Cellular Jail

Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

#Historical and Heritage


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Cellular Jail, located at Port Blair, stood mute witness to the tortures meted out to the freedom fighters, who were incarcerated in this jail. The jail, completed in the year 1906 acquired the name ‘Cellular’ because it is entirely made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement.

It originally was a seven prolonged, puce-coloured building with central-tower acting as its fulcrum and a massive structure comprising honeycomb like corridors. The building was subsequently damaged and presently three out of the seven prongs are intact. The Jail, now a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people, has been declared a National Memorial. The jail museum here draws your memories back to those years of freedom struggle.

 

ARCHITECTURE

Spread as seven spokes of a bicycle wheel, this unique three-storied structure was the first of its kind in India.663 cells in the jail were specially built for solitary confinement of the prisoners. Later 30 additional cells were also built. In the center of the seven wings of the Cellular Jail was built the Central Tower. Each cell of the Wing was sealed off by an iron grill door.  Thus a single guard on duty could supervise all the seven wings from his vantage position. Another unique feature of jail was the total absence of communication between prisoners in the different wings since the front of one row of cells faced the back of the wings in front. Each cell measured 13.5 ft.by 7 ft. and had an iron grill door. A 3ft .by 1 ft. ventilator, 9ft. from the floor provided some light and air.

The cells in the jail were in a row. The verandah about 4 ft.wide which ran all along the front was sealed by iron railing fixed into the arched pillars that supported the roof of the verandah. All the seven corridors culminated at the Central Tower fixed by an iron gate to central entrance and exit. The cells were secured with iron bolt and lock from outside in a manner, which made impossible for the prisoners to unlock it, no matter however they tried. Each of three storey's of the seven wings had wardens for night watch.21 wardens simultaneously manned the watch duty and vigil throughout the day and night. Besides, sentries in the Central Tower also kept watch. 

To accelerate construction work, about 600 convicts from different stations like Viper, Navy Bay, Phoenix Bay, Birchgunj and Dundas Point etc, were engaged. About 20,000 cubic feet of local broken stone was used, while building materials were also brought in from Burma. Some 30,00,000 bricks made in Dundas Point and Navy Bay Brick kilns were used to Construct the jail.

 

HISTORY

Although the prison complex itself was constructed between 1896 and 1906, the British had been using the Andaman islands as a prison since the days in the immediate aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Shortly after the rebellion was suppressed, the British executed many rebels. Those who survived were exiled for life to the Andamans to prevent their re-offending. Two hundred rebels were transported to the islands under the custody of the jailer David Barry and Major James Pattison Walker, a military doctor who had been warden of the prison at Agra. Another 733 from Karachiarrived in April, 1868. In 1863, the Rev. Henry Fisher Corbyn, of the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment, was also sent out there and he set up the 'Andamanese Home' there, which was also a repressive institution albeit disguised as a charitable one. Rev. Corbyn was posted in 1866 as Vicar to St. Luke's Church, Abbottabad, and later died there and is buried at the Old Christian Cemetery, Abbottabad. More prisoners arrived from India and Burma as the settlement grew.

The remote islands were considered to be a suitable place to punish the independence activists. Not only were they isolated from the mainland, the overseas journey (Kala Pani) to the islands also threatened them with loss of caste, resulting in social exclusion. The convicts could also be used in chain gangs to construct prisons, buildings and harbour facilities. Many died in this enterprise.

By the late 19th century the independence movement had picked up momentum. As a result, the number of prisoners being sent to the Andamans grew and the need for a high-security prison was felt. From August 1889 Charles James Lyall served as home secretary in the Raj government, and was also tasked with an investigation of the penal settlement at Port Blair. He and A. S. Lethbridge, a surgeon in the British administration, concluded that the punishment of transportation to the Andaman Islands was failing to achieve the purpose intended and that indeed criminals preferred to go there rather than be incarcerated in Indian jails. Lyall and Lethbridge recommended that a "penal stage" should exist in the transportation sentence, whereby transported prisoners were subjected to a period of harsh treatment upon arrival. The outcome was the construction of the Cellular Jail, which has been described as "a place of exclusion and isolation within a more broadly constituted remote penal space."

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