Ross Island, or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island as it is now officially called, was once a British penal colony but today it lies abandoned. Located in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, the island is now part of India and it is protected by the Indian Navy.
The British were the first Europeans to settle on the Andaman islands when they established a naval base and penal colony on Chatham Island. After only 2 years, they abandoned Chatham island and moved the penal colony to Grand Andaman. They had to abandoned the islands altogether in 1796 due to disease. It wasn’t until after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 that the British returned, this time building a penal colony on Ross Island, named after marine surveyor Captain Daniel Ross. It became the administrative capital of the Andaman Islands.
The first Europeans to arrive on the Nicobar islands were the Danish who arrived in December 1755. The Danish East India Company administered from Tranquebar, their base in Danish India. The settlers repeatedly had to abandon the islands throughout the years as outbreaks of Malaria were common. The Danish abandoned the islands for good in 1848 and sold them to Britain in 1868. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were merged into British India in 1869 with their administrative capital on Ross Island.
The capital had originally been planned at the previous settlement of Port Blair however water scarcity meant a move was made 2 km east to Ross Island. The first prisoners landed on Ross Island in March 1858 and were put to work clearing the jungle. They constructed buildings and roads before being transferred to Viper Island where the first jail was built. Conditions on the island were poor and by the time Sir Robert Napier visited, 3,500 of the 8,000 prisoners who were transported there had died due to illness. Malaria, pneumonia and dysentery caused many of the deaths. Some of the prisoners had medicines tested on them, causing severe side effects. The prisoners also had to endure attacks from indigenous tribes, some of whom were cannibals, who tortured and killed them while working in the fields. By 1891, there were 12,197 convicts spread over Ross Island, Chatham Island, Viper Island and a number of others.
In 1941, Ross Island was rocked by an earthquake which destroyed some of the administrative buildings. As a result of the damage, it was decided to move the capital to Port Blair. A garrison had been established to defend the islands during World War II however the British had already begun to withdraw before the earthquake had even struck. Just 9 months later, the Japanese forces invaded. In 1943, they placed the Andaman and Nicobar islands under the authority of the Provisional Government of Free India, a puppet government who claimed all of India but in reality, only controlled the islands and small Indian enclaves in Japanese captured territories. General A.D. Loganathan was appointed governor of the islands but it was still the Japanese who controlled it. Around 2,000 people were killed during the occupation, roughly 10% of the population at the time.
The Allies recaptured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1945. The British decided not to return to Ross Island and instead concentrated the island’s administration in Port Blair. Following the independence of India and Burma, the British initially planned to resettle their colonial population in Southern Asia on the islands however that plan never materialised and they were ceded to India in 1950.
The Indian Navy took over in 1979 and they maintain the island. People are no longer permitted to live on the island. There is a small museum now for visiting tourists and a guest house for Navy officials.
On 30 December 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Ross Island would be renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island, after the Indian nationalist who was once the leader of the Provisional Government of Free India.
The island has become a favoured tourist destination for explorers and the ruins of many of the British colonial buildings remain including the state ballroom, the chief commissioner’s house, the hospital, government building and many more. The hospital and sanatorium for the islands was located on Ross Island during its time as a penal colony.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands received some unwanted attention in recent years. In 2014, it was suggested by a number of news sources that the missing Malaysian airliner MH370 could have potentially landed there. India conducted a massive search of the area which included its coast guard, navy and air force however the investigation surrounding what happened to the plane shifted attention much further south and away from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.