1822 - Fanny Parks
Visit to Car Nicobar
Nicobar Islands, India
The island where we landed was covered to the edge of the sand of the shore with beautiful trees; scarcely an uncovered or open spot was to be seen. Off the ship the village appeared to consist of six or eight enormous bee-hives, erected on poles and surrounded by high trees; among these, the cocoa-nut, to an English eye, was the most remarkable.
The ship was soon surrounded by canoes filled with natives; two came on board. The ladies hastened on deck, but quickly scudded away, not a little startled at beholding men like Adam when he tasted the forbidden fruit: they knew not they were naked, and they were not ashamed. I returned to my cabin. The stern of the vessel was soon encircled by canoes filled with limes, citrons, oranges, cocoa-nuts, plantains, yams, eggs, chickens, little pigs, and various kinds of fruit. The sight of these temptations soon overcame my horror at the want of drapery of the islanders, and l stood at the port bargaining for what I wished to obtain until the floor was covered. Our traffic was thus conducted - I held up an empty jam-pot, and received in return a basket full of citrons; for two empty phials, a couple of fowls.
Really the dark colour of the people serves very well as dress, if you are not determined to be critical. On landing, I was surrounded by women chattering and staring; one pulled my bonnet, but above all things they were charmed with my black silk apron; they greatly admired, and took it in their hands. They spoke a few words of English, and shook hands with me, saying, "How do? How do?" and when they wished to purchase my apron they seized it rather roughly, saying, "You buy? You buy?" meaning, Will you sell it? They were kind after the mode Nicobar.
The natives are of low stature, their faces ugly, but good-humoured; they are beautifully formed, reminding one of ancient statues; their carriage is perfectly erect. A piece of cloth is tied round the waists of the women, which reaches to the knee. Some women were hideous: of one the head was entirely shaved, excepting where a black lock was left over either ear, of which the lobes were depressed, stretched out, and cut into long slips, so that they might be ornamented with bits of coloured wood that were inserted. She had the elephantiasis, and her limbs were swollen to the size of her waist. They are very idle; in fact, there appears no necessity for exertion - fruits of all sorts grow wild, pigs are plentiful, and poultry abundant. Tobacco was much esteemed. Silver they prized very much, and called coin of all sorts and sizes dollars - a six-pence or a half-crown were dollars. The only apparent use they have for silver is to beat it out into thick wire, which they form into spiral rings by twisting it several times round the finger. Rings are worn on the first and also on the middle joint of every finger, and on the thumb also. Bracelets formed after the same fashion wind from the wrist half-way up the arms. Rings ornament all their toes, and they wear half-a-dozen anklets. The same silver wire adorns the necks of the more opulent of the men also. They are copper-coloured, with straight black hair; their bodies shine from being rubbed with cocoa-nut oil, which smells very disagreeably. Their huts are particularly well built. Fancy a great bee-hive beautifully and most carefully thatched, twelve feet in diameter, raised on poles about five feet from the ground; to the first story you ascend by a removeable ladder of bamboo; the floor is of bamboo and springs under you in walking; the side opposite the entrance is smoked by a fire: a ladder leads to the attic, where another elastic floor completes the habitation. They sit or lie on the ground. Making baskets appears to be their only manufacture.
From constantly chewing the betel-nut, their teeth are stained black, with a red tinge, which has a hideous effect. I picked up some beautiful shells on the shore and bartered with the women for their silver wire rings.
The colours of my shawl greatly enchanted Lancour, one of their chief men; he seized it rather roughly, and pushing three fowls, tied by the legs, into my face, said, "l present, you present." As I refused to agree to the exchange, one of the officers interfered, and Lancour drew back his hand evidently disappointed.
The gentlemen went on shore armed in case of accidents; but the ship being in sight all was safe. I have since heard that two vessels, which were wrecked on the island some years afterwards, were plundered, and the crews murdered.
Many of the most beautiful small birds were shot by the officers. As for foliage, you can imagine nothing more luxuriant than the trees bending with fruits and flowers. No quadrupeds were to be seen but dogs and pigs; there are no wild beasts on the island. They say jackals, alligators, and crabs are numerous: the natives were anxious the sailors should return to the ship at night, and as they remained late, the Nicobars came down armed with a sort of spear; they were cautious of the strangers, but showed no fear, and told the men to come again the next day. It must be dangerous for strangers to sleep on shore at night, on account of the dense fog, so productive of fever.
The scene was beautiful at sunset; the bright tints in the sky contrasted with the deep hue of the trees; the shore covered with men and boats; the bee-hive village, and the novelty of the whole. Many of the savages adorned with European jackets, were strutting about the vainest of the vain, charmed with their new clothing; Lancour was also adorned with a cocked-hat! The woman who appeared of the most consideration, perhaps the queen of the Island, wore a red cap shaped like a sugar-loaf, a small square handkerchief tied over one shoulder, like a monkey mantle, and a piece of blue cloth round her hips; a necklace of silver wire, with bracelets, anklets, and rings on the fingers and toes without number. The pigs proved the most delicate food; they were very small, and fattened on cocoa-nuts: the poultry was excellent.
The natives make a liquor as intoxicating as gin from the cocoa-nut tree, by cutting a gash in the bark and collecting the juice in a cocoa-nut shell, which they suspend below the opening to receive it; it ferments and is very strong - the taree or toddy of India.
Little did I think it would ever have been my fate to visit such an uncivilized island, or to shake hands with such queer looking men; however, we agreed very well, and they were quite pleased to be noticed: one man, who made us understand he was called Lancour, sat down by my side, and smoked in my face by way of a compliment. They delight in tobacco, which they roll up in a leaf, and smoke in form of a cigar. I cannot refrain from writing about these people, being completely island struck.
It was of importance to the ‘Winchelsea’, in which there were a hundred and twenty on the sick list, to procure fruit and vegetables, as the scurvy had broken out amongst the crew.
We landed, Oct. 30th, and quitted the island, Nov. 2nd, with a fair wind: all the passengers on board were in good spirits.
Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque During 24 Years in the East …
Vol. I, London 1850