Friday 16 August 2013

Stranded in Paradise - 20

  Our attempted voyage from Bangladesh to Singapore in a 23-foot Sampan fishing boat had been a brave but foolhardy venture. We had been a whisker from being wrecked on a wildly churning reef off the coast of Car Nicobar when, out of nowhere, the India patrol launch had appeared and pulled us clear. We were lucky to still be alive.    

    Once the four of us were on board the Indian naval vessel, we related how we had been lost and without clean water and food for the past eleven days.
     They immediately supplied jugs of water and hard tack biscuits; not exactly the wine, steak and gently sautéed potatoes we had dreamed of. However, the hard tack biscuits caused our soft gums to bleed, so instead, we were given plates of cold, but very spicy curry, which burned the open sores of our gums.
      As we struggled to eat, the launch made its way through a channel into a small bay, where we were transferred into a rowboat, and had to wade ashore onto a beach of snow-white silky sand edged with towering coconut palms.
Nicobari men with 'Danish' fencing in background
     A group of 20–25 bronze stocky natives was seen wading out to long canoes to fetch trade goods that had been paddled in from a larger boat at anchor off shore.
     We were taken in a government-issue Land Rover along a two-mile sand track and handed over to the island’s Indian Administrator, whose role was to oversee a team of Indians who manned and maintained a school, medical clinic and police post.
Dugout fishing canoe
     He explained that we were in the government ‘Restricted Area’ of Car Nicobar, an island within the Andaman and Nicobar group. The islands were officially administered from Port Blair, formerly a British-built political penal colony, located on Greater Andaman Island, half a day’s sail to the north.
     We also learned that apart from three very small tribes of difficult to contact ‘savages’ on the Andaman Islands – one of who were Negroid pygmies – the only other indigenous people were the friendly Nicobarese on this island, plus a few isolated groups scattered on remote islands to the south-east.
Beehive homes
     He arranged for us to be given food, water and a medical check-up. We were informed that until such time as it was decided what to do with us, we were to be put into the care of two Muslim copra traders – the Jadwet brothers – and billeted in their compound.
     The compound turned out to be an eight-foot high stockade, within which were several godowns, the brothers’ bungalow and a shed in which four canvas camp beds had been set up for us.
     The indigenous people of Nicobar had always been an isolated but self-sufficient society and had no use for money; they lived by a barter and a friendship exchange system. However, to earn credit from the Muslim brothers with which to exchange for bolts of cloth, threads, metal objects and Singer sewing machines, they worked at harvesting coconuts, and drying them in preparation for copra. A system, which we felt, was unfairly weighted in favoured of the brothers. 
Chopping coconuts for copra
     Within a week, we had eaten our way back to good health, started to put on weight, and were generally enjoying our situation.
     The island was a tropical paradise ringed by a 60 meter belt of palm trees producing millions of coconuts. It had white sandy beaches from which to swim, surf and canoe; the days were hot and sunny with occasional cooling showers, village life was interesting to observe and the Nicobari people friendly to interact with. It was perfect in every way.
Collecting Coconuts 
     The island, roughly twelve kilometres by fourteen kilometres, had a population of approximately 15,000 who lived in twelve small villages, there was also an Indian administration, a contingent of Indian military personnel and a few Indian schoolteachers with their families. We learned much about Car Nicobar and its people during the two months we remained on the island. 
     The Nicobari tribal people were a good-looking, golden-tanned, stocky-built race, full of good humour and leading very contented lives in an orderly and social society. Crime, as we in the west know it, did not exist; the police post was there purely to keep the few Indians in order and to cope with the rare influx of shipwrecked British mariners.
     All trade was done on a barter system; money was as yet unknown and uncalled for. The Jadwet brothers controlled all the copra trading and kept a general store that stocked everything from pencils to sewing machines which they exchanged for dried coconuts to feed their trade of copra back to mainland India.
     They were but two muslims among an Indian population of Hindus on an island full of Christian Nicobarese.
Always a friendly smile
     Eric and I had formed a bond of friendship from the outset; he was a couple of years older than me and had spent two years in the army. He and ‘Captain Sam’ were always at loggerheads and I seemed to be forever acting as a truce maker. Jim was the quiet one of the group. I often thought of us, not as three men in a boat and a dog, but as three Manchurians and a hog. I am from Hampshire and the saying goes: ‘If he be from Hampshire, he be an hog’.     
     The compound, in which we lived and were locked into at night, was close to the village of Chuckchucha. Eric and I became very good friends with the people of that village. They lived in large extended families in a group of about ten huge beehive-shaped houses; which were large robust thatched buildings that stood upon stout eight-foot high coconut poles, and were accessed by either notched logs or crude ladders.
     They were a fun-loving, carefree Christian people whose religious beliefs were led by a Nicobari bishop with the western name of John Richardson.
Bishop John Richardson with his cathedral
     Island life did not appear to us to be divided into strict periods of work or play, yet they nevertheless had an unwritten discipline in their lives, things got done and they maintained a healthy and orderly lifestyle that was conducted for the benefit of the community.    
    I became particular friends with Esau Sampok from Chuckchucha; he would take me hunting for birds and wild pigs that lived in the interior of the island, he was always careful to hunt only on land belonging to his village and to respect the property of others.
     We were asked what we wanted to do with our boat, and it was collectively decided to donate it to the village of Mus where it had been beached – in all the time we had had it, we had never given it a name, it had always been referred to as, ‘The Boat’.
Choristers at the Cathedral
     Life was good, but rescue plans were underway … to be continued in story No 21
All photographs are from a 1954 collection, taken by and courtesy of Ian R Austin RAF retired.
Your Comments are always welcome
Have you read 'Island Disaster' yet? CLICK HERE to read
CLICK HERE to read the first in this series of stories

1 comment:

  1. Roy, another episode of a truly amazing story. Just imagine what tourists would pay today for the very same experience on this relatively unknown island: the chance to ineract with the Nicobari, to learn a little of their language, to firm and form friendships and to tell of your navigational skills. Was there an expectation that the three of you were to help out in some manner? Perhaps your time there was the idyllic lifestyle or the Utopia that central Europeans spent so much time researching in the late 19th Century. This I only discovered at an exhibition at the Australian National Gallery some two or three years back. More of that when we meet. Hopefully you coped with the spicy curry with some dignity, a little more aplomb than with the peppers in your soup whilst in Kasgar. Lastly, did you buy a lottery ticket at the very first opportunity?


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