India’s most remote state, the Andaman Islands are situated more than 1000km off the east coast in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, connected to the mainland by flights and ferries from Kolkata, Chennai and Vishakapatnam. Thickly covered by deep green tropical forest, the archipelago supports a profusion of wildlife, including some extremely rare species of bird, but the principal attraction for tourists lies in the beaches and the pristine reefs that ring most of the islands. Filled with colourful fish and kaleidoscopic corals, the crystal-clear waters of the Andaman Sea feature some of the world’s richest and least spoilt marine reserves – perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving. Although parts of the archipelago still see few visitors, the Andamans are now firmly on the tourist circuit.
For administrative purposes, the Andamans are grouped with the Nicobar Islands, 200km further south, but these remain strictly off-limits to foreigners, as well as Indians with no direct business there. Approximately two hundred islands make up the Andaman group and nineteen the Nicobar. They are of varying size, the summits of a submarine mountain range stretching 755km from the Arakan Yoma chain in Burma to the fringes of Sumatra in the south. All but the most remote are populated in parts by indigenous tribes whose numbers have been slashed dramatically as a result of nineteenth-century European settlement and, more recently, rampant deforestation, now banned at least in theory.
With the timber-extraction cash cow now largely tethered, the hope is that tourism will replace tree-felling as the main source of revenue on the Andamans. However, the extra visitor numbers envisaged are certain to overtax an already inadequate infrastructure, aggravating seasonal water shortages and sewage disposal problems. Given India’s track record with tourism development, it’s hard to be optimistic about how these issues will be managed. Consequently, it’s no small mercy that plans to allow flights from Southeast Asia and even further afield to enter India at Port Blair seem to be on permanent hold, as the impact on this culturally and ecologically fragile region could be catastrophic.
The point of arrival for boats and planes is the small but busy capital, Port Blair in South Andaman, which holds almost half the total population. The only island to have fully developed a tourist infrastructure is Havelock, although its smaller neighbour Neil is heading in the same direction. The other places where foreigners can spend the night are on the large islands of Middle and North Andaman, connected to South Andaman by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), diminutive Long Island and remote Little Andaman, a long voyage to the south. The outlying islands are richest in natural beauty, with the beaches of Smith and the coral around Cinque of particular note. Such spots are not always easy to reach, as connections and transport can be erratic, frequently uncomfortable and severely limited.
The earliest mention of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is found in Ptolemy’s geographical treatises of the second century AD. Other records from the Chinese Buddhist monk I’Tsing some five hundred years later and Arabian travellers who passed by in the ninth century depict the inhabitants as fierce and cannibalistic. It is unlikely, however, that the Andamanese were cannibals, as the most vivid reports of their ferocity were propagated by Malay pirates who held sway over the surrounding seas, and needed to keep looters well away from trade ships that passed between India, China and the Far East.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European missionaries and trading companies turned their attention to the islands with a view to colonization. A string of unsuccessful attempts to convert the Nicobaris to Christianity was made by the French, Dutch and Danish, all of whom were forced to abandon their plans in the face of hideous diseases and a severe lack of food and water. Though the missionaries themselves seldom met with any hostility, several fleets of trading ships that tried to dock on the islands were captured, and their crews murdered, by Nicobari people.
In 1777, the British Lieutenant Archibald Blair chose the South Andaman harbour now known as Port Blair as the site for a penal colony, although it was not successfully established until 1858, when political activists who had fuelled the Mutiny in 1857 were made to clear land and build their own prison. Out of 773 prisoners, 292 died, escaped or were hanged in the first two months. Many also lost their lives in attacks by Andamanese tribes who objected to forest clearance, but by 1864 the number of convicts had grown to three thousand. The prison continued to confine political prisoners until 1945 and still stands as Port Blair’s prime “tourist attraction”.
During World War II the islands were occupied by the Japanese, who tortured and murdered hundreds of indigenous islanders suspected of collaborating with the British, and bombed the homes of the Jarawa tribe. British forces moved back in 1945, and at last abolished the penal settlement. After Partition, refugees – mostly low-caste Hindus from Bengal – were given land in Port Blair and North Andaman, where the forest was clear-felled to make room for rice paddy, cocoa plantations and new industries. Since 1951, the population has increased more than tenfold, further swollen by repatriated Tamils from Sri Lanka, ex-servicemen given land grants, economic migrants from poorer Indian states including thousands of Bihari labourers, and the legions of government employees packed off here on two-year “punishment postings”. This replanted population greatly outnumbers the Andamans’ indigenous people, who currently comprise around 0.5 percent of the total.