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#SundayReading – The story of Convict No. 276 and the Battle of Aberdeen

Prisoners on the Andaman Island   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

A battle and a betrayal. Fought between the Andamanese and the British, it finally pushed the tribe to extinction

In April 1858, Aga, a convict gangsman at the Ross Island penal settlement in the Andaman Islands shared an escape plan with his fellow prisoners incarcerated on the isolated island by the British after the 1857 rebellion.

The gangsman, with his limited geographical knowledge, reasoned that once they reached the shore opposite Ross Island, it would at most be a ten-day march to Myanmar, the capital of Burma, where the convicts could seek refuge.

The plan seemed infallible and the prisoners quickly accepted it.

The great escape

On April 23, 90 convicts boarded rafts made from felled trees bound with tent ropes and escaped Ross Island. After a two-day voyage, 40 convicts from the stations at Chatham Island and Phoenix Bay also joined them. When they landed, it was on the shores of Andaman Island, and a contingent of 130 convicts marched into the unfamiliar jungles under Aga’s command.

Everything seemed in order until Aga’s limited geographical knowledge was soon exposed. The convicts walked through thick jungles for 13 days with no sense of direction. Sometimes, Aga led them back to the same place they had passed days before.

Soon, they ran out of food and water. Those who could climbed the tall and branchless trees to get some fruit resembling the Indian plum. Water, equally scarce, was only found in the form of small springs oozing from the hills. Twelve convicts succumbed to starvation and were left behind to perish.

On the 14th day, when the contingent had penetrated about four miles into the jungle, it suddenly found itself encircled by some 100 armed indigenes. The convicts did not offer any resistance but only implored mercy through signs that the indigenes completely disregarded. In no time, the entire contingent was massacred. Only a few convicts escaped, and fled into the dense surrounding jungle.

Sepoy from the mutiny

Among these convicts was Dudhnath Tewari. A sepoy of the 14th Regiment of the Native Infantry, he had been convicted of mutiny and desertion. The Commission at Jhelum sentenced him to transportation for life and labour in irons. On April 6, 1858, Tewari was received at the British Penal Settlement at Port Blair when he arrived from Karachi. He was labelled Convict No. 276. The escape was planned less than 20 days after Tewari’s arrival on Ross Island.

During the encounter with the indigenes, Tewari was hit by three arrows. He managed to escape and reach a creek, where he spent the night with two other convicts.

The next morning, a band of 60 indigenes, embarking upon canoes from the shore, spotted them. They chased them again into the jungle and shot at them. Two convicts died on the spot, but Tewari lay down and pretended to be dead.

The indigenes pulled him by the leg from his hiding place. He begged for mercy but the archer shot at him, wounding his hip and wrist. Tewari feigned death a second time, but the relentless archer pulled the arrow out from his hip and aimed another shot. Tewari pleaded again, and was surprisingly granted mercy this time.

The indigenes put Tewari into their canoe, smeared medicinal mud all over his body, and took him to the nearby Tarmugli Island.

While Tewari’s survival was itself a miracle, his inclusion in the community was most unimaginable. The indigenes who had accepted him belonged to the Termugu-da sept of the Aka-Bea-da tribe—one of the ten Andamanese groups.

On the islands

Before the British colonised the Andaman Islands, four fiercely hostile communities—the Andamanese (now called the Great Andamanese), the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentinelese—had exclusively inhabited these remote islands.

In 1789, the British established a penal settlement on Chatham Island in the southeast Bay of Great Andaman. It was moved to the northeastern part of the island in 1792 and eventually abandoned in 1796 due to the inhospitable climate.

After the 1857 scare, the British set up a penal colony on Ross Island the next year to incarcerate Indian political prisoners. The advent of the British led to large-scale deforestation and destruction of indigenous resources.

“The Andamanese were naturally alarmed and enraged at the manner in which their country was being cleared and appropriated on all sides, and conflicts with the convicts and with the Naval Guard, in which the latter were the aggressors, only increased that alarm,” wrote Maurice Vidal Portman, the officer in charge of the Andamanese, in A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese (1899). The Andamanese resisted the colonisation of their islands and retaliated by undertaking numerous raids in 1858 and 1859.

The inside story

Tewari, whom the Andamanese had admitted into their community, enjoyed their warmth. Within a couple of months, his wounds had healed completely and he was in the best of health.

Initially, the community had looked at Tewari with great suspicion, never trusting him with weapons or permitting him to pick up a bow and arrow, even in sport. Soon, however, Tewari became an insider. He discarded clothes, shaved off his head, got used to Andamanese food habits and language, and actively participated in various indigenous ceremonies and rituals.

After four months of his stay in the community, an elderly Andamanese named Pooteah married off his 20-year-old daughter Lipa to Tewari. The Andamanese did not demand any work or role from Tewari. For a year and 24 days, he wandered with them from one island to another, coming in contact with some 15,000 indigenes who lived near the sea shores and on the banks of salt water creeks in the interior jungles.

Meanwhile, the British were aggressively expanding their base in the Andamans, which led to frequent confrontations. The Andamanese, unless resisted, refrained from attacking the convicts, who bore marks such as iron ankle rings.

They primarily targeted the authorities—the British officers, or the section, sub-division and division gangsmen who donned red turbans, badges and coloured belts.

The Andamanese undertook three major raids in 1859. On April 6, 200 armed indigenes raided 248 convicts who were clearing the jungle at Haddo, on the mainland opposite Chatham Island; on April 14, about 1,500 Andamanese attacked the convicts at Andaman; and on May 17, a large number of indigenes attempted a well-organised raid on the Aberdeen convict station, on the south of Port Blair, with the aim to exterminate the British.

The Quisling

The last raid, known as the Battle of Aberdeen, proved devastating for the Andamanese. Tewari, who had now spent a little more than a year with the community, had enough information about the attack being planned by the indigenes. He travelled with the attacking party along the coast and forewarned the superintendent of the penal settlement.

When the Andamanese warriors faced the pre-warned British soldiers, it was an unequal battle.

The former fought with knives, axes, bows and arrows against a larger and well-armed enemy. While the British suffered hardly any losses, a large number of the Andamanese were annihilated in a single day.

“The Battle of Aberdeen was the most serious collision with the Andamanese… None of the convicts were wounded, but several of the savages are supposed to have been… Had not Dr. Walker received notice regarding it from Life Convict Dudhnath Tewari, No. 276… who had become cognizant of the arrangements for the fight which had been arranged in detail for some time previously, very serious damage might have been caused,” wrote Portman.

The aftermath

The battle was to prove decisive. It quelled organised resistance from the Andamanese forever, and established the colonial Empire firmly in these remote islands. The British obtained a first-hand and rare account of Andamanese society from Tewari, which helped them to contain a hostile community and further expand their penal colony.

The British set up the ‘Andamanese Homes’, where the Andamanese were kept and provided medicines and free rations such as sugar, rice, tea and tobacco. The islanders were also deployed to capture runaway convicts and protect the settlement against other hostile indigenes.

Soon, the Andamanese were overtaken by alien diseases, with outbreaks of syphilis and measles in 1870 and 1877.

Measles alone wiped out half of them, their population diminishing sharply from 3,500 in 1858 to 2,000 in 1888 and 625 in 1901. Their numbers kept dwindling—455 (1911), 209 (1921) and 90 (1931).

After independence in 1947, a large number of refugees and migrants were also sent to the Andamans for resettlement, which pushed the native community to the margins. In 1949, the entire community was relocated to the tiny Bluff Island, after which their population declined to 23 in 1951 and reached an all-time low of 19 in 1961.

In 1969, they were again relocated, this time to the slightly bigger Strait Island, where they now live on government doles.

The Andamanese are today listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. In 2013, their population was recorded at 57, a large portion of which, however, is mixed race. Within less than two centuries of their contact with outsiders, the once strong and assertive Andamanese had been fully subdued and pushed to the verge of extinction.

A memorial

While the Battle of Aberdeen is yet to receive due mention in history of indigenous resistance, there is a memorial in Port Blair that commemorates it. ‘This monument is built in the memory of those Andamanese aborigines who bravely fought the Battle of Aberdeen in May 1859 against the oppressive and retaliatory policy of the British regime,’ reads the inscription. Every year on May 17, islanders visit the memorial to pay tribute to the Andamanese warriors who, with simple bows and arrows, took on the largest empire of all time.

Postscript

For his ‘good service’ to the British Empire, Convict No. 276 was granted pardon on October 5, 1860, and sent home. In December 1866, Tewari was sailing from Calcutta to Rangoon with Major Wraughton, and the ship halted at Port Blair.

The officer in charge of the Andamanese, one Mr. Homfray, took Tewari to the Andamanese Home in great excitement. The indigenes immediately recognised the familiar face of Convict No. 276.

The women abused him for deserting Lipa, who had been in her final stages of pregnancy and later had a miscarriage.

Tewari remained unmoved. He made no move to meet his wife. Since her husband was alive, Andamanese men too did not approach Lipa.

The community changed her title to ‘Modo Lipa’, signifying a ‘deserted bride’ or a woman who has lost her husband while still young and without children.

The author is a social science nomad who travels to remote places to dig out some fascinating stories.

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Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU tabu

    The story of the tribals indicates their courage to counter British rulers who were far superior.

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