The Andaman Islands (1)

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The Andaman and Nicobar Island chain stretches from just above the northern tip of Indonesia (Banda Aceh – where the 2004 tsunami originated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog) to south-west of Rangoon, now Yangon. The Andamans can be visited from Chennai or Kolkata, but the Nicobars are off-limits to tourists due to the Stone Age tribal communities which still live there – you may remember seeing aerial footage of spear-shaking men (on North Sentinel Island) trying to scare off a military helicopter which was checking up on their island post-tsunami.

In passing, one of the groups which do communicate now and again with anthropologists explained that they survived the tsunami since they recognised the animal behaviour and followed them as they fled inland. This is perhaps an ancient memory of previous tsunamis passed down through the generations, in stark contrast to the modern folk near Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India who went out onto the seabed to collect stranded fish as the first wave retreated and were caught and killed by the second.

The Andamans appear in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, where a mysterious death occurs at Pondicherry Lodge and Sherlock Holmes traces the story back to an Englishman and three Sikh accomplices who stole a fortune in Agra, were caught, and sentenced to penal servitude for life in the islands. An Andamanese, armed with a blowpipe and deadly poisonous darts, is the loyal servant of the Englishman, Small, who is trying to regain the treasure.

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The British use of islands as jails is well-known all over the world. St Helena, for the Boer prisoners of war; Seychelles for exiles and political prisoners, such as Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda and Archbishop Makarios; and Port Blair for those who fell foul of British rule in India. We have friends in Chennai who, as Indian freedom fighters, were sent to Port Blair and the notorious Cellular Jail.

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We visited in 2006 – here are a few photos of the jail – and one surprise for me was to learn that during the Second World War the Andamans were occupied by the Japanese. The Cellular Jail is now a national monument, and among the exhibits are souvenirs of the occupation – a newspaper advertising lessons in conversational Japanese, for example, and currency notes – and pictures of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was controversially allied with the Japanese, raising the Indian flag of Independence for the first time on Indian soil.

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