“Most Barbarous Murder”
I’m compelled to write this post as India celebrates the 61st Independence Day today on 15th August, 2008 because these beautiful Islands of Andaman & Nicobar have witnessed almost an entire century of unimaginably extreme brutality and innovative torture that has ever been endured for the sake of freedom in the history of humanity. And by having done so, these now-serene Islands with pristine beaches and abundant natural goodies, have registered one of the most significant and indelible chapters in the Indian Freedom Movement.
But unfortunately, there is a systematic and deliberate distortion of the history of Andamans, that too under the patronage of Andaman Administration. An impression is being created that all the patriots made great sacrifices during their incarceration in the Cellular Jail only. But the fact is that the history of Andamans in its relation to the Indian Freedom Struggle did not begin after the construction of the Cellular Jail in 1906.
The greatest and the bravest part of it began in 1858. The great revolutionaries, who took part in the gargantuan uprising of 1857, when captured, were transported to the Andamans for life imprisonment. It was intended to make them forget their motherland and the burning dream of freedom from the British colonial regime. But such was the resilience of the great patriots that as they realized it would not be possible for them to go back to the Indian mainland, they turned this British Penal Colony into a Model India by sub-planting themselves here.
A brief history of their trials and tribulations, hardships and supreme sacrifices made in these islands is worth reading a thousand times. Here’s a synopsis of the action-packed saga of those unsung heroes that gives goose bumps to the most hardened of souls.
Captain Henry Man hoisted the British flag a second time in the Chatham Island of Andamans on 22nd February, 1858 in the name of Her Majesty the Queen of Britain and the East India Company. (The Union Jack was hoisted first on October 25th, 1789. The settlement was abandoned in May 1796)
Dr. JP Walker was appointed the first Superintendent of Port Blair. He arrived with the first group of revolutionary convicts on 10th March, 1858 by frigate HMS Samiramis and established the Penal Settlement at Chatham. He had also brought an Indian Overseer Multan Das, two doctors, Nawab Khan and Karim Baksh, a guard of 50 men of old Naval Brigade under an Officer of Indian Navy.
Chatham Island was cleared of the impassably dense forest debris. Due to scarcity of water on Chatham, the headquarters was established on 90 acres of Ross Island, a kilometer away. The island was divided into two parts by a wall running from East to West. To the west of the wall on hill top, were officers’ quarters and soldiers’ barracks. The convicts’ and the Indian soldiers’ barracks were in the South.
The convicts had come from all corners of India. Soon they started making attempts to escape thinking Burma (Myanmar) was very near. Many who escaped were presumed to have died due to starvation or killed by the aboriginal tribes. Those captured were dealt with heartlessly. In one such attempt, 80 revolutionaries were hanged to death in a single day on Chatham Island by JP Walker. They were buried with their shackles and fetters on in what is described as “most barbarous murder”. They suffered from pneumonia and malaria because of exposure to heavy rains.
Just three months after the establishment of the settlement the reports show the position of the convicts on 16 June, 1858, as follows:
Total No. : 773
Died in hospital : 64
Escaped/dead : 140
Committed suicide : 1
Hanged : 87
The number of convicts was steadily increasing. Viper Island, 1 km away from Chatham was occupied on 8th October, 1858 and convicts were kept in open camp at night while the naval brigades-men slept on the ship at anchorage.
JP Walker’s was a dreaded name. Viper Island was known for its severity. In 1864 there was no jail. The convicts lived in the open. Later huts were provided. They were bound with chains and lodged at different locations in barracks at night.
The jail in Viper Island was completed in 1867. Viper Jail was considered a place of discipline. The convicts there were put to hard labour and severe physical and mental torture. A new convict was sent to Viper Jail compulsorily for one month or more to demoralize him mentally and physically. There was chain-gang where convicts were bound in chains. They were deployed on hard work during the day with fetters on. At night they were chained with other convicts. The works assigned to them were earth-cutting, tree felling, oil extraction, husk pounding, brick making, blanket making, wheat grinding etc.
Convicts at work with fetters on