History of Andaman Islands

The Andaman Islands are known for their captivating and pristine beaches, but the history of these islands is equally as fascinating. The history of Andamans tribes dates back to the Stone Age, while some pieces of evidence have been dated back to 8th century BC.

In all this time, the Andamans have been through a lot of cultural and linguistic shifts, which is why this place has turned into a tourist magnet.

The wondrous and diverse geomorphology of Andaman Islands

The Andamans span nearly 360 km across, includes over 300 islands and only maybe 20 or so are populated.

There are three major Andaman Islands (North, Middle, and South) and are called the Great Andaman collectively. There is another noteworthy island called the Little Andaman located down south of the collective.

One look at the Andaman Islands map would let anyone know that there are plateaus and hills sprinkled all around the archipelago. The saddle is the highest peak located on North Andaman Island.

These islands are rich in limestone and sandstone. Also, Barren Island has the only active volcano in South Asia.

There are few rivers which can provide the population with fresh water (a frequent issue), although the place hails for some of the densest woodlands and largest mangrove forests. The place is truly a natural masterpiece and an ecological hotspot.

How Did The Name ‘Andaman’ Originate?

Sacred texts have depicted the archipelago formed by the Andaman Islands as Handuman. The Greek mathematician and explorer, Ptolemy, had mentioned the place as Agadaemon Angademan in his journals, in the 1st century. According to Marco Polo, the place was known as Angamanian by the 13th century.

The general belief for the coinage of the name ‘Andaman’ lies in the Indian mythology and the name of the revered Hindu God Hanuman. Although, around the year 1440, Niccolo de Conti, an Italian explorer noted the term could mean ‘Island of Gold’.

Fun fact: A manuscript called the ‘Book of Wonders (The Secrets of Natural History)’ was created in the 15th century Paris, which describes the Islands being populated with wolf-like humanoid creatures! This is how inaccessible the islands were at the time, so much so, that the history itself was distorted beyond belief.

Languages Lost To Time

The Andamans host some of the most ancient and untouched by civilization tribes, in the world. These tribes have survived through the tumultuous climates, natural disasters, and significant changes in the culture of the surrounding nations and territories.

The Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese people are some of the tribes from the Andamans, that are of Negroid lineage.

These Andaman Islands people and tribes used to speak languages like Khora, Bo, Mohkhmer, and Shompen which are now extinct because the last surviving members that could speak these have perished, taking their old languages with them.

The tribes in Andaman now speak Andamanese, Onge, Sentinelese, and Jarawa, which are more closely related then the previous ones, which were Austroasiatic in nature.

Andaman’s Dark Past – A History Drenched In Blood and Wars

There is no way to determine when exactly the advent of civilization took place in the remote islands of Andaman. However, the indigenous tribes struggled a lot against the ‘invaders’ from the very beginning.

Maratha Empire was the first to even list the Islands as a part of their territory, while the Chola Kings used the islands as their naval camp during their battle against the Sriwijaya Empire from Indonesia.

The first attempts to colonize the islands, however, came from the Danish East India settlers. These colonizers made Nicobar (affectionately called as New Denmark by them) their camp in 1755 but couldn’t survive the outbreaks caused by Malaria and left by 1848.

Chatham Island was the first checkpoint for the British settlers back in 1857 under a committee headed by Dr. F. J. Mouat. But they had tried their luck to colonize Chatham previously from 1789 to 1796, although they were driven away by adverse climates.

They finally turned port Blair into a penal colony called ‘Kalapani’ or ‘Cellular Jail’ by 1896, although the place was being used for confining and condemning prisoners from 1857 onwards. Anyone that was convicted of a crime against the empire was sent for enduring a life sentence here.

The prisoners were also used for expanding the settlement which in turn angered the native Andaman Islands tribe, leading to the ‘Battle of Aberdeen’ in 1859 which badly decimated the tribal population.

The prisoners were finally released when the Britishers left the Andamans in 1938. Some of those prisoners chose to settle there on the island itself, while the others were moved to the mainland.

Then came the Japanese armies, during World War II. They committed atrocious crimes against Indians until the islands were captured back by the Britishers in 1945. This era is seldom talked about as no complete recounts are available, but it is one of the darkest periods in Andaman’s history.

After years of pain and struggle, Pandit Nehru finally acquired Andamans in place of two Manipur districts from Myanmar (then Burma). Andamans were then declared as a Union territory and these landmarks have now been turned into historical memorials.

Historically significant places on the Andaman Islands

  • Cellular Jail in Port Blair
    Symbol of the freedom struggle. It has housed famous freedom fighters such as Veer Savarkar. Only a few wings are opened to tourists and a light and dance show dramatizing the events in the past is organized for visitors as well in the jail compounds.
  • Penal colony Ross Island
    These ruins precede the establishment of Cellular jail and also contain the ruins of the gallows. However, the place is still very picturesque.
  • Viper Island Jail
    Named after the ship of Archibald Blair, it has two major sections: One is the prisoner gallows where the prisoners are hanged, and the other is the Courtroom building ruins.
  • Government Sawmill at Chatham
    It is the largest and oldest sawmill in Asia. Now the place is being maintained by the Forest Department. There is a bomb pit, which is a relic from the World War II era, and a personal museum of sorts for the ill where wood carvings are on display these days.
  • Japanese bunkers and British colonial ruins on Port Blair and Ross island
    Remnants from the WW II era and the atrocious past of the islands, these bunkers are often on display for visitors.
  • Swaraj Island and Shaheed Dweep
    In honour of the freedom fighters, Neil and Havelock Island were renamed into Shaheed dweep and Swaraj Island, respectively owing to their historical importance.

The Andaman Islands are truly a piece of heaven and could prove to be a learning opportunity for those that have the patience to visit all the places that these islands have to offer. This place attracts History buffs and avid travellers alike.