One evening in the radio room of the Aronda, I heard a weak, hoarse call in Morse code on the international calling frequency. It was obviously from a low-powered transmitter. It simply asked any ships listening in if they had any messages. It was from the marine radio station at Port Blair on the Andaman Islands.
Our deck-passenger ship of the British India company passed within radio earshot of it twice a month as we traversed the Bay of Bengal to and from the port of Chittagong.
I went up to the bridge deck and looked at the marine chart of the Bay. It showed the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago stretching down like a tattered scarf of islands. They were under the control of the Indian government.
On an impulse I called Port Blair. The radio officer there answered me and we went on a working frequency just to exchange hellos. It was all in Morse but he proved to be fluent and I was fairly free-flowing myself. He told me that Port Blair only kept a very limited marine watch as very few ships called at the port there. Once a month a regular ship commissioned by the Indian government set out from Madras – now called Chennai – with mail and supplies and sometimes officials. It was an isolated part of the world.
Then he took me by surprise. When I told him I was Irish he immediately responded by telling me that there was a very significant Irish connection with Port Blair. “The Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo was Irish. He was assassinated here in the year 1872. He had been inspecting the penal colony.”
That conversation in code aroused my interest in Port Blair and the Andaman islands. When our ship was next in Colombo, the main port of Sri Lanka, I browsed around one of its bookshops. I came across a book about British rule on the sub-continent. It had several pages on Lord Mayo.
Richard Bourke was a member of a branch of the Anglo-Norman family that had totally embraced English rule in Ireland, adopting its attitudes and benefiting from the preferment of aristocratic power. He was three times appointed chief secretary for Ireland in the mid-19th century.
In 1869 he was made viceroy of India.
According to what I had read, he made a positive impact there, encouraging railways, promoting irrigation and forestry and reorganising the country’s finances.
However, it would be easy to get the impression that British rule was benign and beneficial. This was not entirely the case. There was a dark and unsettling side to Raj domination.
After the rebellion of 1857, referred to as a mutiny by the British, many participants were transported by sea to the remote penal colony at Port Blair on the faraway Andaman Islands.
Lord Mayo had finished his tour there and was about to board a vessel to leave when he was attacked and killed by a knife-wielding prisoner.
His body was eventually taken back to Dublin, the city of his birth. The funeral through the city was replete with imperial grandeur and military pomp. Then it set off for Naas and Palmerston House, the family mansion.
Next day Lord Mayo’s body was buried in the grounds of the medieval ruined church in nearby Johnstown.
In the following decades the movement for Indian independence began to gather strength. Speeches were made and articles written that the British administration considered treasonable. A decision was taken to construct a massive high-security prison in Port Blair, where political activists could be kept in isolation. It was begun in 1896 often using forced labour. When it was completed 10 years later it had no less than 696 cells in seven three-story buildings that radiated like the spokes of wheel from a central watch-tower. It was called the Cellular Jail and was the scene of harsh ill-treament of the thousands of prisoners incarcerated there over the years, including beatings and long periods of solitary confinement, with many hangings, especially of those who tried to escape.
However, its notoriety became widespread in India and in Britain itself in the 1930s. Mahatma Gandhi and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore called for its closure.
In 1937 and 1938 the prisoners were repatriated and the jail closed a year later. Now it is a national memorial monument, and a major tourist attraction that includes a light and sound show.
Meanwhile a plaque on the wall by the footpath outside the ivy-covered ruin in Johnstown informs passersby that Lord Mayo’s remains rest there.