The Jarawa and other People Without [Access to] History

by zunguzungu

The narrative of “uncontacted tribes” fascinates me, because it indexes a population almost complete insulated from people whose perspective doesn’t match and reinforce their insular self-confidence in their own prejudices. I’m talking, of course, about people who use the phrase “uncontacted tribes” as if it means anything.

Charles Kenny, for example, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy called “Out of Eden” — you always have to use the word “Eden” when you write these kinds of articles — from which Andrew Sullivan culled the key paragraph last week:

The glorification of the Jarawa and in general of tribal life, with its supposed freedom from violence, poverty, drugs, crime, and overpopulation, is part of a dangerous denial of the huge benefits that modernity has brought to the vast mass of humanity. It is easy to get emotional about a supposedly idyllic Stone Age existence when we’re staring at elegant photographs on a computer screen while sipping our Starbucks chai latte. But if we decided to actually return to the lifestyle of uncontacted peoples, the vast majority of the planet would die off from starvation, and those who remained would face nasty, brutish, and short lives. Romanticizing that lifestyle provides no insights into how we can better run a planet of 7 billion people on a sustainable basis — and does little to illuminate the challenges and needs of tribal people themselves.

The beating heart of such discourse is what’s really at stake in these kinds of conversations: the conversations Westerners have with other Westerners about Western society. “Primitive people” are not human beings, they’re clichés, set-pieces, touchstones, usefully simplistic examples that allow you to argue whatever belief you already had: pre-modern life was the “original affluent society” (such that we now live degraded and corrupt existences) or it was poor, nasty, brutish, and short (whereas we drink from the cup of a modernity that enriches our every blessed moment). Kenny — the author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More — is using the Jarawa to reinforce the latter narrative, obviously, and his article is mostly devoted to criticizing Survival International for employing the former. And even there you can see, as is always the case, the two antagonists in this conversations are two clannish sub-groups within the insular tribe of Westerners who have not yet contacted the outside.

I’m being unkind, I suppose. But while I don’t have much time for Kenny’s ahistorical account of the Jarawa people either (or the particular ethos that drives it), I do have a similar dissatisfaction with the romantic narrative that groups like Survival International employ. What should be a story of colonialism, economic imperialism, and social justice quickly becomes the story of a vanishing fetish object: solitude.

The story that SI tells, for example, is simplified thusly:

The ancestors of the Jarawa and the other tribes of the Andaman Islands are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa. Several hundred thousand Indian settlers now live on the islands, vastly outnumbering the tribes.

This functions as a historical narrative only through omission, a story in which so much is excluded that what has been left behind (even thought technically true) can only mislead. Since virtually nothing is told about the period between primordial origins (Africa!) and the now-incursion of settlers from the subcontinent, the stage is nicely set for a story with only two possible endings: continued solitude or extinction. To the extent that the Jarawa continue to be safely separate, it is strongly implied, they will survive; to the extent they are not protected from the outside, they will die. But it is only by causing the centuries long history of contact between the Andaman islanders and the British colonial governments in India to disappear — along with the history of internal political development and differentiation that predated European incursion and was transformed by it — we get a story in which complete isolation since the Dawn of Time has recently been broken by a bunch of Indian settlers who build roads and poach animals and bring measles.

Aspects of that story are true, of course. But take a look at this map:

I can’t speak to the complete accuracy of this map, but it gives you the right sense of how total and complete the social transformation of the Andaman islands actually was in the period between the first British penal colonies (in the south part of the big island in 1789 and the north part in 1781) and the present. We can’t even get to the fact that the islands are came to be part of the “Indian” political sphere in the first place because they were used by Maratha privateers (from “India” proper) as a base in fighting off the British, Dutch, and Portuguese in the Indian ocean in the seventeenth century (when England was still a provincial backwater itself); the point is simply that this group — however disinclined it may be to change its behavior — has had to deal with outsiders, constantly and consistently, for as long as it has existed as such. More than that, what is usually the case with these kinds of groups is that they have existed as such only as a function of their contact with “outsiders.” Their name, for example, comes from a word used by other linguistic groups in the same island chain to describe “foreigners.”

And this is the nub of the matter. While it may certainly be true that the Jarawa have resisted integration into “other societies” (though what society ever welcomes it?), they have always been in contact with societies that were, in some important sense, foreign to them, forever. Any time you have more than 150 people living in a single area, you will have a developing dynamic of internal differentiation and the culture-work of imagining community, and this process long preceded even the onset of the British; the Jarawa were always one group of many in a complex inter-societal mosaic of differentiated groups and sub-groups on the Andaman islands (see the map on the right). But as always happened when the colonial incursion of the British (or whoever) began, some groups collaborated and adapted (usually those who were offered the means of doing so) and some groups resisted (usually those who were given no reason to “modernize”), but this choice would ever thereafter set limit the kinds of societal choices they could make.

Various of the many different groups that inhabited the Andaman islands were part of the former category (most now extinct as a result), while the Jarawa were in the latter category. For example, as a British colonial officer, Maurice Portman, remarked in 1899:

As we became on friendly terms with the Aka-Bea-da they prejudiced us against the Jarawas, whom they described in the blackest terms, and the latter, seeing us allied with the Aka-Bea-da against them, resented or distrusted our friendly overtures, from timidity at first, and finally from downright hostility…The Jarawas seem to be very much what we have made them. They were much less timid at the time of this visit than they are now, and were merely given a bad name by our Andamanese because the latter were at enmity with them, and ignorant regarding them.

You find this dynamic all over the British empire. One group collaborates with the British and gets a reputation as “modern” while the ones that refuse to (or are not given the option) suddenly turn out to have been primordially savage and have to be the subject of “expeditions” (especially once the firsthand knowledge of people like Portman dies off). And after that moment, no group or subgroup can change their mind; they are permanently set in stone as what they were originally deemed to be.

Not that collaborating was likely to do much good for the lucky “contacted” tribe that was so blessed, of course; as an Annual Report for the British government in India remarks, in the year 1883-84:

“Chapter XVII, Aborigines.— “It was found necessary to send expeditions against the Jarawa tribes, who gave trouble during the year under report, and continued to reject the efforts made to establish friendly relations with them. The Governor General in Council noticed with regret that the friendly tribes of Andamanese are said to be dying out, but the matter appears to be one which is beyond the power of the Government to remedy.”

Friendly tribes “are said to be dying out,” while the unfriendly tribes have “expeditions” mounted against them for refusing “to establish friendly relations.” With such friends, who needs genocidal imperialist enemies?

My point, then, is actually not that the Jarawa are “very much what we have made them,” either, as Portman believed in 1899 with the hubris of the imperialist conqueror of worlds. Certainly the way in which the Jarawa interacted with the British had everything to do with the way the British treated them, and with the way they observed other Andamanese groups interacting with their colonial benefactors. But every “native” group that ever found itself interacting with colonialist outsiders did so, rationally, using the knowledge that they had at their disposal: when the British arrived on the island, they quickly allied themselves with a (now non-existent) group, the Aka-Bea-da, who regarded the Jarawa as enemies, and so, by a completely intuitive logic, the Jarawa were not inclined to see the British as friends. Once that dynamic began, it continued: as the British killed off their friends, they fought constant little wars with the people that didn’t want to be their friends, who — oddly — continued not to particularly view the British (or any other modernizing invaders) as friendly. As Romulus Whitaker put it, “Today the word Jarawa is synonymous with hostility. And hostile they are, but defensively hostile. Knowing their history, it is acceptable that they should have turned to violence with the outside world as a means of self-preservation.” Understanding their history allows you to understand better why they made the choices they did, in other words, to allow us to understand how they rationally decided to become the kinds of people they did.

Of what use is such history now? you may ask. If we know the past, does it help us know what to do in the present? All that is well and good, you may say, but are we to do with the Jarawa in the world we now live in? Are they to be protected and allowed to remain isolated, or are they to be integrated into the modern world?

There is no answer to that question, because any problem that begins with “What is to be done with the natives?” is already permanently misbegotten, and will give no satisfaction. Conspicuous by its absence in all of those questions are the choices, desires, and problems of the indigenous people themselves: we only ask “what is to be done?” with people who we judge to have no ability to do anything with themselves, people who lack the knowledge and rationality to decide. More than that, while Survival International does call for the Indian government to “allow them to make their own decisions about their future,” what makes the problem of the Jarawa so hellishly difficult is the impossible dichotomy between isolation and modernization that SI’s rhetoric is nevertheless built upon, reinforces, and through which they garner the sympathy they subsequently work to instrumentalize. For if the problem of the Jarawa is that they have had no “contact” with the outside world, how can they possibly make decisions about how to live within it? How can they “choose” when our entire approach to them is framed by assumptions about their lack of the knowledge they would need to be able to choose? And how could they ever gain such knowledge and agency if “contact” is the very definition of their existential threat which we — on their behalf — shield them from?

The trickier side of this problem is that another phrase for what was historically done to the Jarawa is that they were denied access. You and I inherited the historical happenstance by which our ancestors collected not only the biological and cultural experience that enables us to live in the modern world, and we also grew up in places where schools were available, where the economic resources and necessary socialization for integration into modern society were acquirable, at least to some extent, and we acquired them, to such an extent that we have the option to take it for granted. We were given, as children, the means of making ourselves into the kinds of people who could live in the modern world and be recognized. We have the choice of being — to the extent that we choose — homo economicus.

The Jarawa have not had this kind of access and they still lack this choice. Rationally deciding to close their borders and fight off the British is what kept them from being completely wiped out (in contrast to the friendly Aka-Bea-da, now extinct), but it meant that those survivors were never able to avail themselves of the resources (economic and infrastructural) that would allow them to exist in the modern world that has grown up around them, never had the ability to build the kind of schools and economies that could manage and maintain a balance between what they believed to be important in their world and what they would need from the rest of the world to defend it.

This is why demanding that the Indian government leave them alone (or bemoaning the fact the British did not leave them alone) is not only insufficient, but mystifies the present problem. Having been isolated by necessity, they never had the opportunity to develop the kinds of resources that would allow them to make other choices. And this is the sort of problem that talking about the difference between modernity and tribal life makes us completely unable to understand: while the “we” that encompasses Survival International and Charles Kenny is capable of deciding and choosing to what extent we would like to be modern, we can debate the pros and cons of modern economic society precisely because we inherited access to the tools we need to live in it. For us — as we think about whether “modernity” or “tribal” is better — the question becomes: use the tools we have acquired, or give them up? But as we imagine into existence a handy stock-primitive to embody this choice, we thereby take for granted the very thing that makes them and us different: we have the choice, and they do not. It has nothing to do with culture, and everything to do with opportunity.

In such a context, both “intervention” and “isolation” are unsatisfactory. SI’s entire moral appeal is for the Jarawa to be left alone, to let them choose their own destiny and continue as they always have. But what if they want to do something else? Given that their “traditional lifestyle” is dependent on an ecosystem they chare with a planet of ravaging capitalist polluters, the odds that they will be able to continue to depend on the bounty of a natural order that is everywhere being transformed is slim at best. But where will any of them find the means of doing so, of broadening their choice of potential life-ways? In such situations, “leaving them alone” to make their own choices is not wholly unlike leaving a homeless person alone to make his or her own choices: we will feel no particular guilt for their situation when they starve to death (we left them alone, after all), but we will have done them no favors either.

The closer we look at the history, the clearer it becomes that “isolation” is a relation, not the absence of a relation, and it is one which was both imposed from without and which continues to impoverish those who were imprisoned within. Being isolated from the modern world is the sort of choice that is given to people like Henry David Thoreau, who can retreat to a little cabin in the woods only because he has the money, the education, and the inherited pencil factory that allowed him both to make that choice and move back and forth when he pleased. When he was done “living deliberately,” he could return to a society that had a space for him and from which he derived the resources that made his utopian fantasies real. We have that choice, too.

The Jarawa do not, and as a result, ever since necessity forced them to isolate themselves from a well-meaning empire of incidental genocidaires, a time-bomb was ticking underneath their society. Leaving them to be destroyed by it now may or may not be morally neutral on “our” part, but it is certainly no solution to anything.[1] The fact that the Jarawa were never allowed to have a space outside the woods, have never been allowed to inhabit the modern world, never had the option of deciding which aspects of the modern world they wanted to take on and which they would choose to live without, and were prevented by force from acquiring the means of doing so is, in this sense, a thoroughly living history. Ignoring that history only allows it to work its force on the present all the more thoroughly. Which is why, paradoxically, having historically deprived them of the societal capital necessary to make that choice means that for “The West” or “The Modern World” to deign to give them only freedom to choose — without the material means to control their destiny — would perhaps accomplish nothing more than ignoring (and freeing us from guilt for) the primitive disaccumulation by which they were originally deprived of a history.

[1] This is not to say the work being done by Survival International shouldn’t be done — I really can’t judge — just that the problem goes a hell of a lot deeper than their rhetoric implies, and which their rhetoric in some ways reproduces. It may also be that appealing to worldwide ignorance is the most tactically sound way to help the people of the Andaman islands acquire the autonomy and resources they‘d need to improve their situation; again, I can’t judge. But I’m after something in this post which is at a slight tangent to what SI are doing, even if it’s just as utopian — a reduction of worldwide ignorance about history — which requires me to think about the problem in slightly different terms.