Andaman Islands

Location: Asia
Status: Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Union Territory of India
Capital City: Port Blair
Main Cities: Bangalore, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras
Population: 314,084
Area: 6408 km²
Currency: 1 Indian rupee = 100 paisa
Languages: Hindi, English, Panjabi and many local languages
Religions: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian

The Andaman Islands are a group of islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory of India. Port Blair is the chief community on the islands, and the administrative centre of the Union Territory. The Andaman Islands form a single administrative district within the Union Territory, the Andaman district (the Nicobar district was separated and established as a new district in 1974). The population of the Andamans was 314,084 in 2001.

Physical Geography

There are 576 islands in the group, 26 of which are inhabited. They are located 950km from the mouth of the Hooghly River, 193 km from Cape Negrais in Myanmar (the nearest point of the mainland), and 547 km from the northern extremity of Sumatra. The length of the island chain is 352 km and its greatest width is 51 km. The total land area of the Andamans is 6408 km².

The five chief islands, spread over a distance of 251 km, are known collectively as Great Andaman. The individual islands are, in order from north to south: North Andaman, Middle Andaman, South Andaman, Baratang and Rutland Island. Four narrow straits separate these islands: Austin Strait, between North and Middle Andaman, Homfray's Strait between Middle Andaman, Baratang, and the north extremity of South Andaman; Middle (or Andaman) Strait between Baratang and South Andaman and Macpherson Strait between South Andaman and Rutland Island. Of these only the last is navigable by ocean-going vessels.

Together with the chief islands are, on the extreme north, the Landfall Islands, separated by the navigable Cleugh Passage; Interview Island, separated by the navigable Interview Passage, off the West coast of Middle Andaman; Labyrinth Island off the southwest coast of South Andaman, through which is the navigable Elphinstone Passage; Ritchie's (or the Andaman) Archipelago off the East coast of South Andaman and Baratang, separated by the wide and safe Diligent Strait and intersected by Kwangtung Strait and the Tadma Juru (Strait). Little Andaman, roughly 42 km by 26 km, forms the southern extremity of the whole group and lies 50 km south of Rutland Island across the Manners Strait, the main shipping route between the Andamans and the Madras coast. Besides these are a great number of islets lying off the shores of the main islands.

The principal outlying islands include the North Sentinel, a dangerous island of about 73 km², lying about 29 km off the west coast of the South Andaman. North Sentinel is inhabited by one of the most isolated peoples on earth, the Sentinelese, who resist any contact with outsiders. About 29 km west of the Andamans are the dangerous Western Banks and Dalrymple Bank, rising to within a few metres of the surface of the sea and forming, with the two Sentinel Islands, the tops of a line of submarine hills parallel to the Andamans.

The Andamans is the only place in India with an active volcano. Barren Island, northeast of Port Blair, became active in 1990s after being quiescent for almost two hundred years. It erupted again in May 2005, with experts pointing to the post-tsunami change in tectonic plates as the likely cause. The isolated extinct volcano of Narcondam, rising 710 m out of the sea, is 114 km east of North Andaman. Plans are afoot to stimulate tourism to the volcanoes in the area. Also 64 km to the east is the Invisible Bank, with one rock just awash, and 55 km southeast of Narcondam is a submarine hill rising to 689 m below the surface of the sea. Narcondam, Barren Island and the Invisible Bank, a great danger of these seas, are in a line almost parallel to the Andamans inclining towards them from north to south.

Climate

The climate is typical of tropical islands of similar latitude. It is always warm, but with sea-breezes. Rainfall is irregular, but usually dry during the north-east, and very wet during the south-west, monsoons.

People

The Andamanese is a collective term to describe the peoples who are the aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal. The term includes the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and the extinct Jangil. Anthropologically they are usually classified as Negritos, represented also by the Semang of Malaysia and the Aeta of the Philippines.

History

It is uncertain whether any of the names of the islands given by Ptolemy ought to be attached to the Andamans; yet it is probable that the name itself is traceable to the Alexandrian geographer. Andaman first appears distinctly in the Arab notices of the 9th century, already quoted. But it seems possible that the tradition of marine nomenclature had never perished; that the Agathou daimonos nesos was really a misunderstanding of some form like Agdaman, while Nesoi Baroussai survived as Lanka Balus, the name applied by the Arabs to the Nicobar Islands. The islands are briefly noticed by Marco Polo, who may have seen them without visiting, under the name Angamanain, seemingly an Arabic dual, "the two Angamans", with the exaggerated picture of the natives as dog-faced cannibals.

Another notice occurs in the story of Niccolò Da Conti (c. 1440), who explains the name to mean Island of Gold, and speaks of a lake with peculiar virtues as existing in it. The name is probably derived from the Malay Handuman, coming from the ancient Hanuman (monkey god). Later travellers repeat the stories, too well founded, of the "ferocious hostility" of the people; of whom we may instance Cesare Federici (1569), whose narrative is given in Ramusio, vol. iii. (only in the later editions), and in Purchas. A good deal is also told of them in the vulgar and gossiping but useful work of Captain A. Hamilton (1727).

In 1788-1789 the government of Bengal sought to establish in the Andamans a penal colony, associated with a harbour of refuge. Two officers, Colebrooke of the Bengal Engineers, and Blair of the sea service, were sent to survey and report. Subsequently the settlement was established by Captain Blair in September 1789 on Chatham Island in the southeast bay of Great Andaman, now called Port Blair, but then Port Cornwallis. There was much sickness, and after two years, urged by Admiral William Cornwallis, the government transferred the colony to the northeast part of Great Andaman where a naval arsenal was to be established. With the colony the name also of Port Cornwallis was transferred to the new locality. The scheme did not prosper and, in 1796, the government put an end to it, owing to the high mortality rate and the cost of maintenance. The settlers were finally removed in May 1796.

In 1824 Port Cornwallis was the rendezvous of the fleet carrying the army to the First Burmese War. In 1839, Dr Helfer, a German savant employed by the Indian government, having landed in the islands, was attacked and killed. In 1844 the troop-ships Briton and Runnymede were driven ashore close together. The natives showed hostility, killing all stragglers. Further attacks on shipwrecked crews were so common that the question of occupation had to be reviewed, and in 1855 a settlement was proposed, including a convict establishment. This was interrupted by the Indian Rebellion of 1857 but, as soon as the back of that revolt was broken, it became more urgent to provide such a resource, on account of the great number of prisoners falling into British hands. Lord Canning, therefore, in November 1857, sent a commission, headed by Dr F. Mouat, to examine and report. The commission reported favourably, selecting as a site Blair's original Port Cornwallis, but avoiding the vicinity of a salt swamp which seemed to have been the source of many of the old colony's problems. To avoid confusion, the name of Port Blair was given to the new settlement.

For some time sickness and mortality were excessively high, but swamp reclamation and extensive forest clearance by Colonel Henry Man when in charge (1868-1870), apparently had a beneficial effect, and the settlement has since been healthy. The Andaman colony acquired notoriety following the murder of the viceroy, the Earl of Mayo, when on a visit to the settlement on 8 February 1872, by a Muslim convict. In the same year the two island groups, Andaman and Nicobar, the occupation of the latter also having been forced on the British government (in 1869) by continuing attacks on vessels, were united under a chief commissioner residing at Port Blair.

Ross Island – during the British rule the main military base.The Andaman islands were later occupied by Japan during World War II. The islands were nominally put under the authority of the Arzi Hukumate Azad Hind (Provisional Government of Free India) headed by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Netaji visited the islands during the war, and renamed them as Shaheed (Martyr) & Swaraj (Self-rule). General Loganathan of the Indian National Army , was Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which had been annexed to the Provisional Government. After the end of the war they briefly returned to British control, before becoming part of the newly independent state of India.

"The garrison consists of 140 British and 300 Indian troops, with a few local European volunteers. The police are organised as a military battalion 643 strong. The number of convicts has somewhat diminished of late years and in 1901 stood at 11,947. The total population of the settlement, consisting of convicts, their guards, the supervising, clerical and departmental staff, with the families of the latter, also a certain number of ex-convicts and trading settlers and their families, numbered 16,106. The labouring convicts are distributed among four jails and nineteen stations; the self-supporters in thirty-eight villages. The elementary education of the convicts' children is compulsory. There are four hospitals, each under a resident medical officer, under the general supervision of a senior officer of the Indian medical service, and medical aid is given free to the whole population. The net annual cost of the settlement to the government is about six pounds per convict. The harbour of Port Blair is well supplied with buoys and harbour lights, and is crossed by ferries at fixed intervals, while there are several launches for hauling local traffic. On Ross Island there is a lighthouse visible for 19 miles. A complete system of signaling by night and day on the Morse system is worked by the police. Local posts are frequent, but there is no telegraph and the mails are irregular."

The above accounts, written while Britain still controlled India, may leave the impression that these settlements were a model of progressive penal reform. Indian accounts, however, paint a different picture. From the time of its development in 1858 under the direction of James Pattison Walker, and in response to the mutiny and rebellion of the previous year, the settlement was first and foremost a repository for political prisoners. The Cellular Jail at Port Blair when completed in 1910 included 698 cells designed to better accommodate solitary confinement; each cell measured 4.5 by 2.7 metres with a single ventilation window 3 metres above the floor. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had been one of the illustrious prisoners there. The Viper Chain Gang Jail on Viper Island was reserved for troublemakers, and was also the site of hangings. In the 20th century it became a convenient place to house prominent members of India's independence movement, and it was here that on December 30 1943 during Japanese occupation, that Subhas Chandra Bose, whilst controversially but reluctantly allied with the Japanese, first raised the flag of Indian independence.

At the close of the Second World War the British government announced its intention to abolish the penal settlement. The government proposed to employ former inmates in an initiative to develop the island's fisheries, timber, and agricultural resources. In exchange inmates would be granted return passage to the Indian mainland, or the right to settle on the islands. The penal colony was eventually closed on August 15, 1947 when India gained its independence. It has since served as a museum to the independence movement.

On 26 December 2004 the coast of the Andaman Islands was devastated by a 10 metre high tsunami following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. On 22 July 2006, 35 Explorer Scouts and leaders from Hertfordshire, England visited the islands to begin a project involving the building of a permanent adventure centre and refuge for 1,000 people in the event of further disasters. The site is on the outskirts of Port Blair.

Air transport

A small airport in Port Blair (IXZ) serves flights from the Indian cities of Kolkata (Calcutta) (CCU) and Chennai (Madras) (MAA). Due to the length of these routes and the small number of airlines flying to the islands, fares have traditionally been relatively expensive, though generally much more so for tourists than for Andaman residents.

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