Page images

ART. IV. Letters on the Nicobar Islands. 8vo. pp. 64. Lon

don. 1813.

THIS little book is another proof of the zeal with which the

Moravian missionaries have laboured in the vineyard ; even when their benevolent exertions have produced no other fruit, they have contributed to our knowledge of remote countries and

savage tribes.

The Nicobar islands are a small cluster situated at the entrance of the Bay of Bengal. Navarrete says that there is a spring in one of them which gilds iron, copper, and wood; but he knew not whether the gilding were permanent. If this account have any foundation in truth, it seems to indicate good copper mines. Such a report was easily improved. The Portugueze assured Gemelli Carreri, that this water had the property of transmuting iron into gold; and that the Dutch, ambitious of possessing a country where nature thus effected what the alchemists of Europe had so long laboured in vain to discover, endeavoured to conquer it; but lost about eight hundred men in the attempt. Il the Dutch made such an attempt they have not recorded it; at least we have sought in vain for any notice of it in the great historian of their exploits and discoveries in the east. Long since the days of Jason and the golden fleece, wilder expeditions have been undertaken. Juan Ponce de Leon, the discoverer of Florida, sent a ship in search of the island of Bimini, where the Spanish conquerors as well as the Indians firmly believed there was a fountain which possessed the virtue of Medea's kettle, and restored to youth whoever bathed in it. The Indians of Cuba made a voyage to Florida, in quest of a river of the same marvellous quality. But the most remarkable of all voyages of discovery was that which the kings of the Maldives repeatedly undertook to a certain island called Pollovoys, for the purpose of attempting its conquest from no less a personage than the devil; not metaphorically, by a spiritual warfare like that of the mis-sionaries: they believed that the devil was in actual possession of the island ; and they sent an expedition of conjurors to propose terms to him, and negociate for a cession on his part.

There may have been another motive for the Dutch expedition, if it were really made. The two largest islands Naneauwery (from which the whole group is sometimes denominated) and Comarty form a harbour which is sheltered to the westward by the island of Katsoll, and to the east by Trikut, a long, narrow, flat island, abounding with cocoá trees. Both entrances bave a clear deep channel, through which the largest ships may pass, both with a N. E, and S. W. monsoon: the harbour is capacious


in cellent; Mr. Fontana says it is one of the safest in India. Ships may ride there in perfect security about half a mile from shore, sheltered from all winds. This natural advantage did not however induce the Dutch to make a second attempt, and the next adventurers who tried their fortune in the Nicobars, were of a very different character. In 1711, P. Faure, a Jesuit, and P. Bannet his companion, were landed here with a sack of rice, and their religious utensils in a little box. As soon as they were set on shore they knelt and prayed, and kissed the earth, pour en prendre possession au nom de Jesus Christ, says the editor of the Lettres Edifiantes.

In 1756, the Danes from Tranquebar attempted to form a commercial settlement here, and in that spirit of gratuitous innovation, of which geographers so often have cause to complain, they new named the group, after the reigning king, the Frederic Islands; and Kar-Nicobar, on which their settlement was placed, New Denmark. The court of Copenhagen was at that time distinguished by a spirit of literary and religious zeal ; and the Ordinary of the Moravians (or United Brethren as they call themselves) was officially informed that it would give the king singular pleasure if some brothers would settle on these islands, and endeavour to bring the inhabitants to the knowledge of Christ. The invitation was readily accepted by a society of whom it may truly be said, that they possess the zeal of the Jesuits, unalloyed by any worldly motives. While they were preparing to send out their colony, tidings arrived that the settlement had been given up, almost all the colonists having fallen victims to the climate. Disheartening as this was, the brethren informed the government that they were still willing to undertake the mission, but that as it would be neither advisable nor feasible to settle a colony in so distant and wild a country immediately from Europe, it was necessary that they should previously have an establishment at Tranquebar, in order to support the mission in the islands from thence. There were no persons in Denmark who thought that the Hindoos might as well worship Jaganaut as Christ, and that christianity was not calculated for the latitude of India: the Danish Asiatic Company therefore granted them a settlement, with permission to preach the gospel to the heathen, and to embody them into the christian church by baptism, according to the laudable example of their brethren in Greenland and the West Indies.

The colony arrived at Tranquebar in 1760, carrying with it those orderly and industrious habits which have made the Moravians respected wherever they are known. Their artificers and their physician found abundant employment; they cultivated the land with success, and excited much surprise by planting a vineyard. Such

[ocr errors]

indeed was the good repute which they obtained while waiting there for an opportunity to begin their settlement in the Nicobars, that their historian Crantz assures us the English governor of Bengal wished them to form an establishment at Chatigan on the Ganges, but they did not think it right to change their original purpose. In 1768, the Danish government made a second attempt at settling in the islands; six brethren accompanied the establishment, and fixed their residence in Nancauwery. The same deadly climate which had frustrated the foriner attempt, proved fatal to this. The servants and soldiers of the company died so fast that, in the year 1771, two Europeans and four Malabars were all who survived. The missionaries had not suffered in equal proportion; their temperance probably rendered them less susceptible of the diseases of the country, yet they lost a third of their number. The commercial settlement was now, as might be expected, finally abandoned, but the brethren persevered under the most difficult and disheartening circumstances. They were even dependent for subsistence upon supplies from Tranquebar. An Englishman, by name Holford, who resided in that city, rendered the Moravians the most essential service, by joining them for several years in chartering a small vessel, which carried out necessaries for the mission, and returned with produce; the sale whereof however fell far short of the expenses of the outfit. A French privateer searched one of their ships; a few old English newspapers were found in a trunk belonging to an English gentleman on board, who had escaped from Hyder-ally,--and this, says M. Haensel, was pretence sufficient for a Frenchman to seize upon a neutral Danish vessel! It reduced the missionaries to the greatest immediate distress, nor were they ever able to obtain restitution. The mission was continued till 1787; the expense of life and money which it required was then properly thought too great to be afforded longer; and its only fruits are to be found in the little book before us, -the recollections of the last surviving missionary, John Gottfried Haensel. We are indebted for it to the venerable Mr. Latrobe, to whom literature, as well as his own community, is beholden for many and useful services. In consequence of the inquiries of Mr. Wilberforce concerning the mission, he prevailed on Mr. Haensel to embody and preserve the knowledge which had been so dearly purchased ; and this translation of Mr. Haensel's original letters is his work. By combining the information here contained with that which other writers bave communicated, a connected view may be given of the state of these islands.

The fullest accounts are those which have been given by Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Fontana, and Lieutenant Colebrooke, in the Asiatic Researches. There is little to be found in earlier writers, and that



little at first sight seems fabulous. Navarrete describes the natives as almost black, with red hair, which he naturally observes is

very remarkable, es cosa bien particular ; and he adds that they are cannibals. The present race of inhabitants are certainly among the gentlest and most humane of all savage tribes, yet his account is perhaps not so erroneous as it appears.

The Andaman islands, the nearest group to the Nicobars, are inhabited by a fierce and intractable race of black cannibals, from whose coast no shipwrecked mariner has ever returned. They are said to be descended from some Mozambique negroes, wrecked there in a Portugueze ship early in the sixteenth century. If this account of their origin be authentic, they may have acquired the habit of eating human flesh as they fell into wildec habits of life; or they may have brought it with them, if any of them, which would be not unlikely, belonged to the execrable hordes of the Giagas. Lieutenant Colebrooke* however questions the authenticity of the tradition, not having been able to discover in what early author it is noticed. The colour and the woolly hair of the Andaman islanders may refer as probably to an Australasian as to an African origin. The natives of Papua are black, and woolly-haired, and both Sonnini and Rochon tell us that they use a powder which makes the hair appear of a fiery red. Now the cannibal race in the Nicobars may easily be believed to have come from the nearest group, and if they retained the customs and fashions of their ancestors, upon this supposition, Navarrete's account would be as true in all its parts, as it appears erroneous. At present the inhabitants of the two groups are hostile to each other, and Captain Hamilton tells us that in his time, the end of the seventeenth century,) the fiercer tribe used annually to invade their neighbours. One singular custom seems to imply, a connection between them at some former time: both preserve the skulls of wild boars in their houses ; Mr. Fontana says that in the Nicobars they form the most valuable article of furniture, and Lieutenant Colebrooke observes that the Andamaners suspend them from the roofs. This custom, for which no reason is assigned, must originate in some superstition, and that superstition must have been common to both people,

The Nicobars are said by Mr. Hamilton to have been peopled from Pegu; persons, he says, who are acquainted with both languages, recognize a great resemblance. Dr. Leyden could perceive little or no connection in the short vocabulary which Mr. Fontana bas given; but be did not notice Mr. Hamilton's observation, that the words are pronounced with a kind of stop or catch in the throat, at every syllable. This, which the traveller considers


* Asiatic Researches, vol. iv. 8vo. edition, p. 405.

to be a mode of syllabic speaking: (like the syllabic reading of the Madras schools, seems rather to imply that the language is monosyllabic, and the people, according to Dr. Leyden's classification, of Indo-Chinese race. The proof therefore of their extraction from Pegu, may perhaps be in their language, though certainly there is nothing in their manners to support it. The Moravians made little progress in their native tongue, and communicate nothing concerning it. Mr. Haensel complains not of the usual difficulty, that confluent pronunciation which all persons perceive in a language with which they are imperfectly acquainted, and which renders it so arduous a task to analyse a savage dialect into its constituent parts, - but that the people were too lazy to talk, and too fond of betel to articulate : words they seemed to think a troublesome effort, where a sign could answer the purpose, and when they spoke, the betel rendered their speech so indistinct, that one sputtering sound could scarcely be distinguished from another. The necessity of acquiring the native tongue was less urgent, because the corrupt Portugueze which passes current in India, was understood there. Mr. Hamilton accounts for this by the frequent intercourse of the islanders with the Portugueze ; but during the last hundred and fifty years they must have had more intercourse with Dutch, English, French, and Danes; and the language of the first European conquerors in India has more probably remained there since the sixteenth century, when the Portugueze traded with many countries, which have since that time been neglected. No other traces of their intercourse remain. The natives indeed seem rather to be retrograde than progressive. They had acquired a little skill in pottery, one of the first arts which savages attain, but some chance maladies carried off several of the persons who were thus employed, and the manufacture was immediately given up as unlucky. Some of their customs also tend to reduce them to a more savage state than that in which they exist at present. Every moveable thing, living or dead, which a man possessed, is buried with him. In one view,' says Mr. Hamilton, this is an excellent custom, seeing it prerents all disputes about the property of the deceased among his relations:' but a few broken heads would be a less evil than this continual destruction of property and live stock. Some law of succession is coeval with property, and the practice originates in superstition, not in any design of preventing quarrels. A cocoa tree also is cut down for every person that dies, instead of being planted for every child that is born! Like most savages they strive to forget the dead, and thercfore destroy what has belonged to them ; the name of the deceased is never mentioned, even if it be repeatedly asked: all memory of their ancestors is thus precluded, and tradition can scarcely exist among them.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »