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The Rich History of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

It is not very clearly known as to when the very first inhabitants started living on the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Their presence was first documented by the famous Greek astronomer Ptolemy back in 2nd century. He referred to these islands as ‘Angdaman Islands’ or ‘Islands of good fortune’. In 6th century a Buddhist monk, I - Ching, called these islands as ‘Lo-jen-kuo’ or ‘land of the naked’. Another reference of these islands has been made by Xuan Zang, a Chinese monk, who travelled through India for 17 years back in 7th century. A couple of travelers from the Arab world called these islands by the name of ‘Lakhabalus’ and also ‘Najabulus’ meaning ‘land of the naked’. Marco Polo called them as ‘Angamanian’. The name Andaman is considered to be derived from the Hindu Monkey God’s name Hanuman while the name Nicobar is considered to be derived from ‘nakkavaram’ a Tamil word which means, land of the naked. The history of these fabulous islands can widely be classified into four sections.

1. Period of Seclusion
2. British Regime
3. Japanese Regime
4. Post – Independence Period

Period of Seclusion

This period refers to the time before the British first set foot on these islands. It was a time when the lands were occupied by Mongoloids and Negritos. The islands continued to remain secluded until the end of 18th century when people began to arrive. The second century reference of the islands by the great Greek geographer, astronomer and mathematician, Claudius Ptolemaeus continues to remain the very first of its kind. It is not very clear as to what were the Portuguese activities in the islands at the time. However speculations are made that it was probably around this time that missionaries from Portugal began preaching Christianity to the islanders. The language of the Nicobarese does reflect some Portuguese words.

British Regime

The history of these islands can first be traced back to the year 1789. This was when the then British Governor General of India, Lt. Archibald Blair, and Lt. R. H. Colebrook conducted the survey of the islands. This was the first hydrographic – cum – topo survey which concluded that these group of islands were suitable for human settlement. The officers responsible for conducting the survey also recommended the islands to be used as a British settlement and hence a settlement was found in 1789 on the Chatham Island situated near the Port Cornwallis (now known as Port Blair). Post the 1857 revolt, the British decided to establish a penal settlement on the islands and the very first penal settlement had been established back in March of 1858 with 200 prisoners. Most of these prisoners constituted of rebels from Indian Army. The convicts were first kept on an island known as Viper Island which was just 15 minutes away from Port Blair when traveled by boat. The island had it all be it Kutcheri, jail, gallows or a Doctor’s residence. The number of convicts grew very rapidly and a new jail had to be built to accommodate the prisoners. That was when the Cellular Jail was ordered to be built. Later the jail on Viper Island was abandoned and a new one was constructed at Port Blair, the Cellular Jail. The jail saw several superintendents like E.H. Man, Col. Cadell and General Steward who subjected the convicts to inhuman tortures. The British jailors were ruthless. The foundation of this very large jail was laid back in 1896 and its completion took ten long years. The jail was a centre of torture for Indian convicts which saw some relief during the time of Colonel Ferrar. He changed both practices and policies including mainland visits, concessions to convicts etc.

Japanese Regime

Life in Andaman took a turn during the Second World War. The war saw the Japanese occupy Andamans in 1942 (March 21) and continued its hold until 1945 (October 8). Initially the Japanese were very cordial with the locals but all that changed when they started getting suspicious. They suspected that the locals were still in contact with the British. This resulted in a massacre of innocent people. One very famous massacre of the Japanese was carried out in Humfreygunj. On the bright side, the invasion of the Japanese made the island self – sufficient in terms of food. The naval blockade of the islands resulted in severe shortage of food. It was the Japanese who pushed the locals take in more land for cultivation. Roads were also being constructed. When Netaji Subash Chandra Bose first arrived on December 29, 1943 in Port Blair, he was given a grand ceremonial welcome. The national flag was hoisted by him on Port Blair the very next day for the very first time on the islands. The Japanese surrendered the command on October 8, 1945. The government took over quickly and started rehabilitating the area.

Post Independence Regime

Along with the rest of India, the islands of Andaman and Nicobar also became independent in the year 1947 on August 15. The Bengalis happen to be a prominent population group in Andamans who came in after independence. When the government started rehabilitating the region, they came in as ‘settlers’. The rehabilitation work began in 1949 and continued until the year 1970. Several groups migrated to the region of Andamans from East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). The Bengalis are distributed primary in villages found in North, Middle as well as South Andamans. The Great Nicobar also saw rehabilitators coming in and these were mostly Ex – servicemen. The first batch came in the year 1969. They were followed by several batches between 1970 and 1980. Punjabis, Tamilians, Malayalis, Marathis and several other groups inhabit the island now. New legislation and rules were enacted and these beautiful islands were deemed to be an union territory and these came directly under the control of the President of India. The islands of Andaman and Nicobar send in one representative to Lok Sabha. With such rich historical background, the islands have quite a few monuments with historical references.