PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

Print edition : July 04, 1998

OF the six aboriginal tribal communities that originally inhabited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at least two - the Great Andamanese and the Onge - fell victim to the march of civilisation and everything that came with it.

The Great Andamanese, who had lived in an insular world for centuries, were the first tribal community with whom the British established contact. The Onge, who lived on the Little Andaman, were the next. Both communities suffered the ill-effects of this influence. Epidemics of diseases such as pneumonia (which broke out in 1868), measles (1877), influenza (1896) and syphilis killed hundreds of Great Andamanese. The tribal people had no resistance to these diseases, which they contracted from outsiders.

The Great Andamanese are today virtually extinct. In the early part of the 19th century, their population was estimated to be around 5,000; today, there are only 28 of them.

The Onge have fared only marginally better. Their population has dwindled from 600 in 1901 to about 100 today. Since the 1960s the Onge homeland in Little Andaman was cleared of its verdant forests to house thousands of settlers from mainland India. A large-scale timber extraction operation was also started. Attempts are on even today to confine the Onge people to two small settlements so that the rest of the island, which is still a tribal reserve, can be opened up further.

Alcohol, which was introduced to the Onge people by the settlers, has extracted a heavy toll. Settlers use alcohol, to which many among the Onge people have become addicted, to exploit them. The Onge give away resources such as honey, ambergris, and turtle eggs for the ubiquitous bottle, popularly known as 180.

Thus two hardy races, which flourished for centuries in these islands, have been swept aside by the tides of "civilisation".

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