of the British Period to 1947
Jeremiah Nelson Homfray (1837-1882)
Homfray with an Andamanese group he took to Calcutta in 1865
J.N. Homfray had been assistant to Corbyn, officer in charge of the Andamanese, at the latter's resignation in 1864.
From his appointment and his excellent work after he had stepped into Corbyn's shoes, it seems likely that it had always been Homfray who had done most of Corbyn's real work. It is not known what brought Homfray to the Andamans, nor when, how or why he became assistant to Corbyn. His appointment as Officer in Charge of the Andamanese turned out to be a stroke of luck for all concerned, even though Ford promoted Homfray as an emergency measure when a successor to Corbyn had to be found quickly. He justified the trust placed in him and held his post for 10 years, longer than anyone apart from M.V. Portman who held it for 21 years. Working very hard, Homfray succeeded in establishing friendly relations with an ever growing number of Great Andamanese groups. Observers noted that
He was most energetic, living for days in the jungle encampments with the Andamanese while engaged in on his work, and the present Homes and gardens at Tarachang, Baja-jag-da, Gop-l'aka-bang, and Duratang were all established by him.
In his zeal he even went so far as to allow himself to be painted and dressed in Andamanese fashion, and joined in their dances, and there is no doubt that he was really attached to this people personally, and they to him.
A British colonial official dancing and dressing in "the Andamanese manner " (i.e. naked? the mind boggles!) must have been a wonderful sight, if more than a little upsetting to local high society. The new officer in Charge of the Andamanese clearly was an unusual and unconventional man, one that did not care much for the social conventions so dear to the sahibs and memsahibs of a remote Victorian penal colony.
Homfray continued to expand the institution of the Andamanese Home. Among other measures, he opened a new Home at Port Mouat on the west coast opposite Port Blair. Diseases that had quietly spread by the agency of the Homes finally broke into the open after 1866. The steep decline in the aboriginal population began that year. Homfray was dismayed and did what little he could do to help, being quite unaware that his own institution of the Andamanese Home was the major agency for the spread of disease.
After keeping several Andamanese children at his own house, in 1869 he opened an Andamanese orphanage with his own money since he could not get government funds. Well-meant as this effort was, the result of educating children in a convict environment was disastrous:
Far from improving, the children learnt many evils from their convict attendants and almost everyone fled after a few day's stay. Here again, the restraints of a civilized life proved irksome to the aborigines and the orphanage had to be closed in 1874 as there were no inmates.
After 10 years at his post, in 1874 Homfray handed over to this successor, the ephemeral Tuson. It is most unfortunate that Homfray, who has been closer to the Andamanese, understood them better and must have spoken their language more proficiently than anyone else before and possibly after, should have left us virtually no records. If he had, he would be a major figure in the field, the more so since he was appointed at a time when traditional Andamanese society had not begun to disintegrate yet. What he could have told us! Why he did not is perhaps hinted at, tactfully, by E.H. Man who wrote about him:
At the time [Homfray] practically lived with the Andamanese, and though he never obtained much scientifically accurate information regarding them, and in relating what he saw was apt to arrive at very erroneous conclusions, he certainly knew the people and their ways, had great influence over them, and was much liked.
The position of Officer in Charge of the Andamanese was a fairly junior one when Homfray was appointed to it. Documents concerning it were kept locally at Port Blair and only rarely sent to the central authorities on the mainland. Practically all archived material kept at Port Blair was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of the islands in World War II - which explains why there are so lamentably few references to Homfray in the National Archive of India.
A few lines written by Homfray have survived, however. Here is what he wrote in 1867 about the Andamanese way of greeting returning members of their own local group:
The system is by falling into one's lap, embracing and crying for some ten minutes, which appears hideous, seeing grown up men howling like children and reciting their afflictions. The Andamanese are very fond and affectionate to their families, after howling felt sorrowful awhile; it is customary to drive away grief, and this is done by a little dancing.
An official report written by Homfray concerns the wreck of the Brig Nineveh on the shores of North Sentinel Island in 1868 . he was involved in the rescue effort (the full story is told in Chapter 3 ). Homfray wrote
From J.N. Homfray, Esq.
Assistant to the Superintendent and in charge of Port Mouat
to Lt-Col. B. Ford, Superintendent of Port Blair
No. 303, dated the 8th October 1867.
I have the honour to report for your information that last evening at 7 p.m. the two steamers brought up inside Boot Island. This morning we started at day light for North Sentinel; between it and Termoogloo Island a [boat] with 13 men was picked up, their story was that yesterday noon they left 70 people alive with four bags of rice and cocoanuts all safe on North Sentinel, at where the wreck was standing, with the party on shore by it. The Andamanese [Sentineli] were on the second days seen behind the bush (some 20 men), firing arrows for half an hour, in which four men were wounded, and are now recovered. No death or murders, save 10 men were drowned on the first night of the wreck. The inhabitants are few and have only a few arrows, the passengers and crew kept them off with stones and sticks. They have not been seen since. The Kwangtung [the station ship of Port Blair] is on her duty towards the wreck, and the Defiance returned with despatch to Port Mouat and is now coasting for Interview Island in search of the first raft with nine men adrift ....
J.N. Homfray died at Port Blair in 1883.
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