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Creation of a Convict Settlement at Andamans in 1897

Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands

January 25, 2022 to January 25, 2025

Penal Settlement

The idea of establishing a penal settlement in these islands was germinated in the minds of the British Rulers in 1857, to deal effectively with those who revolted against their paramount power during India's First War of Independence. A committee of experts consisting of Dr.F.J.Mouat, Dr.G.R.Playfair, and Lt.J.S. Heatcote visited the islands for a survey on 8th Dec. 1857 and submitted a report to the Govt. of India on 15th January 1858 and the Union Jack was hoisted on 22nd January 1858 by, the Executive Engineer, who was deputed to take formal possession of the islands.

First Batch

Thus the penal settlement started with a clearing operation on the small island of Chatham, only to be abandoned due to scarcity of freshwater. The site was then shifted to Ross Island. The first batch of 200 convicts arrived on the island on 10th March 1858 abroad the frigate 'Semiraimis' was under the overall charge of Dr.J.P.Walker who was assisted in his task by a guard of 60 naval brigade men, two native doctors, and a native overseer. Subsequently, the prisoners were also transported by three more ships- Roman Empire (171), Dalhousie (140), and Edward (130).

 The task of cutting and clearing the jungle was given to the political prisoners, most of whom belonged to wealthy and professional families - Zamindars, Nawabs, Writers, and poets, among others. The hardships and toil, which they were put to, were severe and often quite unbearable.

The British Government always viewed the ways of these freedom fighters with fear and suspicion and had no intention to ever allow them to go back to the mainland. The prisoners were initially kept in the open enclosures and were paid one anna and nine pies per day, as a subsistence allowance. The allowance was to cover their expenses for food, clothing, and so on. Viper Island was selected as the place where members of Chaingangs (the convicts being chained together and confined at night) were put on the hardest labour.  A jail and gallows were constructed in Viper Island. 

Though the First War of Independence was quelled, the everlasting flame for achieving freedom could not be put out. Freedom Fighters taking part in the Wahabi Movement, participants of the Manipur Revolt, and a large number of Burmese from Tharawadda, who had revolted against British rule were also transported to the penal settlement in the Andaman.

As time passed and the settlement grew in size, the authorities found it difficult to enforce strict discipline. Safe custody of freedom fighters became a great problem. It was therefore decided to construct a jail.

Construction of the Cellular Jail

A two-member committee headed by Sir Charles J.Lyall and Sir, A.S.Lethbridge visited Port Blair in 1890 and recommended the construction of a jail building in Port Blair. The construction of the Cellular Jail building started in 1893 by settlement order No.423 dated 13th September 1893. It was completed in 1905-06.

Spread as seven spokes of a bicycle wheel, this unique three-storied structure was the first of it's kind in India. 663 cells in the jail were specially built for the solitary confinement of the prisoners. Later 30 additional cells were constructed. In the center of the seven wings of the Cellular Jail was built the Central tower. Each cell wing was sealed off by an iron grill door. Thus a single guard on duty could supervise all the seven wings from his vantage position.  Another unique feature of jail was the total absence of communication between prisoners in the different wings since the front of one row of cells faced the back of the wings in front.

Each cell measured 13 ½ ft. by 7 ft. and had an iron grill door. A 3-ft. by 1 ft. ventilator, 9 ft. from the floor provided some light and air. The cells in the jail were in a row. The verandah about 4 ft. wide which ran all along the front was sealed by an iron railing fixed into the arched pillars, that support the roof of the varandah. All the seven corridors culminated at the Central Tower fixed by an iron gate to the central entrance and exit. The cells were secured with an iron bolt and lock from outside in a manner, which made it impossible for the prisoners to unlock it, no matter however they tried. Each of the three stories of the seven wings had wardens for the night watch. 21 wardens simultaneously manned the watch duty and vigil throughout day night. Besides, sentries in the Central Tower also kept watching. To accelerate construction work, about 600 convicts from different stations like Viper, Navy Bay, Phoenix Bay, Birchgunj and Dundus Point, etc, were engaged. About 20,000 cubic feet of local broken stone was used, while building materials were also brought in from Burma. Some 30,00,000 bricks made Dundus point and Navy Bay Brick Kilns were used to construct the jail.

A two-storied building on the left side near the entrance of the jail was also constructed to be used as a jail Hospital. On the plinth of this building now stands Martyrs' Column. Near the compound wall at the right of the main entrance were the gallows, capable of hanging three persons simultaneously with a separate door in the outer compound wall to carry out corpses. Adjacent to the gallows were kitchens with Hindu and Muslim sections. A well was dug in the yard between two sections for the supply of sweet water. At the main entrance of the jail stands the two-storied administrative Block.The jail was manned by the Jailor and Deputy Jailor, assisted by petty officials called Tendals, Jamadar, warder and Petty Officers, who used to be incharge of the convicts. Powers of Superintendent of Jail were vested in the Chief Commissioner, but later these were delegated to the Senior Medical Officer.

 Many charismatic personalities were imprisoned in this Jail. Savarkar brothers, Hoti Lal Verma, Babu Ram Hari, Pandit Permanand, Ladha Ram, Ullaskar Dutt, Barindra Kumar Ghosh, Bhai Permanand, Indu Bhushan Roy, Prithvi Singh Azad, Pulin Das, Trailokyanath Chakravarthy, Gurumukh Singh among others. The catalogue is long and distinguished. Groups of revolutionaries involved in the Alipore Bomb case, Nasik Conspiracy case, Lahore Conspiracy case, Chittagoan Armoury Raid case, Inter-provincial conspiracy case, Gaya Conspiracy case etc. were brought to the Cellular Jail with long terms of imprisonment. These men and women were so convinced of their nation's destiny and so willing to give the utmost of themselves found themselves confronted with the cruel Jailor, David Barrie, an Irishman who believed that it was his God-given destiny to suppress these enemies of Her Majesty- the Queen with violence and vile abuse.

Horrors of Prison

The work quotas given to the Political Prisoners were frequently impossible to complete within a specified time and the dire punishment followed for those who failed to meet them. Punishment was barbaric. Torture and flogging were frequently resorted to on iron triangular frame, gunny bag uniforms, unhygienic diet, bar fetters, crossbar fetters, and neck ring shackle and leg iron and chains were other deterrents for those who refused to submit to the brutal wardens.  The punishment varied from handcuffs for a week and fetters for six months to solitary confinement.

 The freedom fighters brought to the Cellular Jail rebelled against the tyranny of David Barrie. Mass hunger strikes were resorted to especially between 1937 and 1938.Three-person died. The last strike began in July  1937 continued for 45 days. The strike was terminated on the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. The Government decided to close down the penal settlement and all the political prisoners of Cellular Jail were repatriated to their respective states on mainland India by January 1938. 

Japanese occupation of the Islands (1942-45)

The Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II from 23rd March 1942 to 7th October 1945. They put to death many hundreds of people in the most barbaric way, whenever anyone was suspected of sympathizing with the British. Many of the educated persons who were rounded up as suspected spies were kept in the Cellular Jail and were later shot dead. Many were buried in a common grave. The Humfraygunj Martyrs' Memorial today stands as a mute witness to the inhuman treatment meted out to the citizens of Andamans. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited the islands as Head of the Provisional Government of India on 29th December 1943. During his three days on the islands, he visited the Cellular Jail and stopped the punishment of prisoners without proper trial. Netaji hoisted the tricolor flag of India at Andaman for the first time and christened the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands as "Swaraj" and "Shaheed" Dweep respectively.

Cellular Jail-a National Memorial

 After Independence in 1947, many of the erstwhile political prisoners visited the islands. Their association - "Ex-Andaman Political Prisoner's Fraternity Circle" took up the issue with the Government of India, who accepting this proposal agreed to preserve it as National Memorial without making any substantial change. The Memorial was dedicated to the nation by the then Prime Minister of India on 11th February 1979.

A Martyrs column has been raised in the premises of the Cellular Jail in memory of all Freedom Fighters and martyrs. Today the entrance block of the National Memorial houses, Photograph Gallery, and Museum, which displays articles of everyday use by the prisoners and the authorities to maintain strict discipline in the jail. The first floor of the building has an Art gallery and a Library on Freedom Movement. Netaji Gallery and Old photographs Gallery has also been set up in the premises of the National Memorial. An eternal flame of Freedom -Swatantrya Jyot has been erected in the vicinity of Cellular Jail in memory of all Freedom Fighters and martyrs. A Swatantrya Jyot in memory of Veer Savarkar has been installed and inaugurated on 28th May 2016.

Source: Victoria Memorial & Museum, Kolkata