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Death and Life in the Andaman Islands

I’d been wondering about the Andamans and Nicobars. These are hundreds of small islands that rise out of the Andaman Basin northwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They stretch out five hundred miles towards the Bay of Bengal, and constitute a Union Territory of India with their capital at Port Blair. Most of the islands are uninhabited, the whole archipelago’s population only some 350,000. The people are mostly from the Indian mainland, but there are also “tribals” of what the New Delhi calls “Mongoloid” and “Negrito” stocks.

Negritos, dark-skinned, peppercorn-haired people of short stature, extend from the Andamans to the Malay Peninsula to the Philippines and even Taiwan. Their ancestors may well have been the earliest human inhabitants of Southeast Asia, and may have been isolated from the rest of humanity for as much as 60,000 years. Western accounts from the second century (Ptolemy) to the thirteenth (Marco Polo) describe those in the Andamans as cannibals. My first encounter with the Andamans was in Marco Polo’s book (Book III, Chapter XIII), which I read as a boy:

“The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you that all the men of this Island of Angamanaian [Andaman] have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are of a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.”

There seems to be no modern confirmation for these details. But they captured the European imagination, and dog-headed beings from the archipelago decorate early-modern maps. I remember the dog-faced men from the illustrations in the Yule-Cordier edition of the Travels of Marco Polo.

Coming under Indian rule in the seventeenth century, the islands fell under the administration of the English East India Company in the eighteenth, passing ultimately into the hands of the modern Indian state. But the indigenous peoples have largely resisted assimilation while their numbers have declined. The Negritos in the Andamans include the Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who, if they use fire at all, have only come to do so recently. Only about 200 remain, on the island of North Sentinel, protected by the Indian government which usually forbids even anthropologists from disturbing them. They are described by Indian authorities as “Paleolithic” and “hostile.” According to Adam Goodheart, “no none knows what language the tribesmen speak, what god they worship, or how their society is governed.”

The Andamans and Nicobars lay only a few hundred miles from the epicenter of the September 26 earthquake, much nearer than Sri Lanka, southeast India, or the Maldives. So watching for a week news coverage from those devastated regions, I waited with interest for some mention of the islands. I learned little but that radio contact with Grand Nicobar had been lost. But then the Boston Globe had a long article on the islands by Goodheart on Jan. 2, and I have found reports published since then. The picture they give is grim. 812 bodies had been buried or cremated in the islands as of Jan. 1, but on Car Nicobar, apparently the worst hit island, over 1,000 corpses lay scattered (Reuters, Jan. 3). “Twelve of 15 villages have been washed away,” an Indian general told Reuters. “Villages are ghost villages.” As of Jan. 1, according to the Indian government, of the 3,872 people still missing in India, 3,754 (98%) were from the islands (AP, Jan.1). Of the 1,500 on the island of Chowra, only 500 survive. No contact at all has been made with islands home to thousands more people. At least 16,000 homeless persons are now in camps.

Local people and international relief agencies have complained of bureaucratic delays in the delivery of aid. The Indian government has replied that its own efforts are of unprecedented scope, that foreign aid workers’ very presence would divert resources better used by the government for the afflicted, and that some of the food and clothing offered victims may be culturally inappropriate (Washington Post, Jan. 3). Maybe the government is right.

I think of the words of the occasionally interesting Soviet-era poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Not people die but worlds die in them.” It is one thing to lose tens of thousands from cultures that will endure, another to lose an entire culture that has endured tens of thousands of years. Even if it is one whose speech, god and government are unknown to us. Indeed, should the waters kill a small isolated tribe, they kill a world, denying us forever knowledge of it. What greater tragedy can nature inflict? And should human neglect and incompetence contribute to the extinction, what greater outrage could we (or those who govern us) visit upon ourselves?

But the happy news, from Press Trust of India, is this. A team from the Anthropological Survey of India reports Jan. 3 that the “five aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, our last missing link with early civilisation [sic], have emerged unscathed from the tsunamis because of their age old ‘warning systems.'” ASI director V. R. Rao informs us that the “tribals get wind of impending danger from biological warning signals like the cry of birds and change in the behavioural patterns of marine animals. They must have run to the forests for safety. No casualties have been reported among these five tribes [Jarwas, Onges, Shompens, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese].” If this is true, as one hopes, it suggests that the diminishing number of humans enjoying what Marx called “primitive communism” require not officials, anthropologists, missionaries or alien humanitarians for their happiness or survival so much as the right to be left alone in their Stone Age classless societies.

“No better than wild beasts,” wrote Marco Polo, reflecting his civilized and Christian biases. Perhaps that’s not so much of an insult. Stone Age humans in touch with nature, able to read its signs in birds and fish, may have much to teach those of us out of touch, and to abet the preservation of the whole species. But how to acquire their wisdom, without deluging them under ours?

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

 

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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