January 21, 2019
After leaving Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, we spent two days at sea en route to Port Blair. With a population about 100,000, the town is the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands situated in the Bay of Bengal, and is a union territory of India. Andaman tribes have lived in close-knit communities on the islands for more than two thousand years.
In the 1830s and 1840s, shipwrecked crews who landed on the Andamans were often attacked and killed by the natives, alarming the British government, which then ruled India. As recently as 2018, American Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the indigenous inhabitants of the North Sentinel Island (where all entry is prohibited by law) after his third attempt to get onto the island to convert the tribe. The islanders, estimated at about 40, are semi-nomadic and extremely hostile.
But the big shock of this excursion came we passed after we walked through the gates of the Cellular Jail, known locally as, Kala Pani. The term translates as “black waters” due to the torture and debasement of political prisoners held at the hands of the British colonisers.
The Cellular Jail, built by the British between 1896 and 1906 confined Indian freedom fighters. By all accounts the prisoners were held in unspeakable conditions and their names are now engraved in stone on what remains of jail’s walls.
The prison once had seven, three-three storey structures, each one radiating from a central circular tower to form a star. It held 698 prisoners in solitary confinement. Each block had three parallel, horizontal rows of tiny cells, facing the blank, brick back wall of the block in front of it, ensuring the prisoners couldn’t communicate with each other.
Prisoners worked in sheds, built between every pair of its radiating wings. A sign on the remaining shed reads: “Political prisoners were required to produce a daily quota of thirty pounds of coconut oil, ten pounds of mustard oil—targets that were beyond their physical capacity. Dire punishments followed for those who failed to meet the quotas.”
The site also has a small building used as gallows. I suppose for the sake of efficiency it contained not one but three nooses, which hung placidly above three trap doors waiting to swallow the unfortunate creatures condemned to death for trying to get their country back from the British who’d stolen it.
I visited the jail in January, in winter, when the temperature was a mere 30 degrees C and the humidity something like 80 per cent. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in those claustrophobic cells in the searing heat of high summer or doing hard labour with no respite in site—except maybe the noose. The British have a lot to answer for in their colonial past, and not just in India.
Today only two of the jail’s seven wings remain, left standing as a memorial to the brutality endured by a people who fought for self-rule.
(Enough about that but it’s hard to forget what I saw.)
Our tour also included a visit to the Naval Marine Museum, which displayed colourful, local marine life in aquariums, the history of various tribes, and tribal art. The Anthropology Museum provided more insight into tribal cultural history, including life-size recreations of various types of huts.
After that we spent about twenty minutes at the Aberdeen bazaar, where it I bought nothing. What can you find in twenty minutes when it takes that long just to get across the street? Buses, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes don’t stop to let you pass, not even at crosswalks.
Next stop: Phuket, Thailand