In January 1901, when the British Empire had control over a large part of South and South East Asia, Cecil Boden Kloss, a 23-year-old English zoologist, set sail on a schooner from Singapore to the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago for an expedition. Kloss had not yet made a name for himself when he made the trip with American doctor and field naturalist William Louis Abbot, but his meticulous documentation of all he saw now serves as a valuable record of the southern and easternmost corners of India.

Kloss’s notes were published in 1903 in a book titled In the Andamans and Nicobars: The Narrative of a Cruise in the Schooner Terrapin with Notices of the Islands, their Fauna, Ethnology, etc. The book details the incredible wealth of biodiversity on many of the islands that are till today inaccessible to a vast majority of Indians and foreigners. At the same time, it documents life on the few places on the archipelago that are inhabited.

Volcanic islands

Given the proximity of the easternmost islands in the archipelago to the Malacca Straits, Kloss and Abbot chose to begin their journey from Singapore. Passing through Sumatra, their schooner sailed for six days before it reached a pair of volcanic islands.

“At last, one evening, we saw Narkondam from the masthead, about sixty miles away; and next morning Barren Island had risen above the horizon,” Kloss wrote. “These two little islands, eastern outliers of the Andamans, and connecting links between the eruptive regions of Burma and Sumatra are both of volcanic origin, though the former is now extinct.”

Narcondam (the official spelling) has the distinction of being India’s easternmost island and is just 260 km from Myanmar, while the Andhra Pradesh coast is 1,300 km away.

Barren Island has the only confirmed active volcano in India. “Approaching from the East, we caught a glimpse, while still some distance off, of the black tip of an eruptive cone, showing above the rim of the crater, which at a nearer view, proved to be of igneous basalt, clothed on the outer slopes with a growth of creepers, bushes, and of trees 50 to 60 feet high, frequented by numbers of fruit pigeons,” Kloss wrote. He and Abbot managed to set foot on the island, accessing it through its sandy beach.

The zoologist was awestruck by the beauty of the island and its surroundings. “Against a background of bright blue sky the little island rose from a sea of lapis-lazuli, which ceaselessly dashed white breakers on the rocky shores,” he wrote. “The steep brown slopes, part clothed in brilliant green, framed in the cone – a black and solid mass, round which a pair of eagles circled slowly.”

Barren Island had several hordes of goats. According to Kloss, a steamer from Port Blair left goats on the islands in 1891 and, free of any natural predators, they had thrived. “Concerning the fauna of the island, birds inside the crater were not numerous: commonest were a little white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosa), and the Indian cuckoo, which swarmed everywhere, its loud cries, ‘ko-el ko-el,’ resounding in all directions,” he wrote.

Kloss and Abbot went to look for birds on East Island, which is now in the North and Middle Andaman district, and had to cut a path through the thick jungle. Describing the effort, Kloss wrote, “Cutting right and left, avoiding a thick bush here and a hanging screen of creepers there, of perspiring at every step, we forced a sinuous way from the beach, until coming upon a well-trodden pig track, we found progress so much easier, that, with a little chopping now and again, we were able to move about with some degree of freedom, and along the path so slowly made, a long line of traps was set and baited in readiness for night.” They trapped and took as many wildlife specimens as they could.

Island penitentiaries

During the Raj, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were seen as anything but a paradise. The British opened the Ross Island Penal Colony in 1858 to jail freedom fighters from the 1857 War of Independence. British officers serving on the island lived a life of luxury in charming cottages.

During their expedition, Kloss and Abbot called on the island. “Easily picking up the Settlement, while some distance off, on account of its proximity to Mount Harriet – a pointed hill rising about 1,200 feet – we came to anchor to the south of the jetty inside Ross Island, and were immediately boarded by one of the native police – a representative of which body was always on board during the day throughout our stay,” Kloss wrote. “This measure is taken to see that the crews of vessels in the harbour hold no communication with the convicts, and also for the prevention of smuggling.”

It wasn’t just the two travellers’ unkempt appearance that aroused the suspicion of the British. They were eager to not let the brutal conditions on Ross Island be known to the outside world.

Kloss wrote about the British settlement, which included the residence of the commissioner, the church and the barracks for European troops, which he said was modelled on the Windsor Castle. The colonisers lived in houses with wooden furniture carved by Burmese convicts, in lanes shaded by tropical trees.

“At first sight, it seemed an altogether delightful spot to find in such an isolated corner of the earth; but is melancholy aspect is quickly and forcibly brought home to one by a visit to the jail on Viper Island, and by the continuous presence of the convicts, who are rendered conspicuous by their fetters, or neck rings, supporting the numbered badges by which the wearers are distinguished,” Kloss wrote.

After visiting the Viper Island jail (where many convicts from Ross Island were transferred to), Kloss wrote about the torture of prisoners and of cases where the maximum punishment of 30 strokes could prove fatal to a prisoner. There are other interesting insights in his book, like how the British jailors looked at the caste of convicts: “Caste – a most important point in connection with the people of India – is carefully respected, and the Brahmin prisoners are nearly all employed as cooks.”

Kloss also wrote briefly about the Cellular Jail, which was not completely ready. “Passing first close by the suburb of Aberdeen, which is on the mainland just opposite Ross, we obtained a good view of the Cellular Jail, a huge building of red-brown bricks, with long arms – three storeys in height – stretching from a common centre like the rays of a starfish,” he wrote. “It has been built almost entirely from local resources, and with local establishment and labour, and holds 633 cells and the accompanying jail buildings. Here each newcomer is incarcerated in solitude for six months, with the double intention of such confinement acting both as a moral sedative and a warning of what may happen again if his behaviour is not satisfactory in future.”

Kloss may have felt some degree of sympathy for Indian convicts, but he was also a product of his time and his writings on the indigenous people suggest he wasn’t entirely free of racial bias. While visiting the homes of an Andamanese fishing community, he vividly wrote about their physical features. “The first thought that flashed into one’s mind on perceiving them, with their small stature, sooty skins, and frizzly hair, was that here were a number of juvenile negroes (“n***ers”): they are, however, far better looking than that people, and some of the women might almost be called pretty, even when judged from a European standpoint.”

Village life

The duo needed special permission to visit the Nicobar Islands and after attaining it from the British authorities set sail for the chain. The first thing Kloss noticed about Car Nicobar was how the people resembled Malays.

The island also had its own distinct features. “Here was a change indeed, both in place and people,” Kloss wrote. “From islands densely jungle-covered to open stretches of grass-land and groves of coco palms: from a little black-skinned frizzly haired race, in an exceedingly low plane of existence, to a brown-complexioned, lank-haired people of fair height, who are almost semi-civilised, live in good dwellings, cultivate food products and possess domesticated animals.”

It was easier for Kloss and Abbot to get around Car Nicobar. There, they met a “Madarassi” Christian named V Solomon who filled the roles of “meteorological observer, port officer, school master and catechist” and also acted unofficially as “magistrate and amateur doctor”.

Kloss wrote in detail about daily village life, food habits and birth and death customs in villages on the island, but he didn’t stray from his main focus: the wildlife, especially the birds. He wrote, “We obtained a number of birds in the trees about the village; one in particular (Ixora sp. ?) whose leafless branches bore a quantity of large red flowers, was frequented by flocks of white-eyes (Zosterops (?) sp. nov.), munias and sunbirds, (Arachnechthra (?) sp. nov.) and by the chestnut-rumped myna (Sturnia eruthropygea), a bird only known from this island, although we later collected on Kachal a new species that closely resembles it.”

After extensively travelling across the archipelago, Kloss came to an interesting conclusion: “In spite of what is to be expected from their position, the islands derive the bulk of their species from the distant Indian region, while the Indo-Burmese and Indo-Malayan regions are represented to a far less degree.”

Kloss’s book propelled to him to fame after it was published in 1903 in London. He went on an expedition to Dutch New Guinea in 1913 and later became the director of the Raffles Museum in Singapore and even the President of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. His book on Andaman and Nicobar gives rare insights into the people and biodiversity of the islands, which are now under growing pressure from mega development projects.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.