Indigenous People and Settler Colonialism in the Andamans

Aashna Jain
11 min readDec 20, 2020


Depiction of a Native Dance of the Andaman Islands on a British Cigarette Card

The Andaman Islands are an archipelago located in the Bay of Bengal. Occupied by the British first in 1789, they became a part of independent India as the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1947. While the British Raj was a form of extractive colonialism in mainland India, in the Andamans, the British left behind a legacy of exploitative settler colonialism that independent India inherited and expanded. There were certain narratives about the indigenous peoples of the Andamans that both these governments employed that have had far-reaching consequences on the populations and lifestyles of indigenous communities.

Map of Southern Burma and Andaman and Nicobar Islands from The Imperial Gazetteer of India (1907–1909) (Wikimedia Commons)

The British Raj

From the late 1700s to the mid-1900s, the Andaman Islands were occupied by the British. Initial British occupation was intended to create a safe harbor in the archipelago to serve shipping routes between British territories in Bengal and Southeast Asia. After the Great Indian Revolt of 1857, the British realized a need for a penal colony where they could send rebels and convicts from mainland India. The Andamans, proximate to the mainland, but still secluded, therefore were transformed by the British into a penal colony. Between 1858 and 1939, the British Indian government transported around 83,000 Indian and Burmese convicts to the Andamans, making this the largest penal colony in the British empire on the basis of convict population (Anderson, 2018). These convicts provided the British colonial project with free (or nearly free) labor to expand the imperial foothold in the archipelago.

Colonial Narrative I: The Terra Nullis Doctrine

This expansion of the British foothold in the Andaman Islands happened without any regard for the indigenous peoples that inhabited the forests and coasts of the islands. Unlike in mainland India, the British here took control of the land without signing any treaties with indigenous communities. The British occupation followed a Lockian logic which considered ownership of land to be tied to its improvement, for example, through agriculture. Since most tribes in the Andaman Islands were traditionally hunter-gatherer societies, the British saw the lack of cultivation as an indication that these people were “savages” and therefore lacked any claims towards land ownership. This, they decided, meant that the land in the Andamans was terra nullis, or empty land, despite being actively populated by indigenous peoples (U. Sen, 2017).

So, we see in British developments on the island, a distinct marginalization, and displacement of indigenous populations to serve imperial and strategic needs. Consequently, throughout the processes of settlement and development on the islands, the indigenous communities have been treated by both colonial and post-colonial administrations as a hindrance instead of stakeholders (U. Sen, 2017).

Colonial Narrative II: Savagery, Exoticism & Taming

Even before the British arrived in the Andamans, there was a longstanding European fascination with purported “savagery” of the Andamanese — some myths claimed that the native peoples were cannibals, whereas others claimed that they were mythical creatures with animal heads and tails. While these myths were dispelled once the British actually made contact with the Andamanese, the perception of indigenous lifestyles as inherently inferior to European ones remained (U. Sen, 2017, S. Sen 2009). Armed with this prejudice, the British colonial government actively harmed indigenous communities by attempting to tame them.

So, the arrival of the British meant that not only were native populations decimated by diseases such as syphilis and measles, which gave birth to the narrative of imminent extinction, but they were also devastated as a result of being displaced from their ancestral lifestyles and land (U. Sen, 2017). A 1942 newspaper article from a British paper even suggests that many Andamanese people also developed opium addictions that led to severe health consequences and high mortality rates, illustrating the consequences of the British opium trade in the Bay of Bengal (Pigmy Aborigines of the Andaman Isles, 1942).

Accounts, such as that of M.V. Portman, the officer-in-charge of the Andamanese from 1879 to 1901 (depicted in the picture below with a group of Andamanese people), illustrate the extent of British encroachment on indigenous life.

M.V. Portman with a group of Andamanese people

While colonial discourse at the time focused on “civilizing primitives”, such as through boarding schools to force the assimilation of indigenous children in North America, Portman chose a form of interventionism called taming which entailed “maintaining aborigines in a state of semi-pristine savagery under ‘expert’ authority and supervision”. While Portman intended to be more progressive, one can infer from the language he uses, that he thought of these communities as sub-human. This is further illustrated by how Portman’s administration displaced and abducted many indigenous communities from their ancestral land and them forced to live in “clearings” and “homes” between British development and the jungle (S. Sen, 2009).

Portman was also a self-proclaimed anthropologist and photographer and took several hundred photographs and measurements of indigenous Andamanese people, which Satadru Sen argues was a “strategy for reordering and reimagining the islands… essential to the practice of ‘taming’”. Portman’s ethnographic endeavors, like those of many of his British contemporaries, cast a homoerotic gaze on their subjects. Portman clicked hundreds of pictures, like Three Athletes (depicted below), of young, muscular Andamanese men, posing naked, which “projected onto the Andamanese a late Victorian and Edwardian image of masculine athleticism”.

Three Athletes by M.V. Portman

Satadru sen writes:

“Portman sought to record not only the decrepitude brought on by civilization but the beauty of a savage body that he had recuperated in the clearing. The discourse of imminent extinction provided a context (and an urgent justification) within which a vanishing aesthetic could be showcased and preserved (S. Sen, 2009)”

These photographs were often accompanied by records of measurements of various body parts of the subjects, likely intended to serve as a biological basis for caste. These photographs and examinations thus helped the British entrench tropes of primitivism and savagery onto the Andamanese and served as a mechanism to objectify and devalue indigenous life. Consequently, there are also reports of some tribal leaders losing their political and social standing after being kidnapped and subjected to invasive examinations by the colonial regime (S. Sen, 2009).

Section II: The Republic of India

In 1947, the Republic of India inherited not only the control of the Andaman Islands but also a legacy of administrative structures and narratives from the British. Direct control of the Andamans passed from the British Indian Viceroy to the Indian President, and the islands became part of a Union Territory without a local legislature. While the Indian government passed a series of laws allegedly designed to protect Andamanese tribes, they seemed to be intended to “turn tribes perceived as primitive and lawless into subjects of law, and not right bearing citizens.” This sentiment is echoed in the Indian government’s continuance of the legacy of the terra nullis doctrine and prejudiced perceptions of indigenous communities as “backward”. The only difference is that after independence, instead of serving imperial and strategic needs, the Andaman Islands are repurposed by the Indian government to serve nationalist needs (U. Sen, 2017).

Post-Colonial Narrative I: The Dying Aboriginal & Assimilation

In the 1950s, there were two extreme views relating to the country’s tribal policy: “one that pursued to isolate the tribes as museum specimens for anthropological study and the other that demanded their assimilation into the mainstream”. PM Nehru’s approach was somewhere in the middle of the road, where he recognized the importance of preserving the traditional lifestyles and culture of tribal populations, but also believed that it was only a matter of time before tribal communities integrated into the Indian mainstream (Arora, 2018).

In all the surveys and development plans written by the Indian government for the Andamans, the indigenous populations are represented as dying out. Uditi Sen argues that any concern that the bureaucrats writing these reports show for the dwindling indigenous populations is purely performative since all development plans advocate for actively encroaching on the tribal reservations granted to indigenous communities in a 1957 bill. She goes on to say that “for administrators determined to ‘fully exploit’ the land, of the Andamans, the ideal aboriginal was a dying aboriginal” since this narrative allowed the government to justify decreasing the land reserved for indigenous communities, based on an antiquated assumption that indigenous lifestyles take up “too much” land (U. Sen, 2017).

These ideas of the eventuality of assimilation and the eventuality of the extinction of tribal lifestyles go hand-in-hand and look like self-fulfilling prophecies when we consider the Indian government’s land management policies in the archipelago.

Post-Colonial Narrative II: Development

After independence, the Indian government wanted to “develop” the Andaman Islands to be a more productive agricultural space. However, where the British had convict labor, the Indian government faced a shortage. So, it worked towards actively relocating settlers from the mainland to the islands. In the 1950s, following the partition of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from India, the Indian government settled over 3000 refugee families from Bengal into the Andaman Islands. This began a long period of postcolonial settler colonialism that once again showed no consideration for indigenous rights to land and sovereignty (U. Sen, 2017).

The following map of protected areas and tribal reserves on South Andaman Island from a 2010 UNESCO report illustrates the encroachment of Indian infrastructure projects such as the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) into tribal territories, which are constantly at risk of further encroachment (U. Sen, 2017). Despite a 2002 Supreme Court order to shut down parts of the ATR that go through the Jarawa Tribal Reservation, this road remains operational to date.

Protected Areas and Tribal Reserves, Andaman Islands (Sekhsaria, P., & Pandya, V., 2010)

Whereas the construction of the ATR led to a disturbance in and destruction of the Jarawa habitat, its continued operation has also had long-lasting consequences. There have been reports on the island of Jarawa people increasingly going to nearby villages and asking for food, rides, and even medical assistance. These interactions have been considered examples of “friendly relations” between indigenous and settler communities by the Indian government. However, as a result of these “friendly relations”, Jawara communities experienced at least two measles outbreaks since 1997, and now are at high risk for COVID-19. Worse still, for tourists visiting the Andamans for its pristine shores, rich forests, and nationalistic monuments, the Jarawas have become a tourist attraction in what is being called “human safaris” (Mittal, 2013). In the case of the Jawaras, we see the dual-edged sword of assimilation, which while providing Jawaras with greater income and modern medicine, is also leading to disease and the extinction of ancestral lifestyles.

Section III: Indigenous Populations Today

As per the 2011 census, the Andamans are home to just shy of 700 indigenous peoples, comprising roughly four tribes: the Great Andamanese, the Jawara, the Onge, and the Sentinelese. The Sentinelese live on a secluded island that has had barely any incursions by outsiders, whereas the three other tribes live mostly on reservations on islands that they share with settlers from the mainland. Whereas the Great Andamanese and Onge populations have been somewhat assimilated into mainstream Indian culture brought by mainland settlers to the Islands, the Jarawa and Sentinelese still maintain mostly traditional foraging lifestyles. These communities, once classified by the government of India as “Primitive Tribal Groups” were only recategorized as “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” in 2006 (U. Sen, 2017).

The chart below shows how the dramatic population decline of these four indigenous groups** happened simultaneously with an exponential increase in the Andaman District’s total population (dark blue line), as a result of forced and coerced migration from the mainland. From this chart, we also see that even after independence, settler-colonialism continued expanding in this region.

**The uptick in the Jarawa population starting in the 1950s can be attributed to the creation of a reservation for Jarawa peoples in a 1957 bill.

Population Changes in the Andamans

Moreover, we can see this loss of indigenous life not only in terms of population but also in terms of geography. The map below shows the distributions of various Andamanese tribes in the Andaman Islands in the early 1800s versus the present-day (2004).

Comparative Map of Indigenous Territories (Wikimedia Commons)

Notably, we see,

Rapid depopulation of the original southeastern Jarawa homeland in the 1789–1793 period, Onge and Great Andamanese shrinkage to isolated settlements, complete Jangil extinction by 1931, and Jarawa movement to occupy depopulated former west coast homeland of the Great Andamanese. Only the Sentinelese zone is somewhat intact (Wikimedia Commons).

While the suffering that these indigenous communities have faced at the hands of various state actors has had devastating consequences, it would be very reductive to say that their history is limited to colonial and post-colonial contact. For instance, many Andamanese tribes have a rich oral history tradition. In 2004, when a big tsunami hit the Andaman Islands, indigenous communities that had inhabited the islands for tens of thousands of years had collective knowledge of what an earthquake meant. This means that even before the tsunami hit, many indigenous tribes had retreated deep into the forest towards higher ground for better chances of survival (Bhaumik, 2005).

By a combination of fate and imperial strategizing, the Andamans became part of the Republic of India, and now it’s up to the nation’s government to do justice by the Andamanese: by acknowledging the shortcomings of tribal policy so far, helping preserve indigenous land and lifestyles, and involving indigenous leaders in decision-making processes.


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