Andaman and Nicobar Island
The Time Before Cellular Jail
Viper Island is near Port Blair in Andaman district in the Andaman Islands, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India and was the site of the jail where the British used to imprison convicts and political prisoners. It has the ruins of a gallows atop a hillock. The jail was abandoned when the Cellular Jail was constructed in 1906.
Andaman and its role in the freedom struggle, it is the Cellular Jail that finds frequent mention. But, many years before the Cellular Jail was constructed, it was the jail at Viper Island that was used by the British to inflict the worst form of torture and hardship on those who strove to free the country from the British rule.
This small island derives its name from the vessel `Viper' in which Lt. Archibald Blair came to Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1789. The vessel, it is believed, met with an accident and its wreckage was found near the island. Another story says that the name originated from the presence of vipers, snakes, on the island.
The need for building a jail there was felt only after the British set up a penal settlement at Port Blair in 1858. Ross Island functioned as the headquarters of the penal settlement. Located near Port Blair, the construction of the Viper Jail was carried out during 1864-67. Lt. Col. Barnet Ford, superintendent of the penal settlement, supervised the work. Initially, a police inspector, a head constable, two sergeants, four class I constables and 30 class II constables were posted, according to materials available at the Cellular Jail. Later on, the strength was raised gradually. Solitary cells, lock-ups, stocks and whipping stands characterised the Viper Jail. Women were among the prisoners there.
The conditions at the jail were such that the place got the notorious name, "Viper Chain Gang Jail." Those who had challenged the might of the British authority were chained together and confined at night by a chain running through coupling of irons around their legs. It was at this jail that members of the Chain Gang were put to hardest labour. Brij Kishore Singh Deo, popularly known as Maharaja Jagannath of Puri, was treated like an ordinary convict and kept in the Viper Jail, where he died in 1879.
The Jail has secured a permanent place in the history of the freedom struggle as it was here that Sher Ali, a Pathan from Peshawar, was hanged after he assassinated Lord Mayo, Indian Viceroy, on February 8, 1872 at Hope Town jetty, opposite Chatham Island. After the construction of the Cellular Jail, the Viper Jail's importance declined.
Today, the two-storeyed Jail building stands tumbled to the plinth level except for a portion of the roof with the outer wall dilapidated. But for a few birds which have built their nests inside the tomb of the gallows, only a deafening silence prevails there. Situated near Port Blair's harbour, Viper Island can be approached in 20 minutes from the Phoenix Bay jetty. The Harbour Cruise, available daily from the jetty, provides an overall view of different points of the harbour and a trip to this haunted Viper Island.
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