Selling hell as a long-haul destination
by Dave Tomory
[ places - april 02 ]
When your ship comes in sight of the long jungled slope of South Andaman Island, you see what 17th-century pirates saw, what 19th-century convicts saw. And the last descendants of the Andamanese islanders who watched them from the shore may now be watching you. This part of the west coast is still theirs. The ship tracks the forest and the strip of beach for a time before turning hard to port and round into the harbour, in towards the town and the quay.
Like those pirates and convicts, I knew my landfall by reputation only. In 1997 I arrived from Madras with no knowledge whatever of the Andamans beyond a boyhood reading of the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Sign of Four. After a long pursuit down the Thames, Dr Watson confronts his Andamanese savage: "Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty - his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury."
Ashore in the Andamans, no such person was visible anywhere. In the outpost of progress that is Port Blair, it would be less surprising to run into Joseph Conrad. Shompen hunter-gatherers do not patronise the gloomily governmental Hotel Shompen. On the bus heading north along the border of the Jarawa reserve, an armed policeman rides shotgun. In the little Anthropology Museum hang black-and-white photos from the fifties. Small, naked, very black people ("Asian Pygmoid Negritos") gesture on a beach; beneath their picture is a stack of tools and totems. Once they wore their ancestors' skulls as jewellery. Little Andaman Island used to be so densely jungled that the fastest means of transport was from one tree to the next, by liana vine; today the remaining Onges live on welfare at Dugong Creek, and most of their jungle has been replaced by neat rows of oil and coconut palms. A tarmac road between domesticated native trees winds up the hill behind Port Blair towards an enclave of neat colonial buildings, where officials exiled to this last frontier sit and dream of Delhi. In the library I found no Sign of Four, but there was an entry under Andamans' in Hobson-Jobson, the old encyclopaedia of the British Raj. It listed a long history of imaginative defamation passed down from the first wild guess ("cannibal isles") in the second century, through Marco Polo ("men like mastiffs") in the thirteenth, and on to Conan Doyle and the present. A clear millennium separates the first eyewitness report ("their eyes have something terrible in them") from my schoolboy nightmares featuring the ghastly Tonga and his blowpipe.
These hunter-gatherers, with a material culture of wood and bone, pre-Stone Age, and speaking the original languages of South-East Asia, came by their dire reputation by an accident of location. Since antiquity the archipelago has been unmissable, a thousand-kilometre-long arc of three hundred islands sprawled across the trade routes that link India and Sri Lanka and Burma. The southern group, the Nicobars, lie off the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, the principal seaway from China to India and Europe. But the equatorial monsoon, and the cyclones which turn the seas of the Bay of Bengal into one long storm warning from May to December, drench the Andamans and then drain away: there are no permanent streams anywhere. Before chainsaws and bulldozers, the trees in the primeval rainforest were nearly impossible to extract. Lacking wood and water, the islands had no obvious use and were left unclaimed - except by rumour and hearsay - until the late 18th century. The only regular visitors were pirates and slavers - from the first, Malays, who named the islands Pulo Handuman, after the Indian monkey god Hanuman. These traders in human misery were the islanders' only contact with an outside world that otherwise had vanished over the horizon millennia ago when the oceans rose and turned their Burmese mountains into islands. For centuries, then, the Andamanese failed to meet a better class of seafarer: unsurprisingly, a gazetteer of the 1890s describes them as "fierce, morose and intractable". No shipwrecked sailor ever survived; iron salvaged from wrecks made points for five-foot-long arrows.
Since the 1950s some islands have been stripped bare, war on malaria has made them inhabitable, and Indian immigration (to a present level of 400,000) has populated them. But where the rice paddies end, the rainforest begins, and still, every month, a settler falls to an aboriginal arrow. No one has ever met the people of North Sentinel Island, because the crocodile mangroves and forest canopy repel boats and helicopters, and the islanders shoot on sight.
In 1788, the surveyor Captain Archibald Blair sailed from Calcutta to map the islands and begin a penal colony, the type of civilisation considered appropriate to the Andamans' reputation as a tropical hellhole. England already had Botany Bay in its colony of Australia; now its principal colony of India had a Botany Bay of its own. Promptly the islands were converted from terra incognita into exclusion zone: no unauthorised person was allowed to land or leave. Isolation and mystery had created the cannibal legend; now isolation and mystery, plus the cannibal legend, created a useful receptacle for the refuse of empire. Hundreds of the first transportees, rebel soldiers from the 1857 Mutiny, arrived and immediately escaped into the jungle, none successfully. From the beginning, the Andamanese routinely shot fleeing convicts, despising them as slaves. But on occasion did take them in, and were rewarded with syphilis, influenza and other imported diseases which by the turn of the 20th century reduced them from thousands to dozens.
By 1900, the Andamans were a tropical dystopia. There were no respectable colonists, as there were in Australia, to offend: the penal colony based on Port Blair, exclusively a town of jailbirds, would survive halfway into the new century and outlive Botany Bay by a hundred years. Its penitentiary, the Cellular Jail, was modelled on Pentonville in London, and held seven hundred of the most intractable of the colony's fifteen thousand convicts. Its quality of claustrophobia might have impressed Edgar Allan Poe. The convict (a murderer, bandit or 'political') sat out his sentence alone in an unlit cell nine feet square in a maximum security jail in a convict town surrounded by hostile jungle on an island in the middle of the ocean.
Immediately following the assassination in 1872 of the visiting Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, by a vengeful Pathan barber, the British administration began to develop tiny, defensible Ross Island, remodelling it into an equatorial Bournemouth with gardens, an ice factory and bakery, a church, tame deer, tennis courts and a cricket pitch. On Sundays, a convict band in arrowed uniforms played Protestant hymns and The Girl I Left Behind Me. This idyll survived until 1942, when Japanese marines came ashore to find the islet hurriedly abandoned and the British gone, except for the Deputy Superintendent, whom they publicly executed, along with a popular Sikh doctor and several members of the Punjabi Literary Society. The three-year Japanese occupation became notable for its erection of dozens of concrete blockhouses in the jungle, and for more, panicky, executions of alleged conspirators: in August 1945, six hundred men were thrown overboard off Havelock Island. In the only documented instance of cannibalism in Andaman history, two men survived by consuming the drowned.
In 1943 the Japanese had flown in, for a two-day visit, the famous Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. By the harbour wall near the velodrome his huge bronze statue, dressed in the style of Mussolini, points towards the homeland that he would never see again. His visit made the Andamans the first part of free India, turning the dread archipelago (long known as Kalapani, the Black Water) into a patriotic symbol and an object of historical pilgrimage that Indian tourists have found much more enticing, so far, than the carefree funland of Tourism Development Corporation dreams. The velodrome has no bicycles; the open Olympic pool is a cauldron; the imported hobby yachts rot on the beach for lack of sailors. Bose towers over them all. In death he is victorious. At the parade for his birthday celebrations in 1997 I watched a papier-mache shark go by, mounted fore and aft on rickshaws and plastered all over with posters for Kalapani, the movie. The posters portrayed a kneeling man in convict garb, in the shaming act of kissing a shiny black military boot. Long queues formed for the Cellular Jail son-et-lumière show every evening, and when I left, Kalapani was still playing to full houses.
Ross Island never was reoccupied after Indian Independence in 1947, though its atmosphere of pure homesickness will linger forever. Its buildings have been gradually disassembled in the decades since by strangler vines (the church's font is now part of a tree), and feral deer bed down in the officers' club. The Japanese blockhouses were home for a while to the remaining, opium-addicted, local tribesmen, until they were moved to Strait Island, tin huts, welfare, and extinction.
With few other means of income, there will have to be tourism - ecotourism is a buzzword in Port Blair - but there is still nostalgia for the old-style ravaging of nature. Enthusiasm for logging the rare hardwoods of the tribal reserves (all owned, in fact, by the Forest Department) is greater than that for investment in modern infrastructure. The lone bulldozer sent to extend the airport runway has left raw red scars in the earth that the next monsoon will decorate with fresh foliage. It grinds on towards the bright tourist future, as it must, but haltingly, as if it hears the Andamans' heart of darkness still beating.
As they used to do in India, pedestrians in Port Blair saunter across wide avenues in front of wallowing old Ambassador cars; portly shopkeepers in white safari suits smooth the morning paper, the Daily Telegrams, over the counter. The majority of immigrants, though, have the harder life, in the raw farmlands up the Trunk Road, or somewhere in a clearing by the sea where the supply boat calls once a week and pythons doze by the roadside. The pioneer farmers wish, as they eye the dark surrounding forest, that its inhabitants would simply disappear. Their wish will come true in our lifetime, probably - leaving behind an inescapable shadow, not to mention the dogged defenders of North Sentinel Island. In these days of human rights, if the developers and civilisers and settlers wish to further dispossess the survivors of this rare and ancient people, they have to go to court. Rights activists monitor the tribal reserves. The Andamanese are powerful as never before, as they vanish - but they always knew that the spirits of the dead, impiously treated, grow more powerful.