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Andaman Islands

The Andaman Islands form a group of islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are a part of India. Port Blair[?] is the chief community on the islands. Large and small, there are 204 islands. They are located 950 km. from the mouth of the Hugli River[?], 193 km. from Cape Negrais[?] in Burma, the nearest point of the mainland, and 547 km. from the northern extremity of Sumatra. The length of the island chain is 352 km. and its greatest width is 51 km. The overall land area of the Andaman Idands is 6496 sq.km.

The five chief islands over a distance of 251 km., are known collectively as "the great Andaman." These are from north to south: North Andaman, Middle Andaman, South Andaman, Baratang and Rutland Island. Four narrow straits part these islands: Austin Strait, between North and Middle Andaman; Homfray's Strait between Middle Andaman and Baratang, and the north extremity of South Andaman; Middle (or Andaman) Strait between Baratang and South Andaman; and Macpherson Strait between South Andaman and Rutland Island. Of these only the last is navigable by ocean-going vessels.

Table of contents

Physical Geography

Together with the chief islands are, on the extreme North, Landfall Islands, separated by the navigable Cleugh Passage; Interview Island, separated by the navigable Interview Passage, off the West coast of the Middle Andaman; the Labyrinth Island off the southwest coast of the South Andaman, through which is the navigable Elphinstone Passage; Ritchie's (or the Andaman) Archipelago off the East coast of South Andaman and Baratang, separated by the wide and safe Diligent Strait and intersected by Kwangtung Strait[?] and the Tadma Juru (Strait). Little Andaman, roughly 42 km. by 26, forms the southern extremity of the whole group and lies 50 km. South of Rutland Island across the Manners Strait, the main shipping route between the Andamans and the Madras coast. Besides these are a great number of islets lying off the shores of the main islands.

The principal outlying islands include the North Sentinel, a dangerous island of about 73 sq. km., lying about 29 km. off the west coast of the South Andaman. About 29 km. west of the Andamans are the dangerous Western Banks and Dalrymple Bank, rising to within a few fathoms of the surface of the sea and forming, with the two Sentinel Islands, the tops of a line of submarine hills parallel to the Andamans.

114 km. northeast of Port Blair we find the remarkable marine volcano, Barren Island (351 m.), which became active again in 1991 after being quiescent for almost two centuries. The equally curious isolated mountain, the extinct volcano of Narcondam, rising 710 m. out of the sea, is 114 km. east of North Andaman. Also some 64 km. to the east is the Invisible Bank, with one rock just awash; and 55 km. southeast of Narcondam is a submarine hill rising to 689 m. below the surface of the sea. Narcondam, Barren Island and the Invisible Bank, a great danger of these seas, are in a line almost parallel to the Andamans inclining towards them from north to south.


The islands forming Great Andaman consist of a mass of hills enclosing very narrow valleys, the whole covered by dense tropical jungle. The hills rise, to a considerable elevation: the chief heights being in the North Andaman, Saddle Peak (732 m.); in the Middle Andaman, Mount Diavolo behind Cuthbert Bay (511 m.); in the South Andaman, Koiob (459 m.), Mount Harriet (364 m.) and the Cholunga range (324 m.); and in Rutland Island, Ford's Peak (433 m.). Little Andaman is practically flat. There are no rivers and few perennial streams in the islands. The whole of the Andamans and the outlying islands were completely surveyed topographically by the Indian Survey Department under Colonel Hobday in 1883-1886, and the surrounding seas were charted by Commander Carpenter in 1888-1889.


The coasts of the Andamans are deeply indented, giving existence to a number of safe harbours, which are often surrounded by mangrove swamps. The chief harbours are (starting northwards from Port Blair, the great harbour of South Andaman) on the East coast: Port Meadows, Colebrooke Passage, Elphinstone Harbour (Homfray's Strait), Stewart Sound and Port Cornwallis. The last three are very large. On the West coast: Temple Sound, Interview Passage, Port Anson or Kwangtung Harbour (large), Port Campbell (large), Port Mouat and Macpherson Strait. There are many other safe anchorages about the coast, notably Shoal Bay and Kotara Anchorage in South Andaman; Cadell Bay and the Turtle Islands in North Andaman; and Outram Harbour and Kwangtung Strait in the archipelago.


The Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands[?] to the south form part of a range of submarine mountains, 1130 km. long, running from Cape Negrais in the Arakan Yoma range of Burma, to Achin Head in Sumatra. This range separates the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea, and it contains much that is geologically characteristic of the Arakan Yoma,. The older rocks are early Tertiary or late Cretaceous. The newer rocks are in Ritchie's Archipelago chiefly, and contain fossils of radiolarians and foraminifera. There is coral along the coasts everywhere, and the Sentinel Islands are composed of the newer rocks with a superstructure of coral. A theory of a still continuing subsidence of the islanda was formed by Kurz in 1866 and confirmed by Oldham in 1884. Signs of its continuance are found on the east coast in several places.


The climate of the Andamans themselves may be described as normal for tropical islands of similar latitude. It is warm always, but with sea-breezes; very hot when the sun is northing; irregular rainfall, but usually dry during the north-east, and very wet during the south-west monsoon. Not only does the rainfall at one place vary from year to year, but there is an extraordinary difference for places quite close to one another. The Islands are barely affected by the often disastrous cyclones that come up the Bay of Bengala cyclone, though they are within the influence of practically every one. The Andamans thus were once of great importance for monitoring weather in the region for the benefit of the Indian mainland and ships at sea in the Indian Ocean. To this end a well-appointed meteorological station was established at Port Blair in 1868.


A section of the Forest Department of India was established in the Andamans in 1883, and in the neighbourhood of Port Blair 400 sq. km. were set apart for regular forest operations to be carried on by convict labour. The chief timber of indigenous growth is padouk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides) used for buildings, boats, furniture, fine joinery and all purposes to which teak, mahogany, hickory, oak and ash are applied. This tree was widespread and formed a valuable export to European markets. Other first-class timbers are koko (Albizzia lebbek), white chuglam Terminalia bialata), black chugiam (Myristica irya), marble or zebra wood (Diospyros kurzii) and satin-wood (Murraya exotica), which differs from the satin-wood of Ceylon (Chloroxylon swietenia.) All of these timbers are used for furniture and similar fine purposes, but many are now endangered. In addition there are a number of second- and third-class timbers, which are used locally and for export to Calcutta. Gangaw (Messua ferrea) the Assam iron-wood, is suitable for railway sleepers; and didu (Bombax insigne) is used for tea-boxes and packing-cases.

Among the introduced flora are tea, Siberian coffee, cocoa, Ceará rubber (which has not done well), Manila hemp, teak, cocoanut and a number of ornamental trees, fruit-trees, vegetables and garden plants. Tea is grown in considerable quantities and the cultivation was once under a department of the penal settlement. The general character of the forests is Burmese with an admixture of Malay types. Great mangrove swamps supply unlimited fire-wood of the best quality. The great peculiarity of Andaman flora is that, with the exception of the Cocos islands, no cocoanut palms are found in the archipelago.


Animal life is generally deficient throughout the Andamans, especially as regards mammalia, of which there are only nineteen separate species in all, twelve of these being peculiar to the islands. There is a small pig (Sus andamanensis), important to the food of the people, and a wild civet (Paradoxurus tytleri); but the bats (sixteen species) and rats (thirteen species) constitute nearly three-fourths of the known mammals. This paucity of animal life seems inconsistent with the theory that the islands were once connected with the mainland.

Most of the birds also are derived from the distant Indian region, while the Indo-Burmese and Indo-Malayan regions are represented to a far less degree. Rasorial birds, such as peafowl, junglefowl, pheasants and partridges, though well represented in the Arakan hills, are rare in the islands; while a third of the different species found are peculiar to the Andamans. Moreover, the Andaman species differ from those of the adjacent Nicobar Islands. Each group has its distinct harrier-eagle, red-cheeked paroquet, oriole, sun-bird and bulbul.

Fish are very numerous and many species are peculiar to the Andaman seas. Turtles are abundant and supply the Calcutta market. Of imported animals, cattle, goats, asses and dogs thrive well, ponies and horses indifferently, and sheep badly, though some success has been achieved in breeding them.


Our earliest notice of the Andaman Islanders is in a remarkable collection of early Arab notes on India and China from the year 851 which accurately represents the view entertained of this people by mariners until quite recently. "The inhabitants of these islands eat men alive. They are black, with woolly hair, and in their eyes and countenances there is something quite frightful. . . . They go naked and have no boats. If they had, they would devour all who passed near them. Sometimes ships that are windbound and have exhausted their provision of water, touch here and apply to the natives for it; in such cases the crews sometimes fall into the hands of the latter and most of them are massacred." The traditional charge of cannibalism has been very persistent; but it is entirely denied by the islanders themselves, and is -now and probably always has been untrue. Of their massacres of shipwrecked crews, there is no doubt, but that the policy of conciliation has secured a friendly reception for shipwrecked crews at any port of the islands.

The Andamanese are probably the relics of a negro race that once inhabited the southeast portion of Asia and its outlying islands, representatives of which are also still to be found in the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. Their antiquity and their stagnation are attested by the remains found in their kitchen-middens. These are of great age, and rise sometimes to a height exceeding 5 metres. The fossil shells, pottery and rude stone implements, found alike at the base and at the surface of these middens, prove that the habits of the islanders have not varied since a remote past, and lead to the belief that the Andamans were settled by their present inhabitants some time during the Pleistocene period, and certainly no later than the Neolithic age.

The population is not susceptible of accurate computation, but probably it has always been small. The estimated total at a census taken in 1901 was only 2000. Though all descended from one stock, there are twelve distinct tribes of the Andamanese, each with its own clearly-defined locality, its own distinct variety of the one fundamental language and to a certain extent its own separate habits. Every tribe is divided into fairly well defined septs. The tribal feeling may be expressed as friendly within the tribe, courteous to other Andamanese if known, hostile to every stranger, Andamanese or other.

Another division of the natives is into Aryauto or long-shore-men, and the Eremtaga or jungle-dwellers. The habits and capacities of these two differ, owing to surroundings, irrespectively of tribe. Yet again the Andamanese can be grouped according to certain salient characteristics: the forms of the bows and arrows, of the canoes, of ornaments and utensils, of tattooing and of language.

The average height of males is 149 cm.; of females, 137cm. Being accustomed to gratify every sensation as it arises, they endure thirst, hunger, want of food and bodily discomfort badly. The skin varies in colour from an intense sheeny black to a reddish-blown on the collar-bones, cheeks and other parts of the body. The hair varies from a sooty black to dark and light brown and red. It grows in small rings, which give it the appearance of growing in tufts, though it is really closely and evenly distributed over the whole scalp. The figures of the men are muscular and well-formed and generally pleasing; a straight, well-formed nose and jaw are by no means rare, and the young men are often distinctly good-looking. The only artificial deformity is a depression of the skull, chiefly among one of the southern tribes, caused by the pressure of a strap used for carrying loads.

The pleasing appearance natural to the men is not a characteristic of the women, who early have a tendency to stoutness and ungainliness of figure, and sometimes to pronounced prognathism. They are, however, always bright and merry, are under no special social restrictions and have considerable influence. The women's heads are shaved entirely and the men's into fantastic patterns. Yellow and red ochre mixed with grease are coarsely smeared over the bodies, grey in coarse patterns and white in fine patterns resembling tattoo marks. Tattooing is of two distinct varieties. In the south the body is slightly cut by women with small flakes of glass or quartz in zigzag or lineal patterns downwards. In the north it is deeply cut by men with pig-arrows in lines across the body.

The male matures when about fifteen years of age, marries when about twenty-six, begins to age when about forty, and lives onto sixty or sixty-five if he reaches old age. Except as to the marrying age, these figures fairly apply to women. Before marriage free intercourse between the sexes is the rule, though certain conventional precautions are taken to prevent it. Marriages rarely produce more than three children and often none at all. Divorce is rare, unfaithfulness after marriage not common and incest unknown.

By preference the Andamanese are exogamous as regards sept and endogamous as regards tribe. The children are possessed of a bright intelligence, which, however, soon reaches its climax, and the adult may be compared in this respect with the civilized child of ten or twelve. The Andamanese are, indeed, bright and merry companions, busy in their own pursuits, keen sportsmen, naturally independent and not lustful, but when angered, cruel, jealous, treacherous and vindictive, and always unstable--in fact, a people to like but not to trust.

There is no idea of government, but in each sept there is a head, who has attained that position by degrees on account of some tacitly admitted superiority and commands a limited respect and some obedience. The young are deferential to their elders. Offences are punished by the aggrieved party. Property is communal and theft is only recognized as to things of absolute necessity, such as arrows, pigs' flesh and fire. Fire is the one thing they are really careful about, not knowing how to renew it. A very rude barter exists between tribes of the same group in regard to articles not locally obtainable.

The religion consists of fear of the spirits of the wood, the sea, disease and ancestors, and of avoidance of acts traditionally displeasing to them. There is neither worship nor propitiation. An anthropomorphic deity, Puluga[?], is the cause of all things, but it is not necessary to propitiate him. There is a vague idea that the "soul" will go somewhere after death, but there is no heaven nor hell, nor idea of a corporeal resurrection. There is much faith in dreams, and in the utterances of certain "wise men," who practise an embryonic magic and witchcraft.

The great amusement of the Andamanese is a formal night dance, but they are also fond of simple games. The bows differ altogether with each group, but the same two kinds of arrows are in general use: (1) long and ordinary for fishing and other purposes; (2) short with a detachable head fastened to the shaft by a thong, which quickly brings pigs up short when shot in the thick jungle. Bark provides material for string, while baskets and mats are neatly and stoutly made from canes and buckets out of bamboo and wood.

None of the tribes ever ventures out of sight of land, and they have no idea of steering by sun or stars. Their canoes are simply hollowed out of trunks with the adze and in no other way, and it is the smaller ones which are outrigged; they do not last long and are not good sea-boats. The story of raids on Car Nicobar, out of sight across a stormy and sea-rippled channel, must be discredited.

Honour is shown to an adult when he dies, by wrapping him in a cloth and placing him on a platform in a tree instead of burying him. At such a time the encampment is deserted for three months.

The Andaman languages are extremely interesting from the philological standpoint. They are agglutinative in nature, show hardly any signs of syntactical growth though every indication of long etymological growth, give expression to only the most direct and the simplest thought, and are purely colloquial and wanting in the modifications always necessary for communication by writing. The sense is largely eked out by manner and action. Mincopie is the first word in Colebrooke's vocabulary for "Andaman Island, or native country," and the term--though probably a mishearing on Colebrooke's part for Mongebe ("I am an Onge," i.e. a member of the Onge tribe) --has thus become a persistent book-name for the people.

Attempts to civilize the Andamanese have met with little success either among adults or children. The home established near Port Blair is used as a sort of free asylum which the native visits according to his pleasure. The policy of the government is to leave the Andamanese alone, while doing what is possible to ameliorate their condition.

Penal Setllement

The point of enduring interest as regards the Andamans is the penal system, the object of which is to turn the life-sentence and few long-sentence convicts, who alone are sent to the settlement, into honest, self-respecting men and women, by leading them along a continuous course of practice in self-help and self-restraint, and by offering them every inducement to take advantage of that practice. After ten years' graduated labour the convict is given a ticket-of-leave and becomes self-supporting. He can farm, keep cattle, and marry or send for his family, but he cannot leave the settlement or be idle. With approved conduct, however, he may be absolutely released after twenty to twenty-five years in the settlement; and throughout that time, though possessing no civil rights, a quasi-judicial procedure controls all punishments inflicted upon him, and he is as secure of obtaining justice as if free. There is an unlimited variety of work for the labouring convicts, and some of the establishments are on a large scale. Very few experts are employed in supervision; practically everything is directed by the officials, who themselves have first to learn each trade. Under the chief commissioner, who is the supreme head of the settlement, are a deputy and a staff of assistant superintendents and overseers, almost all Europeans, and sub-overseers, who are natives of India. All the petty supervising establishments are composed of convicts.

The garrison consists of 140 British and 300 Indian troops, with a few local European volunteers. The police are organized as a military battalion 643 strong. The number of convicts has somewhat diminished of late years and in 1901 stood at 11,947. The total population of the settlement, consisting of convicts, their guards, the supervising, clerical and departmental staff, with the families of the latter, also a certain number of ex-convicts and trading settlers and their families, numbered 16,106. The labouring convicts are distributed among four jails and nineteen stations; the self-supporters in thirty-eight villages. The elementary education of the convicts' children is compulsory. There are four hospitals, each under a resident medical officer, under the general supervision of a senior officer of the Indian medical service, and medical aid is given free to the whole population. The net annual cost of the settlement to the government is about six pounds per convict. The harbour of Port Blair is well supplied with buoys and harbour lights, and is crossed by ferries at fixed intervals, while there are several launches for hauling local traffic. On Ross Island there is a lighthouse visible for 19 miles. A complete system of signalling by night and day on the Morse system is worked by the police. Local posts are frequent, but there is no telegraph and the mails are irregular.

The above accounts, written while Britain still controlled India, may leave the impression that these settlements were a model of progressive penal reform. Indian accounts, however, paint a different picture. From the time of its development in 1858 under the direction of James Pattison Walker[?], and in response to the mutiny and rebellion of the previous year, the settlement was first and foremost a repository for political prisoners. The Cellular Jail at Port Blair when copleted in 1910 included 698 cells designed to better accommodate solitary confinement; each cell measured 4.5 by 2.7 metres with a single ventilation window 3 metres above the floor. The Viper Chain Gang Jail on Viper Island was reserved for troublemakers, and was also the site of hangings. In the 20th century it became a convenient place to house India's freedom fighters, and it was here that on December 30, 1943 during Japanese occupation, that Chandra Bose[?] first raised the flag of Indian independence. The penal colony was closed on August 15, 1945 when India gained its freedom. It has since served as a museum to the freedom fighters.


It is uncertain whether any of the names of the islands given by Ptolemy ought to be attached to the Andamans; yet it is probable that his name itself is traceable in the Alexandrian geographer. Andaman first appears distinctly in the Arab notices of the 9th century, already quoted. But it seems possible that the tradition of marine nomenclature had never perished; that the Agathou daimonos nesos was really a misunderstanding of some form like Agdaman, while Nesoi Baroussai survived as Lanka Balus, the name applied by the Arabs to the Nicobars. The islands are briefly noticed by Marco Polo, who may have seen them without visiting, under the name Angamanain, seemingly an Arabic dual, "the two Angamans," with the exaggerated but not unnatural picture of the natives, long current, as dog-faced Anthropophagi[?].

Another notice occurs in the story of Nicolo Conti[?] (c. 1440), who explains the name to mean "Island of Gold," and speaks of a lake with peculiar virtues as existing in it. The name is probably derived from the Malay Handuman, coming from the ancient Hanuman (monkey). Later travellers repeat the stories, too well founded, of the ferocious hostility of the people; of whom we may instance Cesare Federici (1569), whose narrative is given in Ramusio, vol. iii. (only in the later editions), and in Purchas. A good deal is also told of them in the vulgar and gossiping but useful work of Captain A. Hamilton (1727).

In 1788-1789 the government of Bengal sought to establish in the Andamans a penal colony, associated with a harbour of refuge. Two able officers, Colebrooke of the Bengal Engineers, and Blair of the sea service, were sent to survey and report. In the sequel the settlement was established by Captain Blair, in September 1789, on Chatham Island, in the southeast bay of the Great Andaman, now called Port Blair, but then Port Cornwallis. There was much sickness, and after two years, urged by Admiral Cornwallis, the government transferred the colony to the northeast part of Great Andaman, where a naval arsenal was to be established. With the colony the name also of Port Cornwallis was transferred to this new locality. The scheme did ill; and in 1796 the government put an end to it, owing to the great mortality and the embarrassments of maintenance. The settlers were finally removed in May 1796.

In 1824 Port Cornwallis was the rendezvous of the fleet carrying the army to the first Burmese war. In 1839, Dr Helfer, a German savant employed by the Indian government, having landed in the islands, was attacked and killed. In 1844 the troop-ships Briton and Runnymede were driven ashore here, almost close together. The natives showed their usual hostility, killing all stragglers. Outrages on shipwrecked crews continued so rife that the question of occupation had to be taken up again; and in 1855 a project was formed for such a settlement, embracing a convict establishment. This was interrupted by the Indian Mutiny of 1857[?], but as soon as the neck of that revolt was broken, it became more urgent than ever to provide such a resource, on account of the great number of prisoners falling into British hands. Lord Canning, therefore, in November 1857, sent a commission, headed by Dr F. Mouat, to examine and report. The commission reported favourably, selecting as a site Blair's original Port Cornwallis, but pointing out and avoiding the vicinity of a salt swamp which seemed to have been pernicious to the old colony. To avoid confusion, the name of Port Blair was given to the new settlement.

For some time sickness and mortality were excessively large, but the reclamation of swamp and clearance of jungle on an extensive scale by Colonel Henry Man when in charge (1868-1870), had a most beneficial effect, and the health of the settlement has since been notable. The Andaman colony obtained a tragical notoriety from the murder of the viceroy, the earl of Mayo, by a Mahommedan convict, when on a visit to the settlement on February 8, 1872. In the same year the two groups, Andaman and Nicobar, the occupation of the latter also having been forced on the British government (in 1869) by the continuance of outrage upon vessels, were united under a chief commissioner residing at Port Blair.

The Andaman islands were later occupied by Japan during World War II. After the end of the war they briefly returned to British control, before becoming part of the newly independent state of India.

Initial text from 1911 encyclopedia

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