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A Very Singular People, The Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Andaman Islanders, c. 1900

I have always had a fascination with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, ever since I was young and read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, partially set in the Andamans. These days in my dealings with tribal art, I seldom come across objects from these far-flung isles, but when I do, they always hold a particular intrigue for me, no doubt due in part to Sherlock Holmes.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands form an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, between India to the west, and Myanmar, to the north and east. Denmark once governed Nicobar and then Great Britain; India now governs the islands since independence from Britain in 1947.


Lying on the important East Indian Company trading routes in the Bay of Bengal, the British first colonized the Andamans in 1793, when they transported 300 convicts from Bengal to establish a settlement on the islands. First on Chatham Island (Port Blair), and then later in the present Port Cornwallis in the northeast. Disease forced the British to abolish the settlement in 1796. Due to their strategic position, the British remained interested in the Andamans. However, after a series of Islander attacks on shipwrecked vessels and prospectors in the 1840s, they began to make plans to re-colonize. The catalyst was the Great Indian Revolt of 1857 when rebels destroyed dozens of jails, and the penal settlements in Burma and elsewhere refused to take mutineer and rebel convicts. Penal transport by Britain began with the first gang of 200 convicts in 1858, laying the foundation for establishing the penal colony, and continued into the 1930s, with a total of about 80,000 convicted criminals and 1,000 political prisoners sent.

Nicobar Islanders with British Flag Backdrop, c. 1890s
British colonial administrators with Andaman Islanders, c. 1890s

On the adjoining Nicobar Islands, the first organized European colonization began when the Danish East India Company’s Danish settlers arrived in 1755. The following year the islands were made a Danish colony, first named New Denmark and later Frederick’s Islands. The islands were repeatedly abandoned in the ensuing decades due to outbreaks of malaria. From 1778 to 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claim to the islands and attempted to establish a colony, renaming them Theresia Islands. Denmark’s presence in the territory ended formally in 1868 when it sold the rights to the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British India in 1869.

The Andaman Bow

No doubt, the most recognizable artifact from the Andamans is a distinctive bow. It is an elegant weapon that resembles a two-bladed canoe paddle with flared ends. It consists of thin blades that taper to a point in opposite directions at the upper and lower ends and merge into a rounded handle in the center. It is fired with the top pointing back towards the archer’s head and the bottom pointing away from his feet.

Andaman Island artifacts sold by William Oldman, c. 1900

Some examples were decorated with incised crosshatching and herringbone bands down the length of the edges. Two forms of this bow exist: the North Andaman bow, in which the upper limb is much more bent over than the lower; and the South Andaman bow, in which the limbs are nearly even. The bows were skillfully carved from a single straight piece of timber; the carver braced the branch against a support and carved it whilst standing upright. The bow was then finished by smoothing the surface with a sharpened boar’s tusk from a seated position with one end held between the toes. The ends of the bow were bound with twine to prevent the vegetable fiber string from slipping. The bows were used both in warfare and hunting and are now highly regarded among collectors of both tribal art and tribal weapons.


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