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Kala-Pani or Primitive Paradise?

Romila Thapar

By N. Iqbal Singh
Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1978, pp. xv 32l, Rs. 75.00

VOLUME III NUMBER 4 January/February 1979

The Andaman and Nicobar islands for all their remoteness have nevertheless been the subject of a number of books. Among the classics in ethnography is the study of the tribes of the islands by Radcliffe Brown and as ethnographical studies go it has yet to be replaced. The history of the islands, recorded essentially from the early nineteenth century onwards, tends to be marginal to the history of the subconti­nent, yet, because of the function of one of the islands as a penal settlement the perspective on the history of the Indian subcontinent has a certain uniqueness. It remains something of an accident that the islands came under British rule, when in fact their physical proximity is greater to South-East Asia. This was not however entirely a quirk of colonial enterprise since their location in the Indian Ocean made of them an area of great strategic impor­tance in the maritime control over the ocean and with the expansion of commer­cial links with South-East Asia and China by the mid-nineteenth century, such a location was bound to be of considerable significance. Prior to their inclusion in the European colonial circuit the islands, which number many hundred, were characterized by cul­tures conforming to food-gathering and primitive horticulture seen as among the survivals of early human social and eco­nomic organization. Burial rites involving primary and secondary burial and com­munal ossuaries are suggestive of early megalithic practices and one may hope that serious archaeological work will be started soon in these areas. A distinction was also made between the coastal tribes and those of the jungles of the interior but the dependence of both on the environ­ment was similar. A further distinction separated the friendlier tribes such as the Onges of the Little Andamans from the Jarawas of the Great Andamans, the latter renowned for their fierce hostility to outsiders. The remoteness of the islands made them an ideal place for a penal settlement and it was with this in view that they were cursorily surveyed in the eighteenth cen­tury but the idea was not developed until a century later. Eventually it was as a penal settlement that the islands serviced the British Empire in India. There were many natural advantages as seen by the inhuman penal system of the last century. Remoteness from civilization coupled with the hostility of the indigenous population made of the ...

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