The British Had Gulags Too

We all are familiar with the ‘Indian Freedom Struggle’- A long drawn struggle for India’s independence from the British rule. The British, initially, sailed to India as traders as The East India Company. Soon, the greed for power and money drove them to gain control as they monopolised their trade and set their rule in the subcontinent. As they started to force their ways over the people of this land foreign to them, people revolted. We’ve all heard of The Nazi Concentration Camps and Stalin’s Gulag, but there isn’t much we know about it’s British equivalent— Ross Island.

After the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ broke out in 1857, the only way to threaten and punish the revolting Indians was to throw them in prison and torture them. However, the jails in India soon started to overflow considering the population and all the British Laws they broke. This called for the construction of a prison at a separate location altogether where prisoners wouldn’t see the light of day again.

In 1858, when the British discovered the Andaman islands, they saw it as the perfect location to construct the cellular jail or ‘kaala pani’ there. While it was all covered in thick forest, within no time there stood a vast prison there. The existence of the cellular jail is still known to most of us. However, is it the activities that took place on Ross Island which aren’t common knowledge. More than a thousand kilometres away from the Indian mainland, this region perfectly served the purpose of exiling the enemies of the empire. In addition, according to Hindu scriptures, a journey across the sea was a taboo that resulted in the loss of social respectability and severed all ties that men required to hold on to life. The British took advantage of this and hoped that this incarceration would instil fear in the minds of all Hindus across the empire.

A remote island in the archipelago of the Andaman islands, Ross Island served as a penal colony for Indian dissidents for more than eighty years. Even though it measured less than one third of a square kilometre, the small island became exceedingly infamous. From brutalities to experiments, everything was carried out here and the death toll was immense. Several factors contributed to the islands disgrace. Nearly all convicts suffered from a wide array of diseases ranging from Malaria, dysentery and pneumonia. Most were also subject to malnutrition and torture to fulfil the sadistic pleasures of the officials.

In fact, it was the prisoners clad in iron chains who were made to build the prisons on the island in the first place. Others have also knows to be victims of cannibalism at the hands of the indigenous tribes of the island. It is also believed that once, more than ten thousand prisoners were forcibly made to consume quinine which was still an experimental drug back then. This had dire consequences as these prisoners fell prey to some sickness or the other- either physical or mental. The British responded to its failed results by hanging those affected to death.

This went on for a long time till other islands surrounding Ross and Port Blair were extended to being prisons. Soon after this, Ross Island became an important administrative division for the British. The island was reformed to have magnificent bungalows with manicured gardens. But because this island was so isolated and small, officials also dreaded being posted here as it felt like nothing short of a confined cell.

The ruination and abandonment of the island began in 1941 after it was hit with a devastating earthquake. Whatever was left off the island after this was also destroyed after the Japanese used the island as a bunker. Shortly after the independence of India in 1947, the island was completely abandoned and neglected for about thirty years. It was only in 1979 when it was taken over by the Indian Navy to preserve it.

It may have been about a century since th brutalities that took place on the island. Yet, if you go to Ross Island today, its atmosphere still echos of the screams of those who were mercilessly tortured and killed.

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