History of Andaman and Nicobar Islands
During the Mauryan empire, especially at the time of Ashoka the great, in mid third century BC there is some mention of A & N Islands being used as a staging area by Indian traders and delegates to the east. Portuguese led the Europeans in their quest to reach the ‘spice islands’ of the far East. The Portuguese came to Nicobar group of Islands, especially the Great Nicobar Island. The place names like Pygmallion Point (now Indira Point), Galathia and Alexandria rivers are a Portuguese legacy. Portuguese used the Southern Islands as a transit point for voyages to India/ Colombo, besides undertaking missionary activities. A reminiscent of their presence is the fusion of quite a few Portuguese words in the Nicobari dialect even today. The Danes (Denmark) remained at Nancowry islands from 1754 to 1779. They controlled the Nicobar Islands and provided support to European ships besides undertaking missionary activities.
The French came to Carnicobar in 1711 to setup a base that could assist their operations against the British for control of the bay. They later withdrew due to unknown reasons.
The name Andaman presumably comes from Handuman, which is Malay for the Hindu god Hanuman. The name Nicobar is Malay for land of the naked (people).
The Andaman and Nicobar islands have been inhabited for several thousand years, at the very least. The earliest archaeological evidence yet docu-mented goes back some 2,200 years; however, the indications from genetic, cultural and linguistic isolation studies point to habitation going back 30,000 to 60,000 years, well into the Middle Paleolithic. In the Andaman Islands, the various tribes maintained their separate existence through the vast majority of time, diversifying into distinct linguistic, cultural and territorial groups. By the 1850s when they first came into sustained contact with outside groups, the indigenous peoples were:
the Great Andamanese, who collectively represented at least 10 distinct sub-groups and languages;
the Jangil (or Rutland Jarawa);
the Onge; and
the Sentinelese (most isolated of all the groups).
In total, they numbered around 7,000 at that time. As the number of settlers from the mainland increased (at first mostly prisoners and involuntary indentured labourers, later purposely recruited farmers), these indigenous people lost territory and numbers in the face of land encroachment and epidemics. The Jangil and most of the Great Andamanese groups soon became extinct. Presently, there are only about 400-450 indigenous Anda-manese, the Jarawa and Sentinelese tribes in particular maintaining a steadfast independence and refusing most attempts at contact.
The indigenous people of the Nicobars (unrelated to the Andamanese) have a similarly isolated and lengthy association with the islands. There are two main groups:
The Nicobarese, or Nicobari, inhabiting many of the islands;
The Shompen, restricted to the interior of Great Nicobar.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a chain of 572 islands in the Andaman sea. Largest among them, the Andaman Island, is 355 Kms long and 60 Kms wide. The islands are situated approxi-mately 1200 km from India’s eastern seaboard and about 450 km from Malay Peninsula. There was a time when ancient tribes lived here. Some of the natives bear a remarkable resemblance to the aboriginal tribes of Australia. Today some tribes have receded into the deep forest while others have been resettled. Port Blair, it's principal port, is a picturesque and bustling town, full of greenery. It is well connected to the main land by regular passage of ships and scheduled flights from Kolkata and Chennai. Different communities are living in harmony and use Hindi as their language.
Port Blair, the capital of A & N Islands, was named after Lt. Archibald Blair of East India Company. British occupied the Andamans in 1789 as a safe harbour to keep British ships safe and protected in the rains. Due to in inclement weather conditions, outbreak of diseases and the expenses in maintaining the harbour, the British had to abandon the Andamans in 1796. Early in the first decade of the 19th century the roots of the East India Company were firmly entrenched in India. The British were subjecting Indians to a lot of abject atrocities, snatching away land from peasants, destroying the livelihood of craftsmen, increasing taxes, usurping the states from the Nawabs and native kings. Ordinary people, soldiers, nawabs and kings were all being terrified and harassed. Generally everywhere there was resentment and revolt. People were determined to do away with the East India Company.
Recapture of Andaman Islands to keep Political Prisoners
The Andamans reminds us of those freedom fighters who on 10th May 1857, gave the clarion call to rise against the British rule. In January 1858, the British reoccupied Port Blair,
Andamans. For the first time on 10th March 1858, Supdt. J.B. Walker arrived with a batch of 200 freedom fighters. The second batch of 733 freedom fighter prisoners arrived in April 1868 from Karachi. They had been sentenced for life imprisonment. After this however it is not known how many thousands of freedom fighters were sent to the Andamans from the harbours of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Their numbers, names and ad-dresses are not known.
The Construction of the Cellular Jail
In 1896, the construction of Cellular Jail started and was completed in 1906 with 698 cells. The Jail had seven wings, spreading out like a seven-petal flower. At the centre was a tower with a turret. Connected to this were the three storey high seven wings with 698 isolated cells. This is why it is called the Cellular Jail.
Horrors Of Prison
The work quotas given to political prisoners were generally impossible to complete within the specified time. Dire punishments were meted out to those who failed to meet them. Punishment was barbaric. Torture and flogging were frequently resorted to on an iron triangular frame, gunny bag uniforms, unhygienic diet, bar fetters, crossbar fetters and neck ring shackles and leg iron and chains were other deterrents for those who refused to submit to the brutal wardens. The punishment varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement. The freedom fighters brought to the Cellular Jail rebelled against the tyranny of ruthless Jailor David Barrie. Mass hunger strikes were resorted to especially between 1937 and 1938. Three prisoners died. The last hunger strike begun in July 1937 continued for 45 days. The strike was terminated on the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. The Government decided to close down the penal settlement and all the political prisoners of Cellular Jail were repatriated to the jails in their respective states in mainland India by January 1938.
Japanese Occupation Of The Islands (1942-45)
The Japanese occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II from 23rd March 1942 to 7th October 1945. They put to death hundreds of people in the most bar-baric way, many of them on the mere suspicion of sympathizing with the British. Many educated people were imprisoned in cellular jail as suspected spies and later shot dead. Many were buried in a common grave. The Humfraygunj Martyrs’ Memorial today stands a mute witness to the inhuman treatment meted out to the citizens of India.
Netaji in Andamans
Netaji visited the Andaman Island as a guest of Japanese Government and hoisted the tricolour flag on 30 December 1943. Indian revolutionary freedom fighters were kept in cellular jail , very much like the Bastille in Paris during the French Revolution. Netaji declared that very first bastion to be relieved of the British yoke was Andamans. The British reoccupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and re-abolished the Penal Settlement in 1945.
The Demolition of the Cellular Jail.
We do not know on whose initiative the demolition of the Cellular Jail was begun. Indian freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the Cellular Jail and others intervened. We felt strongly that this symbol of tyranny needed to be preserved as a National Memorial to remind our future generations of the tremendous cost that was paid in Indian blood for the freedom of our country.
Cellular Jail-A National Memorial.
After Independence in 1947, many of the erstwhile political prisoners visited the islands. Their association-"Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner’s Fraternity Circle" took up the issue with the Government of India, who accepting this proposal agreed to preserve it as National Memorial without making any substantial change. The Memorial was dedicated to the nation by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979. Today the entrance block of the National Memorial houses, Photograph Gallery and Museum, displays articles of every day use by the prisoners and method of strict discipline adopted by authorities then in the jail. The first floor of the building has an Art gallery and a Library on Freedom Movement. Netaji Gallery and Old Photographs Gallery has also been set up in the premises of National Memorial. An eternal flame of Freedom - Swatantrya Jyoti has been erected in the vicinity of the Cellular Jail in memory of all freedom fighters and martyrs. An added attraction in the National Memorial is the programme of Light and Sound . This spell-binding show is centered around the wandering spirit of the Cellular Jail which takes the spectators on a historical journey.
ROSS ISLAND: PARIS OF THE EAST
Ross Island, erstwhile capital of British penal settlement is named after the British surveyor Reginald Ross. This desolate island was transformed into a thriving township when the British established a penal colony on the Anda-man in the year 1858. Ross Island became the natural choice for the set-tlers due to its commanding geographical location at the mouth of Port Blair harbour, its plentiful supply of fresh water and the security it provided through the water separating it from Port Blair. During those times the settlers went about their business of rec-reating a home far away from home with vigor, so much so that the island soon earned the epithet of ‘The Paris of the East’. In rapid succession rose the Anglican churches, homes for the British and Indian officers, store houses, shops and printing press, hospital, post office, tennis courts, mineral water plant, swimming pool, a bakery, library, general stores. An entire bazaar and three separate clubs were also constructed viz., the Settlement club, the Subordinate club and the Temple club. In all about 500 personnel including officers, troops, Indian merchants and families lived at Ross Island. After almost a century of ruling the islands of Andaman & Nicobar from this tiny ‘island citadel’ the settlers were shaken by a massive earthquake on 26 Jun 1941. The majestic buildings damaged by the earthquake were a sign of events to follow. With the advance of the Japanese forces during World War II, there was also imminent danger to the British settled in the Andaman & Nicobar. Thus the British started withdrawing to mainland and by 1942 Ross Island was virtually deserted. In May 1942 the Japanese forces occupied these Islands. As India gained Independence in 1947 the new government at Port Blair had its hands full administrating and rebuilding the future of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The ‘Paris of the East’ now took a back seat and soon turned into a ghost town, the build-ings once throbbing with life now lay dilapidated, engulfed by the tentacles of time. In April 1979 the island was handed over to the Indian Navy, keeping in mind its strategic importance. The Navy over the succeeding years opened Ross Island to visitors and tourists and thus slowly but surely life started to thrive.