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bridges vol. 8, December 2005 / Feature Article
by Philipp Steger

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An expert in an unlikely place
 Few Austrians would be able to locate the Nicobar Islands on a map of the world. You cannot blame them: After all, Austria's colonial adventures on the Nicobar Islands are not a subject widely taught in Austrian schools. This apparent lack of interest makes it all the more astonishing that the world's leading expert on the Nicobarese, the inhabitants of the aforementioned island group, works at the Institute of Social Ecology, a research institute based in Vienna, 5000 miles away from the subjects of his research. But what's even more amazing is that this researcher, who is originally from India, came all the way to Vienna unaware that there was one very good reason to carry out his research in Vienna.

Dr. Simron Jit Singh, a modest man, would likely bristle at the suggestion that he is the world's leading expert on one of the two indigenous tribes that live in the Nicobar Islands. But his recently published book on the Nicobar Islands and the cultural choices that the Nicobarese face in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami will certainly establish him as one of the world's foremost experts on the Nicobarese.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The book would be captivating enough as a solidly researched documentation of the culture and tradition of an elusive indigenous tribe. But both its intriguing genesis and the author's stated intention - that the book may serve as a reference tool for current and future generations of Nicobarese - make it a fascinating read.

A look at how the book came into being shows that it might, in fact, prove to be the lifeline that connects the Nicobarese to their past, most of which was wiped out when the tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake struck their islands on that fateful day after Christmas 2004.

Colonial ambitions
More than 2000 years ago, members of an indigenous people living somewhere along the Malay-Burma coast got into their presumably small boats and - for reasons not entirely clear - made their way southward, passing the Andaman islands and eventually settling on an archipelago to the northwest of the northern tip of Sumatra: the Nicobar islands. There they lived for centuries in relative seclusion, with the exception of the occasional visitor dropping by, such as Chinese Buddhist monks in the 7th century and Marco Polo in the 13th century. The latter, although not bothering to step off the ship, gave a vivid, albeit inaccurate, account of the islanders: "In this island they have no king nor chief, but live like beasts. And I tell you they go all naked, both men and women, and do not use the slightest covering of any kind."

But living out-of-the-way did not keep the Nicobarese out of harm's way. Beginning in the 17th century, the islands, located along the main shipping routes between India and East Asia, captured the interest of the Europeans. It started harmlessly enough, with the islands serving as a welcome stopover for sailing vessels. Eventually, bartering between the natives and the sailors developed, with fresh food and water being exchanged for products carried on the vessels. That form of exchange, although unequal and already favoring the outsiders, did little to still the insatiable appetite of the colonial powers of the time. Instead, it only fueled the desire for more. The Danes were the first to act on that desire and took over the Nicobar Islands in 1755. Their resolve weakened considerably though, when most of their people stationed on that outpost died of malaria.

After that, the Nicobarese might well have been left to their own devices, had it not been for a relentlessly scheming Dutchman by the name of William Bolts. In 1775 Bolts, an estranged former employee of the British East India Company,  author of a substantial book on Bengal, and founder of India's first newspaper, proposed to the Austrian ambassador in London that the Austrians revive their trade with India. Bolts, by all accounts an unusually persuasive and tenacious fellow, succeeded in convincing Empress Maria Theresia and her son, Joseph II, to finance the expedition with the goal of establishing a trading outpost in the East Indies.

In December 1778, Bolts, by then a naturalized Austrian citizen, arrived in the Nicobar Islands aboard the ship Joseph & Maria. A "contract" was made with the natives, as a result of which four of the 24 islands were henceforth to be under Austrian reign. Still, whatever hopes William Bolts might have had failed to materialize. When the man appointed by Bolts to lead the Austrian colony died in 1783, the remaining settlers lost courage. The ambitious project faltered and was eventually abandoned in 1785.

Apparently unfazed (or unwilling to take the hint), the Austrians undertook two more attempts to colonize the Nicobar Islands. In 1858, the Austrian frigate Novara arrived in Car Nicobar. Although Car Nicobar, the northernmost island, was only a stopover in an  ambitious scientific voyage of discovery around the world, the Austrians displayed quite a knack for a habit widespread amongst colonialists of the period: They used their brief stay to collect all sorts of souvenirs, not troubling themselves with questions of rightful ownership. Karl Ritter von Scherzer, the expedition's principal scientist, managed to take back with him about 400 Nicobarese artifacts. Reprehensible as this behavior might appear to modern sensibilities, were it not for Scherzer's scientific curiosity, the Nicobar Islands' brief interlude of Austrian reign would be completely forgotten. Anyone tempted to believe that Austrian rule left a lasting impression is well-advised to take a peek at the official Nicobar Islands website: The section on the islands' history neglects to make even a passing reference to Austria. Even the claim that Teressa, a Nicobar island in the center of the archipelago, was named after the empress Maria Theresia has been revealed as false. Simron Singh discovered maps printed centuries before the empress's rule that refer to that island with a name closely related to the current one.

Von Scherzer recommended giving colonization of the Nicobar Islands a third try, but his advice was not heeded. When the Austrians dropped by the next time - this time at the island of Nancowry in 1886 - they were dismayed to find that the islands were now firmly under British control. That realpolitik forestalled any fourth attempt at turning the Nicobar Islands into an Austrian colony.

Lest the Austrian efforts appear overly clumsy in hindsight, it ought to be pointed out that, even in its heyday, Austrian colonialism overseas was hampered by a somewhat limiting factor: the existence of only one seaport in the empire.

Enter Simron Jit Singh
In May 1999, business unrelated to his recently started research on the Nicobarese brought Simron Jit Singh, an expert in the fields of Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, to Vienna. The choice of Austria's capital, although not based on any specific anthropological interest in Austrians, nevertheless proved fortunate for his research on the Nicobarese. Unbeknownst to him at the time, an authentic part of Nicobarese culture lay right at his fingertips.

Prior to his move to Vienna, Singh had already spent several months doing field research in the Nicobar Islands. At the time, little was known and even less was published about this indigenous tribe, which - in spite of ongoing interactions with the outside world - had managed to maintain much of its traditional, centuries-old culture. There were good reasons the Nicobarese had eluded scientific scrutiny thus far. On the one hand, the arrogance of outsiders treating the indigenous culture as inferior, primitive, and backward had made the Nicobarese reluctant to display their cultural heritage in the presence of outsiders. On the other hand, a law passed in 1956, after the Andaman and Nicobar islands had become a union territory of the Republic of India, strictly regulated access to the Nicobar Islands.

 Undaunted by the restrictions imposed on prying outsiders, Simron Singh started his fieldwork. Through a combination of persistence, willingness to communicate openly, and general affability, he overcame the initial skepticism and gained both access to and the trust of the Nicobarese. In time, his research subjects came to actively support his efforts to document their life and culture.

But it was back in Vienna that Simron Singh ran into Karl Ritter von Scherzer's legacy. In a fortuitous conversation, a colleague of Singh remembered having seen, in a 1987 exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, items resembling the Nicobarese objects that Singh described. A bit of research revealed a surprise: Simron Singh, without intending to, had come to the city which - courtesy of Von Scherzer - harbored one of the world's most extensive collections of original Nicobarese objects.  The museum's collection was not only a boon to Singh's research but also welcome news to the Nicobarese. Explains Singh: "The Nicobarese had always been made to feel inferior by outsiders. Their contacts were usually with government officials and conservative non-indigenous settlers who looked down on their customs such as eating raw fish or pig. They made them feel ashamed of their own culture, so they closed themselves off and did not allow outsiders to see them. When I brought them old pictures from the museum in Vienna, they were so impressed to see that there were objects from their culture in such a faraway place. The Nicobarese have not come to the point where they feel these items were stolen from them, but are amazed that someone had enough respect for and interest in their culture to store these items. The interest of outsiders, who take so much care in maintaining these artifacts, made them very proud of their culture."

That act of taking information from the outside world back to the Nicobarese was typical of Singh's understanding of his own role as an anthropologist. "For centuries, the islanders found themselves on the disadvantaged side of trade relations. This was mostly the result of an unequal access to information. Very soon after I arrived in the islands, I observed that that sort of problem persists, the exploitation of the indigenous tribe by non-indigenous settlers and the occasional violation of the Protection Act [the law regulating access to the island]. So I gave information to the leadership to help make them aware of what their options are under existing laws. And, as result, they became more active in negotiations with outsiders. I acted like a global citizen who informs others who do not have the information. But I realize, of course, that it's their battle and they have to fight it," says Singh.

 Toward the end of 2004, Simron Singh was preparing to embark on a long-term project that would be based on his extensive field research on the Nicobar Islands. Endowed with a grant from an Austrian institution, he planned to deal with scenario-building, developing computer simulations that would help the Nicobarese in the complex decision-making process. The project was the consequence of discussions among the tribal leaders concerning the islands' future. They acknowledged that the world could not be held at bay forever. The basic conundrum the Tribal Council faced was how they could adapt to the outside world using interventions that would prove sustainable in the long run and not endanger their traditional ways.

The plans came to a grinding halt, when Rasheed Yusuf, a Nicobarese leader and close friend, called Simron Singh in Calcutta informing him of the devastation the tsunami had caused on the island.

Disaster strikes
At 7:59 AM on December 26, 2004, an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale shook the sea ground northwest of Sumatra.  The Nicobar Islands, located less than a hundred miles from the epicenter, were among the first victims of the tsunami following the earthquake. Eight waves of up to 65 feet made their way across the island group, leaving death and devastation in their wake.

The overall death toll from the tsunami is estimated at anywhere between 255,000 and 275,000 people. Estimates for the Nicobar Islands vary: Official counts put the loss of human lives at somewhere around 4,500 people. Simron Singh and other sources estimate that almost a third of the Nicobarese tribe was killed. That would put the death toll at 10,000.

Gone with these 10,000 dead was nearly the entire material culture of the Nicobarese. The waves had destroyed most villages, nearly all situated along the islands' coastlines, beyond recognition and repair.

One island, Trinket, had been torn apart into several distinct pieces, the ocean streaming through unhindered where villages had once stood and Nicobarese had celebrated their festivities. Fresh water supplies were gone and so was food. Simron Singh argues that the aftermath was  at least as traumatizing as the shock of the tsunami itself. A people who had, until then, been fiercely independent and started to meet the outside world on their own terms, found themselves face-to-face with the outside world and now dependent on it. In his book, Simron Singh relates the following incident:

"A father who had lost his son in the tsunami, when asked what he would like to do with the dead body that lay at his feet, simply replied, 'He is dead. What should I do with him?' and he went off to collect the remains from the debris where his hut once stood. While death, in their understanding, is a natural process, the loss of their lands is not. It means the very extinction of their roots, and hence their being in the world."

From citizen scholar to mediator to stakeholder
After learning of the devastation, Simron Singh decided to return to the islands and help. He still had to consider, though, in what role he would return to the islands. There was a lot at stake, not least of all his reputation and integrity as a scholar. Singh concedes that, even prior to the events following the tsunami, he had already moved from being not only a detached observer but also a responsive citizen, very much taking on the role of a mediator between the Nicobarese and outsiders.

But once on the island, he saw the enormity of the choices the Nicobarese would have to make. In their interactions with the various relief organizations that promised them all sorts of modern amenities and solutions, few of which were sustainable, the Nicobarese often had to rely on insufficient information: "The tribal leaders asked me to speak my opinion. When I told them I'd rather not, they didn't understand and got angry and disappointed. But I was caught in a difficult predicament. If I advised them to accept the NGO's offers, I would do so in spite of knowing full well what the potentially harmful consequences of such a transaction and interaction would be. If, on the other hand, I told them to refuse the offerings of the NGOs, I would certainly be accused of standing in the way of progress and development. I had the advantage of knowing how the NGO sector works and thus being aware that those interests may sometimes be at odds with the islanders' interests. To explain to them the paradigms of these interventions was very tough. For the Nicobarese the reality was that they received something. So why shouldn't they take it? In their case I would also just take it and think, 'who cares?' Still, I felt I had an ethical obligation to them: What is the science, my work, good for, if I don't speak up now when they most need it? So, I decided to take an active role and I eventually came to accept the role as an honorary advisor to the tribal council," explains Simron Singh.

The book
Singh soon realized that educating the Tribal Council, the leadership of the Nicobarese, about their options in their dealings with the outsiders and the respective consequences was not always enough. The situation was not made any easier by the competing offers from relief organizations that were made directly to individual Nicobarese families, thus fostering internal conflict.

Simron Singh remembers a particular incident during a heated discussion in the Tribal Council over decisions regarding the future: "I was working on my laptop and there were old images of the Nicobar Islands on it.  When they saw the pictures, they were very touched, even the ones who were in favor of radical change. There was a softening of the process and the confrontation became less polarized. I was reminded then that people are at their most vulnerable when they have to face outside pressure while they are out of their own context. That is precisely the situation they were in: They faced enormous pressure from the outside with many different people telling them what to do, while everything that would have reminded them of who they are and where they came from was gone. Not a single house remained, and they had no time to grieve for what they had lost because they had to fend for their survival. Clearly, they were not in a position to negotiate - negotiations just wouldn't be fair. So I asked myself: What can I do to return their context to them and give them a framework from which to operate? That is how the idea of the book came to be."

The art of helping
 The book, which focuses on the description of Nicobarese festivities, certainly succeeds in creating that context. Nicobarese festivities and ceremonies such as Panuohonot, which involves fights between men and pigs, or Kinruaka, an ossuary celebration culminating in the secondary burial of previously deceased ancestors, have always played a crucial role in promoting the cohesion and identity of the Nicobarese community. Their description with both text and a wealth of photographs constitutes an invaluable resource not only for interested outsiders but also for the Nicobarese themselves.

But Singh does not dwell on the past. The book's final chapter addresses the aftermath of the tsunami. Illustrated with haunting pictures of broken coconut trees, Nicobarese searching the beaches for flotsam and jetsam, and the depressingly ineffective traces of the relief efforts, that chapter is both homage to the resilience of the Nicobarese and a scathing criticism of the prevalent system of disaster relief. In the interview with bridges, Simron Singh recalled how, despite repeated pleas, the Nicobarese were not given tools - the one thing they would have needed to get on with their lives and build their traditional houses, which are made entirely of natural material available on the island. "The tools we had requested never came. Instead, useless items like a whole load of blankets arrived and expensive tin huts were built that no one could use because they were either too hot or offered little protection against the monsoon. Eventually, I went to Bangkok and, with support from Caritas Austria, bought tools and sent them back. Now they could build their own houses again."

The publication of The Nicobar Islands may have a variety of repercussions, but the author hopes that it also inspires a long-overdue discussion about the dynamics of international disaster relief. "The enormous competition within the disaster response sector itself is a sad development that goes beyond humanitarian ethics. One begins to suspect that the need of the donor organization is greater than that of the victims. As long as the humanitarian sector continues to work within an economic paradigm, disaster-struck areas will remain nothing more than a playground for donors' aid polices," Singh writes.

 The publication of the book is part of Singh's commitment to practice what he preaches. Proceeds from the book, which was published in an extraordinary effort by Oliver Lehmann, a prominent Viennese journalist, will benefit the Sustainable Indigenous Futures (SIF) fund, a fund established to help the indigenous tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Part of the fund has been and will continue to be used for projects aimed at capacity-building approved by the leadership of the indigenous tribes of the two island groups. One of these projects involved the visit of a group of six Nicobarese leaders to Vienna this past September.  In addition to meeting with Austrian president Heinz Fischer and visiting the collection at the Museum of Ethnology, the Nicobarese delegation also met with the local government of a village affected by the Austrian floods in 2002 and toured an eco-friendly building built of straw and clay, both of which are abundant on their island. They are already thinking of how they could get experts on that building technology to come to their island and facilitate a sustainable technology transfer.

Hindsight is 20/20
What, we may wonder, would Karl Ritter von Scherzer, the Empire's avid collector of indigenous artifacts, have to say about this unlikely turn of events that has lent new meaning to the items he appropriated in the name of science 147 years ago. He could hardly have imagined the intricate story of how, with the help of an Indian anthropologist and a Viennese journalist, the objects taken so long ago would end up enlightening the choices the Nicobarese face in the aftermath of a catastrophe that threatened to wipe out not only their future but also their past.

Let's just assume he would be delighted.


Philipp Steger is Attaché for Science and Technology and director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC.

The book, The Nicobar Islands: Cultural Choices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami, can be purchased at http://www.czernin-verlag.com/czerninverlag/bookshow.xml?id=326.

The above article was prepared based on the sources below and on individual interviews conducted with the following persons:
Dr. Oliver Lehmann, Journalist and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Universum Magazin. Interview conducted October 20, 2005.
Dr. Simron Jit Singh, Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna. Interview conducted October 20, 2005.

Related Sources (in the order in which the topics appear in the article)

- Dr. Simron Jit Singh - http://www.iff.ac.at/socec/staff/singh_en.php
- Institute of Social Ecology - http://www.iff.ac.at/socec/index_en.php
- Faculty for Interdisciplinary Research of the University of Klagenfurt - http://www.iff.ac.at/
- A website on the Nicobar Islands run by Simron Singh - http://www.nicobar.org
- Official government website of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory - http://www.and.nic.in
- A brief overview of the Nicobar Islands' history on the official Nicobar Islands Website - http://www.nicobar.nic.in/history.htm
- Marco Polo's quotes were taken from The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, Vol. 2 (Courier Dover Publications, May 1993).
- An abstract of a paper regarding the Danish occupation of the Nicobar Islands - http://www.pondiuni.org/push1.html
- General information on Austria's "Handelskompagnien," one of which was Bolts's infamous Nicobar adventure (in German) - http://www.aeiou.at/aeiou.encyclop.h/h148453.htm
- A fascinating account of William Bolts's central role in Gustaf III's ill-fated attempts at getting an Australian Colony, by Robert J. King - www.cishsydney2005.org/images/RobertJKingIC9v2.pdf (The article also contains further information regarding Bolts's role in the Austrian occupation of the Nicobar Islands.)
- Article by Astrid Kuffner on the Austrians in the Nicobars - http://www.andaman.org/NICOBAR/book/history/Austria/Hist-Austria.htm (The article was originally published in German in the August 2005 edition of Universum Magazin.)
- Some information on the historical Novara Expedition - http://www.novara-expedition.org/en/e_geschichte.html (That information is part of the modern Novara expedition.)
- Itinerary of the Novara Expedition - http://www.khm.at/entdeckungen/frame_novaE.html
- Vienna's Museum of Ethnology - http://www.ethno-museum.ac.at/en/museum.html
- Official Website of the 2001 exhibition "The Discovery of the World - The World of Discoveries" at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna - http://www.khm.at/entdeckungen/frame_einE.html
- "Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation" 1956 - http://www.and.nic.in/PAT-Regulation.htm
- Extensive scientific Information on the Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake - http://www.iris.iris.edu/sumatra/
- Research Article on the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake in Science (20 May 2005) - http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/308/5725/1127 (In the May 20 issue of Science three papers were published providing an extensive scientific analysis of the earthquake)
- Brief overview over the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake provided by the Geological Survey of India - www.gsi.gov.in/sumatra.pdf
- BBC News overview of countries affected by the Tsunami following the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/4126019.stm
- BBC News Article on the situation of mainland Indians on Great Nicobar and their desire to leave the island after the Tsunami, March 7, 2005 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4325797.stm
- Everybody Loves A Good Tsunami, by S. Anand. This article, highly critical of the NGOs' role in the aftermath of the Tsunami appeared on Nov. 21, 2005, on www.outlookindia.com.
- Information on the Sustainable Indigenous Futures Fund - http://www.sifutures.at
- Information on the Andaman-Nicobar Trust Account - http://www.andaman-nicobar-fund.org