Andaman tribal king to rebuild kingdom

Agence France Presse

Port Blair, January 12:

The king and the queen of an endangered aboriginal tribe vowed today to rebuild their jungle kingdom on an isolated Indian island which was smashed by tsunamis. King Jirake wields absolute power over his 48 Great Andamanese subjects on Strait Island, 250 km from Port Blair, capital of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. The 62-year-old king and his queen Surmai shepherded their subjects to the safety of a hilltop as the giant waves crashed ashore on December 26. “Everything was swept away, our houses, boats, bows and arrows, spears and our stock of whisky,” said Jirake, near a hospital in Port Blair where he was rushed December 28 for treatment for stress. “We can make new bows and arrows but we will have to buy our whisky,” the king told AFP and a local reporter in a rare interview arranged by tribal supporters.

India doles out cash to the Great Andamanese to buy goods through intermediaries.

“Now we go back to our land and resume our lifestyle,” said the Great Andamanese queen, obliged to wear a modern Indian dress near the state-run hospital in Port Blair. “We wear knitted leaves, hunt pigs, turtles and fish and we live on the beaches and this costume and shoes feel terrible,” the diminutive king said, clad in cotton trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and rubber-soled shoes. “We feel like prisoners. We are going back to take stock of our people, after all we are all that they have,” said Jirake, who was “elected” king over a decade ago after his father died. He himself lost eight brick-and-mortar shelters provided by the state on his island. The royal couple, accompanied by their 25-year-old princess Tango, spoke in broken Hindi which they have picked up from Indian officials in charge of welfare for negrito aboriginal tribes who survive on the archipelago. The Great Andamanese numbered 10,000 in 1789. But their friendliness to outsiders who brought measles, syphilis and influenza saw their numbers shrink to 625 in 1901.

India’s 1971 census shows a population of 24 surviving Great Andamanese but by 1999 their number had grown to 41.