The rise and fall of Ross Island
Photo S. Thanthoni
What remains of the bungalow in which Daniel Ross lived.
Ross Island, a few km from Aberdeen jetty at Port Blair, is yet another member of the Andaman group of islands. As in the case of its sister-islands, it also has thick forests. To any onlooker it may give the impression that it has no "life" in the sense that there is no human habitation.
Yes, it is an island where no settlement is allowed by the authorities. But, a few decades ago, this island was the seat of "British power." Ross Island was the headquarters of the Indian Penal Settlement for nearly 80 years. It had everything bazaar, bakery, stores, water treatment plant, church, tennis court, printing press, secretariat, hospital, cemetery and what have you. Today, everything has disappeared except some buildings, which housed some of these landmarks.
"When I look at the Island, I feel only depressed," says Gurusamy Veerasingham, who is running charitable institutions in Tamil Nadu and on a visit to the Andaman. But, the feeling of depression may become more when one hears the story of Ross Island.
After Archibald Blair's survey of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1788-89, a settlement was established at a place, (now known as Diglipur), to the north of Port Blair (then called Port Cornwallis). At that time, Blair was said to have established a hospital and a sanatorium at Ross Island. But, the settlement was abandoned in 1796 as the mortality rate was very high.
Six decades later, the 1857 Revolt forced the British to turn the Andamans again and this time, the stay lasted a little over 80 years.
In November 1857, the Government decided to establish a penal settlement in Andaman and send "hard-core elements" among those who took on the British. There were two reasons: One, to keep them away from other prisoners and the other, to send out a message that a similar treatment would be meted out to anyone who challenged the British authority.
Two months later, the British took possession of three islands in and around Port Blair and Captain H. Man, Executive Engineer, hoisted the Union Jack flag. In March, J.P. Walker, an experienced jail superintendent, arrived in Port Blair with four European officials, an Indian overseer, two doctors, 50 naval guards and 773 freedom fighters.
Writer Gauri Shankar Pandey, who belongs to a family that had suffered torture during the Japanese occupation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, has documented that it was water scarcity that had driven Walker out of Port Blair and go to Ross Island.
Named after the marine surveyor Sir Daniel Ross, the Island soon became the base. Initially, crude barracks of bamboo and grass were put up for freedom fighters while the rest of the party stayed on board the ships that had brought them. Later, the freedom fighters built houses, offices, barracks and other structures at the Ross Island, after which they were promptly sent to Viper Island, where the first jail was built. The bungalow, meant for the chief of the Penal Settlement, was constructed at the northern summit of the Island. Called Government House, the large-gabled home had Italian tiled flooring on the ground level. Now, some remains of the flooring are there, of course in a decrepit condition.
In 1872, the post of Superintendent was elevated to the level of Chief Commissioner and Sir Donald Martin Stewart, who was at Ross Island for one year, was made the first Chief Commissioner. Stewart held the post from July 1872 to June 1875.
After Stewart, Ross Island saw 24 chief commissioners. But, it was during the tenure of Sir Charles Francis Waterfall that the Island's position as the seat of power collapsed.
Waterfall, who became the Chief Commissioner in 1938, was captured by the Japanese in March 1942 when the latter invaded the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during World War II. He was held as a prisoner of war and his deputy, Major Bird, was beheaded by the Japanese at a clock tower in Aberdeen, Port Blair.
Netaji hoists tri-colour
The Government House became the residence of the Japanese admiral also for three years (from March 1942 to October 1945). It was during this period that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who took the help of Japanese in his fight against the British, stayed at the Island for a day in December 1943. Netaji also hoisted the national tri-colour at the top of the Government House.
The Japanese too left their imprint on the island which stood in the form of bunkers. The bunkers were used as watch points to safeguard the Island from any foreign invasion.
After the War, the island came back under the control of the British but they never went back to the Island.
When the quake struck
About nine months before the Japanese take-over of the entire set of islands, Ross Island witnessed an earthquake, which made the people there to leave the place.
Except for a brief while when the Japanese occupied, the downfall of Ross Island that started after the quake continued. There were rumours that the island was sinking. Gradually it became a deserted area. What was called "Paris of East" at its peak got converted into a haunted isle and a wash in memories with widening cracks and crumbling masonry in the remains of the structures.
Indian naval post
In April 1979, the island was handed over to the Navy, which set up a small post, INS Jarawa, named after one of the indigenous tribes of the Andaman group of islands.
In December 1993, a museum was established. It was declared open by the then Lt. Governor Vakkom Purushothaman. A small guesthouse has been put up for the Navy officers.
There are frequent boat services from Port Blair to Ross Island. The authorities charge entry fee of Rs. 20 for adults. No entry fee for children up to nine.
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