In March 2002, Harry and Susan Usher departed on an adventure
would take them to the little known Emerald Isles, a labyrinth
islands shrouded in mystery and intrigue located 1000 miles
mainland India in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Sailing on
their yacht, Eos, the 400-mile voyage from Phuket to the Andaman
and Nicobar Group took four days. Harry related to us some
of his lasting impressions from their four week adventure
"We were attracted to the Andaman Islands initially
because of their proximity to our base in Phuket and the fact
they are Indian territory where you have the best of India
in a low-key, island culture and community. There is very
little crime and the governing body is proud of its untouched
islands, beaches and clean sea - this has been achieved by
preventing over development and limiting offshore trawling."
These colourful islands form part of the Andaman and Nicobar
Group lying in the Andaman Sea/Bay of Bengal at 12 degrees
North and 92 degrees East - the Nicobars are out of bounds
"The Islands are steeped in beauty, culture, history
and food! Beauty in the form of pristine beaches lined with
huge hardwood trees over 184 islands, untarnished coral and
marine life in 20m+ visibility and Indian people in colourful
dress. The islands are aptly named "Little India"
as Hindu, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalis and Sikh live harmoniously
beside members of the Muslim and Christian faiths, Karen people
from Burma and four Negrito aboriginal tribes. In the administrative
center of Port Blair, several streets have active mosques,
churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples in a row. The historical
significance of the Islands stems from the penal colony which
was set up by the Indian-British government in the mid 1800s
to accommodate the criminals and mainland Freedom Fighters
for Indian Independence. The food in the Andamans, which may
be regarded as part of the culture, is worthy of a special
mention. Fresh samosas, chicken musala, pratha, roti, curries
and an abundance of fresh fish and vegetables kept our bellies
full and cravings satisfied - we were able to catch enough
fresh coral and pelagic fish for "the pot", each
Much of the history of the Andaman Islands is unknown and
scholars can only speculate as to how and when they became
inhabited. The islands were initially colonised by Lt. Archibald
Blair in 1789 while he was undertaking a survey of the Andaman
Sea on behalf of the East India Company. He returned in 1790
to set up a small penal settlement at Port Cornwallis, now
Port Blair, on South Andaman Island. This was subsequently
moved to Diglipur in 1792 under instruction from Commander
Cornwallis, brother of the Governor General of India at the
time, Lord Cornwallis. Due the hostile environment and sickness,
this was closed in 1796 and the community repatriated.
The British government returned about sixty years later in
1858 with 200 Indian prisoners and completed a new jail on
Viper island, close to Port Blair, in 1867. Problems with
water, malaria, escapees, conflicts with the indigenous people
and the increase in prisoners resulted in the construction
of the dreaded Cellular Jail in 1896. This was during the
War of Indian Independence and was specifically built to hold
political prisoners - by 1881, there were about 14,000 prisoners.
This new jail was completed in 1906 and continued in operation
until closure in 1945. The remains of it are now a National
Museum paying tribute to the brave Freedom Fighters who fought
for independence from Britain. With the advent of Indian Independence
in 1947, displaced people were allowed to return to their
home countries, however many stayed under the lure of various
rehabilitation schemes launched by the new administration.
During the British occupancy, administration headquarters
were established in grand colonial style on Ross Island, close
to Port Blair, but were evacuated during Japanese occupation
in 1942 when 18,000 Japanese soldiers were based on the islands.
Now the islands have their own Resident Commissioner in charge
of a bustling administrative center in Port Blair. The 1981
population census listed the total population at 188,741 (the
Andamans 158,287 and the Nicobars 30,454) however this may
have increased as the islands are now used as a joint Indian
navy and airforce training center.
The population of the Islands today can be broadly divided
into three categories, namely the aborigines, the descendants
of convicts and political prisoners and public servants. Four
aboriginal tribes have inhabited the islands for thousands
of years and still live a hunter-gatherer type of protected
existence. The Onge live on Little Andaman Island, the Great
Andamanese on Strait Island, the Jarawas populate the western
coast of South and Middle Andaman and the Sentinelese occupy
the North Sentinels. The common misconception, that travellers
are likely to encounter primitive clans of lean naked spear-wielding
tribesmen, will disappoint amateur anthropologists, as the
areas, which are still occupied by the tribes, are strictly
off limits to tourists. Today there is little contact between
the tribes and the outside world. Perhaps this is a small
price to pay to preserve the unique customs of these interesting
people. Their lifestyles are well illustrated in the Anthropological
Museum in Port Blair.
Sadly, the Great Andamanese race is on the brink of extinction.
In a census conducted back in 1991 their numbers stood at
a meagre 31. The establishment of the penal colony brought
the Andamanese into direct confrontation with the colonial
settlers. Modern firepower was too strong for native bows
and arrows resulting in the deaths of hundreds of warriors
in the Battle of Aberdeen, fought on 17 May 1859.
Over the years, the convergence of divergent cultural, social
and linguistic backgrounds have evolved into a unique cultural
pot-pourri full of colour, vibrancy and charm.
The Andaman Islands' economy relies strongly on agriculture;
mainly spices, coconuts, potatoes and rice. Harry enthused,
"they grow some of the tastiest potatoes I've ever
eaten." One of the only environmentally sensitive practices
in the Islands spurs the largest export market; plywood. The
large hardwood forests are logged selectively on a small scale,
by hard manual labour, no chainsaws only axes, double-ended
bush-saws and elephants trained to move the felled trunks.
High quality grade plywood for construction and boat building
is exported to western countries. Fishing and tourism have
been slowly creeping into the equation and will likely bring
about an economic uplift to the territory, as more islands
become open to foreign tourists. Commercial fishing is limited
and prohibited within three miles of the shore and this surely
protects the immaculate conditions of the reefs and the abundance
of colourful marine life.
With the enormous 281.50 sq. km. Wandoor National Marine
Park comprising of a maze of pristine islands, the Andamans
scream with eco-tourism potential. Unfortunately, or fortunately,
only two of these islands are accessible to tourists for conservation
reasons. The coral reefs that abound the marine park have
been described as the "triumphant achievement of coral
polyps." Hence, this fragile eco-system, so abused in
other parts of the world, remains untouched, hosting an immensely
diverse range of marine life in crystal-clear waters. Diving
is only allowed with a registered dive company unless special
permission has been granted by the Commissioner.
On land, more than 92% of the geographical area is blanketed
with tropical forests filled with evergreens, the largest
of which average a height of 42 metres. Roaming the forest
floors are spotted deer, Andaman wild pigs, civets, shrews
and elephants to name a few mammals. A rich avi-faunal diversity
attracts bird watchers; as many as 246 species and sub species
of birds inhabit the islands. Another factor contributing
to the unsullied condition of the environment is quite unique
as Harry explained, "one of the most impressive aspects
of the islands' management is that the use of plastic
bags is entirely illegal. Purchased goods are wrapped in biodegradable
brown paper, which spares the land and seas."
Reaching the Andaman Islands from Phuket is easiest by boat.
Travellers need to arrange a six month Indian visa, with a
one month restricted pass for the Andamans, at a cost of THB
3,000. On arrival at Port Blair, the only point of entry,
yachts must give the harbourmaster their intended itinerary.
Passengers will then be informed of the areas that are out
of bounds. Yachts are expected to report their positions daily
by radio. There are regular flights and ship passages to and
from Calcutta and Chennai (Madras) and it is understood that
the airport is to be upgraded to International status, as
the current Administration is active in encouraging eco-friendly
tourists to visit their beautiful islands
"It is an amazing place, full of colour and character.
The people are friendly and welcoming, the environment is
beautiful and the culture and history are fascinating. This
was our second trip and we would like to return. The Resident
Commissioner has agreed to a boat rally to the Islands from
Phuket scheduled for February 2003.
Details are available on www.andamansearally.com