If there is any place on earth that can be called the British equivalent to the Soviet gulags, France’s Devil’s Island, and the Nazi death camps, it is Ross Island, a remote island in the archipelago of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Measuring just less than one-third of a square kilometer, the infamous island served as a penal colony for Indian dissidents who tried to revolt against the British colonial rule in India. Everything from brutal torture, forced labor, and even medical experimentation took place here. And the death toll was immense as an estimated 15,000 prisoners suffered horribly under a series of increasingly merciless chief commissioners who ruled the island with an iron fist.
That said, the British themselves lived on the island in opulent luxury in stark contrast to the emaciated conditions of the inmates they oversaw. They constructed everything to entertain themselves from luxurious bungalows, shaded verandas to manicured gardens, tennis courts, and swimming pools. In fact, no expense was spared in making Ross island a paradise on earth.
And on the other end of the spectrum were the miserable prisoners who were sent to the island in hordes. They were packed in leaking barracks in unhygienic conditions. They were overworked, disease-ridden, and emaciated. And inmates who tried to escape were promptly hanged to death.
One brutal example was the hanging of 80 inmates in a single day after a failed escape attempt, ordered by the then British Commissioner Dr. James Pattison.
In 1945 and soon after World War II, the entire penal colony was permanently disbanded, and finally, in 1947, it was handed over to the Indian government as part of independent India. And today, the island stands abandoned with the jungle reclaiming it, shrouding it in foliage, its gruesome colonial past.
After the massive scare they received during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British decided to search for a place to establish a faraway penal settlement to subdue the rebels and dissidents of the rebellion.
They finally decided to establish the colony in the Andaman Islands. Ross Island, the smallest of the 576 islands was chosen as the colony’s administrative headquarters because of its strategic distance from the mainland.
British doctor James Pattison Walker arrived at the Andaman Islands in March 1858 and set up the penal colony with 200 convicts and rebels on Ross island. Thus started an era of one of the most unprecedented episodes of British brutality on Indian soil.
It was a jungle out there, to begin with, and teaming with malaria, cholera, dysentery, and other tropical diseases. The inmates were put to work immediately for creating the colony from scratch. From laying bricks, creating roads to clearing the dense forests of the island, it was back-breaking work for the prisoners.
As more and more prisoners started to arrive, their conditions of living became unhygienic with leaking roofs, minimal sanitation, lethal insect bites, and the threat of the indigenous tribes of the Andamans, some of whom were cannibals who killed them while working on the colony. It was estimated that nearly 3,500 out of the suffering 15,000 prisoners died due to malaria alone.
In addition to the miserable conditions of living, the British also started conducting inhuman medical trials to treat malaria with an experimental drug quinine. Thousands of convicts were force-fed cinchona alkaloid, an unprocessed drug that would later be distilled into quinine, imparting massive side effects that included nausea, dysentery, and depression. Convicts who tried to end their suffering by hanging themselves or escaping were brutally flogged, starved, and made to sleep in cages hung in the forest.
At the same time, the British walloped themselves into luxury by creating Ross island as the ‘Paris of the East’. Ross Island had everything from grand mansions, manicured lawns, tennis courts, ballrooms along with bazaar, bakery, stores, hospitals, churches, and a water purification plant to make the life of the white man as comfortable as possible. A Ross Island posting was seen as a ‘punishment’ by most British officers so the authorities went overboard to ‘compensate’ for the isolation.
And as the penal colony expanded across many of the other islands, Ross Island soon became the power center of British administrative and an exclusive settlement for high-ranking officers and their families who made it a shining beacon of high flying British social life.
The island continued to be an active penal colony until the late 1930s with a total of about 80,000 convicted criminals and 1,000 political prisoners being sent there. In 1941, a massive earthquake wrecked the island, causing more than 3,000 deaths and rendering it unfit to live.
One year later, the Japanese forces captured the Andaman Islands which included Ross Island during World war II. The British fled the island the Japanese released the remaining prisoners. They destroyed all the administrative buildings but strangely left the prison colony intact.
After the war, the British regained control but soon they abandoned it. The penal colony was officially closed in 1945 and the headquarters were moved to Port Blair. Ross Island was thereafter transferred to the Indian government when India gained independence.
Today the island stands abandoned and nature has taken over most of the glamorous man-made structures and it now exists as a tourist attraction, a short ferry trip from Port Blair. Gnarly trees and dense foliage have hidden the dilapidated buildings of the past that still remind us of a brutal period in Indian history that should never be forgotten by future generations.
About the author-:
Mythili is a programmer by passion and a connoisseur of fine arts like painting, calligraphy, and pottery. She writes in the twilight between relationships, creativity, and human behavior.