Austrian colonisation of Nicobar Islands

Austrian colonisation of Nicobar Islands

Austrian colonisation of Nicobar Islands was a shortlived and unsuccessful attempt of Austrian Empire to make Nicobar Islands (an island chain in the eastern Indian Ocean) their colony. The colony was established in 1778. This had previously been a Danish colony and Austria established it with the mistaken assumption that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the islands. However by 1783 due to lack of support the last colonists left.

The start was made by Maria Theresia and Joseph II who, in the 1760s, wanted to set up trading posts in Asia for the distribution of Austrian products. It was more a whim than a serious project since the largely land-based Austrian empire did not have adequate sea power to acquire, defend and supply remote possessions. More serious actors on the world wide colonial stage at that time were Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Holland and France.

The Austrian Habsburg rulers chose the Dutchman William Bolts as advisor. He had been active in the British East India Company but had been convicted for trading with opium and dismissed. In 1774 he travelled to Vienna to convince the inexperienced Austria of the feasibility of trade between Trieste and the Far East.

What had started as a secret project with a falsely British-flagged ship very soon collapsed. However, in 1778, after surmounting enormous difficulties, the Austrian vessel "Joseph and Maria" finally reached the Nicobar islands which had only recently been abandoned by the Danes. The Danes had given up there after losing most of their people to malaria.

On 12 July 1778 the natives signed (with three crosses and in in front of witnesses) a document that ceded the four islands of Nancowry, Kamorta, Trinket and Katchal to Austria. The Austrian flag was run up on a nearby hill and 6 men besides cattle, arms and slaves were left behind to start the new Austrian colony.

In 1781 the colonists complained about a lack of drinking water and food but Vienna took no notice and left its outpost to its fate. When the leader of the colonisation died in 1783, the attempt at starting an Austrian colony died with him.

Later events

Motivated by an urge to explore, Arch-Duke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria in 1857 sent the frigate "Novara" on a trip of scientific discovery around the world. On board was a team of the Austrian Academy of Sciences that had also received the additional task of looking out for possible locations for penal colonies.

In February 1858 the "Novara" reached Car Nicobar where the native had already learnt to hide their womenfolk at the approach of foreign visitors. The Austrian team sailed around the islands of Nancowry and Kamorta but did not try to occupy them. The ethnologist Karl von Scherzer brought back 400 objects but despite his proposals, his plans of setting up a new Austrian colony there came to nothing.

In 1886, the Austrian corvette "Aurora" anchored in the harbour of Nancowry before continuing her voyage to the Far East. By that time the islands had already become British in 1869 and there were no more Austrian plans for annexation.

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