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Hundred years of the Andamans Cellular Jail

Ram Kapse

It has been a long journey for the Cellular Jail — from a torture machine to a National Memorial, from a dreaded prison to a place of pilgrimage.

— HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

WITNESS TO HISTORY: A view of the Andamans Cellular Jail.

THE ANDAMAN and Nicobar Islands attracted the attention of many colonial powers as early as the 17th century. The Nicobar Islands were already in frequent contact with the outside world. William Dampier's account of 1688 shows the Nicobaris traded in coconuts, oil, and ambergris. Danish, Dutch, and Moravian missionaries were active in the islands. The Nicobaris have been described as "honest, civil and harmless people." The peace-loving Nicobaris were in stark contrast to the fearsome aborigines of the Andamans. Their fierce reputation was based more on hearsay than fact. They were erroneously described as cannibals who used poison arrows, captured passing ships, and slaughtered the crews.

The First War of Independence of 1857 gave the British the excuse to occupy and develop the islands as a penal colony. Transporting the freedom fighters of `The Great Outbreak' would serve as a terrible punishment to them. Crossing the sea would make the sepoys, who were mostly Brahmins and Kshatriyas, to lose their caste, so precious to every Indian. The inhospitable environment and the savages would further enhance their sufferings. Being able-bodied and trained soldiers, their energies could be profitably used for empire building. The end result — a well-fortified and provisioned possession in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, where ships could take shelter during storms and also control the busy shipping lanes when the need arose.

The ingenuous plan was carried out with such haste that a penal colony started functioning at Port Blair even before the conclusion of the `revenging' operations of the 1857 uprising. In December 1857, `Pluto', a paddle-wheel steamer from Calcutta, sailed for the Andamans. Onboard was a committee under the leadership of Dr. Frederick J. Mouat, a physician and an expert in setting up jails. His task was to scout for the right location to set up a penal colony. On March 10, 1858, exactly 11 months 19 days after Mangal Pandey fired the first shot of the revolt, the SS Semiramis dropped anchor off Chatham Island, the place where Aberdeen Blair founded the first settlement in 1789 and named it Port Cornwallis. Two hundred freedom fighters — `sepoy mutineers' to the British — were brought ashore. Maj. James Pattison Walker (later Colonel), a military doctor and a former superintendent of Agra Jail, set them to work at a brisk pace to clear the jungle. Another penal settlement was born.

The cruel pace set by Walker started claiming lives from the very first day. The moment the chains were removed to facilitate working in the forest, the prisoners made desperate bids to escape. Those recaptured were hanged immediately. One day Walker hanged 86. Many were killed by the aboriginal tribes. One escaped convict lived with the Andamanese for about a year to return and warn the settlement of an impending attack by the tribesmen. The `Battle of Aberdeen' was a one-sided battle. The bows and arrows of the Andamanese were no match for the British muskets.

As the settlement grew, "hardened criminals" from undivided India and Burma were also brought in. The `hard labour' of chain gangs working under stern Jamadars and overseers quickly produced the necessary infrastructure. Palatial bungalows for the administrators and barracks for the prisoners, a jail and a formidable gallows for those who refused to reform, sprung up on Ross and Viper. A sawmill on Chatham supplied the timber — convicts worked the brick and lime kilns. Iron grills, chains, fetters, shackles, flogging stands, and oil mills came directly from England.

Soon the settlement attracted so much attention that Lord Mayo, the Governor-General, paid a visit — and paid for it with his life. Sher Ali, an Afridi pathan, serving a life sentence for murder and inspired by fellow Wahabi convicts, stabbed the Viceroy to death at the foot of Mt. Harriet on February 8, 1872. With the freedom movement picking up momentum the number of freedom fighters sentenced to transportation also increased. The need arose for a high security jail that could hold a large number in solitary confinement.

Construction of the Cellular Jail started in 1896 and was completed in 1906 — a massive three-storeyed structure, shaped like a starfish, seven wings radiating from a central watchtower, the standard design of most British jails, a facility where 698 souls could be kept in solitary confinement. The plaques bearing the names of those incarcerated in the Jail reads like a "who's who" of the freedom movement. Prominent among them are the names of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Barindra Kumar Ghosh (brother of Shri Aurobindo), Bhai Parmanand of the Ghadr Party, and many more, convicted in various `conspiracy cases.'

The Cellular Jail is the most prominent landmark of Port Blair, or, for that matter, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The first stop for any dignitary visiting the Islands is the Martyrs Memorial inside the Jail. Many familiar with the history of the freedom struggle are moved to tears at the sight of the flogging stand, oil mill, and the other instruments of torture on display in the Jail museum. A `must' on the itinerary of all tourists is the `Sound & Light Show' every evening, which brings to life a dark chapter in the history of the Islands as a penal settlement.

The Jail will mark its centenary on March 10, 2006. It has been a long journey for the Jail — from a torture machine to a National Memorial, from a dreaded prison to a place of pilgrimage, a place where the memories of brave freedom fighters are revived and patriotic fervour surges through the veins of the visitors.

The Centenary of the Cellular Jail is a big event, not just for the Islanders but also for the entire country.

(The writer is Lt. Governor, Andaman & Nicobar Islands.)

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