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  • Lost Between Africa and Tasmania: Racializing the Andamanese
  • Satadru Sen

[Correction Note: The author's affiliation was originally as "City College of New York". The correct affiliation is "City University of New York."]

In 1858, British administrators and soldiers – accompanied by hundreds of Indian and Burmese convicts – reoccupied the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, initiating the second penal colony in the archipelago.1 The settlement would last eight decades. When the colonists arrived, they were outnumbered considerably by the indigenous population of the islands. By the turn of the century, the demographic imbalance had been reversed, with over ten thousand convict-settlers, guards and administrators overwhelming an aboriginal population that had shrunk by at least fifty percent.2 With the exception of the Jarawa, the Sentinelese and to some extent the Onge, the remnants were increasingly dependant upon colonial institutions of relief, confinement and ethnography, such as the Andaman Homes.3 The Andamanese, at that stage, were described by Britons as a ‘dying race’: killed not only by the encroachment of the colony into the jungle and the explosion of epidemic and endemic diseases,4 but also by what Patrick Wolfe has called the ‘repressive hypothesis’ of aboriginality, i.e., the discursive elimination of those who do not meet historically determined standards of racial identity.5 The imminent extinction of the Andamanese was, in fact, closely tied to their conceptualization by their colonizers as creatures of race.

In August of 1858, just months after the penal settlement was established, a series of clashes between colonial troops and the aboriginal population provoked the ire of the Government of India. The Home Department felt that J.P. Walker, a veteran jailor and the first full-fledged superintendent of the settlement, had been unnecessarily aggressive towards the Andamanese. Walker was told:

[T]he aborigines of the Andamans are apparently unable to conceive the possibility of the two races co-existing on the islands, except on terms of internecine hostility. This idea is assuredly strengthened by every attack we make upon them... Every effort must be made to teach them that we desire to cultivate friendly relations, and have no intention of attacking them…unless they compel us to act in self-defence.6

The message, penned by Home Secretary Cecil Beadon, is revealing beyond its author’s intentions. First, the notion that the Andamanese could not tolerate the co-existence of ‘two races’ in the islands rendered Indian convicts marginal in a penal colony created for them. The colony could be eclipsed by the jungle; in some contexts, the colonialism in the Andamans was more about the management of ‘savages’ than controlling criminals. Second, Beadon displaced on to the Andamanese his own anxieties about – and his language of – race and co-existence in the empire. The perceptions, anxieties and vocabularies were not new in 1858, but they were renewed and reshaped by the creation of the penal colony, and continued to be massively influential for the duration of the century.

Since the idea of the ‘savage’ Andamanese coalesced in British discourse in the context of colonialism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is to be expected that this savage would also be a creature of race. Race, after all, was emerging as the primary grid for the organization of power, possession and knowledge at precisely this time.7 Moreover, at the time of the founding of the penal settlement of 1858, race had become a ‘core element’ of colonial rule in India, given an apparently unavoidable and unshakeable solidity by the war that was still underway on the mainland.8 To order a colony in the second half of the nineteenth century was to insist upon that solidity: its substance, its truth, its history and its normative hierarchies, permissions and restrictions.

When Britons encountered the indigenous Andamanese in 1789, the racial content of the latter was unclear and fluid. In fact, nearly a century later, the ‘race’ of the Andamanese was still an ongoing topic of discussion among administrators and anthropologists. This long and frequently bitter conversation raises questions that go to the heart of the colonial savage encounter, and more specifically, to the production of savagery in the...

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