Creepy antics of British naval officer over 100 years ago had a profound impact on lost tribe.
“We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers.
He indulged his passion for photography by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions.
During his 20 years in a sexualised heart of darkness, Portman measured and catalogued every inch of his prisoner’s bodies, with an obsessive focus on genitalia.”
A tribe has been thrust into the spotlight over a missionary’s death. But if it wasn’t for one man’s creepy acts more than a century ago, it might never have happened.
A horrific legacy of bizarre sexual photographs, kidnappings, death and disease at the order of a British naval officer more than a century ago has been thrown into the spotlight after the recent death of a Christian missionary.
John Allen Chau’s bow and arrow slaying at the hands of one of the world’s few remaining truly isolated tribes has polarised opinion around the world.
The 26-year-old was killed by Sentinelese tribesmen, desperate to keep him from setting foot on their remote island home off the coast of India.
And, while some Christians believe the American missionary was martyred doing what he was born to do, many also believe he put himself and others at unnecessary risk by trying to enter a hunter-gatherer community notoriously suspicious of outsiders.
But this debate may not have happened at all if it wasn’t for the actions of one man from Canada who sailed the world in an attempt to pacify Andamanese islanders, including the Sentinelese people, between 1879 and 1901 at the command of the British Royal Navy.
It became a bizarre obsession for Maurice Vidal Portman, a naval officer, and his colonial cronies whose attempts to “civilise” the tribes turned into vile series of kidnappings, death, disease, and disturbing photographs.
In one of his books, which is available to read for free online, Mr Portman describes how he and his men stumbled across the North Sentinel Island’s people more than a century ago.
He describes the first time one of his cronies, Mr Homfrey, saw the Sentinelese people on their remote island home.
“He did not land, but saw ten men on the beach who were naked, with long hair, and were shooting fish with bow and arrows,” he wrote.
The Sentinelese are one of the world’s last “uncontacted” tribes whose language and customs remain a mystery to outsiders.
Other Andamanese islanders from a nearby island said their neighbours were “not friendly” to them due to an inter-island conflict many years ago.
This encounter and Mr Portman’s observation that the Sentinelese were different from nearby island cultures, in terms of weapons and dialect sparked a dark obsession.
“There is a tribe on North Senital Island, about which very little is known, though it is suspected to be quite a recent offshoot from the Little Andaman people, if indeed all communication between the two islands has actually ceased,” he writes later in the book.
He decided to pay the island a visit in January 1880 with his band of British, Indian, and Burmese convicts. The first trip went by without too much trouble, but a second visit just a few days later, was a disaster.
They ended up spooking the “timid” islanders, who reacted by aggressively driving him and his men away.
“This expedition was not a success …” he wrote. “We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers.”
This was because Mr Portman and his crew came across a family in a thick forest, who were freaked out by the sudden appearance of the strange visitors. A Sentinelese man drew his bow and a mass scuffle broke out.
“We caught three unhurt and brought them on board,” Mr Portman wrote.
The kidnapped group was then taken to the South Andaman Island capital of Port Blair “in the interest of science”.
“They sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents,” wrote Mr Portman.
It is likely that, like other isolated tribes and indigenous visited by colonisers, they had succumbed to diseases given to them by their kidnappers.
The experience failed to deter Mr Portman and it got much weirder.
According to an incredibly detailed Twitter thread by an anonymous and widely-followed lawyer, RespectableLaw, which has been shared more than 44,000 times on Twitter, it’s been suggested that Mr Portman became “erotically obsessed with the Andamanese”.
“He indulged his passion for photography by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions,” RespectableLaw wrote.
“During his 20 years in a sexualised heart of darkness, Portman measured and catalogued every inch of his prisoner’s bodies, with an obsessive focus on genitalia.”
He wrote that Mr Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time, but the story was “certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island”.
Survival International, a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal people, has suggested the impact of Mr Portman’s antics might have driven the Sentinelese tribe’s hostility to outsiders to this day.
“It is not known how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this ‘science’ but it’s likely that the children would have passed on their diseases and the results would have been devastating,” according to its website.
“It is mere conjecture, but this experience may account for the Sentinelese’s continued hostility and rejection of outsiders?”
Since Mr Portman touched down on the island, brief visits have been paid but the Sentinelese remain untouched by modern civilisation.
Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists succeeded in exchanging gifts and conducting field visits but abandoned their efforts some 25 years ago in the face of renewed hostility.
An Indian Coast Guard helicopter that flew over the island after the 2004 Asian tsunami was attacked with arrows.
The authorities then declared that no further attempts would be made to contact the Sentinelese.
They do make periodic checks, albeit from a safe distance, to ensure the tribe’s wellbeing, following a strict “eyes on, hands off” policy.
Veteran anthropologist T. N. Pandit who visited North Sentinel 50 years ago believes there should be no rush to make contact with the Sentinelese.
“Of the four Andaman tribal communities, we have seen that those in close contact with the outside world have suffered the most. They have declined demographically and culturally,” he told Down To Earth magazine in a recent interview.
The Sentinelese “are a highly vulnerable population and would disappear in an epidemic,” he added.
“The government’s responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense (that) no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone.”
The nearby Jarawas were the earliest tribe in the Andamans to be contacted by the British. The 2011 census estimated their population to be around 400.
They fiercely resisted contact with outsiders before opening up gradually in the 1970s. Some travel companies were accused of organising “human safari tours” so that tourists could catch a glimpse.
Some say the younger generation has even learnt bits of the Hindi language from frequent interaction with tourists. Some have taken up drinking and smoking.
In 2012, a video of a naked Jarawa woman dancing for tourists set alarm bells ringing and led to tightening of rules and enforcement.
And, in 2016, there were reports of a fair-skinned baby, assumed to have been fathered by an outsider, being killed by Jarawa men according to a custom of the tribe.
A History of Our Relations With the Andamanese
Maurice Vidal Portman, M.A.I.
Fellow of the University of Calcutta. Officer in charge of the Andamanese.
COMPILED FROM HISTORIES AND TRAVELS, AND FROM THE RECORDS OF THE GOVERNMENT OF INDIA.
This book has been written at the request of Lieutenant-Colonel R.0. Temple, C.I.E., Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who, on assuming that office in August 1894, was anxious that the records of the Government relations with the Andamanese, which were perishing, with all that had been written about this interesting race before our occupation of their islands, should be condensed into one work before it was too late.
After giving a description of the Andaman Islands, and of the appearance and customs of the Andamanese, I quote all that has been written about these islands from the earliest times up to the date of our first settlement on them in the last century ; and the present work, if not containing all that is known, at least has, between two covers, a larger number of the earlier records than any other by far, in addition to the assistance afforded me in this direction by Colonel Yule’s article on the Andaman Islands in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and by Mr. Man’s book, “The Andaman Islanders ”; copies have been made for me of documents in the libraries of the India Office, of the British Museum, and of the Home Department of the Government of India, in Calcutta.
I then include all that can be discovered regarding our occupation of the Andamans from 1789 to 1796, and am indebted to Mr. E.H. Man, C.I.E., for a copy of Lieutenant Colebrooke’e little known paper on the Andamanese, one of the most important extracts in the book; the few notices of the Andamaus which are found between 1796 and 1857 are then given, including the interesting account of the wrecks. Mr. E. H. Man, G.I.E., and Mr. F. E. Tuson, have also assisted me regarding matters which have occurred before I came to Port Blair, and about which the records are either silent, or are altogether missing.
M.V. PORTMAN, Officer in charge of the Andamanese.
PORT BLAIR, ANDAMAN ISLANDS; The 28th April 1896.
Position and physical geography of the Andaman Islands.
THE Andaman Islands lie in the Bay of Bengal, between the 10th and 14th Parallels of North Latitude, and between the 92nd and 94th Meridians of East Longitude. The Group of Islands is divided into the Great and Little Andaman, the former being subdivided into the North, Middle, and South Andaman, with the outlying Islands of Landfall, Interview, Rutland, and the North and South Sentinel; the Archipelago, and Labyrinth Groups. Including all the small Islets, however, there are 2014 Islands in the Andamans.
The Great Andaman, from Cape Price, the North end of the North Andaman, to the South end of Rutland Island, is 155 miles in length, and nowhere more than 18 miles in breadth. The Little Andaman, 26 miles by 16, lies 31 miles south of Rutland Island, the entire length of the Group being 219 miles.
The Great Andaman Islands are hilly, rising in the North Andaman to 2400 feet, in the Middle Andaman to 1,678 feet, and in the South Andaman to 1,510 feet. Numerous creeks intersect the islands and there are thnee Straits, Bombay, Middle, and McPhersons, which are navigable for vessels of less than twelve feet draught.
Eighteen miles to the westward of the South Andaman is the North Sentinel Island, and 36 miles south of that is the South Sentinel.
About 70 miles to the eastward of the Andaman lie Island of Narcondam, opposite the North Andaman, and Barren Island oppsiite the Middle Andaman. These belong to the Andaman Group.
Geologists are of the opinion that the Andaman are a continuation of the Arracan Yoma range. The older rocks are probably oldest Tertiary or late Cretaceous, though their exact age cannot be told in account of the absence of fossils. These rocks appear again in precisely the same form in the Nias Islands on the west coast of Sumatra.
The Sentinel Islands are also of this formation with super-stratum of coral.
There is a good deal of serpentine rocks in the islands, and jasper, chromite, and copper and iron pyrites are found, also small pockets of coal.
Rink remarks with regard to the newer rocks:
“The extreme uniformity of the strata indicates that these masses were deposited on the bottom of a quiet sea, probably not far from the mouth of a large river. There is not a trace to be found of local causes by which fragments of foreign rocks could have been brought into these deposits. The patches of coal have been derived from driftwood, which was deposited with the clay and sand.”
With regard to certain formations in the sandstone cliffs which may be seen at Port Campbell, on the West coast of the South Andaman, and at Redskin Island in the Labyrinth Group, he states :
“Some spheroidal masses seen sticking out of the cliffs, or regularly arranged in lines, are remarkable. They consist of a much harder substance than the greater part of the sandstone. This imbedded and more solid sandstone is identical in composition with the main mass, differing only by the calcareous cement being present in a larger quantity. This forms in some places round masses four feet in diameter, and because they resist decomposition longer, they protrude in the most varied forms out of the cliffs, and are strewed over the shore indicating the former place of the rock.
“One might, at first sight, suppose that these imbedded masses are, on account of their rounded form, pebbles of a foreign rock, but their composition shows that they have a similar origin with the rest of the sandstone, the only difference being that the calcareous matter, which pervades the whole mass, has been concentrated at certain points. The rounded form, moreover, could not be due to rolling about, for the concentrically laminar structure clearly shows that their exterior form is connected with their internal arrangement.”
Mr. B. D. Oldham states in “ Notes on the Geology of the Andaman Islands”:
“I can only distinguish with certainty two sedimentary formations in the Andaman Islands, which I propose to call the Port Blair, and Archipelago series, respectively.
“The Port Blair series consists principally of firm grey sandstone and inter-bedded slaty shales, not unfrequently containing nests of coaly matter, and, occasionally, beds of conglomerate and pale grey limestone as subsidiary members. The sandstone is the characteristic rock of the series, it is generally, if not always, non-calcareous, and is easily recognised, where exposed between tidemarks, by its peculiar mode of weathering, owing to irregular distribution of the cementing material, bosses of harder stone are left standing up above the general level of the rock, and these bosses are invariably irregularly honey-combed by the solvent action of the sea water.
“In several places I found red and green jaspery beds very similar to what occur in Manipur and Burma, but I was unable to determine whether any of those belonged to an older series or not. In part at least, they seem to belong to the same series as the sandstones and shales, in the midst of which they may be found cropping out, but it is by no means impossible that some of them belong to an older series, for, on the east coast of the South Andaman, close to the boundaries of the serpentine, south of Shoal Bay, I found great banks of conglomernte containing pebbles of similar jaspery rock ; it is of course possible that this conglomerate is newer than the sandstone, but the fact that, though found close to the serpentine it contains no pebbles of that rocks, indicates that it is probably of earlier date than the serpentine intrusions, and consequently probably of the same age as the Port Blair series.
“On Entry Island, and again in a small bay, not marked on the Marine chart, immediately south of Port Meadows, I found beds of volcanic origin. In the middle of the small bay just mentioned, a square rock composed of a breccia of pale green felsite, cemented by a matrix of felsitic ash, stands out of the water, and on Entry Island, among a series of rocks indurated and contorted so as to bafle description, there are some beds full of angular fragments, and apparently of volcanic origin. The age of these it is ditficult to determine; they seem to pass northwards into beds among which jaspery slate and limestone are to be found, and at the northern extremity of the island there is some intrusive serpentine, but at the southern end of the island near the top of the section, if I read it aright, I found in a bed of sandstone an isolated boulder, about a foot long, of a serpentinous rock, evidently derived from the serpentine intrusion. On the whole, it is probable that these are of later date than the Port Blair sandstones.
“The newer series, which I have called the Archipelago series, as the whole of the islands of the Archipelago are formed by it, consists typically of soft limestones formed of coral and shell sand, soft calcareous sandstones and soft white clays. with occasionally a band of conglomerate, the pebbles of which seem originally to have been coral, though no structure is now discernible. These beds seem to cover a large area in the Andamans.”
With regard to the Cinque Islands, the formation of which resembles that of Rutland Island, the South-east coast of the South Andaman, and part of the East coast of the Middle Andaman,he states:
“The Cinque Islands consist principally of intrusive rock of the serpentine series, but there are also some metamorphosed and indurated sedimentary beds; of these, some are siliceous, but for the most part they are calcareous, the most remarkable form being a green chloritic calcite or serpentinous matrix with numerous granules of crystalline calcite scattered through it; the rounded outlines of these granules seem to be due to attrition, and the crystalline structure to subsequent metamorphism. These rocks did not seem to me to belong to the Port Blair, but to the Archipelago series, and at the first blush it would seem as if they had been metamorphosed by the intrusion of the serpentine; fortunately, however, at one or two places, and more specially on the eastern face of the southern island, close to its northern end, there are exposures of a conglomeratic bed, in which the pebbles are of serpentine, and the matrix is fine-grained and very serpentinous. This conglomerate, both from its position and in duration, belongs to the same series as the other sedimentary rocks of the island, and proves that they are of later date than the Serpentine intrusion, and that in all probability their metamorphism is due to the contortion they have locally undergone.
The conglomerate just mentioned is a curious bed, not of the type commonly known as conglomerate, but exhibits that structure, usually considered due to the action of floating ice, which is seen in the boulder bed of the Talchirs, or the Blaini conglomerate of the Himalaya. The matrix is, or rather was, originally, a fine mud or clay, and through it the pebbles are scattered, not touching each other, but each isolated in the matrix.
“As regards the intrusive rocks of the Andamans, I have little to say; they are similar to those of Manipur and Burma, to the north, and of the Nicobars to the south, and, as far as I could judge from the manner of their occurrence, of certainly later date than the Port Blair series, the only section which seems to throw any doubt on this conclusion being the sandstones on Craggy Island. I have followed my predecessors in calling these rocks serpentine, that being the most prominent or remarkable form which they take, but they not unfrequently pass into crystalline diorite or gahbro.
“In tracing the Andaman rocks northwards to Burma, we have little difficulty in identifying the Port Blair series with the Negrais rocks of Theobald. Not only do they resemble each other in the petrographical features and relative proportions of their individual members, but the peculiar mode of weathering, where exposed between tidemarks, which I have remarked in the former, is matched by the sandstones of the Negrais Group, which have been described as usually presenting, when seen on the sea, beach, a ‘honey-combed or cancellated appearance, the result of a peculiar mode of weathering.’ “Unfortunately. the age of the Negrais rocks cannot be determined with accuracy, but they are believed to underlie and be associated with some beds of known immmulitic age, so that we may class the Port Blair rocks as Eocene or slightly older.
“Thus, whatever line we follow, we are brought up to the same conclusion, viz., that the Port Blair series is probably of early Tertiary, or possibly late Cretaceous age. and by tracing them southwards, we find that the rocks of the Archipelago series are probably of Miocene age or even newer.
. . .
It will be convenient, for the proper appreciation of the accounts of the Andamanese by various travellers which follow, that a brief general description of the people, their mode of life, customs, and superstitions, should be here given.
The Andamanese are divided into twelve Tribes, and these Tribes are grouped into three divisions.
1st. The North Andaman Group of Tribes, comprising: The Chériér Tribe, inhabiting the coast of the northern half of the North Andaman, and the adjacent islands. The Jéru Tribe, inhabiting the interior, and the southern half of the coast of the North Andaman, and the northern extremity of the Middle Andaman.
The Kédé Tribe, inhabiting the northern half of the Middle Andaman, and Interview Island.
The tribes composing this Group use the same bow, the “Chékio,” make comparatively small arrows, have similar ornaments, the same system of tattooing, and their languages are closely allied. They inhabit the country from Landfall Island to a line drawn through the Middle Andaman, from Flat Island on the West coast, to Amit-lzi-Téd on the East coast.
2nd. The South Andaman Group of Tribes, comprising: The Aka-Béa-da Tribe, who inhabit the coast of Rutland Island; the coast, and part of the interior of the South Andaman, south of a line drawn from Port Mount to Port Blair; Termugli and the other islands of the Labyrinth Group; the coast, and most of the interior, of the remaining portion of the South Andaman; Bluff and Spike Islands; and the West coast of the Middle Andaman up to Flat Island.
The Akar-Ba’lé Tribe, who inhabit the Archipelago lslands: The Pliohikwér Tribe, who inhabit all the country between Middle Strait and Homfray Strait, including Colebrooke, Passage, and Strait Islands ; and the Northern bank of Homfray Strait for a short distance inland.
The Aukéu-debi Tribe, who inhabit most of the interior of the Southern half of the Middle Andaman.
The Koi Tribe, who inhabit the coast, and adjacent islands, and part of the interior, of the, Middle Andaman, between Amit-léTéd and Pérléb.
The Tribes composing this Group use the same bow, the “Karama”, make similar large arrows, have the same kind of ornaments, the same system of tattooing, and their languages are closely allied. They inhabit that portion of the. Middle Andaman South of a line drawn from Flat Island on the West coast to Amit-lé-Téd, on the East coast; Bératén Island; most. of the South Andaman; the adjacent Islands to, and including, Rutland Island ; and the Archipelago Islands.
3rd. The Ongé Group of Tribes, comprising: The Ongés, who inhabit the whole of the Little Andaman Island. The people in the interior of Rutlaud Island, The Tribe in the interior of the, South Andaman. The Tribe on the North Sentinel Island.
The Tribes composing this Group have similar ornaments and utensils; use a kind of bow differing entirely from both the “Chékio” and “Karama”; make a different pattern of canoe; do not tattoo themselves; and have allied dialects. Some of these Tribes are also sub-divided into Septs, each Sept having a separate Headman, but all speaking the same language.
The Andamanese are also divided, irrespective of Tribal divisions, into the “A-yaladlo” or “Coast-dwellers,” and the “Erem-téga” or “Jungle-dwellers.”
(These names of course vary in the different languages, but the meaning in all is the same, and the above words of the Aka-Be’a-da language will be used, for convenience sake, when referring to all the tribes.)
Many tribes contain members of both these divisions.
In the South Andaman Group of Tribes, those Aka-Be’a-da living between Port Blair Harbour and Middle Strait, in the interior of the South Andaman, are Erem-téga. The remainder of the Tribe are Ar-yadlo.
All the Akar-Ba’le’ are Ar-yaladlo.
Those Plichikwér living in the interior of the Middle Andaman, North of Homfray Strait, are Erem-téga. The remainder are Ar-yaladlo.
Almost all the Akz‘tu-Juwoi are Erem téga.
All the Kii are Ar-yaladlo.
The Kédé Tribe is composed of both Abym‘oto and Erem-téga, according as they dwell on the coast or inland, the only Eremtéga, however, being the people in the interior of the Northern half of the Middle Andaman.
The Jéru Tribe is composed of both Ar-yaladlo and Erem-téga, but principally of the latter, the only Ar-yauta being those people living in Stewart’s Sound and on the West coast of the Southern part of the North Andaman.
The Chziriér Tribe is composed of Ar-yafoto only.
The Ongés no doubt have similar divisions, but at present we are only acquainted with what We may call the Ar-yaladlo.
The North Sentinel Tribe are Erem‘téga by nature, and Ar-yaladlo by force of circumstances; (indeed, comparing all the Tribes of the Ongé Group with the real Ar-yaladlo of the Great Andaman, this may be said of all of them.)
The Jz‘irawa Tribes on Rutland Island, and in the interior of the South Andaman, are Erem-téga.
The principal differences between Ar-yaladlo and Erem-téga, are the former residing chiefly on the coast, and obtaining their food principally from the see, are more expert at swimming and diving, fish shooting, etc., have a better knowledge of fishe and marine life, and are hardier and braver than the Erem-téga.
These latter are more expert at tracking, or finding their way through the jungle, at pig hunting, etc., have a better knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of the Andamans, but are timid and more cunning.
They are unable to harpoon turtle and dugong, and thus, while the Ar-yaladlo can do all that the Erem-téga can do, though often not so well, in addition to his own peculiar accomplishments, the Eremtéga is ignorant of much which the Ar-yaladlo knows. The two divisions are allowed to inter-marry.
Fights take place between subdivisions of the same Tribe, and between Ar-yaladlo and Erem-téga, who do not mix much.
. . .