The history of Andaman and Nicobar islands has been a matter of many debates, with very little documented data available. The earliest known archaeological evidence, which has been documented, goes back to odd 2,200 years, although other data have unique indications. Genetic data and other cultural data that is available indicates that the actual indigenous Andamanese people where isolated from other populations some 30,000 years ago, which is also known as the Middle Paleolithic age.
The Earliest Known History
Long before Indians discovered these islands, it was the Malays who used to visit them frequently. The Malays have been known to visit here largely looking to enslave its inhabitants. The Malays are also responsible for the existence of the name Andamans. They primarily called the place as Handuman, after Hanuman.
The Nicobar Islands are believed to have been inhabited by a number of indigenous tribes from over thousands of years. There have been signs which show that Rajendra Cholan tried to win over the island and control them in order to put himself in a position where his kingdom became the naval super power. The Cholas too had captured the Nicobar Islands at some point and we know this because a mention of the same has been made at the Tanjore Temple (also known as Brihadeeshwara Temple).
About 1,000 years ago the Chinese were aware of the existence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and called it by the name of ‘Yeng – t – omag’. Ptolemy, the 2nd century Roman geographer, too had placed this group of islands on the very first map that was ever drawn. He named them as ‘Angdaman Islands’ (or islands of good fortune). In the 6th century a Buddhist monk I’T Sing called these islands ‘Lo – jen – kuo’ (or the land of the naked). The islands have also found a mention by two Arab travellers back in the 8th century who knew it as ‘Lakhabalus’ or ‘Najabulus’ (also meaning the land of the naked). The famous traveller Marco Polo also knew about these islands and he called them as ‘Angamanian’.
There have been several European settlers who tried to capture these islands. The very attempt for the same was made by the Dutch so much so that the Dutch East India Company went on to claim the Nicobar Islands and also ended up renaming the island as ‘New Denmark’. Another European country to stake its claim here was Austria. Although English are possibly the most famous settlers, they were the last one to come in here. These islands continued to remain under their control until 1950 when the Indian Government claimed it.
The Cellular Jail (or Kaala Paani as it is popularly known as) was constructed by the British to accommodate the ‘hardened criminals’ (the freedom fighters). These freedom fighters were tortured here and several were left to die.
The Four Periods
The history of the islands can be broadly classified broadly into 4 periods
- The seclusion period
- British regime
- Japanese regime
- Post – independence period
Although the history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be traced back to several thousands of years, the modern history only began in 1789 when the then Governor General of India ordered to carry out a survey of the islands in order to figure out if they were suitable enough for human settlement. Hence a topo – cum – hydrographic survey was conducted which revealed that it was indeed suitable for humans to settle down.
Soon after the survey, the very first settlement arrived on the island at Port Blair (which was known as Port Cornwallis) in the year 1790 at the Chatham Island. They brought in criminals from the mainland of India. However they soon had to shift to North Andaman which they did in 1792. This was largely due to the high mortality rate that occurred due to malaria and also the frequent attacks that they had to face by the aborigines. However by 1796, they left the island due to the natural calamities.
Although much isn’t known about the activities of the Portuguese in these islands, what we do know is that the Christian missionaries began preaching the islanders after entering in the 17th century. A Portuguese influence is also seen in the Nicobarese language which possesses some Portuguese words.
The Dutch came here in the year 1756 and stayed put until 1787. The Dutch Government tried to build a colony in the region of Nancowry, albeit unsuccessfully, and in the year 1869 handed over the islands of Nicobar to the British.
It was only after the First War of Independence back in 1857 that the British tried to set up a penal code at Port Blair where for the first time, an initial lot comprising of 200 freedom fighters landed here. By 1858, the British has for the second time established their colony in the island. It was during this colonisation that the British officials as well as soldiers settled here in large groups.
The convicts from Burma and India were sent over by the British to these islands thereby separating those Indians who fought against the British to achieve freedom. These prisoners were chained and forced to work in the forests, any protest from them resulted in their death.
The very first prison and also Hangman’s noose were set up at an island known as the Viper Island. The number of cells in this prison was insufficient and this prompted the British to construct the Cellular Jail which was large enough to accommodate about 600 prisoners at one time.
During World War II, these islands were abandoned by the British and taken over by the Japanese with whom remained for 4 years post which it was taken over again by the British and at the time of independence was handed over to India.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose inside the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. Netaji arrived in Port Blair on December 29, 1943.