Essay

That house of horrors

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IN February 1863, a Chinese birds’ nest collector anchored his boat at North Point in the Andamans. Soon, the inhabitants of the islands – the Great Andamanese – sighted the boat and swam up to it. The Islanders appeared genial. They started dancing, and at the same time, kept purloining whatever they could get hold of on the boat.

This news reached Colonel Robert Christopher Tytler, the superintendent of the British penal settlement in the islands. At his behest, an officer named Paul disguised himself as a Burmese, and reached North Point with presents of coconuts and plantains. That evening, two Great Andamanese approached the boats. One, named King John, looked askance at Paul and the presents, and said something to the other. Both retreated to the shore, deciding not to return. Later, around thirty Great Andamanese took the bait, and swam up to the boat. They were devouring food, when, suddenly, the boat sailed. Several sprang overboard in fright.

Eleven Great Andamanese were kidnapped that day. They were brought to Ross Island, where the British naval brigadesmen pantomimed a murder to explain to them the reason for  their detention. While nine Islanders were released immediately, two – Jumbo and Snowball – were taken prisoner. Both were held responsible for committing the gravest of all crimes – an Englishman’s murder.

The Andamans, until their colonization, had remained shrouded in mystery. In 1789, the East India Company set up a settlement on Chatham Island on the southern Bay of Port Cornwallis (now called Port Blair), which was transferred to the North East Harbor in 1792. An inimical climate and high mortality rate led to its unforeseen closure in 1796; the islands were left alone for the next 62 years. After the Great Rebellion, the British founded a penal settlement in the Andamans for the Indian dissidents. Two hundred political prisoners reached the remote archipelago in March 1858. Their number grew exponentially over the years. Soon, the vast tracts of pristine jungles were cleared; the traditional homelands of ‘savages’ were ravaged. A once-feared abode of ferocious ‘cannibals’ had now metamorphosed into a nefarious British penal colony.

The Islanders valiantly resisted the Empire. But their bows and arrows were no match to the enemy’s muskets. Scores of indigenes were massacred and cornered in no time. The British adopted a mix of punitive and friendly measures. And, by early 1862, they succeeded in establishing ‘friendly relations’ with some Great Andamanese. These overtures, however, abruptly turned sour the following year.

On 28 January 1863, the British naval brigades-men had reached a Great Andamanese camp at North Point to seal ‘friendly relations’ with the ‘savages’. Around thirty Islanders surrounded the party in a cordial manner. Everything went as planned until the Great Andamanese seized a petty officer named James Pratt and shot him to death with their arrows. An indiscriminate firing into ‘the mass of savages’ ensued, exterminating an unknown number of men, women and children.

Back at the settlement, the news of an Englishman’s murder had enraged Tytler. While reporting the incident to the Government of India, he portrayed the Islanders as ‘a race of treacherous cold-blooded murderers, assuming the garb of friendship for the purpose of carrying out their diabolical plans’. Tytler wanted an exemplary vengeance. And now that the culprits were finally apprehended, he was keen to banish them from the Andamans.

On 31 March 1863, two Great Andamanese visited Ross Island where Jumbo and Snowball, in heavy brass shackles and leg irons, were chained to the station signal gun at the Naval Brigade barracks, awaiting transportation to Calcutta’s Alipore Jail. Robbed of their freedom, both were pining away in misery. The harrowed visitors ‘begged hard’ for the captives’ freedom. Then they implored the British to at least remove the captives’ fetters. But when nothing moved the British, the visitors eventually left heartbroken.

Sundered from their homes, families and friends, Jumbo and Snowball spent time lying on the stone floor in the verandah of naval barracks where weeks and months felt like an eternity. Among their tribespeople, they were worthy men. But, here, on Ross Island, they were merely objects of idle curiosity who flocks of people would regularly come to see as if they had come to visit wild beasts in a menagerie.

In April 1863, Tytler, upon further investigation, realized his lack of judgement. Pratt’s murder was not unprovoked. That fateful day, soon after reaching the camp, Pratt had essayed to rape a Great Andamanese woman. The disgraceful act of a fellow white man turned the table on Tytler. But his visceral prejudice against the Andamanese got the better of him.

The Islanders, for millennia, had lived in the Andamans as free as birds. But Tytler perceived them nothing more than a fossil – a ‘truly savage’ race. He decided to confine and ‘civilize’ them. ‘There is no doubt that their [Snowball and Jumbo] retention here has been productive of good results, for the aborigines, ever since we have had these two men in custody, have behaved themselves in a most unusually inoffensive manner,’ Tytler wrote to the Government of India on 6 May 1863.

Sometime around May or June that year, Jumbo’s wife – Topsy – and a boy named Sambo arrived at Ross Island. A small hut was built where all the Great Andamanese were kept under the watchful eyes of guards. An officer named Henry Fisher Corbyn started teaching English language to Topsy and Sambo. His methods, to say the least, were inhumane. The Islanders began to complain of headaches and often shouted in protest. But Corbyn only intensified his ‘coercive measures’. The Great Andamanese were often slapped. They also tried to hit back in retaliation. And when they could not, they hurled abuses. The torture was too much for the ‘savage boy’, who ‘one day brought with him a bodkin, and… pointed it at my eyes with a sign that he would pierce them with it, unless I gave up that obnoxious mode of teaching him’ described Corbyn.

Jumbo and Snowball were also taught alphabet and basket making. In the meanwhile, several Great Andamanese were induced to visit and live with their friends on Ross Island. Many arrived. More huts were built. The ‘enclosure’ was named as ‘Andaman Home’, of which, Corbyn became the first officer-in-charge.

The British were tightening their grip on the hitherto free people. By June 25, they had confined around twenty-eight Great Andamanese. ‘A much higher object might be attained in the compulsory confinement of these savages than merely impressing them with a sense of our liberality’, rationalized Corbyn.

Tytler did not want the (confined) Great Andamanese to ‘run wild in their woods’ again. ‘The aborigines, from our experience of them, have proved themselves to be a truly savage, treacherous, and ungovernable race of people, devoid of civilization, in every sense of the word’ he cautioned Corbyn on 30 June 1863. By keeping the ‘savages’ in ‘custody as hostages’, the superintendent wanted to secure a ‘better behaviour’ of these ‘inhospitable people’ towards his settlement.

Tytler’s politics was simple – lure the ‘savages’ to the ‘Andaman Home’ by offering them food, and then scare them into submission. To make the Islanders feel insignificant, he demonstrated to them the destructive power of the British Empire.

One day, Tytler showed them a pocket revolver, with which he shot six bullets into a tree. The horrified Islanders ‘quake[d] with fear’. How could something, so small, be so lethal? They wondered! The incident had its effect. ‘If I point one at them, they implore me to desist, or at once jump out of the way in dread’, wrote Corbyn.

That year, the ‘savages’ saw things beyond imagination. Word spread from one islander to another. Soon, they realized how fragile they were. ‘The savages have conceived such an exaggerated estimate of our capabilities of destruction, that twenty armed Natives or Europeans would put to instant flight a thousand of them,’ wrote Corbyn.

Corbyn ventured deeper into the jungles. Those were perilous expeditions. But he had Topsy and other Great Andamanese by his side. ‘Condemned’ biscuits and rice, ‘defunct cattle’, coconuts, plantains, pigs, looking glasses, knives, and ‘refuse commodities’ were distributed generously to break the ice. ‘We gave them a bag of condemned biscuits which had been thoroughly soaked with saltwater, and so long lying in the Commissariat storerooms that they had formed into lumps which were mildewed and filled with maggots,’ wrote Corbyn. Thus, contacts with several Great Andamanese were established.

The taste of alien food enticed many to the ‘Andaman Home’. The squeaks of the pigs were ‘the best bait’. ‘They shouted and danced wildly, and unable to resist the spell plunged through the surf and soon surrounded the boat, throwing in their bows and arrows, and calling ‘Mio’ [Maia, Sir] ‘Rago’ [Pig]’, narrated Corbyn.

In return, the Islanders were induced and often compelled to give away their bows and arrows. Skulls and other remains of ancestors were stolen or forcefully taken away from huts for museums and science. On seeing the British party, the Islanders had now begun to hide their possessions.

They loathed the British. But, above all, they feared them – their power to unleash massacres. The Islanders began to cave in without much resistance. ‘An aged woman… talked loud and angrily, as if cursing. I made the usual salutation which she returned, but after doing so gnashed her teeth close to my hand, and then contemptuously flung it from her, as much as to signify that she had a good will to bite and tear me if she could. She exhibited the same animosity to other Europeans’, Corbyn narrated an incident.

‘It is not any particular love of us, but chiefly the greed of food which tempts them to the Settlement’, wrote Corbyn. Sure, food tempted them. But that was not it. The Islanders had their own reasons. When Jumbo was kidnapped, Topsy resolved to follow him to the enemy’s stronghold. She played docile, accompanied the British on several contact missions (even in the territory of the archrival Jarawas) and acted as their guide, interlocutor and savior in the wild. She endured everything. And all that was only for love’s sake.

Topsy and Jumbo were madly in love – two souls indivisible. ‘She screamed and cried, and clung to her husband Jumbo, and appealed with tears to Colonel Tytler not to allow them to be separated, and when we pulled away from the island, she kept her eyes fixed on the beach, and shouted to Jumbo who ran along the shore and responded to her cries till we were out of hearing’, Corbyn narrated one incident.

Likewise, other Great Andamanese also visited the settlement because their chiefs were incarcerated there. The Islanders shared deep community bonding. Even the British, who contemptuously caricatured them as ‘savages’, were surprised to see their love for one another. ‘I never knew people more eccentric in their affection. They will sometimes, when they meet again after only a night’s separation, fall on each other’s necks and weep most affectingly, though they have been at the same time on the same island, and separated only by the distance between my house and the Andaman Home’, wrote Corbyn.

In July 1863, the ailing Great Andamanese chief, Snowball, was released. Two pigs were given to his tribe to celebrate the occasion. By the year’s end, many Islanders ended up in the ‘Andaman Home’. Their numbers soared; upwards of forty in February 1864. But all was not well on Ross Island. Despite slogging away alongside the convicts in ‘clearing sites’, ‘making thatching and bamboo framework’, construction, piggeries, cattle sheds; the indigenes received meagre facilities. A cowshed was their ‘only dwelling’. And when they attempted to go home, ‘parawallahs (policemen) would restrain them.

The Great Andamanese meeting (right) and parting (left). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Islanders loved painting (and tattooing) their bodies with clay. A substitute for clothing, it prevented them from chills. But, to Tytler, those were ‘degrading’ and ‘barbarous’ practices that he strictly prohibited on Ross Island. The sudden change in diet and lifestyle, forced confinement, and mental and physical torture, took their toll on the Islanders. Soon ‘severe illness’ broke out, and many began to perish.

Conditions worsened; several indigenes began to escape. Parawallahs’ strengthened their surveillance. Intoxicants were used as deterrents. And many Islanders were chained. ‘The Andamanese were detained against their will in the Andaman Home… considerable and illegal pressure was put on them to keep them there’ wrote M.V. Portman.

Despite ‘strict watch’, all the Great Andamanese managed to flee on March 1. Many swam off distances in irons. Corbyn followed them to North Point where Jumbo and Topsy were apprehended. ‘If the escaped Andamanese did not make their appearance to-morrow we should inflict summary chastisement on Jumbo’, he threatened Topsy and took her husband hostage.

That night, Jumbo was mad with rage. Even five men could not control him. The British were anxious that if Jumbo escaped, they would lose their influence on the ‘North Tribe’. Jumbo was chained up. As long as he was retained, the British had control on his tribe, and several Great Andamanese would have come to Ross Island to live with him.

Soon, the Islanders were made to return. Several accompanied Topsy. On March 7, Corbyn, along with Jumbo, went for a search towards Port Meadows and brought back six Great Andamanese. In the meanwhile, Topsy and other Great Andamanese had again run away.

About three weeks later, a corpse washed ashore on South Point. Corbyn surmised it was a young Great Andamanese lady, Annie. Later, Annie was found alive. The dead was Topsy. That day, while her husband was away, the ‘harshness and worse’ of ‘parawallahs’ made Topsy jump into the ocean for safety. But ‘being weak at the time’, she could not make it alive to the nearest shore.

By April, around 17 Great Andamanese were brought back. But they were again hankering to escape. Tensions escalated. Now a face-off between parawallahs’ and the Islanders was inevitable. That month, the anxious British selected two sites on the mainland shores, around three to four miles away from Ross Island, and quickly set up two outpost ‘Homes’. The (old) ‘Andaman Home’ was abandoned. That house of horrors, and the ‘repressive policy’ which it epitomized had proved to be a catastrophe.

But all was not yet over. In fact, it was merely the beginning of the Great Andamanese end. Soon, thousands were dead before their time; largely due to deadly epidemics –pneumonia, syphilis, ophthalmia, measles, mumps, Russian influenza, gonorrhea. Estimated conservatively at 3,500 in 1858, the Great Andamanese were reduced to 90 by 1931; and even fewer lived to see the fall of the Empire in 1947.

Later, it was found that Jumbo and Snowball were ‘unjustly punished’. Pratt was shot down by an islander named Jacko whose wife he had attempted to rape. ‘There is not a man in the Brigade, (I am told so by themselves), who believes that either Jumbo or Snowball had anything to do with Pratt’s death’, wrote Major Barnett Ford, the new superintendent of the settlement.

Snowball passed away early. But Jumbo lived long. And, when, in 1882, that ‘very old man’ died, the memories of Topsy were also put to rest forever. Nothing in the Andamans now indicates that once here lived a brave Andamanese woman named Topsy, and that she was a terrific lover. But the islands do remind us that here once came a man and a woman of power – a popular beach (Corbyn’s cove) and the second highest peak (Mount Harriet) in the Andamans are named after Corbyn and Harriet Christina Tytler.

The latter, Tytler’s wife, ironically, never liked these islands.

Ajay Saini

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