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CHAPTER VII

TRINKAT

Beresford Channel-A Deserted Village, JheelBird Life-Wild Cattle

Scenery-Photographs—Port Registers—Tanamara-Population-Customs -The Shom Pen-The Sequel to a Death-Interior of the Houses.

TRINKAT is a low, flat island about five miles long and one wide, separated from Kamorta by the narrow strait in which we anchored. This is much choked with coral-reefs, on which every now and then the sea breaks unexpectedly in low waves which run along their edges throwing up clouds of spray. Several villages, fronted by rows of streamer-decorated poles, were in sight on the western shores, and further up the channel a junk from Penang was anchored, the first we had seen. The island is nowhere higher than 80 or go feet, and is superficially of limestone formation-raised coral: the shores are fringed with jungle and coco palms, while the latter are frequent also in the patches of jungle occurring in the interior, * which, however, consists mainly of open undulating grassy land.

We landed, after crossing the reef, near a couple of huts, built of palm leaves and rough planks, that seemed deserted.

* This may possibly be one of the results of elevation. As the island grew, nuts drifted to its changing shores and took root, until, as more and more land appeared, those trees which at one time stood along the edge of the island would at length be situated in the interior. Kar Nicobar, another low island of similar formation, also possesses forests of indigenous coconuts.

“ Trinkat, being flat, is divided amongst the inhabitants of the other two islands, where they have their plantations of coconuts and areca palms : these last being very abundant."-Fontana, Asiatic Researches, vol. iii., 1778.

A great number of pigs were roaming about in company with dogs, fowls, and a cat. The huts were surrounded for some distance by palm trees growing in thick scrub undergrowth. A little way along a path we arrived at a small jheel, on which were a diver and several whistling teal. Birds were numerous amongst the trees, where parrots (P. erythrogenys) and pigeons dwelt in flocks, and on the ground megapodes ran about calling to each other, but were too well concealed, by the tall grass and bushes that grew everywhere, for successful collecting. We got here the Nicobar fly-catcher, in plumage of dark chestnut, with steely-black head, and Geocichla albigularis, a pretty grey, olive and cinnamon thrush, a shy bird that kept down on the ground or hid itself in low bushes. Out in the open, amongst the grass, we found numbers of small warblers (Cisticola cisticola), an occasional snipe or two, and Alocks of little buttonquail (Excalfactoria (?), sp. nov.), while a herd of about fifty semi-wild cattle roamed about, most of them descendants of a number turned out here in '88, when the settlement at Nankauri was given up. They suffer but little loss in numbers at the hands of the natives, for the Government allows no guns in the islands, and it is only very occasionally that a number of men will combine and slaughter a beast with spears.

From the interior the scene was very beautiful ; rolling grassy downs were dotted with numerous dwarf pandanus trees (P. furcatus), amongst which the cattle, black, white, and brown, moved slowly. All around was thick jungle, through breaks in which the sea was visible on either hand, and in the west, the sun, shining from behind a dark cloud, painted the hills and harbour of Nankauri in tones of grey and gold. The photographs which I took of this scenery were spoilt, thanks to a liberty taken by the too inquisitive Chinese “ boy," who privately satisfied his curiosity as to the appearance of the plates before they had been removed from the slides and developed.

In the evening the Government Agent, who is a native of India, came across from the harbour and brought the Port Register, in which we entered our arrival. These registers, bound in

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heavy brown leather, stamped with the arms of the Indian Government, we were often to meet with in future; one is in the possession of nearly every coast village except those of Great] Nicobar, and some of the remarks in them are very interesting; others are equally amusing, as when some Nakodah, vain of his proficiency in English, tries to express himself in that language, to the utter bepuzzlement of any one who may come after and see what has been written.

In crossing the island next day, I stampeded the cattle, who are rather shy of any moving object, although later I was able to crawl to within five or six yards of the herd, thus learning how simple a matter it would be for the natives to exterminate it. In the interior there are several deep ditches of running water leading into small swamps where the cattle drink. The shore on the eastern side is formed in places by small bluffs of clay marl, above which can be traced the overlying beds of coral.

That afternoon, while preparing specimens, we received a visit from a swarthy gentleman in a suit of white drill—the trousers "a world too long," gracefully falling in concertina-like folds about his naked ankles. He saluted us gravely, and tendered a small pocket-book. “What is your name?” said we. “You will find it,” said our dignified visitor, “in the book.” So the book was referred to, and he stood revealed as Captain Tanamara, Headman of Malacca, recommended by Mr E. H. Man,* as intelligent and willing to be useful to whoever should stop at Nankauri Harbour. He is certainly more ingenious than the majority of the natives, and speaks English, Hindustani, a little Burmese, Kar Nicobarese, and Malay, which last indeed is known by most of the people from here southwards.

* The name of Mr Man is one to conjure with in the Nicobars. Everywhere we met with expressions of regret that he was about to retire after some thirty years' acquaintance with this group and the Andamans. Now and then we made rather unwarranted use of his reputation—did we want the portrait of a native who was rather nervous at the sight of the camera. “Here, come along, and don't be afraid, Mr Man does this,” and it was all right.

The population, he told us, was decreasing : formerly each house was occupied by a number of people, as is still the condition of things in Kar Nicobar, but now there are at most three or four to a hut.* He and many other men have no children, the usual number of which is but one or two in each family. Occasional polygamy and easy arrangements for divorce prevail here, and the custom of the husband residing at his wife's house is also in vogue, but in the case of an influential man, or a headman, it is otherwise. He was much interested in a kingfisher (H. occiputalis) that was being skinned, and begged for the eyes, which, he said, formed a valuable specific in cases of sleeplessness!

One of the most attractive features of the Nicobars is the existence of a wild inland tribe—the Shom Pent-in the interior of the southern island. These people are known by reputation all over the group, and seem to fill the part of a national “bogey man.” From Tanamara, who has visited Great Nicobar in the station steamer, we obtained a few details. He had never seen them, and owned with much candour that he was “plenty 'fraid," and for that reason did not go on shore. He told us, however, that they are similar in appearance to the Nicobarese, but wear garments of rattan and bark only. They are friendly until they see any article belonging to the coast people which they may covet, and then a raid is made, and murder generally ensues in getting possession of it. I

The abandoned condition of the houses near which we landed was caused by a death which took place in one of them a short time previously. This was followed by immediate desertion, which, however, is only temporary. Everything going INTERIOR OF A HOUSE

* “The number of inhabitants on any one of the (central) islands does not exceed 700 or 800. Ten or twelve huts form a village. Each village has its “Captain. A woman who bears three children is very fruitful ; few bear more than four. No men seem older than forty or fifty ; women live longer.”—Fontana, Asiatic Researches, vol. iii., 1778.

+ Pronounced like pain (French).

# We were told on the west coast of Great Nicobar, that no valuables were kept in the village there for fear of the Shom Pen, but that all treasured possessions were stored in boxes, at Pulo Kondul.

on seemed to have suddenly stopped; dáos were lying on the floor, clothes hung from pegs in the walls, food, half-cooked, still stood in the pots. The animals 'wandered about uncaredfor, cats and dogs in a very famished condition.

Inside this house was quite a small museum: there were large figures, daubed with red and black paint, of men and women with eyes of pearl shell, Polynesian fashion, and drapings of palm leaf and cotton; smaller images and various grotesque heads, sharks, birds, and crocodiles, all carefully carved, and painted in red and blue; painted turtle skulls by the dozen. Spears, cross-bows, and water-vessels hung from the walls, with boards on which were human figures, pigs, fish, fowls, and palm trees, all very well drawn, and not conventionalised in design. On a shelf above the fireplace were piles of wooden plates, dishes, and food-baskets, and below them the big Chaura pots were standing on blocks of stone above the ashes.*

We only obtained one megapode on Trinkat, and it was found in a trap. They are probably numerous, for we saw several, and heard frequent calls. The undergrowth is very thick, and the ground covered with tall grass, and although to move about is easy, it is not easy to see these birds until one is almost upon them, when they disappear before one can get a shot. A few rats (Mus burrus, sp. nov.) were caught in the traps, and we shot a few additional specimens, and this is the only island we visited in the Nicobars where they seemed other than extremely scarce.

* “To the middle portion of the roof frame an image of the household god is attached ; from the walls are suspended human figures carved from wood, and enwreathed with bundles of grass or coconut leaflets, which are regarded as charms for the cure of diseases. Above the centre posts are hung up, strung to rattan, all the lower jawbones of hogs that have been slaughtered by the family: and their number furnishes a due estimate of the wealth of the owner of the house. . . . Wooden figures of men armed with sword and shield, and women in a dancing posture, with outstretched arms, are hung up in the rear and other parts of the building.” — “The People of Nias,The Races of Mankind, A. Featherman.

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