In 1849, the vessel Emily commanded by Captain Anderson wrecked on the Andaman shores. In his letter to the owners, he narrated the batterings on the crewmen by the natives. The vessel Flying Fish also wrecked on 17th October 1849 westwards of Barren island, while its Commander Captain Shaw and other mariners succeeded in escaping to Narcondam island. On 13th January 1855, it was reported that three seamen of the Fyze Buksh of Moulmein had been murdered and four others were wounded by the aborigines at the Andamans. There were repeated instances of assaults by the Andamanese on unguarded crew of ships. These happenings and a number of similar incidents arrested the attention of the Government and made them ponder over having a colony on the Andamans.
In letter No. 4152 of 28th November 1855 addressed to the secretary to the government of Bengal, the functioning secretary to the Government of India noticed the outrages committed by the inhabitants of the Andaman islands on ship-wrecked seamen and enquired as to the measures proposed for the protection of British subjects as may unluckily be cast away on the Andamans.
The government of Bengal asked Captain Henry Hopkinson, the commissioner of Arakan to submit a report. Hopkinson submitted his report on 8th February 1856 which was forwarded to the Government of India on 29th February 1856. In his report, Hopkinson favoured the reoccupation of these islands by establishing a penal settlement. While Captain Hopkinson's letter was with the Government of India, a report about the murder of some Chinese sailors at the Andamans was also received. Under these circumstances the Court of Directors ordered in October 1856 that the Andaman islands should be explored with a view to founding a settlement there. This exploration however could not be undertaken until the end of 1857. The idea of establishing a penal settlement in Andamans was therefore, already in the process of finalisation when the mutiny broke out on 10th May 1857.
An Andaman Committee presided over by Dr. FJ. Mouat, inspector of jails, Dr. G.R. Playfair, assistant surgeon and Lt. J.A. Hoothcote was constituted by the Government of India on 20th November 1857, "To examine the shores of the Andaman Group of islands and select the best site there for the establishment of a penal settlement". On the recommendation of the Andaman Committee submitted on 1st January 1858, the governor general-in-council decided on 15th January 1858: "To establish a penal settlement on the Andaman islands for the reception, in the first instance of convicts sentenced to imprisonment and to transportation, for the crimes of mutiny and rebellion and for other offences connected therewith, and eventually for the reception of all convicts under sentence of transportation whom for any reason it may not be thought expedient to send to the Straits Settlement or to the Tenassenm Provinces".
Capt. H. Mann, executive engineer and superintendent of convicts at Moulmein was nominated as superintendent of the penal settlement to be established at the old harbour which was to be identified by the name of Port Blair in the honour of Archibald Blair who had discovered it about eighty years ago. Captain Henry Mann had, with all due ceremony raised the Union Jack at Port Blair on 22nd January 1858, and thus formally annexed the Andaman islands. Although he had been named the first superintendent of the settlement at Port Blair, but orders for his appointment were soon repealed and Dr. James Pattison Walker, who had a great deal of prior experience as a jail superintendent, and who was a nominee of Dr. Mouat, chairman of the Andaman Committee, was appointed in his place. Accompanied by 200 convicts, an Indian overseer, two Indian doctors and a guard of 50 naval brigadesmen under an officer of the Indian Navy, Dr. Walker left Calcutta on 4th March 1858 on board the company's steam frigate Seniiramis and reached Port Blair on 10th March 1858.
Immediately on arrival, the convicts were sent to clear up Chatham island. Three gangs of twenty-five men each were also sent to clear the Ross Island. Dr. Walker proposed to establish the headquarters at Ross Island which was approved on 7th May 1858. By 6th November 1858, the barracks to house 1000 convicts were built at Ross Island. The Viper Island was also occupied on 8th October 1858. The penal settlement centred around the harbour of Port Blair namely Ross, Chatham, Viper islands and Port Blair.
The fundamental object for which the settlement was maintained was to ensure that the sentence passed upon convicts was properly carried out under a well-regulated system of discipline. To provide employment to the convicts for any monetary gain or the development of the resources of the island was considered secondary and subordinate. The convicts were generally engaged in the clearance of jungles and to erect buildings for the settlement.
The convicts had to work for nine hours a day in the wearisome climate of these tropical islands in insanitary localities, which resulted in a high rate of mortality. They were given barely one anna and nine pice for their food, clothing and other essentials.
Dr. Walker was very unsympathetic to the convicts, especially mutineers resulting in the efforts made by some of them to take flight. But they were either killed by the aborigines or they perished of starvation. If they were recaptured, they were 'awarded' a death sentence and eventually executed. By 16th June 1858, the number of convicts including mutineers received in the Andamans as reported by Dr. Walker was 773. It increased to 1330 by 28th September 1858.
The Punjabi inmates attacked Dr. Walker and others on 1st April 1859, but he escaped. On 14th May 1859, the aborigines unsuccessfully assailed Aberdeen at Atlanta point which was later on known as the 'Battle of Aberdeen'. Today, a memorial has been raised for the 'Battle of Aberdeen' in the newly constructed Water Sports Complex. It was inaugurated by Vakkom Purushotam, the then Lt. governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands on 15th August 1994 with the following salutation. "This monument is built in the memory of those Andamanese Aborigines who bravely fought the "Battle of Aberdeen" in May 1859 against the oppressive and retaliatory policy of the British regime". It is made a part of Aberdeen Jetty. This complex is situated near the Gandhi Stadium.
Dr. Walker resigned and the Captain Haughton took over the charge on 3rd October 1859. He was relatively considerate to the convicts. The inmates who were either murderers and had escaped the death penalty or habitual criminals convicted of the more odious offences against persons and property were to be transported to Port Blair from all parts of India and Burma (Myanmar). These hardened criminals were above eighteen but below forty-five years of age, and only those who were found physically fit for hard labour were transported.
Female convicts were also received. There were, however no special rules for them. They were kept in the female jail, an enormous enclosure consisting of separate sleeping wards and work sheds. The women life-convicts were similarly dealt with, but with less severity. They were eligible for domestic employment after five years in the settlement and were also permitted to marry.
Sir Robert Napier of Magdala visited the islands in 1863 and made recommendations with regard to the system which should be espoused by the government for the convicts transported to the Andamans. It was on his recommendation that in 1863 the allowance was increased to three annas for first class, two and a half annas for second class and two annas for third class prisoners, but their mess was kept separate on the basis of religion.
During the time-period of Col. Ford as the superintendent, the number of convicts increased from 3294 to 6965. He was succeeded in 1868 by General E.H. Mann, who had been deputed ten years earlier to annex the settlement. He decided to bring in the penal system which was in force in the Straits Settlement, the system which was founded by Sir Stamford Rafles. This was the foundation of all further jail rules and improvements in the settlement. Lord Mayo, the then viceroy and governor-general of India visited the Andamans and he was assassinated by a Pathan convict named Sher Ali on 8th February 1872. In 1872 the administration was raised to the rank of chief commissionership. The Andaman and Nicobar Regulations were framed in 1876.
The measles epidemic, which had broken out in 1877, was a great catastrophe and half of the whole Andamanese in the Great Andaman islands corroded.
Major T. Cadell was appointed as chief commissioner, Andamans on 12th December 1879. The Lyall and Lethbridge Committee (Charles James) Lyall, home secretary in Government of India and Surgeon Major A.S. Lethbridge, of the Bengal Medical Service was formed in 1890 to study the Penal Settlement in the Andamans and suggest recommendations. Their view was that "the confinement within the walls of an Indian prison was much more severe form of punishment than transportation and convicts preferred going to the Andamans for undergoing sentence rather than undergoing the same in Indian jails".
They recommended that the convicts in the Andamans, especially those who were consistent criminals or guilty of extremely grave crimes, must pass through a much harder life at least during the preliminary stages. It was recommended that the prisoners should be confined during the first six months in solitary cells in a jail to be specifically built for the purpose. In the next stage, prisoners were to be confined for eighteen months in barracks where they could work in association with other prisoners, but were not to be allowed beyond the jail compound. Thereafter, in the third stage for a period of four years, the convicts were given the liberty to work outdoors during the day and return to the barracks for the night. Then the convict was to become a second-class convict. During the next five years he was to remain a drudging convict, and was to be eligible for the petty posts of supervision and the easier forms of labour; he also was to receive a very petty allowance for little luxuries, or to deposit in the special savings bank. After completing ten years in deportation, he could receive a 'ticket-of-leave' being termed as 'self-supporter'. In this condition he used to earn his own living in a village; he could do farming, keep cattle, and marry or send for his family. But he was not free from fetters, he had no civil rights and he could not leave the settlement or be idle. These rules concerning the treatment to the ordinary criminals suggested by the committee were implemented stringently.
Any convict who was eligible to become a self-supporter and who wished to marry and settle down, was allowed to choose from amongst the female prisoners as his life-partner. On an appointed day, the female prisoners who were eligible for marriage were paraded in a room and the eligible bachelors were introduced. If any bachelor considered that a particular lady was likely to make him a good wife, he pointed out the lady of his choice and if she was willing they were married shortly thereafter and settled in one of the 'self-supporters' village. The superintendent registered the marriage and it acquired legality. This practice lasted for a few years only.
The large inconsistency in number between male and female population posed serious problem in the settlement. Normally the families of the convicts were not willing to come to the Andamans as they thought that by crossing the sea, they would lose their caste. In I860 only 35 willing female convicts were sent from Bengal to Port Blair and numerous marriages took place. The married couples were allowed the status of 'self-supporters'. In 1897, there were only 363 women out of 2447 'self-supporters'.
On the recommendations of Lyall and Lcthbridge Committee, the construction of Cellular Jail was started at Atlanta point in 1896. The work was almost completed during Col. Sir Richard C. Temple's time who was the chief commissioner in Port Blair until 1903.
Major H.A. Browning took over as chief commissioner in April 1906. Shortly after the completion of the Cellular Jail in 1906, the revolutionary activity in Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra developed into a pan Indian revolutionary movement against the British rule and a few journalists convicted for rebellious writings, were recommended to be confined in the Cellular Jail. But with the conclusion of the trial of the Alipore Bomb Case in Calcutta High Court, the first batch of revolutionaries from Bengal sentenced to transportation for life or for long terms of imprisonment was sent to the Cellular Jail in 1909. The Andaman settlement was not to become an issue till the British government decided to deport political prisoners there in 1909.
Since then, the history of the Andamans for a period of more than 29 years is practically the history of the revolutionary prisoners from different parts of India who were sent there in successive batches with occasional intervals. Some of the patriots deported in 1909 onwards were repatriated in 1914 and the ensuing repatriation was due to the general declaration of official pardon on the occasion of the introduction of the new reforms under the Act of 1919. The send off of prisoners to the Andamans was suspended under a general decision adopted to abolish the penal system in the Andamans. On no less than three occasions the Government of India formally announced its resolution not to send political prisoners to the Andamans. But later on it felt impelled to reverse the decision under compelling circumstances. At last, the Japanese occupation of the Andamans on 23rd March 1942 during the Second World War dealt a decisive blow to the settlement. As soon as the British reoccupied the Andamans after the Japanese surrender on 16th August 1945, they finally abolished the penal settlement.