The Andaman Islands: Outposts of Empire

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The Andaman Islands are a traveller’s delight. Part of India but geographically much closer to Burma and Thailand, they are somewhat off the beaten path. Despite stunning mangrove forests and crystal-clear waters, the long white sandy beaches were pretty quiet, even though I was there during “peak season”. But as well as some great diving, snorkelling and seafood, for those interested these islands tell a disturbing story as a buried and brutal outpost of Britain’s Indian empire.

The Andamans’ small and hilly capital, Port Blair, was named after a British East India Company Lieutenant, Archibald Blair, who set up a penal colony there as early as 1789 (before the British had even gained full control over Bengal, 1793). Disease, death and distance made it impractical for colonisation, until the defeat of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Known in India as the ‘First War of Independence’, in 1857 anti-colonial fighters expelled the British from vast swathes of northern India in an all-out war, shaking Britain’s Indian empire to its core.

With a flood of new prisoners, the British soon recognised the usefulness of the Andamans as a remote outpost in which to relocate rebels far from the mainland, and its reputation as one of the most brutal prisons of the British Empire was born.

"Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan Battery at Lucknow, July 30th, 1857," a steel engraving, ca.1860
Britsh depiction of the 1857 Rebellion, c.1860

Colonial terror in Port Blair’s “Cellular Jail”

As well as blowing many from the ends of cannons, the British decided that one way to deal with defeated rebels after 1857 was to ship them to permanent exile in the Andaman Islands. (To add insult to injury, crossing the water or “Kala Pani” (black water) was taboo for many Hindus.) The first batch of around 200 convicts arrived in 1858 and prison numbers grew steadily, necessitating the building of a larger jail. In 1893 building of a new jail began, its seven wings and three stories designed to hold political prisoners in solitary confinement, unable even to discuss the overthrow of imperial rule. This “Cellular Jail” is what you can visit today.

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The suffering of the prisoners was immense, and is immediately evident when you visit the jail. Gallows and evidence of hard labour are visible; flogging and torture, harsh work quotas and appalling hygiene was the norm. In 1868, over 200 prisoners tried to escape – a desperate feat given how far they were from mainland India – but all were caught and many were hanged.

By the 1930s, India’s independence movement was picking up speed and the inmates at Port Blair initiated several hunger strikes. The last of these, in 1937, continued for 45 days and was only stopped with the intervention of Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Consequently, in 1937-8 the British closed the jail and relocated its prisoners back to the mainland.

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Visiting the Cellular Jail makes it clear how recent, raw and painful this history remains for India. Lists of ‘freedom fighters’ hang on the walls, and the cell of V.D. Sarvarkar – an independence activist whose book on 1857, The Indian War of Independence, was banned by the British – is highlighted.

As a tourist from Britain, a visit to the Cellular Jail highlights a more obscured aspect of our imperial history, generally excluded in popular knowledge about the empire. A sign, perhaps, of the imperialists’ success in burying this jail in such a remote outpost of empire.

Recreating Little Britain in the distant seas: Ross Island

Just across the bay from Port Blair and visible from the Cellular Jail lies Ross Island, a tiny spot of land once home to ordinary British families posted to the Andaman Islands. It is an eery place, a ghost island, filled with vine-covered ruins of British buildings and totally uninhabited today.

“Headquarters of the Penal Establishment at the North End of Ross Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands”, Illustrated London News, 1872.

Ross Island was the administrative headquarters of the Andaman Islands during British rule, abandoned after an earthquake in 1941 and Japanese wartime occupation. You can take a short boat trip there from Port Blair. Its shore is adorned with palm trees and crystal-clear blue waters, with just a small landing jetty and ticket office. After you disembark you can simply wander around the deserted island, into and through its ruins.

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What struck me from wandering through the ruins was how intent the British were at recreating ‘normal’ English life on this tiny and remote outpost of empire. There’s a church, a swimming pool, a printing press, and the chief commissioner’s house with large ballrooms – all squashed into an island that’s just a few hundred metres wide. A small comfort, I suppose, for the families of imperial administrators so far from home. But a world away from those suffering within the walls of the Cellular Jail, just opposite them.

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As Ross Island is so tiny, you can quickly reach the other side of the island and its vast empty beaches, which stare out into the open Andaman Sea.

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Some practical tips…

  • The Andaman Islands aren’t easy to get to; you can fly from Calcutta or Chennai, or take a very long boat there.
  • The main tourist scene is Havelock Island, and many travellers head straight there without stopping in Port Blair (a mistake I think). There are loads of options for accommodation there, mainly beach huts but a few nice hotels too.
  • Don’t miss the “Full Moon Cafe” on Havelock Island; it has a very cool vibe with amazing food and drink right on the beach, and it’s also a diving centre.
  • You can take a half-day trip to Ross Island from Port Blair. Although it’s just a 15-minute boat ride from the Watersports Complex, the port had been relocated while I was there in January 2016 and now takes around 45 minutes.

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