1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nicobar Islands

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NICOBAR ISLANDS, a British group of twelve inhabited and seven uninhabited islands in the Bay of Bengal, between Sumatra and the Andaman Islands, to which latter they are administratively appended. They have an aggregate area of about 635 sq. m., Great Nicobar (Loöng), the largest and southernmost of any size, covering 333 sq. m. Six others range in area from about 20 sq. m. to 62 sq. m.; the rest are mere islets. A careful census of the natives, taken by Mr E. H. Man in 1901, gave a total population of some 6700, at about which figure the estimates of the number of inhabitants have always stood. Car Nicobar (Pu), the most northerly island, with an area of 49 sq. m., was by far the most densely populated, and had 3500 inhabitants, Great Nicobar containing only 450. The marine surveys of these islands are still meagre and unsatisfactory, but the whole of the Nicobars and outlying islands were surveyed topographically by the Indian Survey Department in 1886–1887, when a number of maps on the scale of 2 in. to the mile were produced, giving an accurate coast-line. Some of the islands have mere flat, coral-covered surfaces; others, again, are hilly, the Great Nicobar rising to 2105 ft. On that island there are considerable and beautiful streams, but the others generally are badly off for fresh surface water. There is one good harbour, a magnificent land-locked shelter called Nancowry Harbour, formed by the islands of Camorta and Nancowry (both known to natives as Nankauri).

Geology.—The Nicobars form part of a great submarine chain, of which the Andamans are a continuation. Elaborate geological reports were issued by a Danish scientific expedition in 1846 and an Austrian expedition in 1858. Dr Rink of the former found no trace of true volcanic rocks, though the chain as a whole is known for its volcanic activity, but features were not wanting to indicate considerable upheavals in the most recent periods. He considered that the islands belonged to the Tertiary age. Von Hochstetter of the Austrian expedition classified the most important formations thus: eruptive, serpentine and gabbro; marine deposits, probably late Tertiary, consisting of sandstones, slates, clay, marls, and plastic clay; recent corals. He considered the whole group connected geologically with the great islands of the Malay Archipelago farther south. The vexed question of the presence of coal and tin in the Nicobars has so far received no decided scientific support. The white clay marls of Camorta and Nancowry have become famous as being true polycistinan marls like those of Barbados. Earthquakes of great violence were recorded in 1847 and 1881 (with tidal wave), and mild shocks were experienced in December 1899.

Meteorology.—It has always been held to be important to maintain a meteorological station on the Nicobars, for the purpose of supplementing the information obtained from the Andamans regarding cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. From 1869 to 1888 an observatory was properly maintained in Nancowry harbour, but after the latter year observations were recorded only in a more or less desultory way until 1897, when the station was removed to Mus in Car Nicobar. The climate is unhealthy for Europeans. The islands are exposed to both monsoons, and smooth weather is only experienced from February to April, and in October. Rain falls throughout the year, generally in sharp, heavy showers. During the five years ending 1888 the annual rainfall varied from 91 in. to 133 in., and the number of wet days per annum from 148 to 222. The highest temperature in the shade was 98.2° F., and the lowest 64° F.

Flora and Fauna.—Although the vegetation of the Nicobars has received much desultory attention from scientific observers, it has not been subjected to a systematic examination by the Indian Forest Department like that of the Andamans, and indeed the forests are quite inferior in economic value to those of the more northerly group; besides fruit trees—such as the coco-nut (Cocos nucifera), the betel-nut (Areca catechu), and the mellori (Pandanus leeram)—a thatching palm (Nipa fruticans) and various timber trees have some commercial value, but only one timber tree (Myristica irya) would be considered first-class in the Andamans. The palms of the Nicobars are, however, exceedingly graceful. Instances of the introduction of foreign economic plants are frequently mentioned in the old missionary records, and nowadays a number of familiar Asiatic fruit-trees are carefully and successfully cultivated. As with the geology and the flora, certain phases of the fauna of the islands have been extensively reported. The mammals are not numerous. In the southernmost islands are a small monkey, rats and mice, tree-shrews (Cladobales nic.), bats, and flying-foxes, but it is doubtful if the “wild” pig is indigenous; cattle, when introduced and left, have speedily become “wild.” There are many kinds of birds, notably the megapod (Megapodius nic.), the edible-nest-building swift (Collocalia nidifica), the hackled and pied pigeons (Calaenas nic. and Carpophaga bicolor), a paroquet (Palaeornis caniceps) and an oriole (Oriolus macrourus). Fowls, snipe and teal thrive after importation or migration. Reptiles—snakes, lizards and chameleons, crocodiles, turtles and an enormous variant of the edible Indian crab—are numerous; butterflies and insects, the latter Very troublesome, have not yet been systematically collected. The freshwater fish are reported to be of the types found in Sumatra.

Natives.—The Nicobarese may be best described as a Far Eastern race, having generally the characteristics of the less civilized tribes of the Malay Peninsula and the south-eastern portion of the Asiatic continent, and speaking varieties of the Mon-Annam group of languages, though the several dialects that prevail are mutually unintelligible. Their figure is not graceful, and, owing to their habit of dilating the lips by betel-chewing, the adults of both sexes are often repulsive in appearance. Though short according to the standard of whites (average height, man, 5 ft. 33/4 in.; woman, 5 ft.), the Nicobarese are a fine, well-developed race, and live to seventy or eighty years of age. Their mental capacity is considerable, though there is a great difference between the sluggish inhabitant of Great Nicobar and the keen trader of Car Nicobar. The religion is an undisguised animism, and all their frequent and elaborate ceremonies and festivals are aimed at exorcising and scaring spirits. Though for a long time they were callous wreckers and pirates, and cruel, and though they show great want of feeling in the “devil murders”—ceremonial murders of one of themselves for grave offences against the community, which are now being gradually put down-still on the whole the Nicobarese are a quiet, inoffensive people, friendly to each other, and not quarrelsome, and by inclination friendly and not dangerous to foreigners. The old charge of cannibalism may be generally said to be quite untrue. Tribes can hardly be distinguished, but there are distinctions, chiefly territorial. All the differences observed in the several kinds of Nicobarese may with some confidence be referred to habitat and the physical difficulties of communication. Such government as there is, is by the village; but the village chiefs have not usually much power, though such authority as they have has always been maintained by the foreign Powers who have possessed the islands. The clothing, when not a caricature of European dress, is of the scantiest, and the waggling tags in which the loin-cloths are tied behind early gave rise to fanciful stories that the inhabitants were naked and tailed. The houses are good, and often of considerable size. The natives are skilful with their lands, and though they never cultivate cereals, exercise some care and knowledge over the coco-nut and tobacco, and have had much success with the foreign fruits and vegetables introduced by the missionaries. The staple article of trade has always been the ubiquitous coco-nut, of which it is computed that 15 million are produced annually, 10 million being taken by the people, and 5 million exported about equally from Car Nicobar and the rest of the islands. The usual cheap European goods are imported, the foreign trade being carried on with the native traders of the neighbouring Asiatic countries. There is an old-established internal trade, chiefly between the older islands and Chowra, for pots (which are only made there) and racing and other canoes.

History.—The situation of the Nicobars along the line of a very ancient trade route has caused them to be reported by traders and seafarers through all historical times. In the 17th century the islands began to attract the attention of missionaries. At various times France, Denmark, Austria and Great Britain all had more or less shadowy rights to the islands, the Danes being the most persistent in their efforts to occupy the group, until in 1869 they relinquished their claims in favour of the British, who at once began to put down the piracies of the islanders, and established a penal settlement, numbering in all about 350 persons, in Nancowry harbour. The health of the convicts was always bad, though it improved with length of residence and the adoption of better sanitary measures; and an attempt to found a Chinese colony having failed in 1884 through mismanagement, the settlement was withdrawn in 1888. There are native agencies at Nancowry harbour and on Car Nicobar, both of which places are gazetted ports. At the latter is a Church of England mission station under a native Indian catechist attached to the diocese of Rangoon. .

Authorities.—E. H. Man, Dictionary of the Central Nicobarese Language (London, 1889); F. Maurer, Die Nikobaren (Berlin, 1867); Dr Svoboda, Die Bewohner des Nikobaren-Archipels (Leiden, 1893); F. A. De Roepstorff, Dictionary of the Nancowry Dialect (Calcutta, 1884); Vocabulary of Dialects in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands (2nd ed., Calcutta, 1875); Prevost and Heing, Report on Preliminary Tour through the Nicobar Islands (Government, Rangoon, 1897); J. B. Kloss, In the Andamans and Nicobars (London, 1902); A. Alcock, A Naturalist in the Indian Seas (London, 1902).  (R. C. T.)