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Title: Letters on the Nicobar islands, their natural productions, and the manners, customs, and superstitions of the natives
       with an account of an attempt made by the Church of the
       United Brethren, to convert them to Christianity

Author: John Gottfried Haensel

Editor: Christian Ignatius Latrobe

Release Date: October 5, 2008 [EBook #26781]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by The Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images
generously made available by The Internet Archive/American






_The Manners, Customs, and Superstitions of the_


With an Account of an Attempt made by




Addressed by


(_The only surviving Missionary_)









_William Wilberforce, Esq. M.P._

&c. &c. &c.


Your obliging inquiries concerning the attempt made by the Church of
the United Brethren, to establish a mission in the Nicobar Islands, I
have not been able hitherto to answer as fully as I wished, the
documents in my possession being few and unconnected, and a reference
to Crantz's History of the Brethren, p. 504 and 614, furnishing but a
short notice of the commencement of that undertaking. The difficulty
attending our correspondence with our Brethren on the Continent, has
likewise so much increased, that I cannot expect to be soon supplied
with more detailed accounts from our archives; and the continuation of
Crantz's History, in which a concise report of the progress of the
mission is inserted, is not translated into English. I was glad
therefore unexpectedly to meet with an opportunity of conversing with
John Gottfried Haensel, a missionary from St. Thomas in the West
Indies, who was formerly employed in the Nicobar mission, and resided
for seven years in the island of Nancauwery. This worthy veteran has
spent eighteen years in the East, and seventeen in the West Indies, and
altogether thirty-eight years in the service of the Brethren's
missions; yet by God's blessing, after suffering numberless hardships
and dangerous illnesses, at the age of sixty-three he remains a most
active, cheerful, and zealous labourer in the Lord's vineyard.

In the course of our frequent conversations on various subjects,
relating to the occurrences of his past life, he interspersed so many
curious and interesting particulars concerning his residence in the
Nicobar Islands; that I could not help requesting him to commit them to
writing, as they might occur to his recollection. This he very
obligingly consented to do; and though, by my particular desire, he did
not study to make out a complete history, the labour and formality of
which might have suppressed, in a great degree, the liveliness of his
manner, but left the arrangement of the subjects to me; yet I am of
opinion, that you will read what he has written with pleasure, and
esteem these fragments worthy of preservation. Many of your questions
will be pretty satisfactorily answered by them, and I have therefore
translated them for your perusal. They exhibit a degree of patience and
perseverance in the prosecution of missionary labours, in hope against
hope, such as has hardly been exceeded in our Greenland and North
American missions, with the history of which you are acquainted.

The mission of the United Brethren in the Nicobar Islands, was
undertaken in the year 1758. A person of high rank at the court of
Denmark, having intimated to the directors of the Brethren's missions,
that it would give particular pleasure to the King, if some of their
missionaries would settle on the Nicobar Islands, and endeavour to
instruct the inhabitants in the principles of the Christian religion;
they resolved to comply with his Majesty's wishes.

A commercial establishment had been formed on these islands in 1756,
when the name of Frederic's Islands was given to them; but the first
attempt miscarried, and almost all the colonists sent thither from
Tranquebar, soon died. The Brethren, however, were not discouraged.
After some negociation with the Danish Asiatic company, having obtained
an edict, granting them necessary privileges to preach the gospel to
the heathen, and to maintain their own church-discipline and worship,
they agreed to begin the work, and several Brethren offered themselves
for this service. The names of the first missionaries were George John
Stahlman, Adam Gottlieb Voelcker, and Christopher Butler. They arrived
July 2, 1760, at Tranquebar, and were received by the Governor and all
the inhabitants, with much cordiality.

As an establishment on the coast of Coromandel, was found indispensably
necessary to support the new mission, they bought a piece of ground,
about a mile from Tranquebar, built a house, with out-houses and
work-shops, and maintained themselves by their several trades. This
settlement was called _The Brethren's Garden_.

A second company followed them in the same year. According to
directions given by the Brethren in Europe, they carefully avoided all
interference with the worthy Lutheran missionaries residing at
Tranquebar, by whose pious exertions many Malabars had been converted
to Christianity.

The Danish East India company, not being able to renew their settlement
in the Nicobar islands as soon as was expected, offers were made to the
Brethren by the English Governor of Bengal, to settle on the Ganges;
but they resolved to wait with patience for an opportunity to prosecute
their first plan, and obtain the original aim of their mission to the
East Indies. This presented itself in 1768, when the Danish government
formed a new establishment in the Nicobar islands. Six Brethren were
immediately ready to go thither. They settled on Nancauwery.

In 1769, several officers of the company, with a party of soldiers and
black servants, arrived from Tranquebar, and brought with them a
considerable quantity of merchandize. But they died so fast, that in
1771 only two European soldiers, and four Malabar servants survived.
This second failure deterred the company from repeating their attempt,
and the project of establishing a factory in the Nicobar islands was
abandoned. The four Brethren residing there were charged with the sale
of the remaining goods, and experienced no small inconvenience and
trouble from this commission.

In 1773, however, a vessel was sent from Tranquebar, which relieved
them, by taking back the articles of trade left on hand, and bringing
them the provisions they wanted.

As the means of thus supplying the missionaries with the necessaries of
life, by uncertain communications with Tranquebar, were too precarious,
the Brethren resolved to venture upon annually chartering a vessel for
that purpose. Mr. Holford, an English gentleman, residing at
Tranquebar, rendered them herein the most essential service. He joined
them in fitting out a small ship, which arrived in 1775, with
provisions, &c. at Nancauwery, and returned with the produce of the
country; the sale of which, however, by no means repaid the expence
attending the outfit. Mr. Holford, nevertheless, did not lose his
courage. Another vessel was fitted out, and sailed in 1776, but having
missed the entrance into the Nicobar islands, after long combating
contrary winds and currents, she was obliged to cast anchor near
Junkceylon, where she deposited her cargo. A third vessel had meanwhile
set out for Nicobar, but was equally unsuccessful. Thus the
difficulties attending the support of the settlement increasing, this
and other causes, mentioned in the course of the following letters,
occasioned the final abandonment of the mission in 1787.

You will however perceive, that Mr. Haensel expresses an opinion
concerning future attempts to preach the gospel to the natives of the
Nicobar islands, which is by no means discouraging.

With the sincerest esteem and gratitude for the many proofs you have
given of your kind notice of the labours of the Church of the United
Brethren among heathen nations,

I remain ever,

    Dear Sir,

        Your most obliged,

            and most faithful friend

                and servant,

                    _C. I. Latrobe._

LONDON, _May_ 12, 1812.





As you have desired me to repeat, in writing, the substance of our
conversations respecting the Nicobar Islands, and the mission of the
Brethren, begun there in 1758, in which I was employed from the year
1779, till the attempt was relinquished in 1787; I will endeavour, as
far as my recollection will enable me, to satisfy your wishes.

The Nicobar Islands are situated at the entrance of the Bay of Bengal,
in 8 deg. N. latitude, and 94 deg. 20" E. longitude, north of Sumatra.
Nancauwery is one of the southernmost, and forms, with _Comarty_[1] to
the north, a commodious harbour, sheltered to the eastward by a long,
but narrow island, called _Tricut_, flat, and abounding in cocoa trees;
and to the westward, by _Katsoll_, which is larger. Ships may ride here
very safely.

      [1] See Asiatic Researches, Vol. II. 344, III. 292, IV. 132, 328.
      Rennel's Memoir, p. 40. Comarty is called Sampieri, in Mr.
      Haensel's MSS. and Sombrero in a French chart.

On the north-west point of Nancauwery, behind a low hill, and
contiguous to the best landing-place, on a sandy beach, lay the
missionary-settlement of the United Brethren, called by the natives,
_Tripjet_, or the dwelling of friends, where I arrived in January 1779,
in company of Brother Wangeman. On our passage hither we were driven by
contrary winds to Queda, on the Malay coast. Here we immediately
inquired for Captain Light, having often heard at Tranquebar, that he
was well disposed towards the Brethren and their missions, of which he
had received some account from Dr. Betschler. We were soon conducted to
his dwelling, where we met with a most cordial reception. Being here
without any other recommendation, his friendship and kindness proved
most gratifying and useful to us. Never have I had it in my power to
make any returns to this excellent man, for his disinterested favours,
but I shall retain a never-ceasing remembrance of them in a thankful
heart, and pray the Lord to bless and reward him. His wife was a Malay,
and a relation of the King of Queda, a worthy woman, middle aged, of
great urbanity of manners, and better informed than the generality of
her nation. Her countenance was pleasing, she appeared friendly and
good tempered, and rendered us many kind services, which will not go

Captain Light expressed his great surprise, at the courage, or rather
simplicity, with which I committed myself to the crew of a Malay boat.
For as we had lost our boat, and the road in which ships come to an
anchor off Queda is above two leagues from the shore, we were at a loss
how to work into the harbour with our little schooner, without a pilot.
A Malay palong passing, I hailed her, and asked the people whether they
would take me on shore. They consented, and I went with them. On
hearing this, Captain Light observed, that though he was able to speak
their language, and accustomed to their manners, he should not venture
to trust himself alone with them, on account of their treacherous
character. I replied, "that I never thought of being afraid of any one,
to whom I had done no harm." This speech he used to quote, but
observed, that among these people I might find myself mistaken.

After our vessel had been brought in by Captain Light's good offices,
we were detained some time at Queda, which afforded me an opportunity
of becoming a little acquainted with the town and the adjacent country.
The inhabitants are chiefly Malays; but the right side of the river is
inhabited by Siamese, Chinese, and a few Roman-catholic Christians. The
Malays are all Mahometans, a false-hearted, cruel, and murderous race;
so much so, that it is hardly safe for a stranger to suffer them to
follow him, for fear of being slyly stabbed. When they are obliged to
walk before others, they are suspicious and cowardly, and can hardly
speak for fear. The frequent murders committed by them are all by a
treacherous attack from behind. They consider themselves much better
than their neighbours, and very righteous, because they _ought not_ to
eat pork, or drink strong liquors. But they supply the want of the
latter by taking great quantities of opium, which stupifies their
senses. I saw one of their principal people, during a conversation with
me, put three or four pills of opium, as large as a grey pea, into his
mouth in the space of a quarter of an hour. They are exceedingly
addicted to the vilest lusts, and have no sense of shame in gratifying
their passions. Polygamy is common among them. Yet with all their
vices, they like to brag of their having the true faith. The Chinese,
though more industrious, are not more virtuous; and as to the so-called
Christians, I will not judge them.

About four or five leagues up the river, the King of Queda has his
residence, in a mean-looking town called _Allessaar_. Many of the
inhabitants are Chinese, who have here a large temple; the rest are
Malays. The royal palace resembles a spacious farm-house and yard, with
many low houses attached to it, which contain his haram. His own house
is far from being magnificent, and it seemed to me, as if his whole
dignity and state consisted merely in the number of his concubines.
There is else no appearance of grandeur. I frequently made an excursion
to this place.

Being at last enabled to proceed, we set sail for Nancauwery. The
Captain steered first for Pulo Penang, (now Prince of Wales island)
pretending that he wanted fresh water; but he employed his Lascars
chiefly to cut rattan[2], a plant used for rigging. We were glad at
length to leave the Malay coast, where, except our cordial reception
and hospitable entertainment in Captain Light's house, there was
nothing that could be called pleasant, but rather our spirits were
vexed, and daily mourned over the shocking state of mankind, without
Christ and without God in the world.

      [2] Calamus Rotang. Lin. Miller's Gard. Dictionary.

We found at Nancauwery three Missionaries, Liebisch, Heyne, and
Blaschke. The latter being very ill, returned to Tranquebar by the
vessel which brought us hither, and soon departed this life. Not long
after his return, Brother Liebisch fell sick and also departed. Our
number was therefore reduced to three, and I was soon seized with so
violent a fit of the seasoning fever, that my Brethren, expecting my
immediate dissolution, commended me in prayer to the Lord, and took a
final leave of me. After this transaction, I fell into a swoon, which
being mistaken for death, I was removed from the bed, and already laid
out as a corpse, when I awoke and inquired what they were doing, and
why they wept? They told me, that, supposing me to be quite dead, they
were preparing for my burial. My recovery was very slow; and indeed,
during my whole residence in Nancauwery, I never regained perfect

After the decease of the Brethren Wangeman and Liebisch, I was left
alone with Brother Heyne. We were both ill, and suffered the want of
many necessaries of life: but the Lord our Saviour did not forsake us;
He strengthened our hearts, and comforted us by such a lively sense of
His divine presence, that we were frequently filled with heavenly joy,
during our daily prayers and meditations. We felt assured, that that
God, who suffers not a sparrow to fall to the ground without His
permission, would also care for us his poor children. This I have
frequently and powerfully experienced, insomuch, that after seven years
residence in Nancauwery, notwithstanding all the pain, trouble, and
anxiety I was often subject to, I fall down at His feet with humble
thanksgiving, and exclaim: The Lord hath done all things well, and I
have lacked no good thing. Blessed be my God and Redeemer! Amen.


The vessel sent to Nancauwery did not arrive till 1781, and brought a
very small portion of provisions for our use, and neither wine, nor any
other liquors whatever, the crew having expended the greater part of
what was destined for us on their long voyage, and during a detention
of four months at Queda, on the Malay coast. We were, however, happy to
receive Brother Steinman, who was young, lively, and every way
qualified for the service, so that we promised ourselves much
assistance from him; but in less than a month after his arrival, it
pleased the Lord to take him from us by death. You may suppose what we
felt on being again left alone, in want of even the most necessary
articles of subsistence. But the Lord yet helped us, gave us from day
to day our daily bread, and in many heavy illnesses approved Himself as
our best physician. Oh! how many thousand tears have I shed during that
period of distress and trouble. I will not affirm that they were _all_
of that kind, which I might, with David, pray the Lord "to put into his
bottle," and ask, "are they not in thy book," for I was not yet fully
acquainted with the ways of God with His people, and had not yet a
heart wholly resigned to all His dealings. Oftentimes self-will,
unbelief, and repining at our hard lot, was mixed with our complaints
and cries unto Him. Do not therefore think them so very pure, and
deserving of pity as they may seem. Thus much, however, I can truly
say, that amidst it all, our Saviour was the object of our hearts'
desire; and He beheld us with longsuffering and compassion.

We were as diligent as our wretched circumstances would admit, in
clearing land and planting, to obtain what we wanted for our support;
and having only three negroes to cook, wash, and do other jobs, we
frequently laboured beyond our strength, and brought upon ourselves
various illnesses. But there seemed no help for it. At the same time we
exerted ourselves to learn the Nicobar language, and in the best manner
possible endeavoured to explain to the poor natives, the love of God in
Christ Jesus, and the way of salvation through a crucified Saviour.

Not till 1783, had we the satisfaction to see the Brethren J. Heinrich,
Fleckner, and Raabs arrive to our assistance, in company of the mate of
the vessel, with which they set sail from Tranquebar. While they were
lying in the roads of Junkceylon, a French privateer came and claimed
her as lawful prize, because, on searching her, he found a few old
English newspapers in a trunk belonging to Mr. Wilson, an English
gentleman on board, who had escaped from Hyder Ali's prison. This was
pretence sufficient for a Frenchman to seize upon a neutral Danish
vessel, nor could any redress be ever procured, to the great loss of
the Mission. After long and vexatious detention, the mate and the three
Brethren purchased a Malay prow, for 75 dollars, and stole off in the
night; as the Malay prince would not suffer them to go. Thus we
received, instead of our expected stock of provisions, only more mouths
to feed. However, we rejoiced to see our dear fellow-missionaries, and
did what we could for their relief. As the prow was unfit to go to sea
without proper sails, those with which they arrived being nothing but
old, rotten mats, we worked up our whole stock of linen and sailcloth,
and even some of our sheets, and were ten days employed in making
sails, and fitting her for the voyage. A black sailor was also
procured, and the mate, with the Brethren Raabs and Heyne, left us for
Tranquebar. I cannot describe my feelings, when I took a final leave of
my dear Brother Heyne, with whom I had so long shared weal and woe,
lived in true brotherly love and union of spirit, and enjoyed so much
of our Lord's help and comfort, in days of perplexity and distress.

The three following years of my stay were spent in fruitless attempts
to preach the gospel to the natives, and the arrangements proposed and
made by the new-comers, seemed all to fail. But I cannot help
observing, that when we speak of the total failure of our endeavours to
promote the conversion of the natives, we have cause, in a great
degree, to blame ourselves. For my part, I must confess with humble
shame, that I soon lost my faith and courage, brotherly love having
ceased to prevail amongst us; for how can Missionaries speak, with
effect, of the love of Jesus, and its fruits in the heart, when they
themselves do not live in the enjoyment of it? It is true, our trials
were great, and the prospect, in many respects, most gloomy; but we
have seen in other instances, what the Lord can do, by removing
obstacles, and giving strength to His servants, if they are one in
spirit, pray and live together in unity, and prefer each other in love.
This was too much wanting during the latter part of our abode in the
Nicobar islands, and O that all Missionaries would remember, that
brotherly love is the most precious jewel in a Mission; and that no
sacrifice of one's own opinions and schemes is too great, to maintain
it unbroken.

Our external situation became more and more irksome, and we could
scarcely procure the means of subsistence. My health had suffered so
much by continual sickness, anxiety, and hard labour, (for the greater
part of the management of affairs fell upon me), that I was apparently
fast approaching my end; at the thoughts of which I rejoiced greatly,
delivered my accounts, and all my concerns, into the hands of Brother
J. Heinrich, looking forward with longing to be at rest with Jesus. I
felt his comfort, pardon, and peace in my soul, and hoped, that every
day would be my last. I had running sores on my legs, and a total
obstruction, with tormenting pains in my bowels, and expected that
mortification would soon take place, and put an end to my misery.
Unexpectedly, a Danish vessel arrived in our harbour, on board of which
was Brother Sixtus. He was commissioned to examine into the state of
the Mission, and to bring home such as were still alive.

A voyage seeming to offer the only hope for my recovery. I was conveyed
on board, apparently in a dying state, and set sail the same day for
Queda. During the voyage, the pain in my bowels was excruciating, and
the motion of the ship afforded me no relief, insomuch, that I could
bear no other posture than lying prostrate on deck. In this situation
it occurred to me, that I had once read in Van Swieten's account of his
cures, that he had found the plentiful use of honey beneficial in cases
of obstruction. As soon, therefore, as we landed, I procured a
sufficient quantity, and mixed it plentifully with my food and drink.
My only nutriment indeed consisted of rice boiled in water, to which I
added an equal quantity of honey, as also to all the water I drank,
cold or warm, of which I took plenty, having a constant thirst upon me.
Already, on the first day, it operated by sickness at my stomach, and
frequent vomitings, which rendered its taste extremely nauseous, and
unpleasant. But perceiving that it also relieved my principal
complaint, I persevered, and experienced daily more of its salutary,
cooling, and healing effects. As there is plenty of honey at Queda, I
laid in a large stock for the voyage.

Here I became acquainted with Mr. Scott, an English captain, who
informed me that Captain Light was in Bengal, and had lost his wife by
death. From hence we returned to Nancauwery, where I found that Brother
Sixtus had departed this life, ten days after my leaving the island.
Brother J. Heinrich accompanied me to Tranquebar, and Fleckner remained

When we arrived at Tranquebar, we represented to the governor, that it
was necessary, that the vessel should immediately return for the relief
of the Mission, to which he agreed; and Fleckner being re-called, the
Brethren J. Heinrich, Rudolphi, and Soerensen, were sent thither in May
1785. The latter soon departed this life, as likewise Fleckner, at
Tranquebar. In September, I returned to Nancauwery, being commissioned
to convey the house belonging to the Imperial settlement on Sombrero
(Comarty) to our place, which I accomplished. Our old stone house was
turned into a magazine, and the Missionaries obtained a comfortable
dwelling, and a sufficient supply of provisions, and other necessaries.
But as to any success in making the natives acquainted with the gospel,
all our exertions seemed in vain.

After my return to Tranquebar, in 1786, Brother Rudolphi left Nicobar,
and arrived, after a long and tedious voyage, at Tranquebar, in 1787.
Not long after, Brother J. Heinrich departed this life, and Brother
Kragh remained alone.

The loss of so many valuable men, the total failure of the object of
the Mission, and the want of proper Brethren, willing to devote
themselves to so hopeless a cause, at length prevailed, and it was
resolved to give up the Mission. I was again deputed to go to
Nancauwery, to fetch Brother Kragh, and all effects belonging to the
Mission, and to deliver up the premises to the Governor, who, on our
representation of the impracticability of our supporting the Mission
any longer, had consented to send a lieutenant, a corporal, and six
privates, to take possession. I accompanied these people, and delivered
to them every thing I could not carry away.

Words cannot express the painful sensations which crowded into my mind,
while I was thus executing the task committed to me, and making a final
conclusion of the labours of the Brethren in the Nicobar Islands. I
remembered the numberless prayers, tears, and sighs offered up by so
many servants of Jesus, and by our congregations in Europe, for the
conversion of the poor heathen here; and when I beheld our
burying-ground, where eleven of my Brethren had their resting-place, as
seed sown in a barren land, I burst into tears, and exclaimed: Surely
all this cannot have been done in vain! Often did I visit this place,
and sat down and wept at their graves.

My last farewell with the inhabitants, who had flocked to me from all
the circumjacent islands, was very affecting. They wept and howled for
grief, and begged that the Brethren might soon return to them. We
always enjoyed their esteem and love, and they do not deserve to be
classed with their ferocious neighbours, the Malays; being, in general,
kind and gentle in their dispositions, except when roused by jealously,
or other provocations; when their uncontrolled passions will lead them
into excesses, as some of the Danish soldiers experienced. We always
found them ready to serve us.


I proceed to answer the questions you have put to me, and to give you
some short account of the appearance of the country in the Nicobar
Islands, and the customs of the inhabitants.

The most of these islands are hilly, and some of the mountains of
considerable height: but Tricut, Tafouin, and Kar Nicobar, are flat,
and covered with forests of cocoa trees. The other islands have
likewise a large proportion of cocoa and areca palms, and an immense
quantity of timber trees of various kinds, some of them of enormous
size. All the vallies and sides of the hills, to a considerable height,
are thickly covered with them, insomuch, that the light of the sun has
not been able for ages to penetrate through their foliage. They are in
many places so closely interwoven with immense quantities of rattan and
bush-rope, that they appear as it were spun together; and it is almost
perfectly dark in the woods. Most of the plants and trees bear fruit,
which falls down and rots. All these circumstances contribute to render
the climate very unhealthy, the free current of air being wholly
impeded; even the natives experience their baneful effects, but, to a
European constitution, they are of the most dangerous nature.

I am no botanist, and can therefore give you but little information
concerning the different species of trees, shrubs, and plants, which
seem to thrive here in such luxurious abundance; but will only add,
that that most useful of all trees, the cocoa, is of very easy growth,
and thrives best on the sea coast, where its roots and stem are reached
by the flood-tide. The nut, falling into the sand, is soon covered by
it, and springs up in great strength. I have planted many, and enjoyed
the fruit after five years. When the nuts are ripe, you hang them about
the house: in a short time they shoot out sprigs and branches, and when
these are about a yard long, you may put them into the ground, where
they continue to vegetate rapidly.

Another most beautiful and valuable tree is the Mango, the fruit of
which is extremely useful, both for eating and medicinal purposes. The
eatable part is inclosed in a shell, which lies in a thick, pulpy rind,
Its taste is spicy, very grateful, betwixt sour and sweet, and so
wholesome, that there is hardly any fear of eating too plentifully of
it. The shell is bitter and astringent, and the Nicobar doctors, or
sorcerers, administer a decoction of it against fevers and agues, to
which they, as well as strangers, are much subject.

There is also a vast variety of roots, fruits, and herbs, with the
medicinal virtues of which the sorcerers are well acquainted. They are,
no doubt, noticed by various authors, but I am not able to describe

As to the beasts and reptiles existing in these islands, I shall only
mention what has come under my own observation, and remains in my
recollection. There are no wild beasts here, such as tygers and
leopards, as on the coast of Coromandel. Monkies are found in the
southernmost islands, Sambelong, Tavap, and Katsoll. In some others are
large herds of buffaloes and other cattle, originally brought thither
by the Danes, but which have run wild in the woods, since the
abandonment of the colony. They have increased prodigiously; and as the
upper regions of the mountains are covered with vast quantities of fine
grass, they find food in abundance, and grow to a large size,
especially the buffaloes. These are always seen in herds, and I never
ventured to shoot any, though I longed to procure some of their flesh
for our use. Dogs and swine are found in all the islands.

Serpents are numerous in some places, but they are far less abundant
and venomous, than on the coast of Coromandel. The chief cause of this
difference I am apt to ascribe to a custom, prevalent among the
natives, of setting the long grass on the mountains on fire, two or
three times a-year. As these reptiles like to lay their eggs in the
grass, great quantities of them are thus destroyed. One kind of serpent
struck me here as a singular species; it is of a green colour, has a
broad head and mouth like a frog, very red eyes, and its bite is so
venomous, that I saw a woman die within half an hour after receiving
the wound. She had climbed a high tree in search of fruit, and not
observing the animal among the branches, was suddenly bitten in the
arm. Being well aware of the danger, she immediately descended, but, on
reaching the ground, reeled to and fro like one in a state of
intoxication. The people brought her immediately to me; and while I was
applying blisters and other means for extracting the poison, she died
under my hands.

I saw but few scorpions, but among them an unusually large species, of
a red colour, said to be extremely venomous. They were lying in a boggy
place, and I had no means of taking them.

One of the most formidable animals with which these islands abound, is
the crocodile, or alligator. Kar Nicobar is overrun with them, as are
all the other Nicobar islands, which have fresh-water lakes and
streams. They are of two kinds, the black kayman, and the proper
crocodile. The latter is said never to attack live creatures, but to
devour only carrion, and is therefore not considered dangerous. Of the
correctness of this opinion I had once ocular proof. I was walking at
Queda along the coast, and looking at a number of children swimming and
sporting in the water. On a sudden, I observed a large crocodile
proceed towards them from a creek. Terrified at the idea of the danger
they were exposed to, I screamed out, and made signs to some Chinese to
go to their assistance, but they laughed me to scorn as an ignorant
stranger. I really afterwards saw the monster playing about among them,
while the children diverted themselves by pretending to attack him and
drive him away. The kayman is less in size, and very fierce, seizing
upon every creature that has life, but he cannot lift anything from the
ground, as the lower jaw projects.

The bats of Nicobar are of a gigantic size; I have seen some, whose
outstretched wings measured from five to six feet across the back, the
body being the size of a common cat. They are of two kinds; the head of
one somewhat resembling a dog, and that of the other a cat; the former
making a barking, and the latter a mewing noise, when on the wing. I
never saw more than one at a time. They appear hideous, and in their
solitary flight resemble a cloak in motion, chiefly and awkwardly
perching upon the mango tree, the fruit of which they eat, breaking
down the smaller branches, till they light upon such as are able to
bear their weight.

Of birds, I shall only notice one, called by some the Nicobar
swallow[3], but I will not venture to determine its generic character.
It is the builder of those eatable nests, which constitute one of the
luxuries of an Indian banquet. These birds are called _Hinlene_ by the
natives, and build in fissures and cavities of rocks, especially in
such as open to the south. In the latter, the finest and whitest nests
are found, and I have sometimes gathered fifty pound weight of them, on
one excursion for that purpose. They are small, and shaped like
swallows' nests. If they are perfect, 72 of them go to a _catty_, or
1-3/4 pounds. The best sale for them is in China. After the most
diligent investigation, I was never able fully to discover of what
substance they are made, nor do any of the opinions of naturalists,
with which I have become acquainted, appear satisfactory to me, neither
have the authors alluded to ever seen the birds. They have remarkably
short legs, and are unable to rise, if they once fall or settle on the
ground. I caught many in this state, and after examining them, threw
them up into the air, when they immediately flew away; they cannot
therefore, as some suppose, obtain their materials on the coast, or
from rocks in the sea. My opinion is, that the nests are made of the
gum of a peculiar tree, called by some the Nicobar cedar, and growing
in great abundance in all the southern islands. Its wood is hard,
black, and very heavy. From December to May, it is covered with
blossom, and bears a fruit somewhat resembling a cedar or pine-apple,
but more like a large berry full of eyes or pustules, discharging a gum
or resinous fluid. About these trees, when in bloom or bearing fruit, I
have seen innumerable flocks of these little birds, flying and
fluttering like bees round a tree or shrub in full flower, and am of
opinion, that they there gather the materials for their nests. I relate
the fact, having often watched them with great attention, but will not
venture to affirm, that I have made a full discovery. I observed
before, that these birds dwell in cavities of rocks, like bees in a
hive, flying in and out, and building their nests close together, like
martins or swallows. The hen constructs a neat, large, well-shaped
nest, calculated for laying and hatching her eggs, and the cock
contrives to fix another, smaller and rather more clumsy, close to his
mate: for they are not only built for the purpose of laying eggs, but
for resting-places, whence they may take wing. If they are robbed of
them, they immediately fall to work to build others, and being
remarkably active, are able to finish enough in a day to support the
weight of their bodies, though they require about three weeks to
complete a nest. During the north-east trade wind, they are all alive
and fly about briskly, but as soon as the wind comes round to the
south-west, they sit or lie in their nests in a state of stupor, and
show animation only by a kind of tremulous motion over their whole
body. I have sometimes taken one out of his nest in this state, and
laid him on the palm of my hand, when I observed no sign of life about
him but this trembling, and on returning him to his place, could hardly
prevent him from falling on one side. If their nests were taken away at
that season, the poor birds must inevitably perish[4].

      [3] Hirundo edulis. Linn. Syst. Nat.

      [4] See Fontana's Account of these Birds. Asiatic Researches,
      Vol. III. p. 292.

I did not perceive any great variety of birds in these islands; but
wild pigeons and parrots are numerous.

As to fishes, the sea abounds with various descriptions, but my
attention was principally directed to shell-fish, which are found in
great abundance and beauty on most of the islands, the Mission being in
part supported by collections of these and other natural curiosities,
made by me and other Brethren, whose time and disposition allowed of
it. It became at one time peculiarly my business, and though I
possessed no previous knowledge of these things, and would not venture
to determine upon a proper classification of the various natural
productions which I collected, both on the coast of Coromandel and in
the Nicobar islands, yet constant practice and experience gave me by
degrees sufficient skill to distinguish what was really worthy the
attention of naturalists. I had moreover the satisfaction to perceive
the blessing of God resting upon these exertions, by which a
considerable part of the heavy expences of the Mission were defrayed,
there having been at that time a great demand for productions of this
kind in England, Holland, Denmark, and other parts of Europe.

On my frequent excursions along the sea coast, it sometimes happened
that I was benighted, and could not, with convenience, return to our
dwelling; but I was never at a loss for a bed. The greater part of the
beach consists of a remarkably fine white sand, which above
highwater-mark is perfectly clean and dry. Into this I dug with ease a
hole large enough to contain my body, forming a mound as a pillow for
my head; I then lay down, and by collecting the sand over me, buried
myself in it up to the neck. My faithful dog always lay across my body,
ready to give the alarm, in case of disturbance from any quarter.
However, I was under no apprehension from wild animals. Crocodiles and
kaymans never haunt the open coast, but keep in creeks and lagoons, and
there are no ravenous beasts on the island. The only annoyance I
suffered was from the nocturnal perambulations of an immense variety of
crabs of all sizes, the grating noise of whose armour would sometimes
keep me awake. But they were well watched by my dog; and if any one
ventured to approach, he was sure to be suddenly siezed, and thrown to
a more respectful distance; or if a crab of more tremendous appearance
deterred the dog from exposing his nose to its claws, he would bark and
frighten it away, by which, however, I was often more seriously alarmed
than the occasion required. Many a comfortable night's rest have I had
in these sepulchral dormitories, when the nights were clear and dry.

But before I dismiss this subject I cannot conclude my letter, without
observing, that on the continent, as well as in some of the other East
Indian islands, it would be hazardous in the extreme to expose oneself
in this manner, during the night, on account of the number of wild
beasts, of various descriptions, with which they abound. I feel truly
thankful to God, that He preserved me, on my many journies, from all
harm; nor can I speak of having ever been in much danger. Yet one
instance of His merciful preservation of my life, I must be permitted
to add.

On one of my voyages either to or from Queda, (for I have forgotten the
precise time) a Danish ship hailed us, and approaching incautiously,
ran foul of our stern, and broke our flag-staff. We therefore put into
a creek, and some of our men landed near a wood, to cut down a tree to
make a new one. Hoping to be able to procure some fresh meat for
supper, I accompanied them, armed with a double-barrelled gun. While
they were at their work, I walked on the outside of the wood, eagerly
looking for some game, and soon discovered, among the high grass, an
object, which, by its motions, I mistook for the back of a hare. I took
aim, and was just going to fire, when the animal rose up, and proved to
be a tyger, of which only the top of the head had been visible. My arm
involuntarily sunk down; I stood motionless with horror, expecting that
the creature would immediately make a spring at me, and gave myself up
for lost; but, by God's providence watching over me, the beast seemed
as much alarmed as I was, and after staring at me for a few moments,
turned slowly about, and began to creep away, like a frightened cat,
with his belly close to the ground; then, gradually quickening his
pace, fled with precipitation into a distant part of the wood. It was
some time before I recovered presence of mind sufficient to trace back
my steps towards the beach, for I felt my very heart tremble within me.
As I approached the water, there was a piece of jungle, or low thicket
before me, and I was turning to the left, to pass round by the side
opposite the boat, thinking that I might yet find some game, when,
seeing the men labouring hard to drag the tree they had felled, towards
the water, I altered my course, and went to their assistance. No sooner
had I entered the boat, than I discovered on that side of the jungle,
to which I was first going, close to the beach, a large kayman,
watching our motions, whom I should certainly have met, had I gone
round by the way I intended. Thankful as I now felt for this second
preservation of my life, I could not help discharging my piece at the
animal's head, and by the sudden plunge he made into the water, and the
appearance of blood on the surface, as he was swimming towards the
opposite shore, it seemed that one or both of the shots had penetrated
his eye or throat. We saw him reach the shore, and crawl through the
mud into the jungle.

Part of the flesh of the crocodile or kayman is good and wholesome,
when well cooked. It tastes somewhat like pork, for which I took it,
and ate it with much relish, when I first came to Nancanwery; till, on
inquiry, finding it to be the flesh of a beast so disgusting and
horrible in its appearance and habits, I felt a loathing, which I could
never overcome; but it is eaten by both natives and Europeans.


Since you have expressed satisfaction with my imperfect account of some
of the natural productions of the Nicobar islands, and desire me to
continue the subject, I regret that I cannot gratify you with a sight
of the lists I kept, of the different kinds of serpents, crabs,
spiders, and other creatures, which I caught everywhere, either to
stuff, put into spirits, or otherwise prepare for my customers. At our
garden near Tranquebar, I had a shop or work-room purposely constructed
for these operations, and kept sometimes two or three Malabar boys at
work to help me. Of serpents and snakes I had a list of upwards of
eighty different species, from the size of a common worm, to sixteen
and twenty feet long; of crabs, upwards of ninety; and of spiders, more
than forty. Whether I went into the woods, on the beach, by land, or by
sea, I was accustomed to look about, and examine every object I saw,
and acquired great facility in catching some of the most dangerous
animals, without harm to myself. Far from being afraid of serpents, I
went out purposely to discover their haunts, in the jungle or among the
rocks, defending my legs with a pair of strong boots; and if I could
prevent their slipping off into their holes, and irritate them so as to
make them attempt to strike me, my work was done. For a serpent thus
situated, will coil himself up, and instantaneously darting forward his
head, strike and bite whatever comes in his way. I then presented my
hat, which the animal violently seized with his fangs; when, instantly
snatching it away, I seldom failed to extract them by the sudden jerk;
for, being curved, they cannot be readily withdrawn, and sitting but
loosely in the gums, are easily disengaged. Being thus rendered in a
great degree harmless, I pinned their heads down, and tied them up.
Great care, however, is required, not to suffer yourself to be
lacerated by their teeth, or in any other way, while preparing their
heads, and refixing the fangs; for if a wound is thus inflicted, even
long after their death, the consequences are dreadful, and often fatal,
of which I might relate many singular instances, which came immediately
under my observation.

There is among them a short serpent, found in the neighbourhood of
Tranquebar, and called by us, the _Split-snake_, (_die Spalt-schlange_).
It is black, with a white streak down its back, dividing the body
longitudinally. Its bite is extremely venomous; and being slender, it
can insinuate itself into a very small hole or cranny, and will enter
rooms and closets, in quest of food. There was a door in a dark part of
my work-room, with a large clumsy lock to it; and one evening, as I was
attempting to open it, having to pass that way, I felt a sudden prick
in my finger, and at the same time a violent electrical shock, as if I
were split asunder. Not thinking of a serpent, I first imagined, that
my Malabar boys had, in their play, wound some wire about the handle,
by which I had been hurt, and asked them sharply, what mischief they
had done to the door. They denied, that they had meddled with it, and I
made a second attempt, when I was attacked still more violently, and
perceived the blood trickling down my finger. I then returned into my
room, sucking the wound, till I could draw no more blood. I applied
some spirits of turpentine to it, put on a bandage, and being much
hurried that evening with other business, made no farther inquiry about
it. However, in the night it swelled, and was very painful. In the
morning, I went again into the work-room, when I thought I perceived an
unpleasant, musky smell. On approaching the before-mentioned door, the
stench was intolerable. I again asked the boys, what nasty thing they
had brought into the room, for they were always at play; but they again
denied any knowledge of the cause of the nuisance. A candle was
brought, and I now beheld the origin of all the mischief. About six
inches length of the head and body of a young split-snake hung out of
the key-hole, quite dead; and on taking off the lock, I found the
creature twisted into it, and so much wounded by the turn of the bolt,
in attempting to open the door, that it had died in consequence. It
had intended to enter the room through the key-hole, when I thus
accidentally stopped its progress, and got bitten; and considering the
deadly poison this serpent always infuses into the wound inflicted, I
felt very thankful to God, my Preserver, that, by sucking the infected
blood out of my finger in time, and applying a proper remedy, though
ignorant of the cause of the wound, my life was not endangered. I have
heard and believe, that the bite of every serpent is accompanied, more
or less, by a sensation similar to an electrical shock, as the poison
seems almost instantaneously to affect the whole mass of blood. We
considered also the name of split-snake given to this animal, not so
much as descriptive of its split appearance, as of the singular
sensation its bite occasions, and which I then experienced.

Of other remarkable serpents I will only quote, the _Whip-snake_, which
is green, from four to six feet long, slender, and springs horizontally,
from tree to tree, whence it is also called the _Flying-snake_. The
species, known by the name of the _Double-headed-snake_, has not two
heads, but is equally thick before and behind; and, like some
caterpillars, furnished with a kind of protuberance at its tail, which,
to a superficial observer, may pass for another head. They are of a red
colour, sluggish, and resemble a long sausage. The _Wall-snake_ climbs
a wall with great agility, and is small and spotted. The bite of all
these serpents is attended with great danger; indeed I believe there is
not one of this class of animals that is not more or less venomous,
though some in a very slight, and almost imperceptible degree. Their
poison principally affects the blood, and is not hurtful to a sound
skin. Yet I hardly ever cased one of the larger serpents for stuffing,
but I turned sick with the extraordinary, musky, and loathsome smell of
their flesh, though ever so fresh.

But I have detained you already too long with this unsavoury subject,
and will, in my next, proceed to answer your inquiries concerning the
habits and customs of the natives of the Nicobar islands.


The natives of these islands are a free people, perfectly independent,
but have a captain in every village. There are, indeed, several who
claim the rank of captain, as being more sensible and clever than their
neighbours, but only one of the number is considered as the _Omjah
karru_, or the great master of the house. Yet no one is bound to obey
him, for all of them, male and female, consider themselves under no
control whatever; and the captain must take care, that he does not
offend, by pretending to command. He is sure to be disobeyed, unless
they are pleased to listen to friendly representation. All the
preference given him, consists in this; that when a ship arrives, he is
allowed to go first on board, and to make the bargain, if they have any
thing to barter. They are commonly good-natured men, disposed to make
and preserve peace among the common people. In every other respect they
live and act like the rest, get drunk, commit fornication, and, when
there is, as they say, a necessity for it, murder; and are equally lazy
and unclean. But they can use their tongues more glibly than their

Their houses are generally spacious, and built upon pillars, six or
more feet from the ground, resembling those of the Malays, but round,
not square, like the latter. The inhabitants ascend by a ladder, which
they can draw up after them. The house has only one room, but generally
contains more than one family. Parents and children, guests, young and
old of every description, pig here together, lying naked on the floor,
with nothing but a _hetfat_, the leaf of a species of palm, under them,
in lieu of a mattrass, and very few have any covering. The furniture of
such a house consists in a few pots, made by the women, some highly
polished cocoa-nut dishes, to hold water, some hatchets, a sabre or
two, a few sailor's knives, and a good many spears. A family generally
possesses two or three palongs, or boats.

Their chief food is melory bread, made of the fruit of a kind of
palm-tree[5], which is very palatable; yams, several other good roots,
and great plenty of fruit from various trees and shrubs; all which grow
in great abundance. Of pigs and common fowls they have a vast
profusion. These are fed with cocoa-nuts, and their flesh is remarkably
good. The sea furnishes them with various kinds of fishes, and an
abundance of crabs and other shell-fish, so that they may easily enough
serve their god, which is their belly.

      [5] A species of Pandanus. See Asiatic Researches, Vol. III. p.

The clothing of the men consists of a narrow piece of cloth, about
three yards long. This they wrap twice round their waist, then passing
it between their legs, and through the girth behind, leave the end of
it to drag after them[6]. The women wear a piece of cloth, commonly of
a blue colour, about a foot wide, fastened round their waist, so as to
hang down like an apron, reaching not quite to their knees. They pride
themselves upon their fine skin, which indeed they keep very clean, and
do not in general use any paint. Both sexes live from their infancy
without any restraint, and commit every kind of abomination, often to
the utter ruin of their health and constitutions, in very early life.
In general they do not live regularly in the married state, till they
are past their prime; though I have known some who had married early,
remain faithful to each other, and keep their families in good order.

      [6] Hence the fabulous stories of men with tails, related by
      Kloping, a Swedish navigator.

As savages, they may be justly esteemed a good-natured race, being
always ready to do a kind action, to their friends; of which I will
relate one instance. We used to buy of them what we wanted, and pay
with tobacco, the current medium. Even when they had nothing to sell,
they would come and fetch their portion of tobacco, which we never
refused them, as long as we had any, till, by the non-arrival of the
ship, we were left entirely without it. We therefore told the captain
of the village, that, as we had no more tobacco, the people need not
bring us any more provisions, for we had nothing to give in exchange.
The captain did as we desired, yet, on the very next day, we were
supplied more plentifully than ever, with the things we wanted. They
would not even wait for pay, but hung up their fruit and meat about the
house, and went away. We called after them and told them how we were
situated. Their answer was: "When you had plenty of tobacco, you gave
us as much as you could spare; now, though you have got no more of it,
we have provisions enough, and you shall have as much as you want, as
long as we have any, till you get more tobacco." This promise they most
faithfully performed. Such kindness we did not expect from such people;
but they always showed great affection for us.

As to religion, they are in a state of deplorable ignorance. Their
notions of a Divine Being seem most oddly perplexed, insomuch that it
is difficult to make out any thing among them like a fixed opinion of
His existence and attributes, nor do they seem to possess any curiosity
to know more about Him.

But they are not professed idolaters, like most of the other oriental
nations. They have not even a word in their language to express their
idea of God. They use the word _Knallen_ when they speak of Him, but it
only signifies, "above, on high:" for instance, they say, _Knallen
maade_, "on the hill;" _Knallen uniga_, "on the top of the tree;"
_Knallen gamalee_, "on the surface of the sea;" speaking of something
swimming. However, they believe that this "unknown God" is good, and
will not hurt them; but wherein His goodness consists, they neither
have, nor seem to wish to have, any understanding, nor ever trouble
themselves about Him. Therefore, when we endeavoured, as well as we
could, to explain to them the goodness of God, in pitying the lost
condition of man, and providing the means of our redemption; and spoke
to them of Jesus Christ our Saviour, and of what He has done and
suffered to purchase for us salvation, they heard us indeed with
astonishment and silent submission; but that they should be at all
interested in it, and become virtuous and happy if they believed and
turned to Him, and after this life enter into everlasting bliss by His
merits, was more than they could possibly comprehend. When we told
them, that we were come hither for no other purpose, but to make them
acquainted with their Creator and Redeemer, and to bring them the glad
tidings of salvation; and begged them only to take it to heart, and
reflect upon what we thus made known to them in the name of God, they
laughed at us. They observed, that they could not believe that the
sufferings of one man could atone for the sins of another; and that
therefore, if they were wicked, what we told them of a crucified
Saviour would not help them: but they insisted, that they were good by
nature, and never did any thing wrong, as we well knew. When we
replied, that we knew, that they had but lately murdered some people,
and afterwards abused the dead bodies, each thrusting his spear into
them, mutilating them in the most wanton manner, and at last cutting
them to pieces, and asked them, whether this was a proof of their
natural goodness, their answer was: "That you do not understand, those
were people not fit to live, they were _Gomoy_, cannibals!"


The inhabitants of the Nicobar islands believe, that all dangerous
diseases proceed from the devil, who is nevertheless under the controul
of their sorcerers, or _Paters_[7]. If, therefore, these men cannot
cure a disorder by their tricks and inchantments, by which they pretend
to catch the devil and drive him off the place, then they are sure,
that he has entered into some man or woman, sitting in his or her
house, and by witchcraft, sucking all the power of healing out of the
patient's body. The sorcerer then proceeds to discover the witch, and
finds no difficulty in fixing upon some one he hates. The word of such
a wise man is, of course, taken by all for the voice of truth, and the
poor person accused is murdered without further inquiry. Murders of
this kind occurred but seldom in our neighbourhood, but were said to be
more frequent in some of the other islands. We told them, that the
devil everywhere proved himself the father of lies, and a murderer from
the beginning; and, till they turned to the true God, they were Satan's
slaves, and his works they must do. They seem indeed to be continually
engaged with him, whenever they profess to perform any religious rite.
They even ascribe the creation of the world to the _Eewee_, or wicked
agent. If they do any thing wrong, or commit any atrocious crime, and
are reproved for it, they immediately answer: "It was not me, it was
the devil that did it." If you convince them, that they did it
themselves, and with their own hands, their usual phrase is, "The
_Eewee_ did not make me perfect, or better;" and therefore they cannot
help some times doing what is wrong. They speak of a great many sorts
of devils, but all malicious, and disposed to hurt them, if they had
not such great and powerful paters among them, who had a superior
power, and could catch, and bring them into subjection. It is not
difficult for the sorcerers thus to impose upon the poor ignorant
people, for they really do possess superior cunning, and astonishing
dexterity, being the most expert jugglers on earth. Every one who has
visited the East Indies, well knows, with what unaccountable
exhibitions and slight of hand tricks the jugglers endeavour to amuse
the people; but in the Nicobar islands, these arts being applied to
what they consider as religious exercises, the deception is so great,
that I have myself often stood astonished, being unable to account for
what I saw.

      [7] An appellation borrowed from the Portuguese Missionaries.

I went once purposely into a house, where a sorcerer was about to
perform as doctor, and to cure a woman, who lay very ill. I was
determined to watch him as narrowly as possible. Both doctor and
patient were stark naked. After a series of most horrible grimaces, the
sorcerer produced a very large yam, which he held up, pretending that
he had _limpt_ it, (for thus they call this species of legerdemain),
out of the body of the woman, and that it had been, by witchcraft, the
cause of her disorder. When he entered, I particularly noticed that he
had nothing in his hands, or about him, nor did there appear any
possibility of a substance of that size being concealed in the empty
room. At another time, I saw a sorcerer under similar circumstances, on
a sudden exhibit three large stones, which he pretended to have
extracted from the patient's body. To the first of these patients, he
afterwards administered a decoction of herbs, and she recovered. The
cure was probably owing to his skill in preparing the potion, but was
of course ascribed to the incantation, and the seizure of the enchanted

After I had resided five years in the island, my legs began to inflame
and swell to a prodigious size[8]. A suppuration took place, and till
the discharge commenced, I suffered excruciating pain. During this
dreadful illness, several paters called upon me, and in the most
friendly manner, expressed their pity, offering me their assistance,
and assuring me, that if I would submit to their mode of cure, I should
soon recover. At last I thought, that as their skill in various
medicinal arts, and their knowledge of drugs was very great, I would
suffer one of them, called Philip, who always attended us as
language-master, to try what he could do for me, on condition, that he
should omit all superstitious ceremonies. He agreed, and immediately
putting on the most solemn and significant expression of face, worthy
of so eminent a practitioner, began to paw me all over, varying his
features with every motion of his hand, so that, notwithstanding the
pain I felt, I could not refrain from bursting into laughter at his
grimaces, which he could not possibly avoid, though bargained to be
omitted. At length, the preamble concluded, he began his work, first by
stroking my legs, from the knees downwards, with the palm of his hand,
muttering all the while, and then by applying his mouth, and sucking
the parts affected, accompanying the operation by a most strange kind
of purring or grunting. Thus far his practice seemed to do good, and I
felt relief, when, rising on a sudden, he produced a potsherd, which he
exhibited to the company, as having _limpt_ it out of my leg, saying
that he should soon bring forth more pieces. I cried out, "Stop there,
you deceiver, do you pretend that my body is full of potsherds; that
broken piece in your hand, you drew out of your own mouth. Open it
directly, and let us have the rest." He stood confounded, and soon
sneaked out of the house, laughed at by all his former admirers, nor
did he call upon me again, till about a fortnight after.

      [8] A disorder known in India by the name of the Cochin leg.
      Asiatic Researches, Vol. III.

As it sometimes happened, that when the skill of the sorcerers proved
ineffective, a missionary had administered some simple medicine, which,
by God's blessing, had the desired effect, they looked upon us, as the
first of paters, though our medicines consisted in nothing but a little
magnesia, spirits of nitre, and a few simples. But what astonished them
most, was this, that we could inform them before-hand, by means of a
perpetual almanack, that an eclipse of the sun or moon would take place
on the very day when it happened. Their notion of the cause of an
eclipse is the most preposterous and ridiculous, that ever entered into
the head, even of an heathen. They say, that the devil is come to
devour the sun or moon, and falls to work to gnaw off the edge; that
therefore it is necessary he should be driven away; consequently all
the sorcerers or paters assemble, and amidst singular and hideous
grimaces, throw up their spears towards the luminary attacked, all the
villagers sounding their gonggongs with the greatest violence, to
frighten away the voracious invader. After some time, their efforts
succeed, and he must betake himself to flight, without effecting his
purpose. Though we endeavoured, in every possible way, to explain to
them how an eclipse was occasioned, and they seemed in some degree to
comprehend it, they only declared us to be the greatest paters that had
ever been on the island, but ascribed the deliverance of the sun or
moon from the fangs of the devil, solely to the skill and power of
their sorcerers, and all we could say to prevail upon them, for once to
be quiet, and observe how the luminary would regain its former
appearance, by those means which God the Creator Himself had ordained,
was in vain.

The expulsion of the devil from a sick person or family, is a ceremony
as singular as it is silly, but as I have frequently been a spectator
of this farcical performance, a description of it may not be
uninteresting to you. I have before observed, that if their medicines,
(many of which are very powerful), or, as they will have it, their
incantations, are of no avail, they then ascribe the illness to the
immediate agency of the infernal spirit, who must be subdued and
caught. The pater, previous to the commencement of his operations,
summons all the young men in the village, to assist him in constructing
a small raft, of light wood. Three poles are fixed upon it, to
represent masts, and some bamboos laid across like oars. The masts are
hung with young white cocoa-leaves. This toy, which they call _Hanmai_,
they place between two palongs, each rowed by a crew of stout young
men, with a piece of rattan, as a towing-rope, fixed to it. Every rower
carries five spears, besides his oar. They now wait with great
eagerness for the pater's further orders. He has meanwhile begun his
work, which he finds either hard or easy of performance, according as
the patients are rich or poor. He is stark naked, and painted all over
with various colours, making as terrific an appearance as possible, to
frighten the devil, and indeed it is enough to terrify any man, to see
him brandishing a short clumsy bludgeon, which he holds up with both
hands, and dancing in the most furious manner. He accompanies his
gesticulations with the most horrible yells and howlings, and at length
is fortunate enough to seize the enemy by a leg, an arm, or even by the
hair of his head, which the poor deluded people believe, without seeing
what he grasps. Now the whole company rush towards the water, and the
pater deposits the supposed devil on board the raft, on which the
palongs row off with the greatest possible expedition, dragging the
captive out to sea, to a considerable distance, when, having turned him
and his vehicle adrift, they row back with the utmost speed to shore.
For two days the enemy may survive this rough usage, and again land in
safety, if driven on shore by the tide or wind, but on the third day he
must die. Should he land at another village, he then does the mischief
there, which he was prevented doing at the former place.

The worst consequence of such an unfortunate conclusion of the business
is, that the greatest enmity immediately takes place between the two
villages, and nothing can atone for the aggression, but a formal
combat. The village invaded sends a challenge to the former, and a day
is fixed for the battle. The captains of all the neighbouring villages
having met to a consultation, the combatants are chosen, and as there
are others who wish to take advantage of so just a mode of settling
their disputes, they are summoned to appear. One has stolen something,
another run off with his neighbour's wife, and the like. All these
people now meet, both the injured and the guilty, and each being
provided with a sufficient supply of long sticks, of the Mango tree,
they proceed to the place of rendezvous. There the captains examine the
sticks, and those that are too thick are thrown away. This being done,
two of the combatants step out, and lay about each other's back and
head, till one of the party is obliged to give up. A second couple
follow, and after them others, till in a proper space of time, the
whole company has got a good drubbing. The most innocent among them are
generally the worst handled; however, the business is now decided, and
all are convinced, that whoever was first obliged to give up, was the
offender. Peace is thus restored, both parties being perfectly
satisfied with so wise and just a decision, nor could anything we said,
convince them of the folly and wickedness of such superstitious and
injurious practices.


You wish to know what were the chief external causes of the failure of
our exertions; and ask, whether our residence on the island had been
with the consent of the natives, or whether they considered us as
intruders. The latter circumstance was guarded against by a regular
treaty made in December 1774, between the Brethren, and the captain and
inhabitants of the village Malacca, near to which they had made their
settlement. They then obtained legal possession of that piece of land,
which they occupied. Such presents as the natives required, were
delivered, and the terms contained in the treaty fully explained, to
them; after which the principal men signed their names, by drawing a
pen with ink over the letters, as written with a pencil. The
neighbouring village likewise received a proper consideration for a
treaty of friendship with them, and now the Brethren were looked upon
no longer as _Kaleng_, "foreigners;" but as _Baju Tripjet_, "natives at
Tripjet." Objections were however started, when they began to build
their dwelling-house; and some wicked people endeavoured to raise
suspicions in the minds of their countrymen, as to the intentions of
the Missionaries. The latter were, for some time after, in danger of
their lives, from the fickle disposition of their new friends; but the
Lord preserved them. Their upright intentions were at length
acknowledged, and ever after all due respect and confidence shown to
them by all the inhabitants of Nancauwery.

The failure of the Mission was owing to other causes, of which I will
mention some, according to my view of the subject. First, the extreme
difficulty of learning the language. We had indeed an opportunity of
speaking with some of the natives, in a kind of bastard Portuguese, but
it would by no means answer the purpose of preaching the gospel to them
in general. It was their own native language, of which we wished to
acquire a sufficient knowledge, thereby to gain access to the whole
nation. To this end, a pater, called Philip, was engaged as
language-master. A few of the Missionaries made some proficiency,
notwithstanding the peculiar difficulties attending the study; for
impediments arise even from the habits of the natives. Their language
is in itself very poor in words and expressions, and they are of so
indolent a turn, that even talking seems a trouble to them; and as long
as they can express, by signs, what they mean, they are unwilling to
open their mouths. If a stranger comes into their houses, they sit
still and look at him, or perhaps, pointing to some food, motion to him
to sit down and eat. There he may sit for hours, without hearing a
syllable spoken, unless he can himself begin, when they will answer
with friendliness. Again, both men and women have always a huge quid of
the betel, or areca-nut in their mouths, which renders their speech so
indistinct, that if you ask them the names of the various objects
before them, you can hardly distinguish between the sputtering sounds
they make. Often were we obliged to tell pater Philip to take his quid
out of his mouth, that we might hear what he attempted to articulate.
As to books and vocabularies, we found none, nor could we make any,
while our knowledge of the language was so imperfect.

Secondly, the unhealthiness of the climate; by which most of the
Missionaries were carried off before they could learn the language, or
just when they had got so far, that they were able to speak to the
natives. During the comparatively short period of the existence of the
Mission, eleven worthy Missionaries found their graves in Nancauwery,
and thirteen more, shortly after their return to Tranquebar, in
consequence of the malignant fevers and obstructions in the liver,
contracted in the island. These dreadful disorders, and the seasoning
fevers, which every newcomer must suffer, are all accompanied with such
pain in the head, dejection of spirits, and constant sickness, that the
senses are in a degree stupified, and learning rendered doubly
difficult. The mind being likewise filled with desponding views of the
possibility of relief and of future usefulness, the effect is very
unfavourable to that persevering diligence, with which such a barbarous
language must be studied; and death snatching so soon those away, who
had made some small progress, their successors must begin the uphill
work again and again, and the prospect of obtaining the aim of the
Mission is put off from one period to another.

Thirdly, our mode of life, and too great exertion in clearing and
planting, and other laborious work, which necessity obliged us to
undertake, was likewise a principal cause of the prevalence of various
disorders and complaints of the liver, the region of the stomach
swelling, and becoming quite hard below the ribs. All who were thus
affected, died either in the island, or soon after their return to
Tranquebar. I was not seized in this manner, but, besides other
illnesses, got a quartan ague, of which I have not lost the symptoms to
this day. When I mentioned it in a letter to Dr. Betschler at
Tranquebar, he wrote in answer: "Ah, my friend, if you have got the
Nicobar ague, it will keep you company all your life, if you live to be
an hundred years old." Thus far his words have proved true, and to this
present time, after thirty years have elapsed, I perceive the remaining
symptoms regularly returning every fourth night. While I was at
Nancauwery, they were very violent, and weakened me so much, that I
often thought my life in danger. After my return to Europe, they abated
considerably; but on being appointed, to the service of the Missions in
the Danish West India islands, the heat of the climate caused them to
increase in strength, though by degrees they again became bearable, and
the fever almost imperceptible. At present the symptoms are various,
sometimes a great degree of thirst, sleepless nights, and uneasy
sensations; at other times heavy yet restless sleep, with dreams
approaching to delirium; but whatever they are, never failing to recur
every fourth night regularly. I will not venture to say, whether, if I
had staid in Europe, the use of proper means, under skilful treatment,
might not have entirely removed the complaint, but the fact, as it
exists at present, has verified Dr. Betschler's prediction.

To return to the former subject, I must add, that not one of us ever
learnt the Nicobar language so perfectly as to be able clearly to
explain the will of God concerning our salvation to the natives. But I
am of opinion that they are not the most hopeless subjects, and think
that the gospel might be preached to them with success, if the
abovementioned obstacles were removed.


The birds-nests, which I have described in a former letter, brought a
great number, both of Malays and Chinese to our coasts, in quest of
them. These people always created much confusion and quarrelling among
our otherwise peaceable islanders, by their knavery and frequent
assassinations; and also gave the Missionaries a great deal of trouble.
In general, fifteen or sixteen, and in one year, nineteen, large prows
full of these vagabonds came to Nancauwery. After the officers and
soldiers who had accompanied the Missionaries to this island were all
dead, and it was known, that the latter would not quit their post, the
government at Tranquebur required, that always one of them should be
appointed Danish Royal Resident, and hold, as it were, the presidency
of the islands. The patent was always signed by the King. Brother
Voelcker was the first who filled that station, and was succeeded by
Brother Armedinger. He was followed by Brother Blaschke, and after his
return to Tranquebar, I was appointed. As I thought it was left to my
own option, whether I would accept of it or not, I declined it, in a
letter to the Governor of Tranquebar, conceiving it to be inconsistent
with the duties of a Missionary. However, I was obliged at length to
yield, and became Resident. I was succeeded by Brother J. Heinrich, and
Brother Soerensen was the last.

I will add an instance or two to show, how this office proved
frequently a source of much vexation to us. The Danes, when they formed
their first settlement in Kar Nicobar, an island 75 English miles in
circumference, to which they gave the name of New Denmark, had conveyed
a considerable number of cannon thither; but after the death of all the
soldiers, the carriages rotted, and I saw seventeen of these guns lying
on the ground. By one or more at a time, the Malays kept stealing them
away. It happened, however, that a Nacata, or general of the King of
Queda, as he styled himself, arrived at Nancauwery with a large prow,
and being informed by the natives, that he had no less than five of
them on board, I thought it my duty, as Resident, to protest against
this theft, and spoke to him about it. He flew into a great rage, and
began to use threatening language, pleading the orders of his king. I
answered, that his king very well knew, that as he had laid nothing
down there, he had no right to take any thing up; and that if he
persisted, I should give notice to the King of Denmark. I then left
him, but heard, that he afterwards threatened soon to prevent my
reporting his conduct; adding, that when I was dead, I should be quiet
enough. The natives also assured me, that it was his intention to kill
me, but that they would stay with me for my defence. I replied, that
though I thanked them for their kindness, yet they, as well as we, were
much too weak to withstand the diabolical influence which actuated
these murderous people; every inclination to commit that and other
crimes, being of the devil; but that our hope and trust was in God our
Saviour, who was infinitely more powerful than the devil, and could and
would protect us against all the designs of wicked men. We took that
opportunity of speaking to them again of the love of our Saviour, and
of His desire to deliver them from the power of Satan, and grant them
everlasting life. They heard us with attention and surprise, and staid
with us till late at night, when we desired them to return home, but
could hardly prevail upon them to leave us.

As soon as they were gone, having performed our usual evening
devotions, we were preparing to retire to bed; when we heard a noise
without, and immediately after, a violent knocking at the door. On
opening it, I was not a little alarmed to see a great number of Malays
surrounding the entrance. I cried silently to the Lord to protect us
against their evil designs; but though my fears were great, I assumed
an authoritative air, keeping my station in the door-way, as if
determined not to let them enter. The foremost, however, pushed in, and
now the Nacata himself came up. He treacherously held out his hand; but
on my offering him mine, he grasped it firmly, and dragged me with him
into the house. The Malays immediately filled all the chairs, and I
stood before them. I had no other hope but in the mercy of God, to whom
I sighed for help in this trying moment. Meanwhile more of them crowded
into the room, and sat down on the floor, closely watching me, armed
with their creeses or daggers. Though I preserved a firm and undaunted
appearance, I cannot describe my feelings, for I expected to be
immediately sacrificed to their fury. The Nacata addressed me by
saying, that he was come hither to ask, whose property the cannon were
to be, his or mine? I answered, "that he came to the wrong person to
make that inquiry; for I was only a servant of the King of Denmark, as
he, according to his own account, was only the servant of the King of
Queda. Neither of us, therefore, could determine who was to have the
cannon. Our respective masters, and they only, were able to settle that
point. He had told me that he had received orders to fetch them; and I
could assure him, that I had orders to protest against it: we both,
therefore, had only done our duty. All now depended upon this point,
whether my king, or his king, had any right to give orders in these
islands, and to claim the property in question." At this answer, he
became quite furious, and began to talk about the ease, with which the
Malays might murder us all. Some of them even drew their daggers, and
shewed how they were tipped with poison. They looked, indeed, more like
a host of devils, than a company of human creatures. On a sudden they
all jumped up, and seemed to rush upon me. I commended my soul to the
Lord, and called upon Him for deliverance, awaiting the issue in
silence, when, to my surprise, they quitted the room, one by one, and
left me, standing alone, in astonishment at their conduct. I shall
never forget the dreadful scene, and think of it at this moment, with
shuddering. As soon as they were all gone, and I found myself in
safety, I fell on my knees, and with tears, gave thanks to God my
Saviour, who had heard my prayers, and rescued me out of the hands of
these savages. My Brethren, who had very properly retired into the
wood, when the Malays first burst into the house, now returned, and we
wept for joy to see each other alive.

Having somewhat recovered from our fright, I went to the village, and
told our old Nicobar captain, Jan, what had happened, upon which he
sent messages to all the neighbouring villages, when in a short time,
great numbers arrived, well armed, and watched at the landing-place all
night. Had the Malays offered to return to shore, not one of them would
have escaped with his life.

In the morning, the Nacata's prow, with two others, were seen at anchor
under Tricut, many miles from hence. The people there told us
afterwards, that the Nacata had said, that the Danish Resident at
Nancauwery was a very great sorcerer, for he had tied their hands, and
they could do nothing with him. It was not I who tied their hands, but
God, who heard the cries of a poor, defenceless and trembling child,
trusting alone to His mercy and power.

I might add many other instances of the trouble and mischief occasioned
by the visits of these robbers, and which it was my business to
prevent, if possible; but will close my account, with relating only one
more, to show in what manner they treat even their own countrymen; and
also, how willing our neighbours were to defend our rights.

Having this year obtained, by foul or fair means, a pretty considerable
booty, no less than nineteen prows, full of Malays, came, the ensuing
season, into our roads, for birds-nests. I had, however, got the start
of them. As soon as the north-east wind commenced, I went to the
southern islands, where I staid a month, and not only collected a vast
quantity of nests, but purchased all those which the natives brought
for sale. The Malays, therefore, were disappointed, and got but few. We
expected that they would have been thereby discouraged, and
discontinued their visits. But we were mistaken. While I was at
_Manjoul_, a small island, east of the channel of St. George, a prow
with about sixty Malays arrived there, commanded by a Nacata, who
called himself _Sayet Ismael_, a priest of the King of Queda. He was
the most civil and well-behaved Malay I ever conversed with. I advised
him therefore to stay where he was, to make a regular agreement with
the natives about the price of the birds-nests, pay faithfully, and
keep good order among his men, so as to prevent all cause of complaint;
and assured him, that thus he would get a good cargo. He took my
advice, and procured a considerable quantity of nests, while those, who
followed him, got none.

Among the latter was a man who styled himself a Prince of Queda, and
had two Nacatas, some women, and a numerous crew on board his large
prow. He committed everywhere the grossest acts of barbarity, and in
Kar Nicobar murdered two persons, of which I was soon informed. Shortly
after, he came into our neighbourhood, and anchored under Tricut, where
he seized upon Sayet Ismael's prow. The latter, having sent his palong
to Nancauwery, with eight sacks of rice, two of nests, and other goods,
soon followed, claiming our protection. Thus, though we ourselves were
in a defenceless state, the oppressed came and sought help from us. We
suffered the priest to occupy one of our negroe-houses, where he
remained very quiet. Meanwhile the prince heard, that we had obtained a
large quantity of nests, and thought it would be no difficult matter to
plunder us likewise. For this purpose, he arrived with two large prows,
filled with some of the most ferocious of the Malay race. They entered,
occupied our house without any ceremony, and seemed to be a determined
set of banditti. I was alone in the midst of them, and cried to the
Lord to take me under his protection. While I was walking to and fro
across the room, the prince inquired, whether I had any birds-nests. I
replied in the affirmative; upon which he pretended, that he was come
to purchase them of me, and wished to see them. As I happened, during
this conversation, to step towards the door, one of our Caffre
servants, who stood near it, thought I had made a sign to him, to call
the natives to my assistance, though, in fact, I was so much agitated,
that I had not even observed him. He ran immediately into the village
Malacca, and called the people together. Meanwhile I spoke in a
decisive tone with the prince, forgot all his grand titles, and assured
him, that he should not get a single nest from me, sharply reproving
him for having murdered two men at Kar Nicobar, who were under the
protection of my sovereign. He flew into a passion, saying, that he
would soon shew me, that he had it in his power to sieze all my
birds-nests; and as to the two men, who had been stabbed at Kar
Nicobar, he was not bound to answer for that deed to me.

He had scarcely finished this insulting speech, when a party of natives
unexpectedly leaped in at the windows, with drawn sabres in their
hands. The Malays, terrified beyond measure, asked, what all this
meant. I replied: "They come to prevent your committing more murders."
In a short time, the house was surrounded by the natives, both men and
women being armed with sabres, spears, and bludgeons, their number
continually increasing. The prince and his men now began to beg, that
we would take them under our protection. At first I gave them no
answer, but continued reproving them for their base and treacherous
practices, among which I particularly noticed their plundering people
of their own nation. I asked: "Who therefore can trust to your word?
You deserve punishment at the hands of those you have so often provoked
by your injustice, and if I were now only to lift up my hand, not a man
of you would escape." Being convinced, that they were in my power, they
began to entreat me to interfere in their behalf, and the prince
offered to restore all he had taken. "How can you," said I, "restore
the lives of those you have murdered? However, you shall for once keep
your word, and restore the prow you took from Sayet Ismael, with its
whole lading." This he readily agreed to, and having called Sayet
Ismael, I made the prince repeat his promise, and asked Sayet, whether
he could trust him; which, after some words had passed between them in
their own language, he assured me he could, and they shook hands, in
token of sincerity. I now informed the prince, that his men might go
unmolested to their palongs, but that he himself should stay with me,
till Sayet Ismael's prow had been sent hither and delivered up to him.
He was exceedingly terrified at this sentence, and said, that unless he
was permitted to accompany his people, the natives would certainly kill
him. At length, Sayet Ismael himself warmly interceding for him, I
consented, that they should go away together, and went out to pacify
the natives. It was with some difficulty that I succeeded in appeasing
their indignation against these robbers, whom they now had in their
power, but when I told them that I should look upon their compliance as
a proof of their regard for me and my brethren, they were satisfied,
and made, of their own accord, a passage through their ranks, for the
Malays. Their appearance was indeed formidable, as they stood on each
side, armed with their spears and bludgeons. The Malays however were
still afraid to leave the house, till, after much entreaty, I myself
agreed to accompany them to their palongs. The prince seized my hand,
and would not let me go, till he had got into the boat.

I thought it my duty to avail myself of this opportunity to impress
these ferocious invaders of our islands, with some sense of the danger
they were in, and to teach them, that they might not always he
permitted to commit their depredations with impunity. For a time I
believe it had a good effect: but I confess, that I felt not a little
intimidated by this unpleasant visit, and much regretted the necessity
of holding the office, and doing the duty of a Resident, or agent of
government. God was my refuge, and had He not granted me presence of
mind sufficient to avoid all show of the fear I felt, we should
probably have fallen a sacrifice to the revengeful and murderous spirit
of these barbarians.

Sayet Ismael returned to us that very night, with his recovered prow
and cargo, thankful for the justice which he had obtained, and as he
offered us his services, we intrusted him with a parcel of letters to
our Brethren in Europe, which we found he had regularly forwarded, as
they all came safe to hand.

The prince had talked of nothing on the way to Tricut, but of the
wonderful power of the Missionaries, and declared, that he would
certainly never again set foot on Nancauwery.

You must, by this time, be quite tired of reading these fragments. I
hope I have succeeded in giving you some idea of our situation in the
Nicobar islands, and of the circumstances, by which our attempts to
convert the natives to Christianity were frustrated. I bless the Lord
my Saviour, for preserving me in the midst of all trouble and danger,
and if I appear to you to have endured some sufferings in body and
mind, in the East Indies, more especially by the total failure of our
endeavours to gain souls for Christ from among the heathen, in the
place to which we were sent, I call upon you now to praise the Lord
with me, for the great mercies I have since experienced, in the West
Indies, where I have beheld, with joy, the power of the word of His
cross, in the conversion of hundreds and thousands of negroes, among
whom I have had the favour to proclaim it. I still think of, and pray
for, the poor ignorant inhabitants of the East, and particularly of the
Nicobar islands, and trust, that now the time will soon come, when,
though some of Christ's servants have sowed in tears, others shall reap
with joy. May the glory of His saving name be made manifest in all the
earth, and the gospel be proclaimed in its most dark and distant parts,
by the present extended circulation of the bible, and the exertions of
His people of every denomination. With sincerest affection, I remain
ever, &c. &c.

                    JOHN GOTTFRIED HAENSEL.

_To the REV. C. I. LATROBE,

_W. McDowall, Printer, Pemberton Row,_

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Letters on the Nicobar islands, their
natural productions, and the manners, customs, and superstitions of the natives, by John Gottfried Haensel


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