.
The party inspected the abandoned huts and found plenty of material looted from ships — chests, sofas, cushions, gear and fittings, toolboxes, nautical instruments and arms. It confirmed the prevalence of piracy in Nicobar. Trinket beach also had a large number of war canoes. The party incinerated the village and the canoes and proceeded to Nancowry harbour. One unit of the Madras Native Infantry, which Satellite had brought, went on to occupy one of the largest villages. Here too, the inhabitants had already fled, and their huts were found stuffed with material, some of which had hardly any use for them.
In one hut, the crew found a copy of Albert Richard Smith’s The Struggles and Adventures of Christopher Tadpole , the flyleaf of which had an inscription written in a woman’s hand: ‘When shall we meet again? Perhaps never!’
The party captured some Nicobarese men, who revealed that all foreign captives, except for a little girl, had already been murdered. The girl and her mother were abducted from a French ship. The mother was abused and killed, but the girl was with Acheeup, the chief of Nancowry island.
Bedingfield and Edye resolved to rescue the girl. Two Nicobarese men were dispatched to Acheeup’s camp to warn him that the villages would be exterminated if the girl was not returned by noon the next day.
Acheeup, however, did not budge, so the party torched the war canoes on the shores, some of them 76 feet long and particularly spectacular. All the villages in Nancowry, barring three, were also burnt down. Acheeup’s village was deliberately spared. On July 26, two people were again sent to his camp. The chief eventually gave in and handed over the girl.
The captains wanted to collect more information about piracy in Nicobar. They coaxed Acheeup to come on board the Wasp by promising him safe passage to and from the ship. He complied, but yielded nothing substantial.
But there was ample evidence to conclude that piracy in Nicobar was a systematic and decades-long practice. The modus operandi was this: attack the ship, murder the entire crew, take women as captives, rob, and finally, scuttle the ship. Before leaving Nicobar, the British party burnt down many villages on Trinket and Kamorta to teach the Nicobarese a lesson and to prevent future attacks. The captured indigenes were also punished in varying degrees.
But the Nicobarese were not solely responsible for murder, robbery and scuttling of ships. In many instances, it was found that the sailors had provoked them. The attack on Pilot was the result of one such provocation. The Nicobarese attacked because the crew attempted to molest their women.
Such incidents turned the Nicobarese hostile towards all strangers. Also, the Malays, who lived in Nicobar during the dry season, were mainly responsible for planning and executing most attacks. They involved the Nicobarese by exploiting their hostility towards the outsiders.
Between 1837 and 1869, the Nicobarese attacked some 26 ships, the majority of which were under the British flag. But it was the Futteh Islam attack that particularly outraged the British and they resolved to colonise Nicobar. The Andaman islands had been colonised by them in 1789 but they had abandoned it in 1796 due to the inhospitable climate. Nicobar was under the control of Denmark, which had occupied it in 1756.
In 1868, the Danes transferred their rights over the island to Britain. The next year, Nicobar became an adjunct of the Andamans for administration and the establishment of a penal settlement. Three islands in central Nicobar — Nancowry, Kamorta and Trinket, infamous for piracy — were occupied and the British protectorate extended to other islands.
With the establishment of a penal settlement in Nicobar, trade resumed and the British established ties with the menluanas (witch doctors) and village leaders. The Nicobarese soon became friendly with the British and other outsiders.
Between 1869 and 1888, not a single case of piracy was recorded. But the penal settlement was a financial liability for the British, and the government shut it down in 1888. Nicobar remained a British colony until Japan seized it during WWII. After Independence, it became a part of India and was declared a tribal reserve in 1956.
The Futteh Islam incident had indeed a ripple effect on Nicobar. It precipitated the colonisation of the islands, which checked piracy, but also altered the indigenous communities forever. Once the Nicobarese received protection from the British against Malays and foreign sailors, they left piracy and established harmonious trade relations with outsiders.
The Nicobarese soon earned the reputation of being among the most honest, compassionate and peaceful people. And it is for these virtues that these pirates of the past are known today.
The author is a social science nomad who travels to remote places to dig out fascinating stories.