History Of Andaman
The earliest mention of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is found in Ptolemy’s geographical treatises of the second century AD. Other records from the Chinese Buddhist monk I’Tsing some five hundred years later and Arabian travelers who passed by in the ninth century describe the inhabitant as fierce and cannibalistic. Marco Polo arrived in the thirteenth century and could offer no more favorable description of the natives. “The people are without a king and are idolaters no better than wild beasts. All the men of the island of Andamanian have heads like dogs. They are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody they catch… “ It is unlikely, however, that the Andamanese were cannibals, as the most vivid reports of their ferocity were propagated by the Malay pirates who held sway over the surrounding seas, and needed to keep looters well away from trade ships that passed between India, China and the Far East.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European missionaries and trading companies turned their attention to the islands with a view to colonization. Unsuccessful attempts to covert the Nicobaries to Christianity were made by the French, Dutch and Danish, all of whom were forced to abandon their plans in the face of hideous diseases and a severe lack of food and water. Though the missionaries themselves seldom met with any hostility, several fleets of trading ships which tried to dock on the islands were captured, and their crews murdered, by the Nicobares. In 1777, the British Lieutenant Blair chose the South Andaman harbor now known as Port Blair as the site for a penal colony, based on the system of deporting of criminals that had proved successful in Sumatra, Singapore and Penang. This scheme (and a later attempt to settle the Nicobar Islands, in 1867) were thwarted by the harsh climatic conditions of the forests, but in 1858 Port Blair because a penal settlement where political activists who had fuelled the Uprising in 1857were made to clear land and build their own prison. Out of 773 prisoners, 292 died, escaped or were hanged in the first two months. Many also lost their lives in attacks by Andamanes tribes who objected to forest clearance, but the settlement continued to fill with people from mainland India, and by 1864the number of convicts had grown to 3000. In 1896, work began on a jail made up of hundreds of tiny solitary cells, which was used to confine political prisoners until 1945. The prison still stands and is one of Port Blair’s few tourist “attraction”.
In 1919, the British government in India decided to close down the penal settlement, but it was subsequently used to incarcerate a new generation of freedom fighters from India, Malabar and Burma. During World War II, the islands were occupied by the Japanese, who tortured and murdered hundreds of indigenous islander suspected of collaborating with the British, and bombed the homes of the Jarawa tribe. British forces moved back in 1945, and at last abolished the penal settlement.
After Partition, refugees, mostly low-caste Hindus from Bangladesh and Bengal, were given land in Port Blair and North Andaman, where the forest was clear-felled to make room for rice paddy, cocoa plantations and new industries. Since 1951, the population has increased more than tenfold, swollen by repatriated Tamil from Sri Lanka, thousands of Bihari laborers, ex-servicemen given land grants, economic migrants from poorer Indian states and legions of government employees packed off on two-year “ punishment postings”. This replanted population greatly outnumbers the Andamans, indigenous people, who currently comprise around half of one percent of the total. Contact between the two societies is limited, and not always friendly. In addition, within Port Blair a clear divide exists between the relatively recent incomers and the so called descendants of the released convicts and freedom fighters whose families settled here before the major influx from the mainland. This small but influential minority, based at the exclusive Browning Club, has been calling for curbs on immigration and new property rules to slow down the rate of settlement. While doubtless motivated by self-interest, their demands reflect growing concern for the future of the Andamans, where rapid and largely unplanned development has wreaked havoc on the natural environment and indigenous population.
As tourism continues to replace the almost defunct logging industry as the main source of revenue, the extra visitors are already starting to overtax the inadequate infrastructure, aggravating seasonal water shortages and sewage disposal problems and making inter-island boat tickets even harder to come by. Given India’s track record with tourism development, it’s hard to be optimistic. Mercifully, Delhi seems to be dragging its feet over giving the go-ahead to the arrival of international flights in Port Blair. If even a small percentage of the tourist traffic between Southeast Asia and India were to be diverted through the Andamans, the impact on this culturally and ecologically fragile region could be catastrophic.