Ross Island: a history
Ross Island holds a very important place in the history of India’s struggle for freedom. This is where the first group of mutineers of the 1857 mutiny were sent to serve the life term in isolation. It was done mainly to serve as a deterrent for the others who had started raising their voice against the British empire.
Ross and Viper became a tale of ‘torture and sufferings’ as more and more freedom fighters were brought here to serve a life sentence at ‘Kala Pani’, as it was called because the waters were deep and it was impossible for anyone to escape from these islands.
Ross Island, which was named after the marine surveyor of East India Company, Sir Daniel Ross, is just 2 km to the east of Port Blair from the Aberdeen Jetty. It was in complete isolation till 1856. 1858 onward it slowly became the seat of British power and came to be called ‘The Paris of the East’ as the then serving British officers turned this isolated island into a paradise for themselves.
One can see the remnants of an opulent past; the ruins of a Church, the Chief Commissioner’s residence, a swimming pool, open air theater, water treatment plant, troop barracks, a cemetery and a departmental store which has now been turned into a Museum.
Dr. James Pattison Walker, the jail superintendent from Calcutta, reached Ross Island on 10th March 1858 aboard the steam frigate ‘Semiramis’. He arrived with only 4 European officials, an Indian overseer, 2 doctors, 50 Naval guards and the first batch of 200 freedom fighters or prisoners as British termed them. J. P. Walker was sent to establish the Penal Colony.
After the initial stay in crude barracks built of bamboo and grass, the prisoners were made to build houses, an office building and many other concrete structures. Later, these prisoners were sent to Viper Island to build the first jail. Subsequent years saw a steady flow of both men and women freedom fighters sent here to serve a life term.
Ross Island suffered massive damage during the earthquake of 26th January 1941.The Island developed a crack right in the middle, almost dividing it into two halves. In 1942, during the 2nd world war, the Japanese wrenched the control of this island from the British and soon turned it into a military base.
They constructed bunkers and installed cannons thus, further damaging the island. The government quarter here housed the then Japanese admiral. Predictably,during the visit of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose here in 1943, the Indian Tricolor was hoisted atop this house.
The island was abandoned after the Japanese withdrew at the end of World War II. The Indian government took charge of this island and has since slowly developed it into a ‘Tourist Place’. A nursery of coconuts was developed here in 1960. Furthermore, rearing of peacocks and deer was taken up in an effort to bring back life into the place.
Ross was handed over to the Indian Navy in 1979, which established a small post ‘INS Jarawa’ named after one of the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Ross Island: today
Today, there is a regular boat service to Ross Island from Aberdeen Jetty. The tickets can be purchased from the ticket counter near the jetty. You can see the remains of the old structures engulfed by Banyan trees; the Japanese barracks and cannon and the old Farzad Ali Departmental store of the British times that now houses the museum.
Additionally, you can take a walk around the island. Incidentally, this is also the place where on 8th Feb 1872, Lord Mayo, the then Viceroy of India, was assassinated by freedom fighter Sher Ali.
A sound and light show of 45 minute duration is conducted every day at sunset to give an insight into the important historical events of the pre-independence era that Ross Island bore witness to. The show brings to light the challenges and sufferings our heroes faced in the past in the hopes of freeing the nation from the clutches of British..
These days one can see many deer, rabbits and peacocks on Ross. The deer are quite tame and don’t fear humans as much, indicating that they’ve been around for quite some time. Battery operated carts are available for a tour of the small island, which takes roughly 30-40 minutes.
You can also choose to walk instead of taking a cart. There are benches all around, where you can sit and enjoy the scenic beauty and just breathe in the clean air, or enjoy the sunset before heading for the light and sound show.
The sunset brings with it a restless stirring in the air as though the trees and the soil are trying to speak out. The sound and light show gives a sad but beautiful glimpse into the history of Ross. It involves the viewers and takes them back several years and breathes life into the old buildings.