Dialogue  January - March, 2009 , Volume 10  No. 3


Penal System in Andaman


R.V.R. Murthy*



Abstract: The penal system was revised from time to time according to the requirements of settlement and developed within the existing conditions. At one time conditions were too severe, perhaps unavoidably so, owing to the fact that a number of desperadoes of the mutiny had to be guarded extramurally without the prospects of ever returning to their native lands. Later the policy was to ameliorate the conditions and again to make them more severe and deterrent because the Andamans became too attractive. The object however, was always, to reform the criminal by gradual relaxation of discipline over a decade, while holding out the prospects of semi-free and self-supporting existence.


Introduction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Indian convicts were transported to Southeast Asian countries largely to supply labour requirements and to develop infrastructure to cater to the interests of the British empire. The British on the other hand viewed transportation as an exceedingly harsh punishment because they felt that it invoked not only the fear of the unknown, but also that of transgressing caste taboos. This made transportation supposedly as an extremely effective deterrent to crime, and secondly, it helped them meet the cost of imprisonment, which at the time did not involve a productive use of imprisoned convict’s labour. The available statistics show  that of the caste and religious backgrounds of the convicts reaching Southeast Asia region, Muslims formed the largest overall group of Bengal convicts, nearly 33.6 percent. Only 12.4 percent were high caste, demolishing the theory that the transportation lead to loss of caste discourse.

    The penal transportation set within the rhetoric of moral reform, which entailed distancing the convict from his familiar surroundings and subjecting him to hard labour. There existed inherent contradictions within this rhetoric of reform that illustrated the conflict that existed between the penal and economic aims of transportation. The penal transportation had a direct impact on the way convicts were managed. And since penal concerns were secondary to economic ones, not much emphasis was put on strict discipline, surveillance and segregation. Most penal settlements were turned hell on earth and incidence of suicides reflected convict’s powerlessness and desperation.                          The history  of transportation  from the perspective  of the history  of the Indian Penal system and  law making can perhaps provide a deeper  understanding  of the  ideological  role that   each  punishment  played  in the  history of the  British Rule.  Penal transportation, besides its utility as developing and colonizing far-flung colonies, served an ideological function for the British Raj. A substitute for capital punishment, penal transportation was intended to impart a benign and merciful appearance to colonial authoritarianism and at the same time was used for dealing with problems of collective crime. This punishment was resurrected and deployed whenever the colonial order felt threatened   by a popular upsurge or a collective resistance by the colonized people.   
 The penal transportation was extensively resorted to during the 1780’s, 1820’s and post 1857. These were also periods of the rise of banditry, thuggee and popular rebellions in the Indian mainland. Most of the convicts sent to Mauritius and the Andamans were convicted of dacoity, murder and banditry. The character of colonies having convict stations or employing   labour on  a particular  scale was  different  from  that of settler colonies.  It is really the use of a colony particularly for penal purposes, as a prison, which qualified it as a penal settlement.  The colonization of most of the overseas and far-flung colonies began with the use of penal labour, because most of them required a certain amount of resources and labour input in order to make them habitable by European standards.  The actual character of the settlement was decided only after they were developed, depending on the strategic, economic and political needs of the colonial state.  As a result many colonies like Andamans became convict settlements.

Genesis of Andaman Penal colony

The British started the system of the transportation of Indian prisoners to overseas penal settlements in 1787. During the same period they also shipped a small number of offenders to mainland jails across India., e.g., Alipur near  Calcutta, and smaller district jails in Bombay and Madras Presidencies. Transportation emptied overcrowded mainland prisons and assured new company settlements a supply of cheap labour. In fact the convict workforce was vital to the development of early colonial infrastructure.                                                                                      

 The East India Company established its first penal settlement for the reception of India convicts in Benkulu (1787-1825) the Andaman Islands (1793-96), Penang otherwise known as Prince of Wales Island (1790-1860), Melaka and Singapore (1825-60) and the Burmese provinces of Arakan and Tenasserim (1828-62) followed later. A large  number of Bengal prisoners convicted for various crimes were sent to Benkoelen penal settlement in Sumatra. Later on prisoners from Madras and other provinces were also sent often to establish a settlement. According to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Governor of Sumatra, the object of transporting convicts to a far off place was to reclaim them from bad habits but he pointed out in a letter written to the Government of India that in the system prevailing in the penal settlement at the time the above objectives were not achieved. In his opinion even these prisoners who expressed an inclination to reform themselves, were not given sufficient encouragement.  Infact, the authorities mainly employed the convicts tasks of clearing forests, making roads and for developing the settlement at Singapore, Penang, Malacca, Tennaserim and Aracan and the Andamans.

     The history of the Andaman Islands before the eighteenth century is largely unknown till the advent of western colonization. Lying on the trade in the midst of Bay of Bengal – Islands were captured by many for years together. The references to the Islands by the travelers Chinese’s, Asiatic and European regularly appear in some shape or other on all maps from the “Plotemic” of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, when the East India Company’s and Royal Navy Commanders and surveyors began to make accurate reports of parts of the coast in charts of the indefatigable Dalrymple. In 1788, owing to piracies and ill-treatment of ship wrecked and distressed crews, the East India Company through Lord Cornwallis commissioned the great surveyor, Archibald Blair to start a settlement on the ordinary lines to which convicts were afterwards sent as labourers. Blair fixed on Port Blair for his settlement in 1789, but for strategic reasons it was moved to Port Cornwallis in 1792, where it perished miserably in 1796 being an unhealthy site. Lack of economic returns and the polluting presence of convicts for the indentured labour were factors that contributed to the abolition of transportation to the Andamans. 2                                                                    In the beginning of nineteenth century a penal settlement was established at Penang, where convicts   were directly sent from India.  A few years after the acquisition of Malacca in 1795 another penal settlement was established at the same place.  The first batches of prisoners were sent to Malacca from Penang in 1823.  Meanwhile Benkoelen was transferred to the Dutch and the convicts stationed there were shifted to Penang.  The first batch of convicts on way to Benkoelen was directed to go Singapore. In 1826, Penang, Malacca and Singapore were incorporated   under the imperial government with Penang as its capital.  Later in 1832, the capital was shifted to Singapore.  Penal settlement was also opened for Indian convicts in Aracan and Tennaserim in Burma after the British conquered it in 1826.

      Meanwhile the British authorities in India seriously considered the utility of transportation as reformative measure. The Indian Law Commission of 1837 did not favour the transportation of term- prisoners along with life convicts. While agreeing with the above recommendations the Committee of Prison of Discipline observed “… that the dread which transportation was not regarded as dreadful by the convicts to the same extent as was feared by them some time ago, the Law Commission of 1847 was inclined to restrict the transportation to life-convicts only.” Probably, the refusal of many convicts to return to their homes on account of the fear of losing their caste was taken by the Commission to mean that the convict s to some extent did not fear transportation as it was done before.  However, the government of India in 1858 decided to transport, in the first instance convicts sentenced to life imprisonment and subsequently for the transportation of convicts sentenced on charges of mutiny, rebellion and for other offences connected therewith.  Eventually all convicts under sentence of transportation whom for any reason, it may not be thought expedient to send to the straits settlement or the Tennaserim provinces were to be sent there. Thus in the beginning it was decided not to send men of desperate or unmanageable character to the Andamans.3  

      In the eyes of many East India Company officials, the sea was central to how convicts experienced the punishment of transportation, for crossing the Kala pani (black water), resulted in loss of caste. Thus Indians particularly feared it. Convict responses to transportation were rather more nuanced. Up to 1860, the authorities  had shipped  all Indian and some Burmese convicts to the Andaman islands, which  had been re-established  as a penal colony  in the  wake of uprisings that  swept  across India in 1857-1858.

    The regulation of Indian convict transportation during the first half of the nineteenth century can be divided into two parts. Before 1834 the East India Company had a monopoly over long distance trade routes, and regularly shipped Indian convicts to Southeast Asia on its Chinese fleet- the ‘China Ships’. Those same ships brought convicts back from Southeast Asia to mainland Indian Jails.  After 1834, when the company lost its monopoly, most convicts were transported on such ships and arrangements became somewhat piecemeal and irregular. In general, this lack of regulation only came to light after some incidents at sea.


History of Penal Settlement after 1857 revolt

    Since its foundation, the history of the Penal settlement was merely one of the continuous official developments. In January 1858 the Andaman Commission arrived to examine the islands for a possible site for a penal settlement. It was  headed by  Dr. F.J.  Mouat, and other members of the committee were Dr. C. R. Playfair and Lieutenant J.H. Heathcoat. They made extensive tour and selected the site of original settlement in 1790 Blair. The harbour was named Port Blair in his honour. At the same time Captain H. Mann, an experienced manager of convicts, was sent to re-annex the islands and commence the settlement in Chatham Island.

     In March  1858 Dr. J. P. Walker, an experienced Jail Superintendent arrived  with four  European officers and 733 convicts and cleared Chatham and Ross Islands and started  clearing Haddo and Atlantic  points.  He fixed the headquarters on Ross Island. He worked under enormous difficulties. In addition to other difficulties he had to contend with constant escapes and attempts at escape and repeated attacks from the indigenous Andamanese. On April 1, 1859 about 200 Punjabi convicts organized a plot to murder J.P. Walker for ending British authority in the Andamans. On receipt of prior intimation of the attack from one of them, Walker’s life was saved by two convicts from being shot by a conspirator.  All the conspirators were caught and severely dealt with.4

    Meanwhile a number of steps were taken to improve the condition of settlement. Deaths were frequent due to bad weather and other water borne diseases. After a lapse of a decade, H. Mann again took over the settlement and  the penal system of the Straits  settlement was formally introduced in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Around this time H. Mann also started another penal settlement at Nancowry harbour, which lasted only for few years.                                                                                                  
    The settlement was facing a peculiar problem. Most of the term convicts were either young or middle aged men whose character was different from the criminals. Walker requested the Government of India fair proportion of women in the settlement to stop adultery and to minimize sex-related crimes. With the approval of the Imperial government, Walker appointed two convict family emigration agents at Calcutta and another at North Frontier Province, presently in Pakistan. Meanwhile the Penal authorities issued notice to the term convicts to call their families and provided a piece of land and other life support items were provided on a decreasing scale. To add some more women folk to the settlement the Imperial government instituted a committee to investigate the increasing mortality rate among the convicts at Port Blair. Robert Napier  visited the settlement and found  that out of  8,035 convicts sent to Port Blair since 1858, 2098 had died  due to harsh conditions and due to  under nutrition and 612 had deserted due to stringent  mental tortures inflicted upon them.

    The pitiable conditions in the settlement caused most of the deaths. Women were often victims oddly rape and molestation by the convicts. There was dearth of shelter, clothing and inadequate supply of food grains. Robert Napier considering the harsh conditions and difficulties of the settlement  stressed  immediate  need  of providing  food  and clothing and placed request before the imperial government to 3000 shelters for convicts apart from hospitals, systematic extension of cultivation of fruits and vegetables providing more  facilities to married convicts and space of  at least  500 cubic  feet for each convict. These recommendations were accepted and the gradual improvements were introduced in the settlement to promote self-supporting system. But the reforms were failure due to several reasons. There were no definite rules for the management of convicts. The local crimes were on increase. Finally the government has realized the importance of certain rules for the management of convicts on the recommendation of Major Nelson Davis, Secretary of the Chief Commissioner of Burma who visited the settlement in 1867. Ultimately the management of transported convicts was brought under the Governor General-in-Council under Section 34 of the Act V of 1871 (Prisoners) on July 29, 1874. 6                                                             

    In 1871, Lord Mayo initiated many important steps to make the settlement self-sufficient during extreme weather conditions. Special attention paid to cultivation, cattle rising, timber and other produces to generate revenue for the requirements of the settlement. Meanwhile the first week of February 1872, witnessed a tragedy which shocked the entire settlement and imperial government in mainland. Lord Mayo was killed near Port Blair on a visit to settlement by   Sher Ali, a criminal convict from North-West Frontier Province. After this unusual incident, the settlement became a hell for other convicts. Every convict was suspected and had to undergo severe punishments.                                                

    Scarlet Campbell, Secretary of Home Department inspected the penal settlement in 1873. He had made several suggestions including the improvement in the penal system and classification of convicts. His recommendations to the Governor –General made it clear, “ that  the main and primary object for which  the settlement  is maintained is to secure  that the sentence  passed upon  convicts is properly carried out under a well regulated system of discipline and to this object the profitable employment  of the convicts and the development of the islands  must be considered  subordinate”. 7 He further mentioned in the report that the convicts were no longer afraid of being  transported to the Andamans. The convicts regarded Port Blair as a most comfortable place for prisoners. The only drawback was separation from home and family.

     On June 1, 1874, the total convicted men of the settlement  were 7820, besides 895 female life convicts and  888 term convicts. There were also 500 married couples with 578 children and 1167 tickets of leave convicts, 476 of whom were women. For security reasons. The govt. strongly supported the transportation of more term convicts to the penal settlement. Meanwhile, Sri Henry Norman suggested that the deplorable moral state of affairs in the settlement can be improved by introducing marriage among male and female convicts. The tickets of leave convicts may be given more encouragement   to call their wives or husbands from the mainland.

    For the purpose, two  agents were  recruited. They were Lalla  Mundan Singh  for  Bengal  and  Lalla Ram Dayal for the North-West Provinces and Oudh, each on  a salary of  Rupees fifty, with  a bonus of rupees two  for  each female and juvenile member of  a  family dispatched from Calcutta.  Apart from the efforts by the state, the settlement was also offered and encouraged the convicts to bring their families from mainland India. There were nearly two hundred convicts who were willing to take a chance and made such applications. In order to encourage the scheme, the government went as far as to give sanction to the servants and family members of the convicts to be shipped to the Andamans for a preliminary visit. 266 letters were dispatched to kins and family members of the convicts. Out of 266 letters in only two cases women travelled to Port Blair. Later the officials confirmed that the families of convicts were reluctant principally on account of caste taboos. The idea of convict family migration was never totally abandoned and was taken up once again in 1864 by there then Superintendent Major Ford. He saw that convict family emigration scheme as ‘very expedient and quite practicable’ and felt that it would be the first step towards colonization. Indeed many such measures were taken to improve the conditions of the settlement and to give a civilized society status.  The officers of the settlement however failed to bring convicts for reasons explained above viz. caste taboo8

    Initially the penal settlement was not a prison, but a place for the detention of a certain class of prisoners only.  The Andaman penal system worked on rules contained in the Andaman and Nicobar Manual, consisting of two parts: 

·       Rules and orders  issued under legal authority, and

·       Administrative and executive orders.

·       Rules  of  the Governor-General in Council  for the management of transport ed convicts under section 34 of act V of 1871       (Prisoners)

·       Subsidiary rules of the Chief Commissioners with the sanction of the Governor-General in Council under section 18 of Andaman and Nicobar Regulation, 1882.

·       Bye-laws  of the Superintendent ( see Section  32 (b)   Andaman and Nicobar  Regulation III of  1876 and Rule VI (7)  of the Governor –General in Council’s Rules  for transported convicts, 1874

·       These bye-laws are known Settlement Standing Orders, and are included in the Manual and issued whenever necessary. The Prisoners  Act 1874, has been repealed  by the Prisoners Act (III) of 1900,  and though no rule-making  power is conferred  by the new Act in this connection, the rules  of the Governor-General in Council and the Bye-laws referred to therein are still  in force under the General Clauses Act of  X of  1897, section 24,  till the penal settlement was abandoned.

    C.J. Lyall and Major A.S. Lethbridge were sent to Port Blair for ascertaining whether the regulations of the convict management in the Andamans were sufficiently stringent in character for securing the full deterrent effect. The committee submitted an extensive report in the month of April 1890. In their opinion the convicts preferred transportation to Port Blair than a stay in an Indian jail. Hence the life of a convict in the Andaman should be made more stringent and difficult.   Instead of transportation lack of male term convicts they preferred that ex-convicts of the settlement should be encouraged to stay in Andamans.

       In order to make the imprisonment more severe in character, separate confinement for a period of six months after the arrival of the convict at Port Blair was recommended. In the second spell, the confinement was to be in a limited area for two consecutive years to instill discipline.  Further it recommended that the mark system of rewards to convict should be introduced in the settlement to encourage a convict to become a self-supporting in ten years. Both the members emphasized the transportation of more women to the Penal settlement. Indeed their objective was to give more facilities to self-supporters to marry female convicts after their term was completed. As a result of their recommendations, the authorities in Port Blair enforced discipline very strictly. Further to administer the recommendation very strictly the idea of separate confinement was mooted and constriction of Cellular Jail was started in the year 1896.                                                                                  

The Committee further emphasized the transportation of more women to the Andaman penal settlement.9 Transportation of female term convicts sentenced for seven years and upwards was recommended by them.  Their objective was to give more facilities to self-supporters to marry the female convicts. The female convicts were to be segregated from the male convicts in the jail. The primary purposes of the incarceration of women in the Andaman Islands had to do with the rehabilitation of male offenders. The very objective to punishing criminalized females was to provide wives for male convicts, as a disincentive to homosexual relationships between men and an incentive to a politically manageable domesticity. 10 

    The women life convicts were dealt with relative leniency. They were to divided into two main classes – those in and those out of the Female Jail. Every woman must remain in the Female Jail, unless in domestic employment by permission or married and living with her husband. Women were eligible for marriage or domestic employment after five  years in the settlement, and if married they  may  leave the settlement  after  15 years with their husbands. All married couples had to wait for each other’s full term under the rules, whichever came last, and they  must leave together. If unmarried, women have to remain 20 years in Jail. In the jail they rise from class to class and can become petty officers on terms similar to those of men.  The term convicts were treated on the same general lines, except that they cannot become self-supporters and re released at once on the expiry of their sentences. Convict marriages well carefully controlled so as to prevent degeneration into concubines or irregular alliances. Local Saving Bank proved of great value in inducing faith on the part of the convicts in the honesty of the government, irrespective of its value in inducing habits of thrift and diminishing the temptation.

      In a note written in 1904, W.R.K. Merk regarded it unnecessary and extravagant to spend a considerable amount on a convict by sending him to a penal settlement which had lost its deterrent character and reformative value.  Except for a short period in the Cellular Jail, the life of a worst criminal deported to these islands was more comfortable than the life of a less hardened fellow prisoner in an Indian jail.  In his opinion the time had come when the transportation to the Andamans should be stopped.  But the Government of India did not agree with indeed the government of India regarded  the Andaman penal settlement was a suitable place of exile for the habitual or especially dangerous offenders.  However, they were inclined to reduce the number of convicts in the Andamans by suspending the deportation of male-term prisoners. In order to arrive at a final decision the Government of India referred the matter to the provincial governments for their opinion. On receiving the opinions of the provincial governments, the government of India decided to continue the settlement. In 1910, the government of India also started the transportation of political prisoners to the Andamans.    

   Meanwhile rejecting all the speculative statements regarding the Andaman penal settlement, the Home Secretary after visiting the settlement in 1911 said that there was no reason to believe that the punishment of transportation to the Andamans was not fully deterrent in character. Further he admitted that the Andaman system reformed the convict to a great extent.  Though capable of improvement the system was sufficiently punitive and deterrent.                                                                 

    The gross number of the convicts sent to the penal settlement up to year 1901 was 49,592. (See Table: 1.1) The persons transported to Port Blair settlement were murderers, who for some reasons have escaped the death penalty, and the perpetrators of the  more heinous offences against the person and property.  The sentences they had to undergo are chiefly for life, but convicts, with long term sentences were also sent from time to time.  Except  under special  circumstances, convicts were  neither under 18 years  of age nor over 40 years, or mentally fit for hard labour. Youths between 18 and 20 were kept in the Boys Gang under special conditions.  Girls were  occasionally  of  16 or  thereabouts, but  as all women locally unmarried  are kept  in the ‘Female Jail’ a large enclosures consisting  of separate sleeping wards  and workshed, there  were no special  rules for them.


                                     Table: 1.1

Year-wise convict deportation to Andamans 1874-1901

Year          1-16                   17-40                 41-60               Over 60

1874           20                      4,582                  1,991                   476

1881             -                      8,730                  2,180                   542

1891             -                      8,815                  2,421                   502

1901             -                      7,264                  3,945                   635

Source: Census Report 1901, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  p. 92         

     The following  table shows that murder, and of the dacoity, (gang robbery with murder or preparation for  murder) and the heinous  offences against  property made up  the bulk of convict population.

                                                                                                                                                                        Fig: 1.2

Year            Murder         Crime      Dacoity    Against      Others     Total

                                       Against                     property                                                                     the person

1874             5,575             107          1,262          325           298       7,567

1881             7,445             158          2,444       1,012          381      11,440

1891             7,946             308          1,711       1,337          416      11,718

1901             7,795             817          2,262          904           196      11,974

1904-05       8,386             752          2,881       1,874          219      14,112

1905-06       8,559             812          3,050       2,038          237      14,696

Source: Census Report 1901, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, p. 92

     These figures illustrate the violent character of the convicts and it is of value to examine their behaviour which in fail. Between 1890-1900 the average proportion of convicts who committed or attempted murder was 0.12 percent, the figures rising to 1.5 percent in 1894. Neither  the nature of the labour nor the discipline enforced appears to have any effect on the tendency for crime, and the  motives  traced are  similar  to those  disclosed in  similar cases among the ordinary population.


Concept of Cellular jail – natural prison  
The entire Island was like a jail.11  In almost perennial rainy weather, with heavy bar fetters and shackles on their feet, surrounded by snakes, leeches and scorpions the freedom fighters were to make roads through marshy land. They were punished and faced hard labour if they slowed down. The British authorities were not content with banishment alone. They thought of preventing ‘contamination’ of ideas and thoughts between these men and large number of hardened criminals by separate confinement for a period of at least 6 months. Accordingly plans to accommodate 600 convicts in separate cells were drawn.  The cellular jail system in Andamans had definite impact on the Auborn (silence) system that in essence meant associated work by day and separate cells for sleeping in the night to prevent contamination.12                                 

    The construction of the massive structure called the Cellular Jail was undertaken in 1892 as ‘matter of great urgency’ at considerable cost. The unique structure of the jail spreads out like a seven-petal flower.  In its center it had a tower with a turret.  Connected to this were the three storied high seven wings with 698 isolated cells. This is why it is called the Cellular jail.13  The forbiddingly high walls conjure up fearsome visions and where the Indian freedom fighters underwent unspeakable brutalities for many, many years. The alien government used the Cellular jail to incarcerate anyone who raised his or her voice against the British Empire. It is a symbol of the cruelty of the British imperialism, while in another way it is a symbol of the sacrifices for the cause of independence. 14                                                                                                                                                                       In the beginning of the twentieth century the press and public in India expressed their resentment over reports of the cruel treatment to convicts in the ‘Kala Pani’. Demands for the abolition of the settlement was continuously made by political leaders in their writings and speeches.  In November 1913, Sir. Reginald Craddock, the Home member, visited the Andaman penal settlement to study the situation personally. In a lengthy report he mentioned that the penal system in Andamans appeared to be perfect in theory. According to him, the terror  of crossing  the ‘Kala pani’ was now an exploded bogey to Indians who were  voluntarily going to  distant places  like Fiji and  Columbia. The existence of immorality among the prisoners on a wide scale on account of shortage of women in the settlement was deplored by him. In these circumstances he suggested following three alternatives:                                 
  To abolish the  Andaman penal settlement;                                          
 To remedy only the serious defects of the system in order to make it less                                             harmful;                                                     and

      ·  To reform the entire penal system of India including the existing system of the Andamans. 15  

    Meanwhile the  Indian Jails committee  made a remarkable statement  stating that the existing  system  in the Andamans was regarded  undesirable  even  if increased  staff  was provided to the administration of the penal settlement. In their opinion the Andaman penal system had lost its deterrent effect, involved enormous expenditure and exposed prisoners to adverse climatic conditions. The committee did not regard the self-support system a success, mainly due to paucity of women in the settlement. Instead Andaman may be retained as a place of deportation for a   larger number of prisoners only.                                     
 Considering the conditions in Andaman Nicobar and press and public criticism in general to the penal system in Andamans, Sir William Vincent, Home Secretary to the Government of India announced (July 1922) the abolition of the penal settlement and arrange a speedy return of prisoners to the Indian jails.  Further he issued orders that the repatriation of the prisoners from Andaman would be gradual because the local governments were not in a position to accommodate about twelve to fifteen thousand prisoners in a short period.                                                                Based on the recommendations of Jails Committee, punishment of solitary confinement and chain gang were abolished. Flogging was rare. No convicts outside the jail were kept in fetters. Facilities for outdoor games and library were provided during leisure time. Some more steps were taken to improve the conditions of the penal system in Andamans and few unmarried females convicts were repatriated to their native places.                                                                                                            
Meanwhile due to overcrowding due to political agitation in the several provincial jails the local governments expressed their inability to accommodate such large numbers. British authorities thus considered the reopening of the Andaman penal system temporarily. Keeping aside all the criticism, the Deputy Secretary Gwynne  laid great  stress on the development of the resources of  the islands  and  indeed  he  observed that there was  no alternative but to  reopen temporarily the deportation of the prisoners.                                  
Sir Alexander Muddiman, the Home Member visited the islands in November 25, 1925 and recommended the penal settlement   to be continued because he felt that:

·     There was lack of  accommodation  in the jails  of several  provinces  of India  for prisoners  repatriated from the Andamans ; 

·     If the penal settlement of Port Blair is abandoned the whole administration of the island would collapse;

·    The closing of the settlement  would adversely  affect about three thousand  self – supporters in the islands who  were living  in a state of semi-independence; and 

       ·     The strategic location of these islands in the Bay of Bengal was another important reason and the immense natural wealth of these islands, which would be developed into valuable assets, prevented the British government to abandon the settlement. 16  

      The Government of India further certified that the reduction of convict population   in the settlement considerably hampered the progress of the development programmes of the islands. On account of shortage of labour in the islands several plans could not be executed. In order to promote self-supporters and free population, the Government of India extended grants of land on lease for fifty years to attract more people from mainland. The Government of India declared plans for the development of forest and agriculture in the islands to make semi self-sufficient penal system. This policy of developing the islands through the agency of an enlarged population of ex-convicts and their families was followed by the British government till the occupation of the Japanese in 1942. The islands were reoccupied by the British in 1945 and indeed they granted general pardon to all the convicts and self-supporters. Finally the Government of India abolished the penal settlement in 1945.



The Andaman Penal system is sui generic, has grown up on its own lines and has gradually adapted to the requirements of penal character. Indeed the fundamental principles on which the penal system was founded was to bring reformative changes in the criminals particularly the hard core criminals and dacoits. The success of the colonial  enterprise in the Andaman islands rested on  transforming the transported  convicts into a law-abiding and gainfully employed citizens of the British empire  and converting  the islands  space into a flourishing  agricultural colony. Indeed the penal authorities used methods, which were inhuman and intolerable. Like any prison, the convicts were forced to do hard work and sometimes the authorities went beyond the purely punitive, the work that long-term convicts performed served certain ideological imperatives. The convicts while in the settlement were divided into several categories. The economic division for both sexes was  the labour convicts and self-supporters. The former performed all the labour, skilled and unskilled and the later were chiefly engaged in agriculture and food supplies.                                                                                                                                                        
    The geographical factors greatly influenced the pattern of penal settlement in Andamans. Broadly speaking the penal settlement in Andamans was concerned with crime and its punishment in colonial India.  There were serious problems with the manner in which the colonial state punished the male and female offenders and few cases highlighted the quality of the system being implemented in remotest part of the India. The penal authorities were under the impression that the voice of these convicts would not travel beyond the islands. But to much of their annoyance the convict prisoners successfully managed to dispatch secretly the news about subhuman living conditions, and tales of sufferings and torture. The penal system in Andamans repressive, humiliated, insubordination, homosexuality and general despondency among the convicts because of lack of personal and  social ties and rightly termed that  Andamans as a  ‘hellish inferno’, the land of  death. The untold story of the Andamans penal order, where the convicts experienced ‘social death’, brutality, violence and repression.
    The penal settlement  in Andamans  was  not a prison, but  a  place for the detention of a  certain class of prisoners  only viz.,  transported  convicts. Indeed the penal settlement in Andamans had all the administrative appendages including military, post office, electricity and full-fledged system to maintain a colony or settlement. The penal system was primarily to impose strict discipline, secondly to provide for wants of the settlement so far as these can be supplied locally and thirdly, for establishment of a colony maintained for strategic reasons.




1. Clare Anderson, Convicts in the Indian Ocean: Transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815-1853, Macmillan Press, London, 2000. p. 162.

2. Home Department, Judicial Branch, Original Consultation 21January 15, 1858, No.21, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

3. Home Department, Judicial Branch, Port Blair, A proceedings July 29, 1859. No. 32, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

4. The settlement  on Chatham Island flourished under Archibald Blair, but unfortunately on the advice of Commodore  Cornwallis,  brother of the Governor –General , the  site was changed for strategic  reasons to North-East  harbour,  but the settlement  faced miserable from sickness. Finally the settlement was abandoned in  1796, on account of mass sickness. It contained 270 convicts and 550 free Bengali settlers. The convicts were transferred to Penang and the settlers taken to Bengal. After that the islands remained unoccupied by the colonial  rulers  till 1858.

5. Later the deserted convicts were presumed as dead. Ibid. Home Department, No. 32.

6. Mathur. L.P, Kalapani,, Eastern Book Corporation, Delhi, 1985. p. 40.

7. Home Department , Port Blair Branch, A proceedings, February 1873, No. 1, NAI, New Delhi.                 

8.  Home Judicial ( 30 November  1860)  National Archives of India, New Delhi.  pp.37-38

9. Aparna Vaidik, Settling the Convict: Matrimony and Domesticity in the Andamans, Studies in History, Vol. XXII, No. 02, July- December 2006, Sage Publications, New Delhi. pp. 221-251.

10. Satadru Sen, The female Jails  of colonial India, the Indian Economic and Social History  Review, 396, 4 (2002), Sage Publications,  New Delhi.  p. 418. 11. The British were occupied these islands in the year 1773. Since the islands were established as Penal colony and converted into a natural Jail after 1857 revolt. Majumder. R.C.,( 1975) Penal Settlement  in Andamans, Gazetteers, Government of India, New Delhi. pp.65-67.

12.  In 1890, a two member committee consisting of Sir. C J Lyall and Dr.A.S. Lethbridge specially recommended that the convicts in the Andamans should be  confined in separate cells in a limited area to cut off all means of communication  between the prisoners – based on the ‘Model Prison’ or infamous ‘Pentonville Prison’ in England. Encyclopedia of America, Grotier incorporated, Danbury,   1984. pp. 618-623.

13. Standing at the seacoast in the northeastern part of the Port Blair, the Cellular Jail has a unique architecture. In its original form, it had seven wings, much like the spokes of a bicycle. A three-storied structure, it had 698 cells and no dormitories. The central tower was used by it sentries to keep watch and control the cells.  Built with bricks brought from Myanmar, the jail was constructed during 1896-1906 at a cost of Rs. 5,17,352. The purpose of the jail was to condemn the largest number of revolutionary elements to long terms of imprisonment at the minimum cost. It was designed that the front of each wing faced the back of the other.  Each cell measuring 13 and a half feet by 7 and a half feet had an iron grill door well secured with sturdy iron bolt and lock on the rectangular groove on the outside of the cell wall and also a few inches away   from the entrance door making it impossible to reach it from within. Mukherji. Dr. S.K., Islands of India, Ministry of I & B, GOI, New Delhi, 1992. p. 135.

14. Iqbal Narain, The Andaman Story, Vikas Publications, New Delhi, 1978. p. 193.

15.  Home Department, Port Blair Branch, A proceedings, February 1873 No. 1, National  Archives of India, New Delhi. pp. 41-43.

16. Home Department , Andaman Branch, Jails, File No. 20/26, July 1922, National  Archives of India, New Delhi. pp.  45-46.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati