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Guilt Trips

Kai Friese interrogates the colonial fantasy that lives on in the sententious philanthropy of ethical tourism.


Escape Narratives

Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend. It is his demon, as the Westerner’s is hypocrisyE.M. Forster, A Passage to India

One hundred and fifty years ago today (give or take a month) an Indian prisoner ‑ Life Convict 276 ‑ in the colonial penal colony on the Andaman Islands escaped his British jailors only to find himself dying of starvation and thirst, at the mercy of a fierce jungle tribe. I read about it in a Scottish magazine, Chambers’ Journal, of 1860: Doodnath Tewarry had been sentenced to ‘transportation for life’ for the crime of mutiny and desertion; he had been a sepoy for the British but changed sides during the rebellion of 1857. And the naked black men who had just despatched the last of his fellow escapees and wounded him with three arrows belonged to a tribe of the Great Andamanese, the largest of the indigenous communities of the islands.

For some reason that he was never able to explain, they spared him, tended to his wounds and allowed him to share their nomadic existence in the tropical forests. And finally they even gave him a wife, a 20-year-old woman of the tribe, named Leepa.

But before a year had passed, Tewarry found his own personal salvation in another betrayal ‑ slipping away to warn his former British captors of an imminent attack by the Andamanese tribesmen. It went well for him: the British were able to slaughter their attackers and the mercenary Doodnath was rewarded with a free pardon and repatriated to the Indian mainland. The light-hearted narrator in Chambers’ Journal remarks with an indulgent smirk that “the wretch left his beloved Leepa, it seems, in an interesting condition.”

“Given a choice I prefer the backstabber to the backpacker – at least he wasn’t a tourist”

Some 34 years ago a young British traveller named Stephen Corry “found himself in Nepal and Mount Everest…with no money and no support”. I learned this from a profile in the Botswanan newspaper, Mmegi. It continues: “Corry had to rely on the local people for sustenance. His voice deepens into a growl when he talks about this period, which he calls a watershed:

‘This was a turning point in my life. My interaction with the Himalayan tribespeople overturned my preconceptions. There was no superior or inferior being. I was just a human being like them,’ he said.

Before his interaction with the Himalayan tribes, he had always believed that British civilisation and development was the best.

‘I lived with people who had no electricity or cars and yet they lived very fulfilling lives. They had no schools but they were very intelligent people. I became even more thirsty to understand and learn more about the tribespeople of the world.’

Corry got his wish too, returning to England where he now heads Survival International, a venerable British NGO that calls itself “the movement for tribal peoples”.

Given a choice between these two grotesque adventurers, I know I prefer the backstabber to the backpacker. He might have been a treacherous serial deserter and a terrible husband. And he certainly played his part in a little genocide. But at least he wasn’t a tourist.

The Ethical Tourist

A humanitarian is always a hypocrite – George Orwell, ‘Rudyard Kipling’

I see him sitting in airport lounges, rustling and squeaking demurely in his survivalist attire, all pockets and hypertrophied trekking boots. He has a harmlessly solipsistic air about him, and is usually immersed in the communion of a cappuccino and a pious book. It could be Deepak Chopra or Paulo Coelho, Three Cups of Tea, or something about Tibet. And yes, he’s usually Western, mostly white. But these days he could just as well be Indian. Hell, except for his taste in literature, he could almost be me. An appalling thought.

In truth, this spectacle hardly rouses me to rage ‑ more a melancholy nausea. But it’s a reaction strong enough to merit some reflection. Fortunately (or unfortunately), because my job once involved a routine review of international travel publications, I have had pause to unpack the cultural valise of my tourist caricature. And I’m beginning to understand why I dislike him so much.

By way of example let me cite two distinct but not unrelated ads from British travel publications that caught my eye in recent months. The first was an advertising campaign for a car rally/tour called the Karma Enduro, which bills itself as ‘an adventure not a holiday’ and offers a drive down India’s western flank from Goa to Kerala for GBP4,750, roughly half of which goes to charities. “Karma Enduro is a unique way to test your own limits, exit your daily comfort zone, meet like-minded people from across the planet and, of course, help improve the quality of life of people in desperate need.”

Of course.

The rally is one of a string of similar British ventures which combine a patronising fetishisation of a cutely antiquated Indian motor vehicle – the Hindustan Ambassador (Karma Enduro), the Enfield motorcycle (Enduro India), and the three-wheeled Bajaj autorikshaw (Rickshawrun) – employed on cross-country tours with fundraising for ‘people in desperate need’ thrown in as a feel-good factor.

Perhaps it’s just my tourism fatigue, but the idea of selling palliative attempts to help the poor, as a jolly-hockey-sticks adventure sport for the rich, makes me a little queasy. And I guess I’m tone deaf to the complimentary tone of Karma Enduro’s description of the charming natives it leaves in its munificent wake:

 “The people of rural southern India are the most dignified, humble and truly civilised people on the planet.”

But it was when I stumbled on the second ad that it struck me I was either on to something, or missing something. This one was placed by Survival International in the summer ‘Islands’ issue of Condé Nast Traveller (UK). The ad carried a curiously Photoshopped image of a man from the Jarawa tribe of India’s Andaman Islands (a forest-dwelling community of hunter-gatherers) along with a punchily telegraphic homily to this community’s innocence of war, stress and other evils of so-called civilisation (“And we call them primitive?”). It concluded with an appeal to help SI help them.

What unites these two testimonials to the humble dignity and civilisation of South Indians and the unprimitive nobility of the Jarawa has nothing to do with either of these peoples, of course. They are in fact superbly elliptical reflections of the vanities of their authors, and the fantasies of their tourist audience.

Kafka on the Shore

The first thing I learned was to give a handshake. The handshake displays candour. Today, when I stand at the high point of my career, may I add to that first handshake also my candid words? For the Academy it will not provide anything essentially new…but nonetheless it should demonstrate the line by which someone who was an ape was forced into the world of men – Franz Kafka, A Report to an Academy

The encounter of the mobile modern world with ancient tribes becalmed on distant isles (or indeed, continents) is a romantic and sinister fable that has gripped readers for centuries. It’s not hard to evoke the rich literature of adventure, travel and fantasy from The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe and The Coral Island. Or from Heart of Darkness to those colonial nightmares, In the Penal Colony and A Report to an Academy. And it’s really not such a long journey from Shakespeare to Kafka. You can traverse it in a day in India’s Andaman archipelago.

Surrounded by the waters of the Bay of Bengal, just over 1,000 km from the nearest point on the Indian mainland, the Andamans have long been a site of horror and fascination for the outside world. The British Raj established a penal colony here, centred on a perfect Benthamite panopticon. But for thousands of years before this, the islands had been the exclusive territory of a number of indigenous peoples including the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Onge, and a community we know only by the name of the isolated coral-ringed island they still inhabit, as the ‘Sentinelese’.

For well over a century now, these communities, apparently a “relict population” of Asiatic negritos, have been studied and observed with scientific interest for their 30,000-60,000 year history (estimates vary) of genetic and cultural isolation, for their puzzling inclination to meet invasion and violence with violence; and of course for their negritude. Early anthropologists identified them as “a primitive Chimpanzoid type” of humanity. A more enduring tendency, prompted perhaps by their short stature, apparent intractability and their susceptibility to introduced diseases, has been to regard them as childlike. The Andaman genocide of the 19th century was marked by a chilling paternalism in which tribals confined in ‘homes’ and orphanages were given names like ‘Topsy’ or ‘Sambo’, and both cosseted and sexually exploited to death, syphilis being a notable scourge.

“What unite these testimonials are the superbly elliptical reflections of the vanities of their authors, and the fantasies of their tourist audience.”

Today, the surviving indigenous communities represent a perversely Darwinian tetratych of the various stages of genocidal descent. The once dominant Great Andamanese, decimated by war and disease under British rule, were finally rounded up in 1970 (ostensibly to protect them from exploitation and miscegenation) and relocated to a desert island of their own where some 40 of them now live under the auspices of the Tribal Welfare Department of the Andaman administration. The Onge still live on a small corner of their original home, Little Andaman, their numbers dwindling to the extent that a single pregnancy can become national news. Having largely abandoned their traditional way of life, they have become a cautionary tale of alcoholism and disease.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Sentinelese, still poised precariously on the fastness of North Sentinel Island as a prelapsarian ‘uncontacted’ tribe, though they are subject to periodic surveillance from the air and occasional offshore expeditions by the Indian State, or by stray fishermen and poachers. These encounters have frequently been greeted with (sometimes murderous) hostility by the Sentinelese.

But the community at the sharp end of this clash of civilisations are the 300 or so Jarawa of South and Middle Andaman Islands. Having endured the brutalities of British and (briefly) Japanese imperialism, and the incursions of a growing population of settlers from the Indian mainland on their forest homelands, this community then faced the most serious threat to their way of life in the 1980s when the Andaman administration constructed a highway through the heart of their territory. Despite an order from the Supreme Court of India declaring the road illegal and years of spirited violent resistance by the Jarawa themselves, the steamroller of ‘progress’ could not be turned.

In 1997 the Jarawa apparently resolved to engage peacefully with the state and the burgeoning population of settlers now entrenched along the road on the fringes of the ‘Jarawa Reserve’. Although they continue to sustain themselves primarily from their forest, the Jarawa have also become a routine tourist attraction along the Andaman Trunk Road, engaging in a ritual of performance in exchange for food and cash. Many have learned to speak Hindi, and a repertoire of obscenities is apparently a highlight of ‘Jarawa tourism’.

It’s a depressing development that recalls among other things Caliban’s complaint in The Tempest: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse”. But it also demonstrates a pragmatic choice to turn a lost battle to some advantage.

In many ways, this story is a quintessential recapitulation of an all-too-familiar global tale: of the Caribs of the West Indies, the Herero of Namibia, the Yahi of California, the Aborigines of Tasmania. It has always recalled, for me, the bleak experience of reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as a teenager. I have never forgotten the quote from ‘Red Cloud, Chief of the Oglala Sioux’ on the book’s back cover: “The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

The tragic teleology of this narrative almost discourages reading. But in the Andamans a small and committed group of activists and researchers have maintained a fierce scrutiny of the predicaments of the island’s indigenous people. Much of the debate happens on an internet discussion forum, which I have followed for a couple of years now. Many of the most active voices here are those of people ostensibly engaged in wildlife and environmental activism ‑ less a reflection of their priorities than of the reluctance of the Andaman authorities to countenance any independent engagement with its tribal wards. As a result, the discussions often reflect a certain frustration at the difficulty of forming any understanding of the opinions of the Andaman tribal people themselves.

Given the Jarawas’ own adaptability and the Andaman administration’s recalcitrance, the continuing refrain on the part of many activists to close down the Andaman Trunk Road can seem quixotic. Yet the authorities can also demonstrate flashes of zealousness that have the capacity to muddy the waters of this seemingly fruitless debate.

Earlier this year, the island’s department of Tribal Affairs formed an unlikely alliance with Survival International. Their target was the Barefoot Resort, a boutique beachfront property catering primarily to well-heeled foreign tourists, located near the perimeter of the Jarawa Reserve in the village lands of Collinpur. While the authorities lost the first round of their case against the resort in the courts, (a later Supreme Court hearing would close the resort), Survival International (SI) launched a media campaign encouraging tourists to boycott Barefoot for endangering the Jarawa by its proximity.

A few months later, Miriam Ross of SI posted the Andaman discussion forum with the latest fruit of SI’s campaign against Barefoot: a lead feature in The Guardian’s travel supplement, headlined ‘Are we just here for your amusement’, written by John Vidal. The piece spelled out some of the dilemmas facing Western tourists keen on an ‘ethical’ tribal holiday in the tropics, and proffered SI’s shortlist of “Top Three Holiday Spots to Avoid” (Barefoot at #1 spot) as well as a more hopeful list of five “Leading Lights of Ethno-tourism” courtesy of another English watchdog group, Tourism Concern.

The post was met with almost universal hostility from the stalwarts of the discussion forum. Pankaj Sekhsaria, of the environmental activist group Kalpavriksh, called John Vidal out for his piquant description of the Jarawa (“it seemed as if these mysterious handsome people only wanted to take a brief look at the world and would soon return to the trees”). Vishvajit Pandya, an anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Onge and published the recent volume, In the Forest, which focuses on the Jarawa, picked on The Guardian’s astonishing choice of pictures, notably a beautiful and utterly exploitative image by Olivier Blaise (a photographer featured on SI’s Jarawa page) of a Jarawa Odalisque lying in the surf, her breasts bared directly at the viewer, a hand on her pubis. Hasmukh Hoslo Jiwa of the GreenLife Society (a wildlife conservation organization) lit into SI itself for its hasty presumption of Barefoot’s bad faith: “If SI had talked to the [Barefoot] management I am sure they would have come to an agreement. But the British are like the British, arrogant even after they left these isles all these years ago.” Meanwhile Zubair Ahmed, of The Light of Andamans, a local newspaper, pondered SI’s cosy silence on incursions into the Jarawa reserve by foreign journalists like Blaise and the Belgian photographer Thierry Falise, who are “as capable of spreading swine flu, syphilis and gonorrhoea as any other mortal”.

I can only imagine Miriam Ross’s consternation at this native revolt but I did write to SI’s Director, Stephen Corry, as well as to the photographer Olivier Blaise and to Rachel Noble of Tourism Concern for some reaction. Corry offered a spirited evasion on the issue of Blaise’s photographs. SI apparently has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for friendly photographers. Blaise himself replied with a charming témoignage, or testimony, of his Jarawa encounter, invoking a timeless colonial excuse for trespass: shipwreck. His boat’s engines had conveniently given out in the proximity of the Jarawa, it seems. But it is clear from his own website account of “a peaceful meeting and an alarm to the world opinion through Survival International” that his pictures were taken on a three-day reconnaissance, “watching for coastguard”.

Rachel Noble of Tourism Concern demurred to comment on SI’s ‘choice of campaign focus’ but conceded that The Guardian’s photo selection was “certainly an interesting choice”. (An understatement that reminds me, perhaps unfairly, of the condition in which that scoundrel Doodnath left his beloved Leepa.)

I also questioned Corry on the peculiar SI advertisement I had seen in Condé Nast Traveller. I put it to him that this romanticised Edenic portrayal (‘no war’, ‘no stress’ etc) did the Jarawa no favours. As it happens, the very name ‘Jarawa’ is an exonym meaning ‘hostile people’ applied to the tribe by their former neighbours, the Great Andamanese, with whom the Jarawa were engaged in protracted, possibly stress-free, bloodshed. Once again Corry was aggressively, sideways, insisting that the ‘tone’ of the ad held true. The Jarawa “have no knowledge of the kind of warfare which has been widely practised by ‘civilised’ peoples over the last few generations,” he maintained, while insisting that the ad, like most ads, used a manipulated image and was intentionally ironic.

 Robinson Aid

We’ve got an island all to ourselves. We’ll take possession in the name of the king; we’ll go and enter the service of its black inhabitants. Of course we’ll rise, naturally to the top of affairs. White men always do in savage countries – R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island

There are many kinds of irony. Although this particular variant eludes me, I can see an irony in the feel-good T-shirts well-meaning Britons can buy from SI’s website to strut around the high street with a falsehood emblazoned on their chests: ‘The Forest is My Supermarket’.

There is real irony in the fact that SI acts as a media-friendly gatekeeper to politically correct tourism. And in its quaintly British fundraising raffles, which offer adventure holidays to Thailand or Morocco as first prize. (Consolation prizes include “a three-day survival training course on Orkney” with “a guided tour of Neolithic sites”.) And there are all kinds of ironies in SI’s strange alliance with the Indian state in its own diversionary Robinsonade.

There is a visual irony in the fact that SI’s distinctive logo of ‘tribal’ handprints recalls the most memorable (and most frequently illustrated) moment in Robinson Crusoe, Chapter XVIII: “I find the print of a man’s naked foot.” And in the fact that SI shares this aesthetic inspiration with its bête noire (so to speak), the Barefoot Resort. The Eternal Savage, expressed in negative space. In Defoe’s novel, the tension of this image is finally resolved when Friday places Crusoe’s foot on his own head in gratitude ‑ a colonial fantasy that lives on in the sententious philanthropy of all the ethical tourists of this world.

True Colours

The Traveller was struck by the impression of historical memory, and he felt the power of earlier times – Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony

 I have been to the Andamans once ‑ on assignment for the travel magazine I edited and as guest of the Andaman administration, who were of course keen to promote the territory as a tourist destination. My personal agenda had everything to do with the Jarawa. I was hoping in fact for an interview with Enmay, the enigmatic tribal Doodnath who had been injured in a Jarawa foray into settler territory in 1997, captured, given medical attention and a few months’ government hospitality before returning to his people. In the official narrative, Enmay is credited with having convinced the tribe to end their war with the outside world. With India.

“In truth, this spectacle hardly rouses me to rage – more a melancholy nausea.”

Perhaps it was foolish of me to imagine that I could wear so many hats (or boots): travel writer, state guest and inscrutable Forschungsreisende. My shifty pastiche during an interview with the Lt. Governor of the islands alerted his vigilant aides to prevent me from taking the public bus along the Andaman Trunk Road, where I would certainly have encountered the daily Jarawa show. Instead, I was sent, with an armed escort, to visit a government-run clinic in Tushnabad where I was introduced to Chocho and Chambue, the two young occupants of the ‘Jarawa Ward’.

Primed for journalistic observation, I was disconcerted at my own sudden and ridiculously heightened perception of their purplish darkness, the dense nap of their hair, the whiteness of their teeth and the unhealthy yellow cast of their eyes. They had been dressed in identical purple shorts and dazzlingly white Rupa brand undershirts, worn inside out. I had my notebook out but we had no common language for an interview. In the end the older boy took my pen and drew me a picture of a wild pig with a tiny head and tusks and three arrows lodged in its ass. As I was ushered out Chambue executed a handstand. “Bilkul bandar jaise (‘Just like a monkey’),” said one of the attendants shaking his head. “Bye-bye!” said Chocho. And then, shyly, showing off his Hindi, “Khana de do (‘feed me’).”

Back in Port Blair I visited the shabby ‘Tribal Guest House’ where I met Nau Jr., a Great Andamanese man, visiting from Strait Island. He told me of the ongoing debate in their community over this issue of continuing to live in isolation on government handouts or integrating with the settler population. “There are two sides now,” he said. The divide had been sharpened by a recent controversy over a tribesman who had brought his Indian wife back to the island, where she had apparently been hoarding community rations to send back to her settler family ‑ a female Doodnath of sorts. It was a story I had already heard from the director of tribal welfare. “She has shown her true colour,” he told me.

Prospero’s Cell

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Is there no escape from the long and dismal shadow of colonialism? Are we all prisoners of history, endlessly repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce, or as tourism ‑ which is really the same thing? Personally, I’m an optimist: the world is full of unintended consequences and surprising turns. So here’s a happier counter-narrative to the adventures of Corry, Tewarry, or me, for that matter. Another true story:

Thirty-three years ago, a South African prisoner ‑ convict 46664 ‑ serving a life sentence for high treason and sabotage on a penal colony off the coast of Cape Town, opened the National Geographic issue of July 1975. It contained a feature on the Andaman Islands with photographs by the famous Indian photographer Raghubir Singh, including one of a young Jarawa woman dancing along a beach. To add to his crimes, the prisoner tore out the picture and kept it. He would call her ‘Nolitha’. Before long he was playfully taunting his wife in a letter: “Your beautiful photo stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this, Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond affection of such wonderful ladies?” I like to imagine a liberated Convict 46664 settling down to write his memoirs. Robben Island Crusoe, perhaps. Chapter xviii: “I find the print of a woman’s naked body.”

Actually, Nelson Mandela says he saw Nolitha as “a celebration of life”. I guess I’ll take his word for it.

First Published in the Chronic Life magazine in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (October ’11). 

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