Poignant past

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Port Blair, Ross Island and Viper Island are full of historical buildings of the British era.

Almost all the

THE view from the watch tower of the Cellular Jail is striking. But the tourists there seem too weighted down by the history of the place to be able to enjoy the scenic beauty around them. On the first and second floors directly below the watch tower are inscribed the names of freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the Cellular Jail from 1909 to 1921 and from 1932 to 1938.

The Cellular Jail originally had seven wings spreading out from the central watch tower. Now, only three remain. Each prisoner had a separate cell measuring 13.5 feet by 7.5 feet. Each cell had a small ventilator with an iron grill situated at a height of around eight feet from the floor. The location of the ventilator effectively shut out a view of the kala pani (black waters). A corridor, four feet wide, ran in front of the cells. In front of each cell hung a hurricane lamp. Each cell had on the outside a massive iron bolt and lock.

The galleries of photographs of great revolutionaries bring out the sweep and grandeur of Indias freedom struggle. The oil-grinding kolhu to which freedom-fighters were yoked to extract oil from copra or sesame is on display on the jail campus. As is the ornate chair on which the British supervisor sat and whipped those who did not work the kolhu fast enough. The visitor can also see the gallows with its lever intact, the punishment sacks, the chain fetters, and neck ring shackles.

An interesting memorial is at the boat jetty in Port Blair. The plaque reads: This monument is built in memory of those Andamanese aborigines who bravely fought the battle of Aberdeen in May 1859 against the oppressive and retaliatory policy of the British regime. There are also vestiges of the Japanese occupation of the islands from 1942 to 1945. These include a Japanese shrine at Gandhi Park opposite the Raj Niwas, the Lieutenant Governors official residence, and bunkers at Ross Island.

The history of Port Blair and the adjoining Ross Island and Viper Island are intertwined. In 1788-89 the East India Company sought to establish a colony in the Andaman islands. The British Government despatched Lt. Archibald Blair (who was also a hydrographer) and Lt. T.H. Colebrooke of the Navy to scout for a suitable place on the islands. On the basis of their report, a settlement was established in 1789 in the south-east bay in south Andaman, which was later named Port Blair after Lt. Archibald Blair. In 1791, this settlement was moved to a location in north Andaman but had to be abandoned in 1796 because of the spread of malaria and the high mortality rate among the settlers. Thus, the first settlement in the Andamans was short-lived. After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British wanted to establish a penal settlement on the islands to house the mutineers and convicts. Port Blair was again chosen for this penal settlement.

Since the Britishers felt that it would not be safe to live in Port Blair with the prisoners, they decided to have their residences on Ross Island, just across the waters from Port Blair. It was named after Daniel Ross, a marine surveyor who had earlier surveyed the islands. The exiled men were press-ganged into clearing the dense forests on Ross Island and Viper Island. It was christened Viper Island after one of the five ships that Lt. Archibald Blair had commanded to survey the islands in 1788. It was on Viper Island that the first jail building came up. A hospital, a guard house, a bungalow for the Deputy Superintendent of the penal settlement, and the gallows were also built here.

The sweat of the political prisoners and criminal convicts transformed Ross Island into a thriving township of 500 persons with a bungalow for the Chief Commissioner, officers quarters, a ballroom, tennis courts, a library, three clubs, a water-distilling plant and an Anglican church.

There is no definitive account of when construction of the Cellular Jail began; it was in either 1893 or 1896. But the entire jail with its seven wings was completed in 1906. Two wings were reportedly damaged in an earthquake that hit the islands in 1941. Later, the Japanese reportedly demolished them to obtain bricks to build bunkers, pill boxes and so on. The Japanese also allegedly demolished several buildings on Ross Island and Viper Island. After Independence, the islands administration brought down two more wings to build the Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital. Vandals and looters also brought down several structures on the islands.

Today, Ross Island resembles a ghost town with almost all the buildings in ruins. Only a few walls of the Anglican church remain. The Indian Navy has taken over Ross Island.

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