Ramblings & ephemera

Colonialism at its most obvious

From Adam Goodheart’s “The Last Island of the Savages” (The American Scholar, Autumn 2000, 69(4):13-44):

Then [in the 1860s], suddenly, the hostilities [by the Andaman Islanders] ceased almost entirely. There was one cataclysmic battle – fifteen hundred naked warriors came charging out of the jungle, straight up against the guns of a British warship, with predictably ghastly results – and after that, only a few desultory clashes. Quite unaccountably, the natives started wandering out into the settlement and behaving like friends: odd, bright-eyed little people whose merry air suggested that they had forgotten there had ever been bloodshed. The Andamanese would ask for gifts (coconuts, bananas, and, before long, tobacco and liquor) and make amiable sport with the British soldiers, plucking at the brigadesmen’s red coats and pulling on their whiskers. They even began coming voluntarily to live in the “Andamanese Home,” an institution for their welfare that the British established on Ross Island.

But in some ways, their presence was now even more nettlesome than it had been before. The Andamanese had certain noteworthy talents, but few that could profitably be applied to the needs of a colonial settlement. They were excellent bow-men, amazingly proficient swimmers (some could even shoot arrows accurately while treading water), uncanny mimics, and skilled jungle trackers, able to communicate across miles of forest by banging out signals on the buttress roots of certain trees. So the British put them to use hunting down escaped convicts – a reasonable occupation, though hardly enough to occupy them full-time. A few of the natives were employed as nannies, since it was quickly noticed that they were remarkably affectionate with children, the Europeans’ as much as their own. Others were kept as objects of amusement in Port Blair households, to be dressed up and coddled – at least until their masters’ tours of duty ended, when they were left to fend for themselves. “The Government of [British] India,” one official noted approvingly, “[has] adopted a policy towards the aborigines of the Andaman Islands which has made them, above all races of savages, the most carefully tended and petted.” Here are some names given to Andamanese in the nineteenth century by the British, which I came across in various old documents: Topsy, Snowball, Jumbo, Kiddy Boy, Ruth, Naomi, Joseph, Crusoe, Friday, Tarbaby, King John, Moriarty, Toeless, Punch, Jacko, Jingo, Sambo, and Queen Victoria.

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