Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.
The History of Ross Island
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 a 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 on 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.
Ross Island Was the British Gulag
If there is any place on earth that can be called the British equivalent to the Soviet gulags 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 and an estimated 15,000 prisoners suffered horribly under a series of increasingly merciless chief commissioners who ruled the island with an iron fist.
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 an independent India. Today, the island stands abandoned with the jungle reclaiming it, shrouding it in foliage, its gruesome colonial past.
The British Started Gruesome Human Experiments
In addition to the miserable conditions of living, the British also started conducting illegal 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.
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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. 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 administration and an exclusive settlement for high-ranking officers and their families who made it a shining beacon of high flying British social life.
Ross Island Was Finally Abandoned
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 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.
How to Reach Ross Island
Ross island is located 2 km east of Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Port Blair is well connected to all major cities of India.
- By Air: The nearest airport is Veer Savarkar airport which is located about 5 km away from the center of the city.
- By Road: There are a number of buses and private cabs connecting Port Blair from major cities like Chennai, Mumbai, and Pune. Once you reach Port Blair, you can take a bus to Aberdeen Jetty and from there catch a ferry ride to Ross Island.
- By Water: Ferry rides are the best way to reach Ross Island. A lot of private and government operators are available from Port Blair to Ross island
- Best Time to Visit: You can visit Ross island either in the monsoon season (May–June) to enjoy picturesque scenic views, or in winter (January–March) when the temperature would be a pleasant 15 degrees Celsius
Other Things to Do in Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Besides Ross Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands have many other historical and scenic attractions to visit. Some of them are:
- Radha Nager Beach
- Cellular Jail
- Scuba Diving
- Elephant Beach
- Bird watching
- Water sports
- Corbyn’s Cave
Get more information from the official website of Andaman and Nicobar tourism.
- Ross Island
- Ross Island: Where history rests
- Historical Facts about the Andaman Islands That Everyone Should Know
- Ross Island
- Ross Island—10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting
- A ghost island in the middle of the Indian Ocean
- Ross Island’s Historic Ruins Are Worth a Visit When in Andamans
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ravi Rajan