One of the highlights during our Andaman Island trip last year was very definitely Ross Island which was established 1858 as the Administrative Headquarters of the British in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and therefore became the citadel of British power in the Andaman Seas.
Ross island is only reachable by ferry and only when the weather plays along making it perfect for a penal colony. We were the only two foreigners making the crossing on this particular trip which felt very strange but I was super excited about this outing as I read up about the island the week before and we visited the Cellular Jail the previous day which tied in neatly to this visit to Ross.
Chatham Island was chosen to be a penal settlement to effectively deal with political prisoners. However, due to lack of freshwater sources the focus shifted to Ross island and the arduous task of clearing the dense forest, and constructing some imposing buildings and amenities for the British officers and their families.
All this was made possible by the hard work of the convicts who according to historical sources were treated abysmally, kept chained and collared around the neck with identity tags, and were in a poor state of health. Over the next few years thousands of them died horrible deaths due to malaria, dysentery, and pneumonia due to constant rainy weather for months on end and even due to some dubious medical experiments and methods of torture practiced on them. Prisoners were not given food, clothing, and shelter and in the beginning there were only tents as shelter.
On top of suffering from severe depression causing inmates to injure one another in the hopes of getting the death penalty to escape this hell, they were targeted and attacked by local indigenous cannibalistic tribes who killed them. This is only a short overview of the atrocities these convicts faced during these times. Once the forests were clear and construction work was carried out the surrounding islands were deemed perfect to build jails for the convicts, Viper Island was the first island where a jail was built. We didn’t have time to pay a visit. We did however visit the cellular jail in Port Blair which is a blog on its own.
On the other hand it would seem the British officials that were in charge of the penal colony lived like royalty and in sheer luxury as only the British knows how to. Their homes were beautifully built and appointed, today you will only find the ruins almost obliterated by the forest taking its own back, but it must have been quite something in its’ heyday. Nowadays as one strolls from one building to another one can just stand in awe of the way the trees have slowly taken over covering the walls, probably keeping them upright without meaning to.
Before I continue, just a short history lesson covering the demise of the island in broad strokes. This community has seen and experienced it all starting with a massive earthquake in June 1941 causing a crack from across the center of the island damaging many of the buildings. This natural disaster convinced most of the occupants to leave for the mainland and by 1942 it was virtually deserted when the Japanese invaded during WW2.
On occupation the island was used as a military base by the Japanese, convicts were treated harshly and had to work ceaselessly to fortify the island. It was in their possession for about 3 years during which time the administrative buildings were destroyed but the penal colony remained. After the Allied forces reoccupied the island, the penal colony was dissolved in October 1945. Following that in 1979 the island was handed over to the Indian Navy due to its strategic importance owing to its geographical location, the task of up-keeping the island fell to them in the years that followed. In 2004 Ross Island inadvertently saves the inhabitants of Port Blair taking the brunt of the Tsunami that took many lives in December 2004. Ross was breached at multiple points and lost a large portion of its Ferrar beach but Port Blair was saved the horrific ordeal.
We only had 2 hours to tour this soaked with history little rock, not a lot of time even for a teeny tiny island such as Ross, with a total coastline of 2.2 km, making Mauritius seem like a continent in comparison, but oh my word, so much to see, so many photos to take and so little time. Dams of water everywhere due to some heavy rains the week before slowing us down, treading super carefully up and down some very slippery slopes and stairs. Wildlife abounds and we saw deer, rabbits, peacocks, and more on our way traipsing around the island.
We passed what was their local store, the massive power-plant run by generators providing electricity, a water desalination plant, the Olympic size pool for the officers and their families, overlooking the ocean, and many other unidentifiable structures which show the passage of time and neglect. I find such neglect of historical places saddening as one day all that will be left is our memories and a few photos, not adequately capturing what will be lost forever at some point in time.
There is so much to show but I will share only a few of the most prominent buildings. Unfortunately I couldn’t get enough information on all of the dilapidated structures so of some there might be photos but no background.
The Commissioner’s ‘bungalow or otherwise known as the Government House was a 7/8 bedroom gabled affair complete with Italian tiled floors and a ballroom, situated on the Northern summit of Ross Island. It also housed offices and courtrooms on the upper floors. It must have been a sight for sore eyes today just reduced to rubble by the Japanese in WW2, neglect and natural disasters over the years.
The Subordinate’s Club was built for the enjoyment of the British troops and officers and boasted a spring-mounted teak dance floor, the room finished off with an elevated platform for the band and imported stained glass window panes from Italy. Oh, my weak heart, how I wish I could have gone back in time and seen this in person. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen and above all, it boggles the mind how all these things were transported from Europe to this tiny little island in the Andaman seas. I dare say even today this would present a huge challenge to pull off. Even though this island was intended as a penal settlement it seems no expense was spared to make the British officers comfortable. As a matter of fact Ross island glittered with most ‘modern’ amenities back then, even electricity. The island quickly came to be known as the Paris of East as the residents had all their physical and mental well-being well catered for.
Then last but not least. The beautiful Presbyterian Church that had window frames from Burmese teak and stained glass panes imported all the way from Italy. The cemetery is located not far from the church.
I wish I could describe each little detail I took in on Ross, every photo I took but 366 would be too many to share in here. India has never been on my bucket list, and technically I still haven’t been, and having spent only 2 nights in Chennai it doesn’t count as being in India is my opinion. Having said that, something about these islands and the historical background has grabbed my heart as Andaman and Nicobar islands fall under Indian reign and embrace and present everything Indian but with a twist. Foreigners are still very much an oddity and their way of life very simple and uncomplicated and I wish I had a chance to go back and experience it again, taking in more, remembering more.
I have borrowed extensively from Wikipedia and some other sources and please note I am NO historian, I purely relate these facts to give a background to my photos and experiences. If my facts are incorrect I apologize in advance, I’ve looked it up as well as I could.