The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xiii.

Concerning the Island of Angamanain.

Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.1 They live on flesh and rice and milk, and have fruits different from any of ours.

Now that I have told you about this race of people, as indeed it was highly proper to do in this our book, I will go on to tell you about an Island called Seilan, as you shall hear.

NOTE 1. — Here Marco speaks of the remarkable population of the Andaman Islands — Oriental negroes in the lowest state of barbarism — who have remained in their isolated and degraded condition, so near the shores of great civilised countries, for so many ages. “Rice and milk” they have not, and their fruits are only wild ones.

[From the Sing-ch’a Shêng-lan quoted by Professor Schlegel (Geog. Notes, I. p. 8) we learn that these islanders have neither “rice or corn, but only descend into the sea and catch fish and shrimps in their nets; they also plant Banians and Cocoa-trees for their food.”— H.C.]

I imagine our traveller’s form Angamanain to be an Arabic (oblique) dual —“The two ANDAMANS,” viz. The Great and The Little, the former being in truth a chain of three islands, but so close and nearly continuous as to form apparently one, and to be named as such.

Illustration: The Borús. (From a Manuscript.)

[Professor Schlegel writes (Geog. Notes. I. p. 12): “This etymology is to be rejected because the old Chinese transcription gives So —(or Sun) damân. . . . The Pien-i-tien (ch. 107, I. fol. 30) gives a description of Andaman, here called An-to-man kwoh, quoted from the San-tsai Tu-hwui.”— H.C.]

The origin of the name seems to be unknown. The only person to my knowledge who has given a meaning to it is Nicolo Conti, who says it means “Island of Gold”; probably a mere sailor’s yarn. The name, however, is very old, and may perhaps be traced in Ptolemy; for he names an island of cannibals called that of Good Fortune, [Greek: Agathoû daímonos]. It seems probable enough that this was [Greek: Agdaimóuos Naêsos], or the like, “The Angdaman Island,” misunderstood. His next group of Islands is the Barussae, which seems again to be the Lankha Bálús of the oldest Arab navigators, since these are certainly the Nicobars. [The name first appears distinctly in the Arab narratives of the 9th century. (Yule, Hobson–Jobson.)]

The description of the natives of the Andaman Islands in the early Arab Relations has been often quoted, but it is too like our traveller’s account to be omitted: “The inhabitants of these islands eat men alive. They are black with woolly hair, and in their eyes and countenance there is something quite frightful. . . . They go naked, and have no boats. If they had they would devour all who passed near them. Sometimes ships that are wind-bound, and have exhausted their provision of water, touch here and apply to the natives for it; in such cases the crew sometimes fall into the hands of the latter, and most of them are massacred” (p. 9).

Illustration: The Cynocephali. (From the Livre des Merveilles.)

The traditional charge of cannibalism against these people used to be very persistent, though it is generally rejected since our settlement upon the group in 1858. Mr. Logan supposes the report was cherished by those who frequented the islands for edible birds’ nests, in order to keep the monopoly. Of their murdering the crews of wrecked vessels, like their Nicobar neighbours, I believe there is no doubt; and it has happened in our own day. Cesare Federici, in Ramusio, speaks of the terrible fate of crews wrecked on the Andamans; all such were killed and eaten by the natives, who refused all intercourse with strangers. A. Hamilton mentions a friend of his who was wrecked on the islands; nothing more was ever heard of the ship’s company, “which gave ground to conjecture that they were all devoured by those savage cannibals.”

They do not, in modern times, I believe, in their canoes, quit their own immediate coast, but Hamilton says they used, in his time, to come on forays to the Nicobar Islands; and a paper in the Asiatic Researches mentions a tradition to the same effect as existing on the Car Nicobar. They have retained all the aversion to intercourse anciently ascribed to them, and they still go naked as of old, the utmost exception being a leaf-apron worn by the women near the British Settlement.

The Dog-head feature is at least as old as Ctesias. The story originated, I imagine, in the disgust with which “allophylian” types of countenance are regarded, kindred to the feeling which makes the Hindus and other eastern nations represent the aborigines whom they superseded as demons. The Cubans described the Caribs to Columbus as man-eaters with dogs’ muzzles; and the old Danes had tales of Cynocephali in Finland. A curious passage from the Arab geographer Ibn Said pays an ambiguous compliment to the forefathers of Moltke and Von Roon: “The Borús (Prussians) are a miserable people, and still more savage than the Russians. . . . . One reads in some books that the Borús have dogs’ faces; it is a way of saying that they are very brave“ Ibn Batuta describes an Indo–Chinese tribe on the coast of Arakan or Pegu as having dogs’ mouths, but says the women were beautiful. Friar Jordanus had heard the same of the dog-headed islanders. And one odd form of the story, found, strange to say, both in China and diffused over Ethiopia, represents the males as actual dogs whilst the females are women. Oddly, too, Père Barbe tells us that a tradition of the Nicobar people themselves represent them as of canine descent, but on the female side! The like tale in early Portuguese days was told of the Peguans, viz. that they sprang from a dog and a Chinese woman. It is mentioned by Camoens (X. 122). Note, however, that in Colonel Man’s notice of the wilder part of the Nicobar people the projecting canine teeth are spoken of.

Abraham Roger tells us that the Coromandel Brahmans used to say that the Rákshasas or Demons had their abode “on the Island of Andaman lying on the route from Pulicat to Pegu,” and also that they were man-eaters. This would be very curious if it were a genuine old Brahmanical Saga; but I fear it may have been gathered from the Arab seamen. Still it is remarkable that a strange weird-looking island, a steep and regular volcanic cone, which rises covered with forest to a height of 2150 feet, straight out of the deep sea to the eastward of the Andaman group, bears the name Narkandam, in which one cannot but recognise [Script], Narak, “Hell”; perhaps Naraka-kundam, “a pit of hell.” Can it be that in old times, but still contemporary with Hindu navigation, this volcano was active, and that some Brahman St. Brandon recognised in it the mouth of Hell, congenial to the Rakshasas of the adjacent group?

“Si est de saint Brandon le matère furnie;

Qui fu si près d’enfer, à nef et à galie,

Que déable d’enfer issirent, par maistrie,

Getans brandons de feu, pour lui faire hasquie.”

Bauduin de Seboure, I. 123.

(Ramusio, III. 391; Ham. II. 65; Navarrete (Fr. Ed.), II. 101; Cathay, 467; Bullet. de la Soc. de Géog. sér. IV. tom iii. 36–37; J.A.S.B. u.s.; Reinaud’s Abulfeda, I. 315; J. Ind. Arch., N.S., III. I. 105; La Porte Ouverte, p. 188.) [I shall refer to my edition of Odoric, 206–217, for a long notice on dog-headed barbarians; I reproduce here two of the cuts. — H.C.]

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24