History lessons on holiday – a forgotten penal colony

The blog has been quiet as I have been sick, as well as some other challenging distractions.  Four weeks and two sets of antibiotics later, I am finally starting to feel human again.  So I have been a bit stuck for blog inspiration.   I thought about writing more about Perth and its history, including a spell as a British penal colony between 1850 – 1868.  However, as more people seem to read my travel posts, I have therefore decided to write about a lesser known yet fascinating former British Penal colony which I visited in February 2010.

When I told people I was going to the Andaman Islands, it prompted the “Where’s that? reaction.  Although geographically closer to Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are in fact Indian and its capital is Port Blair. 

My dive buddy and I were in Port Blair for three days before heading off on the dive liveaboard MY Siren. It was here that we found a living history chapter of former British colonial rule and foreign policy – the Kala Paani.   Between 1858 and 1942, the Andaman Islands were a penal colony for the British colonial administration and where the most determined, persistent and influential  Indian freedom fighters seeking independence from British rule were incarcerated.

The Cellular Jail – Kala Paani

Prisoners were originally accommodated on Ross Island, a mile offshore before they were put to work and built the Kala Paani prison in Port Blair. This prison building originally comprised seven wings, to accommodate around 700 prisoners in individual cells measuring 4.5m by 2.7m. Built by inmates, work started in 1896 and was completed in 1907.  It remained in use until 1942.  Today two wings remain as a national monument.

Wandering around the cells and the punishment area was very sobering.  We ran into some Indians and I got a sense that visiting the cellular jail was some kind of pilgrimage for them.  They very politely asked where we were from, and I found myself almost whispering “UK”.  It wasn’t a very proud moment to be British.

The cell of the most famous freedom fighter and political revolutionary, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.  He spent 10 years in this cell and wrote a number of works whilst incarcerated.  As you can see, it is something of a shrine for modern day India.

To add to their suffering, the British Administration was never out of sight, on the peaceful Ross Island..

So off we went to explore Ross Island on a very special ferry with the most charming refreshment service…

Ross Island was a completely self contained garrison and home to the British Governor, the prison commissioner, military personnel, British administrators and other associated staff.

Here we found both the ingenuity and organisational scale of the Victorian British Empire, as well as the obvious ill feelings that India had towards Ross Island and its inhabitants. In short, since the Andaman Islands were hit by an earthquake in 1941, occupied by the Japanese 1942-1945 then liberated in 1947, the former British presence has largely been left for the elements to reclaim.  This is in sharp contrast to the jail. The only exception to this is a few small buildings, a museum now run by the Indian Navy, and the original bakery…

The bakery now…

Ross Island was apparently named after marine surveyor Sir Daniel Ross and the garrison was modelled on a Scottish highland village.  The level of detail was astonishing – right down to the addition of highland deer, which have literally survived two world wars, and earthquake and a tsunami!  A true testimony to the hardiness of Scottish wildlife and probably the most bizarre location I have ever seen highland deer – on an Indian Ocean beach amongst decaying coconut shells.

There were a number of ruins, including a swimming pool, a ballroom, a “bazaar” (which I assume was the NAFFI) and tennis courts.  Here is a selection of what caught my eye and found most intriguing:

Government House then…

Government House now… you can see the Italian tiles floor is virtually intact

Soldiers barracks then…

Soldiers barracks now – the stone archways and doorways have now been claimed by mangroves.

The church then…

The church now…

In its day, Ross Island was a complete community that lived an entirely separate existence to the grinding poverty, misery and abuse across the water.  I expect at the time, an Andaman Islands would have been perceived as a “hardship posting” but there seemed to be nothing hard about the life on Ross Island.

As a former Navy girl, I found the “living history lesson” at Port Blair a real eye opener. You just don’t ever hear or read about these awful chapters in British history. It seems wherever I go on holiday scuba diving, British colonial history follows me.  I studied geography in school and that now that I travel, I am now learning some history. Last year it was the slave trade in Zanzibar.  I wonder what I’ll find this year.

One thought on “History lessons on holiday – a forgotten penal colony

  1. Pingback: The charge of the rocking horse – snapshot travel moments | The Coconut Times

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