How a British orphanage in the 18th century hastened the destruction of the Great Andamanese tribe

The Andamanese were 10 strong groups before colonisation

October 27, 2018 04:30 pm | Updated October 28, 2018 12:10 pm IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

In August this year, the government removed the requirement for a Restricted Area Permit for 29 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which means foreigners get unrestrained access to the islands. The explanation behind the move is to encourage tourism, but if past experience is anything to go by, such rash ideas can destroy the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) that still survive precariously on the islands today.

It was precisely such insensitivity by the British in the 18th century that began the end of the tribal population on the Andaman Islands. The Great Andamanese tribe, now confined to Strait Island where they survive on government doles, once roamed and hunted in the vast jungles of the Andaman Islands.

In the aftermath of colonisation, except for the Sentinelese (estimated at 50), who continue to live uninterrupted on the isolated North Sentinel Island, all other indigenous communities — the Jarawa (498), the Onge (120), the Great Andamanese (56) and the Jangil (extinct by 1920s) — lost their traditional habitats and were critically depopulated. These communities are now on the verge of extinction and fall in the category of PVTGs.

Among them, the Andamanese, who were 10 strong groups before colonisation, came in closest contact with the British and they also suffered the most.

They came with ideas

The British came into the Andamans in 1789, establishing a penal settlement here that was subsequently abandoned in 1796 because of the inhospitable climate. Then, in 1858, the British returned, this time to Ross Island with prisoners from the Indian ‘mutineers’. The Andamanese fiercely resented this colonisation and conducted frequent raids, murdering convicts and plundering the settlement.

To contain the hostile indigenes, the British adopted a mixture of punitive and friendly measures. One such was tribal ‘homes’. In the early 1860s, the first ‘Andamanese Home’ was set up on Ross Island, with shelter, medicines and food, to ‘tame’ the Andamanese. “They must see the superior comforts of civilization compared to their miserable condition… we are in reality laying the foundation stone for civilizing a people hitherto living in a perfectly barbarous state, replete with treachery, murder and every other savageness,” wrote Colonel R.C. Tytler in 1863.

Everyone didn’t agree though. Maurice Vidal Portman, the officer in charge of the Andamanese in the late 1800s, noted that the “Andamanese were detained against their will… considerable and illegal pressure was put on them to keep them there.” Nevertheless, many such ‘homes’ were established with the mission of ‘civilising’ the Andamanese.

Then, in 1867, the Barrack Master of Fort William in Calcutta, Captain F.C. Anderson, wrote to the officer in charge of the Andamanese, J.N. Homfray, asking him to send two boys to be educated as interpreters. Homfray agreed, only stipulating that the boys remain away only for two years, that they be treated gently, never flogged or made to forget their language.

In November 1867, Anderson got two boys, ‘Kiddy Boy’ and ‘Topsy’. Soon, his intentions were exposed. He had not brought them to be trained, but to be exhibited. The boys were displayed to the public as ‘curiosities’ and taken to meetings. There’s a record of such a meeting in Asiatic Society.

“Do you propose to submit to Government any scheme for their support or clothing, or shall I pay for this? I am quite willing to do so, if Government refuses, but the terms upon which they have been sent to me are not what I had wished, as I cannot take them to England with me after I have spent time and money on them,” wrote Anderson.

The reprieve that wasn’t

The Governor-General decided to take the boys away. On May 9, 1868, he entrusted them to the care of Rev. Stern, the superintendent of Burdwan Boys Orphanage. Since the school here only taught Bengali, Stern decided to admit the boys to an English medium school so that they might be trained as Andamanese interpreters. No school would give them admission, though, so Stern started to teach them himself.

In 1869, Stern reported that the boys went out one evening and a neighbouring “gentleman” cajoled them to demonstrate their diving skills in a tank, to which they “unhappily” yielded. After the demonstration, the “gentleman” gave them liquor to warm them up. When the boys were discovered, they were lying inebriated on damp ground in wet clothes. Both got inflammation of the lungs.

The Andaman islanders in modern clothes.

The Andaman islanders in modern clothes.

Kiddy Boy recovered but Topsy died on July 31, 1869. A year later, Kiddy Boy too died, of pulmonary consumption.

The deaths were not a new occurrence. In the past, other Andamanese had met a similar fate. Nevertheless, these young deaths weighed on the conscience of many administrators. They decided to train Andamanese children in Port Blair itself. An orphanage and a school were set up on Ross Island, to modernise the young Andamanese by altering their lifestyles and introducing them to fixed agriculture.

That year, parents were bribed with presents and a few children brought to Ross Island. By the end of the year, there were 12 boys and 10 girls there, aged 3 to 13. By 1870, the number of boys and girls increased to 22 and 15. Besides personal hygiene, they were taught the alphabet and numerals, needlework, sewing, and making baskets, mats and nets. Every day, boys would receive instructions from gardeners, carpenters, washermen and tailors; while the girls concentrated on needlework and handicraft.

Taming the shrew

“Great hopes are entertained regarding the future of this institution as regards the regeneration of the race [the Andamanese],” wrote Homfray in a report. The children were also taught English, but they neither understood nor picked up the language. All of them were required to attend church on Sundays; some were also baptised.

In 1871, E.H. Man submitted the first annual report of the orphanage, finding it quite satisfactory. Then in 1872-73, when the home had 18 boys and 5 girls, one Mrs. Hilton reported: “The girls… are quite perfect in The Lord’s Prayer, Grace before and after meals, the three first answers of the Church Catechism, and the first lesson in the Bible.” She added: “The boys do not improve much… they do not take any interest in any kind of work. They read English tolerably well, and write it well, but they do not understand the meaning of what they read and write… school time over, they are at once longing to go off fishing.”

The next year, the orphanage was moved to Viper Island. But when 11 boys fled from here, an adult Andamanese was dispatched to bring them back and, fearing them running away again, the orphanage was shifted back to Ross Island. By now, their numbers were steadily dwindling, and it was clear the idea had failed. The boys often ran away, or were allowed to return to their jungle homes when they became too old for the orphanage. New youngsters replaced them. With limited supervision, they were left almost entirely in the hands of the convicts, to disastrous effect.

Quite a failure

The British attempt to inculcate a taste for settled life in the Andamanese by weaning away children from families, forcibly confining them to a home, teaching them English, numerals, crafts, cultivation, and domestic service was an abject failure. The youngsters longed to return home; they ran away; they were brought back; parents were persuaded to part with them using heavy inducements and gifts.

The schooling was culturally insensitive, careless of Andamanese needs or abilities. What they learnt was of little value in the tribal society to which they returned as adults. And taking them away from their families as youngsters meant that they failed to learn indigenous knowledge, life skills, oral histories, customs and cultural practices. They grew up misfits both at home and outside.

“Education makes little impression on the [Andamanese] men, and they are at all times willing and anxious to return to their savage state,” wrote Portman.

Officiating chief commissioner Major Protheroe decided to introduce reforms. He forbade the detention of non-orphaned children without their parents’ consent; 16 boys returned home. Of the nine who remained, “one boy died, one ran away, two were given to Mr. Metcalfe as servants, and five remained in the orphanage. The boys are treated easier with fewer lessons, and are allowed to go about in the jungle with the Catechist,” writes one Mr. Chard in the 1886-87 annual report. The next year, two older boys were exchanged for two young ones, while one boy was given away as a servant.

The home run

This is when Portman took charge. He decided to convert the institution into a ‘home’, where boys aged 6 to 18 would be brought and kept along with some married couples. Girls were placed in a separate place in the jungle near the settlement. In his 1891-92 report, Portman wrote that the number of Andamanese at the ‘home’ was 57, which increased to 81, with 11 married couples, by the next year.

Andaman islanders’ weapons on the inside walls of a British government house in the Andamans.

Andaman islanders’ weapons on the inside walls of a British government house in the Andamans.

Portman enticed the older Andamanese to stay back even after marriage in order to work for the British. Those who hankered for the jungle were given jobs in the fisheries or instructed to gather information about the indigenes for the administration. But the attempt to “civilise” or “tame” the hostile indigenes remained a disaster.

Among the worst things to befall the children was the policy of keeping them with the convicts. It exposed them to exploitation and other evils. The convicts sexually exploited the children and got them addicted to tobacco and alcohol. Here is a chilling British report:

“‘Lambert’ was led astray by the convicts, becoming very bad-tempered and evil-natured. He died of syphilis… ‘Bira’ used to drink, and committed unnatural crime with the convict… ‘Wologa’ was addicted to similar vices... ‘Jerry’ was a confirmed drunkard, a thief, and a general bad lot… ‘Joseph’, I fear, always will remain, a blackguard.” The indigenes became heavily addicted to alcohol and started selling off their bows, knives and other articles for paltry sums with which they bought alcohol. “It has been such a common amusement for a few people on Ross Island to make the Andamanese boys drunk that I have had to prohibit the Andamanese from visiting the Island,” wrote Portman.

Friends like these

In 1895, the chief commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Major Richard Carnac Temple, issued a statement, “It must be remembered that they [the Andamanese] are still savages, without self-control, and quick-tempered, and liable to commit, when under the influence of drink, acts of violence which might bring very serious trouble upon any person who might on enquiry be found to have supplied it.”

Some children adapted somewhat better to settled life and the English language. They were employed by the administration or given away as servants to British officers. Most of these children met with tragic ends. In one incident, a young Andamanese girl employed by a British officer was taken to New Zealand, where she developed a spinal disease due to overwork. She was brought back to Port Blair, encased in Plaster of Paris, but soon died.

The Andamanese had been the largest and strongest indigenous community, thriving until the islands were colonised. While habitat destruction and punitive measures played a role, it was their friendly relations with the British that ultimately exterminated them. From 3,500 in 1858, their numbers fell successively to 625 in 1901, 90 in 1931 and 45 in 1991. Now, there are 56 Andamanese.

Rationalising the expenditure incurred on the Andamanese, Homfray wrote in a report in 1867: “We have occupied Port Blair and Port Mout, where they [the Andamanese] used to live, restrained their liberty, and annexed their fishing grounds. The money is a government grant in consideration of a treaty of peace with the Andamanese.”

These moves, however, irreversibly altered indigenous lifestyles and proved deadly for the community. The Andamanese not only got addicted to tobacco and alcohol, they also contracted deadly diseases — pneumonia, syphilis, measles, mumps, diarrhoea, influenza and gonorrhoea — that prematurely wiped out a civilisation that had thrived for thousands of years.

In A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese (1899), Portman writes, “When we came amongst them [the Andamanese] and admitted the air of the outside world, with consequent changes, to suit our necessities, not theirs, they lost their vitality, which was wholly dependent on being untouched.” And then, he succinctly concludes, “the end of the race came.”

The author is a social science nomad who travels to remote places to dig out stories.

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