The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located on the trade route of India to East Asia, have a very intriguing history. For centuries these islands were shrouded in mystery as, because of their inaccessibility, not much was known about them.
Nobody really knows how these islands came to be inhabited. But for a long time it was believed that the aborigines of Andaman were the descendants of African slaves, who could have been travelling on a Portuguese ship and swam to the safety of these islands when the ship got wrecked.
But researchers later came to a conclusion that these tribes were not ‘Negros’ but were of ‘Negrito’ origin. Because very little was known about these tribes except that they were primitive and depended on nature for food and survival and were hostile by nature, history viewed these islands as “Islands of Evil Repute” or “Cannibal Islands”.
Mythology and Ancient Scriptures
It is believed that Andaman is named after the monkey God Hanuman, who is popularly known as Handuman in Malay language- the language of Nicobar Tribes who are a mixture of Malay and Myanmar strains.
Interestingly, Nicobar finds a mention in Tanjor inscription of 1050 AD as ‘NAKKAVARAM’ meaning ‘the land of the Naked’, which further proves that these inhabitants were primitive and nomadic. These islands were also referred to as “TINMAITTIVU” meaning “the Impure Islands” during the Chola rule.
History of the naval bases
A deeper look into the islands’ history reveals interesting aspects of their strategic location. Andaman and Nicobar was established as a Naval Base because of its strategic location even during the reign of Rajendra Chola ( Chola Empire, 1014-1042 AD) to launch a naval attack against the Srivijay Empire of Sumatra, Indonesia (Sumatra is only 150 km from Great Nicobar). Thereafter, once again these islands served as the naval base for the Maratha Empire in the 17th century.
In the 18th century the Danish East India Company also found these islands strategically favorable to establish a harbor for their ships and tried to establish a colony in Nicobar in 1755. However, due to hostile weather and frequent outbreak of diseases, they could not maintain the colony and consequently abandoned these islands, though they continued to maintain the rights to these islands. Finally in 1868 they had to give up their rights to Nicobar to British, who by that time had already established a ‘Penal Colony’ in Andaman.
The British, the Japanese and Freedom
Because of the strategic location of this group of islands, in 1789 the British Navy surveyed them to establish a colony here. In 1790 a colony was established here but was soon abandoned as the British too found it difficult to handle the frequent outbreak of diseases and unfriendly climate.
However, they once again eyed this region in 1858, but this time only to establish a ‘Penal Colony’ to keep the mutineers of 1857 mutiny-The first war of independence.Convicts were kept in barracks till a facility ‘Cellular Jail’ was built here in 1906 to house them. In 1872, Nicobar was connected to Andaman administratively after the Danish relinquished their rights to Nicobar in 1868.
The British continued with their hold of these islands until World War II (1942-45) when they were driven away by Japanese. Japanese brutally ruled this region and carried out a massive development. Airstrips were laid in Port Blair, Rutland and Car Nicobar. Radars and guns were installed for air defense. Their rule was no less than a holocaust which almost exterminated the local tribes.
With the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, the British claimed these islands back and ended the ’Penal Colony’. Subsequently, the Indian government took over the administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands after Independence in 1947 and the islands were declared a Union Territory in 1956. In 1979 the ‘Cellular Jail’ was declared a National Monument and was thrown open to public.