A Recent Talk Broadcast from London.
The World's Most Primitive People
By FRANK FINN, B.A., F.Z.S. (Late Deputy Superintendent Indian Museum).
THE most unique and interesting experience of my life was a month's trip to the Andaman Islands to collect specimens for the Indian Museum during the '90's. The Andamans are a three days' run by steamer from Calcutta, and are used as a convict settlement, but only in the case of a few islands of the group, the majority being in an absolutely primitive state, covered with high forest, and inhabited by black negro-like pigmies, who enjoy, as they have always done under our rule, the full benefit of home rule and self-determination—so long, of course, as they do not murder ship-wrecked crews, which had been their habit for centuries.
As their idea of self-determination is to shoot everyone they don't know, black, white, or brown, and as they use a bow big enough for Robin Hood, it is easily understood that they form a very effective deterrent to convicts trying to escape, which is just as well, as many of these convicts are very desperate characters; one Viceroy, Lord Mayo, was murdered by one of them. Well-behaved men are, however, allowed to marry and settle down, in that they are nearly as well off as if at liberty.
Situated, as they are, in the Bay of Bengal, the Andamans are very hot; I was there in the month of May, when the heat was at its worst. Naturally, the few white people there looked very sickly.
I used to envy the pigmies their simple costume, which in the case of the ladies was a wisp and a waistband, and in that of the men, nothing at all. Their interests are looked after by an English Civil Servant, who has to see that no one sells them drink, or interferes with them in any way; but even this officer-in-charge, as he is styled, dares not go among them where he is not known, and considerable tact is required in getting an introduction to the local chief.
Attempts at civilization proved a failure with the little people; they did not thrive away from their native forests, and many die of measles, so no attempt at education is now made; but there are always a few about the settlement, and most of the officer-in-charge's servants in my time were Andamanese, as were the crew of his launch, and they were much attached to him, being, like most savages, responsive to kind and just treatment.
The seat of the Government is on Ross Island, a very pretty little place, but so small that I have often walked round it before breakfast. Here I was kindly entertained by the English residents, and the officer-in-charge was instructed to show me round and help me in my collecting. The main object of my search was the Sea-Cow or dugong, a curious creature which, as it nurses its young under its flipper, gave rise to the legend of the mermaid, though it is about as ugly a beast as exists, either in the sea or out of it. The Andamanese hunt it for food, and told my friend the officer-in-charge that they could easily get some specimens.
"How many shall we bring?" they said. "Oh, two will do for a start," he replied but, sad to say, not even one turned up during the whole of my stay, so I had to content, myself with smaller game. In spite of this regrettable tendency to make promises of the nature of piecrust, the Andamanese are very nice little people, and a great deal better-mannered than many so-called civilized folk. It is true that they are pretty constantly at war, after the manner of most savages, for the tribes are very isolated, no less than eight native languages being current in the group in different islands.
I was taken to one out-of-the-way island in the launch, a day's run from Ross, and the officer-in-charge went ashore to interview the chief who lived on the left side of the creek wherein we had anchored. The introduction to this worthy had been effected in a highly original way some time before; my guide and another Englishman had gone ashore and stood on their heads, a proceeding which so interested the local pigmies that they forbore to shoot, and came near enough to have biscuits thrown to them. These they tested, and friendly relations were established.
A Royal Figure.
Naturally. I very much objected to my companion going off alone, but he told me he would be safer so, as the chief did not know me and did know him. However, I spent a rather anxious half-hour till he came back, saying: "It's all right—I've seen the chief and he is coming on board to dinner with us," and in due time his Highness appeared, clad in native majesty, if nothing else, but a truly royal figure among his people, for he must have been five feet high—several inches taller than any of the rest. I came to the conclusion that but for wars, the lives of the pigmies were quite easy and comfortable.
- See: Andaman Islands. (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Indian Museum, Kolkata. (Wikisource contributor note)
- The 1890s (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Kolkata. (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Andamanese. (Wikisource contributor note)
- Richard Bourke, 6th Earl of Mayo. (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Measles. (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Ross Island, South Andaman district. (Wikisource contributor note)
- See: Dugong. (Wikisource contributor note)