Ross Island | India

History of Ross Island Ross Island is a popular tourist destination and located at the entrance of Port Blair Harbour on the Eastward with a total area of 70 acres. Ross island was once the seat of British power. The Ross Island was carefully chosen by Marine Surveyor Daniel Ross, after whom it is named, to guard Port Blair harbor.

Ross Island

Aerial View

Ross Island Old Bakery

Ross Island Old Bakery

Church at Ross Island

Ross Island Church

Dr. James Pattison Walker, the first Superintendent of the penal settlement in Andamans reached here aboard the East India Company's steam frigate "Semiramis" with the first batch of 200 freedom fighters of 1857 on 10th March 1858 thus marking the beginning of the penal settlement. Walker decided to set up the Headquarters of the settlement at Chatham Island where 62 years ago Lt. Archibald Blair had established the first every colony in the Andamans in 1789. But due to scarcity of water sources in the Chatham Island, Walker had to change his decision and selected Ross Island, hardly two and a half miles away from Chatham for the establishment of the Headquarters of the penal settlement. Ross Island remained the headquarter of the British Government from May 1858 till the occupation of the Islands by Japanese Imperial Forces on 23rd March 1942. Ross Island started taking shape as the construction work was initiated in the cleared area. The jungle at Ross Island was continuous and had no plains or clear land in between. It was so dense that trees when cut could not fall down without using great force to ground them. In this immense, arduous task of jungle clearing, the hands that once held rifles against the British rulers in India in 1857 were, as fate destined, holding axes and choppers to fell the huge trees which could not be removed easily owing to the intricate binding by Century old giant creepers.

The heroes of our freedom struggle had to face untold miseries and sufferings in the Penal settlement of Andamans. British Officers tried all kinds of inhuman and brutal punishment including mass execution without any proper trial. The Officers chosen for the convict management at Port Blair had served during the First War of Independence in 1857. This was the reason that they treated the heroes of 1857 with great cruelty. In the beginning, on frequent intervals ships namely Semiramis, Dalhousie, Pluto, Roman Emperor, Edward, Sesotris etc. continued to arrive at the penal settlement with prisoners on board from Rangoon, Moulemin, Karachi, Calcutta and so on.

Many charismatic personalities belonging to the first war of independence, Wahabi Movement and later revolutionary activities were deported to the penal settlement to undergo their sentences. They were Musai Singh, Allama Fazal Haq Khiarabadi, Bahadur Singh, Bhima Naik, Moulavi Liaqat Ali, Garbadas Patel, Bhikaji Ganesh Gokhale, Venkat Roa, Syed Alauddin, father and son Himanchal Singh and Kura Singh, Mohd Ismail Hussain Muneer, Hattee Singh, Maya Ram Jawahar Singh, Ahmedullah, Yahya Ali, Jafar Thaneswari, Maharaj Brij Kishore Singh Dev among others. Life of a prisoner in the beginning of the settlement was very miserable. They were transported to the penal settlement without any prior arrangements. Even the basic needs for the establishment of the settlement were received after ten days of their arrival. Even during the rainy season they had no place for a safe shelter other than staying in tents. The condition was little improved by November 1858, when accommodation for one thousand prisoners on Ross Island was provided. The prisoners were accommodated in barracks of a temporary nature with thatched roofs and mat walls which leaks continuously during rainy season. Dr. Walker was very harsh towards the prisoners, convicts were handcuffed together in pairs and these handcuffs were never opened. During working hours the worst characters were taken to sea beach, and an iron bar being passed through the fetters of a number of them, they were thus fastened to the earth, and made to do what they could in a sitting posture.

Ross Island

Ross Island

The prisoners were put on the hardest labour in the settlement. They had to work about nine hours a day in the tropical climate and dense forest. They were engaged not only for clearing thick tropical jungles but also employed in digging wells, cutting earth, filling swamps, cooking and constructing huts. The tortures imposed by Walker increased day by day. With the occupation of the Viper Island on 8 October 1858 a new form of punishment called the Chain-gang was introduced. The prisoners who were sentenced to undergo this punishment by the Superintendent's Court, was chained together and locked up at night by a chain running through their legs through the coupling of irons. In order to make the punishment more effective a jail was constructed at Viper Island during 1864-67. The arrangements for food, clothing and shelter in the settlement were not adequate for human beings. In the absence of adequate medical care, lack of proper food, and unhealthy climate, they began to die of minor diseases such as malaria, dysentery, pneumonia etc. The freedom fighters were ruthlessly punished for violation of jail rules and regulations. These heroes of the First War of Independence not only faced the inhuman treatment of the British authorities in the settlement but also had to suffer at the hands of aborigines of the Andaman Islands. From the very beginning of the settlement the aborigines attacked the working parties, as a result of which a large number of them were killed while at work in different convict's stations of the penal settlement. These circumstances encouraged frequent escapes from the settlement. At dead of night on 18th March 1858, a group of twenty one convicts escaped from Ross Island in rafts, made ready for the purpose hidden in the jungles. On 23rd March another group of eleven convicts escaped from Ross Island in a similar way. The escape of convicts continued in spite of the risks of life involved in it.
On 8th February 1872 Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India arrived on the islands aboard the ship H.M. Glasgow accompanied by other ships S.S. Dacca and Scotia .He never knew that he is undertaking the last journey of his life. The Viceroy's arrival was welcomed with 21 Cannon fires. He spent his entire day touring the workshops and factories of the prisoners. He visited Ross Island and inspected public buildings. Bazar, Church, Hospital, etc. accompanied by his staff officers, family members and Mr. Stewart, Superintendent of the penal settlement. At the end of his official visit, the Viceroy expressed his desire to visit the Mount Harriet. The settlement officers made all security arrangements there but in spite of this on his return from Mount Harriet, he was assassinated by a convict named Sher Ali, who was residing in the Hope Town as a convict on ticket of leave. Sher Ali was later executed at the Viper Island Gallows. With the passage of time, Ross Island was transformed into a comfortable place for the British who were posted there. The forest was entirely cleared. The seventy acre Island was divided into halves by a wall measuring from the east to the west. The accommodation of the British officers and soldier's barracks remained in the north of the wall on the hilltop, while the convicts and the barracks of Indian soldiers were in the south. Among the long list of freedom fighters who were sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman in connection with the first war of Indians the name of Musai Singh and Fazal Haq Khairabadi occupies an important place. Musai Singh is known as the hero of 1857. He was associated with Bhadohi Rebellion of June 1857. Musai Singh was only 21 years of age at the time of First War of Independence. He was sentenced to transportation for life on the charges of "being a ring leader in the murder of Mr. Moore and Arson, dacoity and rebellion." After twenty five years of his arrival in Andaman, in March 1884, he was sanctioned partial. Musai Singh, prisoner number 4568 was released from the penal settlement of Andamans in May 1907 at the age of seventy one. It was decided to conditionally 'release him with permission to reside at Rangoon under Police surveillance'. Viceroy Lord Minto sent a Telegram dated 1st May 1907 to the is effect to the Secretary of State which reads as under:- "Please refer Home department dispatch dated 11th May on the subject. I have just seen the dispatch, and consider that his conditional release with permission the reside in Rangoon under Police surveillance should be sanctioned. He is the last survivor of the Mutiny convicts in the Andamans, where his record has been excellent. I strongly recommend his release which could be most appropriate on the 50th anniversary of the Mutiny. Finally, Musai Singh was released from the penal settlement of Andaman after 47 years. He reached Rangoon in July 1907, where he was directed to present himself before the Superintendent of Police on the first day of every month. Historians consider Musai Singh as the hero of 1857, as when the Indians were observing the fifty years of 1857, he was released from the penal settlement of Andaman Islands after forty seven years, the longest ever incarceration. Another stalwart of the first war of Independence was Fazal Haq Khairabadi. He was sentenced to transportation for life to Kala Pani with confiscation of his property. He, along with other Freedom Fighters of 1857 reached Andamans on 8 October 1859 aboard the Steam Frigate Fire Queen, where he was registered as prisoner number 3687. During his imprisonment in the penal settlement, Fazal Haq wrote on pieces of cloth with charcoal sticks and sent these clothes to his son Maulana Abdul Haq in the mainland in the year 1860 through Mufti Inayat Ahmed Kakurri, another scholar who took part in the First War of Independence. Both the works were rendered in Arabic which later came to be known as Al-Surat-ul Hindia and Al-Fitnat-ul-Hindia. It contained all the incidents of the First War of Independence and his days in Kala Pani respectively.

Colonel Haughton, the then Superintendent of Port Blair recommended the Government for the release of Fazal Haq. Meanwhile, his son Shams-ul-Haq also appealed to the Government for the release of his father. At last he managed to obtain the release order of his father from the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. But, on arrival at Port Blair in 1861, he could only join the funeral procession of his father. He expressed about the miserable life in the Andaman in his book. In his words, "All huts of the prisoners had temporary roofs which leaks frequently like non ending tears of my eyes. No sorrow of the would can be compared with the painful life here. When a prisoner dies, he is buried in the sandy shore without performing any last rituals such as bath and coffin. Neither proper grave is dug nor is the last prayer offered. If this would have not been the practice adopted here for burial of dead bodies, death in the Andamans would have been everyone's desire." Though the life of the prisoners in the Ross Island was a tale of torture and sufferings but the settlement officers did not leave a stone turn to make the isolated Ross a paradise for themselves. The Chief Commissioner's residence, swimming pool and tennis court for officers and all other facilities such as bakery, distilling water plant, Eurasian and European schools were constructed at the Ross Island for the British settlement officers. A temple and a mosque were also constructed here. The inscription on the graves in the European Cemetery of the Ross Island describes the mental status of the European officers. The Bazar at Ross Island was the hub of all activities during the end of nineteenth and beginning of twentieth century till the occupation of Japanese. The ruins of Bazar still remind us the bygone era where European and Indian customers come for purchases of their necessities from the shops of philanthropist Farzand Ali. The shops selling various commodities of life owned by Dawood Jan, Malhotra, Belumal, Appalswamy, Nabi Bux and Muriwali old lady Roop Kunwar. On 26th June 1941 at 5.21 PM (Local time, (IST 4.21 PM) an earth quake of greater magnitude rocked the Island. As a result of earth quake a crack was developed in the whole Island from its central part of the road. A number of buildings on the Ross Island were damaged. During the penal settlement, Ross Island saw 24 Chief Commissioners including Stewart after 1872 when the post of Superintendent was upgraded. The downfall of this "Paris of the East" began with the occupation of Andaman Islands by the Japanese Imperial Forces. As a result of Japanese air raids; the Chief Commissioner C.F. Waterfall shifted his residence and the seat of Administration to Aberdeen, Port Blair in January 1942. The Japanese forces occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands on 23rd March 1942. The Chief Commissioner surrendered before the Japanese and taken as POW and camped at Ross Island, along with his Secretary and few Anglo Indians. The civilians and shop owners were forced to leave the Ross Island. Japanese forces converted Ross island into a Military Base. The Supreme commander of INA and Head of state and Azad Hind Govt., Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited the islands on 29th December 1943. He stayed at Ross Island in the former Govt. House of the then Chief Commissioner. Tricolor was hoisted during Netaji's stay for four days. Netaji had a group photo along with the member of the Indian Independence league, Andaman branch. The Executive members of the Indian Independence League (IIL), Andaman branch hoisted a dinner in honour of Netaji at Ross Island where Netaji addressed. Executive Members, Ramakrishna, Durga Prasad, Abdul Subhan were also present on that occasion.

The allied forces reoccupied the Islands on 7th October 1945. Bridge. JA Saloman of 116 Indian Infantry Brigade got Japanese forces surrendered on 9th October 1945 and all the Japanese Officers were taken as POW and detained in Ross Island. In the process of making operational bunkers, they destroyed the settlement. The earth quake also caused the damage to the structures of Ross Island. Though the British allied force occupied the Andaman in 1945, Ross Island never regained its status as the headquarter of the British settlement, which was by then permanently shifted to Port Blair. After the reoccupation of the Islands by the Allied forces, 87 years old Penal Settlement was finally abolished on 7th October 1945. For the civil affairs N.K. Patterson, designated Chief Commissioner took over control. The allied forces of Rajputana Infantry planted a victorious War memorial at Ross Island during 1945. The Japanese forces had demolished the public buildings at Ross Island, extracted materials for various strategic constructions works all over the Islands. The Ross Island remained to remind the past glory and the citadel of the Indian Penal settlement. When it became uninhabited, nature occupied the dilapidated buildings with huge trees and arial roots to thrive on the neglected remnants. Ross Island was used as segregation camp during epidemics. During 1960, a nursery of coconut was developed and raring of deer and peacocks were also here. Now the Ross Island is under the control of Andaman and Nicobar Command and it is one of the important tourist destinations.

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