VINAYAK SAVARKAR ARRIVED at the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands on July 4, 1911, aboard the SS Maharaja. He wrote: “I felt that I had entered the jaws of death. The high wall was adorned with a festoon of manacles and several similar instruments of torture were hanging down from the wall.”
Exposing decades-long torture of Indian revolutionaries like Savarkar in Britain’s own “Devil’s Island”, Cathy Scott- Clark and Adrian Levy in The Guardian reconstructed the story of Dhiren Chowdhury: “Like tens of thousands of political prisoners before him, Chowdhury was manacled in the hold of a liner and carried to a remote archipelago in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. Over the past three-quarters of a century, hundreds had tried to escape from the Andaman Islands. Those who remained were routinely tortured and experimented upon by British army doctors who administered the colony, in which thousands died.”
Savarkar underwent torture by the British in 1911, two decades before Chowdhury and other Indian freedom fighters would suffer the same fate in the 1930s. It was the decade in which European powers were fighting the rise of German fascism, but practising it in their colonies: Britain in India and Africa; France in Africa and Indo-China; Spain and Portugal in Latin America.
Rewind to 1856. It was a year before the first war of independence (misnamed the Sepoy Mutiny). Field Marshal Sir Robert Napier wrote in his journal: “Transportation beyond the sea is to the Hindoos… a separation forever from every tie and relation and possession which men hold to in life.”
Thus began the story of the torture chambers in the Andamans that half-a-century later would house Savarkar and other Indians fighting British colonial rule.
Scott-Clark and Levy followed the trail: “British military doctors had admired the penal settlement unveiled by the French six years earlier on a rocky islet off Guyana. But their Devil’s Island would be far more ambitious. The doctors consulted Hindu texts and decided to create a psychological gulag based around the Sanskrit term kalapani. It literally meant ‘black water’, but kalapani was also a myth, an ancient Indian story that told how the faithful parted from their souls by crossing the sea. The doctors knew that kalapani would be feared across the Empire as a godless place, a journey that would strip the transported of their caste, community, and creed.”
The doctors consulted Hindu texts and decided to create a psychological gulag based around the Sanskrit term Kalapani. It literally meant ‘black water’, but Kalapani was also a myth, an ancient Indian story that told how the faithful parted from their souls by crossing the sea
Share this on
The cruelty of the Andaman project did not cause embarrassment back in London. Parliament barely took note. It was used to this sort of thing. In Australia, intrepid British settlers were killing Aborigines and occupying their land. Indigenous Indians who dared challenge British settlers in North America had already been treated with similar ruthlessness.
After two centuries, the British were finally forced to stop shipping African slaves to America due to the growing abolitionist sentiment. They replaced the transatlantic slave trade with indentured labour in the West Indies. Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul’s ancestors were among those forcibly shipped to the British colony of Guyana and into a lifetime of bonded labour.
In March 1858, Dr James Pattison Walker arrived in the Andamans with a group of ‘political prisoners’. In May 1858, several tried to escape. They were captured. Dr Walker had all hanged the same day.
Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India, came to inspect the Andaman Islands in 1872. He said: “This is the loveliest place I think I ever saw. Plenty of room here to settle two million men.”
The wickedness did not end with torture chambers and summary executions. The British conducted secret pharmaceutical trials on the prisoners. One official document noted: “From the Secretary to the Government of India, Simla, June 24th 1880, despatch 197, to Dr J Reid, Senior Medical Officer, Port Blair: Regarding a new drug, cinchona alkaloid, the experimental use is very desirable… and should be confined to 1,000 convicts.”
Some of the convicts on whom the pharmaceutical trials were carried out died within days. Savarkar scratched his story with a nail on the walls of his cell.
When did it all end? In 1939. The Cellular Jail was forced to close as World War II drew near. The British needed the help of Indian conscripts to fight the Germans and Japanese.
The Japanese captured the Andaman Islands in 1941. They jailed the British warders in the same Cellular Jail the warders had incarcerated, tortured, and killed hundreds of Indian freedom fighters.