"The Islander” is back with you all after a month-long break. In fact, I was on a comprehensive tour to the Tsunami affected Nicobar Group of Islands, here, in connection with the implementation of a Disaster Risk Reduction Awareness project assigned to me by an affiliate of the renowned NGO – “Save the Children”; and the internet connection is yet to be made available in those extensively restricted tribal areas. Hopefully, this scenario would stand altered in a couple of months’ time, as the agencies are working their guts out to ensure the availability of the net there.
Well, I’m sure you all would like to know about the advent of civilization in this present-day tourists’ paradise. Let me today take you on a cruise through the long and the short of it all. Be ready to feel goose bumps all over yourselves.
Born in the tumultuous year of 1857, the Andaman and Nicobar settlement have had a chequered history all through. Whenever things seemed to settle down, something or the other would disturb the equilibrium and plunge the Islands into a bottomless pit.
The first attempt of the British Government to establish a Penal Settlement in 1789 was aborted in 1796. The actual story of a modern Andamans starts on –
MARCH 10, 1858
HMS Samiramis carrying the first batch of mutineers and other convicts lead by Dr. James Patterson Walker, anchors in the strait between what would later come to be known as Hope Town and Chatham Island. The deep and dense tropical rain forest surrounding the anchorage point is staring at the intruder with apprehension, suspicion and a nagging premonition. No human being has ever set foot on these Islands covered on top with a thick canopy of dark green foliage and the ground about a foot thick cushion of layers upon layers of fallen leaves and debris of dead trees accumulated over centuries. The sun rays barely, if ever, kiss the floor of the forest. It is all so damp, sticky, smelling of decaying vegetation.
The mutineers look at the site with awe and despair as a life raft is lowered and the 200- odd captive mutineers in shackles are made to jump into the raft one by one. When the raft is full, it is rowed to waist-deep water where the prisoners are made to disembark on slippery rocks covered with barnacles. They wade through it cutting their bare soles. When they reach the shore, their feet are bleeding profusely. All the mutineers are huddled to the top of ‘Chatham Island’ in chains and fetters.
A NEW HUMAN SAGA IS BORN
Soon second and subsequent batches of convicts and freedom fighters continued to be disgorged at the Chatham Island. Mosquito infested inhospitable forest, hostile weather, creeping reptiles and almost round the year torrential rains were the elements that greeted the newcomers into the islands. They had to brave it all apart from hunger and disease to build ‘prisons’ for themselves, roads, and residential quarters and other amenities for their tormentors.
The life in those days was not one of meek surrender and uneventful monotony. In 1858, itself 288 convicts escaped into the jungles out of which 88 were recaptured and 66 were executed, one was pardoned and one was spared because of ill health. The fate of the rest is a mystery till date.
APRIL 1859 – MUTINY
An ambitious conspiracy was hatched by about 200 Punjabi convicts to kill James Patterson Walker and capture the settlement. Walker was appointed superintendent in place of EH Man. He was brute and a perverse personality. But Mathura Das got wind of the conspiracy and reported the matter to Walker.
As the attack started around noon, Walker with his men was ready to face it head on. The soldiers and the guards finally overpowered the conspirators and quelled the revolt. The entire planning and execution was done by the criminal convicts. The political prisoners did not participate in it.
1859 – BATTLE OF ABERDEEN
The local aboriginal tribes never took the intruders kindly. Small skirmishes used to take place regularly between the members of the tribes and the neo-settlers. But what prompted about 2000 of them to attack the convicts clearing the jungle near Aberdeen Jetty (a part of the present day Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands) is a matter for another chapter. Suffice it to say that Doodhnath Tiwari, a convict who had escaped into the forest, given food, shelter, protection and a permanent place in the tribe, stabbed them in the back by informing the British forces about the impending attack. Needless to say the tribe was badly massacred by the superior fire power of the British soldiers. This incident and the treachery of Doodhnath further alienated the members of the tribes from the neo-settlers. The mistrust still continues.
1872 – ASSASSINATION OF LORD MAYO
Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, on a visit to the Penal Settlement on February 08, had expressed a desire to visit the picturesque Mount Harriet. While coming back to his yacht at dusk, he was stabbed at Hope Town by Sher Ali, a Pathan convict from Afghanistan. The Viceroy was immediately shifted to his yacht anchored off Hope Town. But he succumbed to his injuries. Sher Ali was later hanged in Viper Jail. He, however, never repented for his act, as he had fulfilled the wish of his mother by way of assassinating the Viceroy.
1876 – INDUCTION OF WOMEN PRISONERS
The British Government decided to send women criminal convicts also to the new settlement. The barracks now known as the “fisheries barrack” housing government employees at South Point along with the old building of Govt. press was the women’s prison. This barrack was used as such till 1921 when it was converted into a high school. The women prisoners were put to light works like stitching, mending, making brooms with coconut leaves, sifting coconut husk etc. The work was light but the regimen was as tough as for men.
Aaaah… well, allow me a short break, friends. I’d tell you much more about this spine-tingling saga tomorrow. And that’s a word.