It is true that there is no other word in the human civilization which carries the depth and meaning equivalent to the word “Freedom”. This word closets a tale of intense physical torment and mental torture committed to suppress it. History has witnessed that those who were denied this right, registered strong resistance to achieve it. They were subjected to the worst barbaric brutalities, but it could never stop man’s endeavor for freedom.
Today let me tell you about the Herculean spirit of resistance of the convicts/freedom fighters who were sentenced and transported to the Andaman Islands by the British colonial regime in India. Let’s start with a little bit of insight into the very motive behind the penal settlement undertaken by the British Government here.
The idea of penal settlement had never been present in the minds of pre-British Indian rulers. It was an idea, which originated along with the beginning of colonialism in India; and abolished only after India achieved freedom from British imperialism. The sole purpose behind opening the penal settlement was to segregate the dangerous ideas detrimental to the very existence of colonial state.
The popular notion of the British colonial state of yesterday was that the hardened criminals, whether challenging the colonial state from within as colonial lawbreakers or from without as rebels, both, were not suitable for the well being of a civilized society, and therefore must be segregated and should be kept under strict vigil and surveillance. Even the colonial mindset of today’s India is not altogether different in their viewpoint while dealing with post-colonial criminals and rebels, the very creation of the society itself.
However strange it may appear, it is a fact that the society created by those so-called convicts is far better in comparison to the one created by the so-called civilized society, which ostracized them as outlaws. The Andaman society of today is completely free from the viruses of communal strife, caste divide and criminalization of politics, the evils vociferously eating the contemporary society of the Indian mainland. Unlike mainland, the people of Andaman & Nicobar Islands are by and large hardworking, honest, simple and helpful and strong believers in the values of equality of caste, creed and gender.
It is a pleasant surprise for any visitor from mainland to find such a strange society growing within the very territory of the Indian Republic mostly replete with the innovated culture of criminality, corruption, and disgusting values of inequality of caste, creed and gender.
It certainly prompts us to arrive at a conclusion that the popular philosophy behind crime and criminality, whether against a colonial state or an independent state and society, itself requires to be redefined in order to understand the difference between a society created by the so-called convicts and one created by their abhorrers.
Philosophically speaking, the actual objective of history writing is self-knowledge i.e. developing knowledge about the process of all round development of the society itself. The history of penal settlement in Andamans should be studied in order to understand the coming up of a society altogether different from the one that came into being in post-colonial Indian mainland.
The present day Andamans are a creation of the convicts, both criminals and rebels, transported during the colonial regime. The transported hardened criminals indeed had no vision of their own regarding an ideal society but without qualms, they were the products of the social and economic disparity of their own society; and the rebels naturally had a vision of a different society and state to which they belonged.
The common trait among both of them was the spirit of resistance burning against British colonial state and its policies. In the history of penal settlement, we find continuity and maturing of this spirit of resistance throughout the existence of the penal society in the Andamans.
The resistance began simultaneously along with the beginning of the settlement. Captain Henry Man took control of the islands of Andaman on 22nd January 1858 and the first batch of 200 convicts arrived at the Chatham Island of Port Blair on 10th March 1858 accompanied by Dr. JP Walker, the first Superintendent of Penal Settlement.
The original nature of resistance resorted to by them were attempts to escape at the cost of their lives, attacks on colonial officers and even rebellion against the existing state at the Settlement. At present, we have very few details available about their attempts to escape in which majority of them were either killed by local tribes or vanished in the death trap of the surrounding jungles or engulfed by the roaring waves of the Andaman Sea or hanged to death by Walker after being recaptured, as I’ve illustrated earlier.
However, comprehensive information is available in the records of India Office Records and Library, London, which provides a detailed account of the rebellion of 1st April 1859.