Monday, September 26, 2011

Strategic Importance: A Historical Perspective

Strategic Importance: 
A Historical Perspective

A historical perspective on the strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands presented by Prof. Francis Xavier, HOD, Dept of English, JNRM, which dwelt in depth the importance given to the Islands throughout history. Excerpts from the paper.

This 700 km long chain of 572 'islands, islets and rocks' is a Union Territory governed by the Center.  There is hardly any revenue earned from the Islands but still, the Government of India spends about 1000 Crores every year on these Islands.  The reasons are obvious.  The Islands form a long bulwark in the middle of the Bay of Bengal against any misadventure by an enemy country.  They are strategically located in an area traversed by ancient trade routes.  Ships of the various kingdoms of India plied regularly to countries in the east with merchandise and Indian culture. 
The Islands figure in one of the earliest maps of the known world prepared by Ptolemy…or Claudius  Ptolemaeus, the famous Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer.  Ptolemy calls them by the name Agadaemon, a land of cannibals.   
The Islands find mention in the writings of I-Tsing the seventh century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, who seems to have visited both the Andamans and the Nicobars.  This clearly shows that a sea route linking China with India passed through the Islands even in those times.  As the trade route passed by the ancient kingdoms along the Sunda and Malacca Straits their rulers tried to participate in the trade and also exert their influence as the route passed through their territories. 
Sri Vijaya the 7th century Buddhist Kingdom of southern Sumatra controlled the Straits for a long time and levied tributes on the shipping that passed through.  Sri Vijaya's hegemony lasted till the 11th century when the Chola Kings of India attacked it repeatedly and established their own power over the trade routes. 
The Chola King Rajendra had inscriptions written in which he claims to have conquered the Nicobars, which he called as Nakkavaram or the land of the naked.
Marco Polo sailed past the Islands on his way to China from Venice. He called the Andamans 'Angamanian and the Nicobars as Necuverum and described the people as cannibals with faces like dogs. 
China's Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan sent a fleet to the Java Sea in 1293 to demand tribute from the Straits kingdoms.  This is again an indication of the growing strategic importance of the Islands that lay along the India-China trade route.

With the invention of instruments which can measure the longitude and latitude accurately traveling by sea became easier and less hazardous.  By the seventeenth century 'Hydrographers', whom we may today call surveyors of the sea, started sailing across the hitherto uncharted seas of the world, preparing excellent navigational charts and almanacs.  Their aim, ostensibly, was to make shipping safer, but there was a hidden motive also.  They wanted to find safe harbours and havens where the expanding fleets of the empire could assemble shelter and refit.  They could also control the busy shipping lanes, keep them free from pirates, and, perhaps, set out on a conquest.
Blair founded the settlement first at present day Port Blair and then shifted it to Chatham Island in North Andaman, which was named again as Port Cornwallis.  It was while the work on the settlement was in progress that the strategic location of the Islands was put to use for the first time.
The second time the strategic location of the Islands was put to use was during the First Anglo Burmese War (1824-1826).  Port Cornwallis became the rendezvous for assembling a fleet for the invasion of Burma.  The fleet carrying the army of Sir Archibald Campbell, a veteran of the Mysore Wars, to Rangoon assembled in the capacious harbour.  Thanks to this vantage point the British were able to carry the war into the enemy territory, which would have taken a long time via the land route. 
The arrival of the convict mutineers in 1858, after the First War of Independence of 1857, started a new chapter in the history of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. 
Soon the Nicobars were also annexed by the British and another penal colony came up on the island of Kamorta.  European and native troops were stationed at both places.  With the advent of steam the waters around the islands were patrolled more frequently by ships of the Royal Navy.  Using the Islands as a transit base they could extend their power over the Strait Settlements also.  Frequent incidents of piracy in the Nicobars were put down by the naval frigates.
However, with growing rivalry between England and Russia concern was voiced about the defenseless state of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in 1885 itself.  Col. Cadell, then Chief Commissioner and Superintendent of the settlement, in his confidential letter No. 119 dated Port Blair, the 23rd April 1885 wrote, " In view of the apparently not improbable eventuality of war with Russia I deem it my duty to bring the defenceless state of this settlement to the consideration of the Government of India. He felt that, "If no means are taken to protect the settlement, Port Blair might become a very convenient rendezvous for the enemy cruisers sent to prey on the commerce of the Bay of Bengal.  (This apprehension proved to be true a few years later when the German raider Emden attacked and sank many ships and shelled coastal towns and cities during the First World War. Her presence in the island waters has been recorded by its sighting by Rani Lachmi of Nancowry.)
Cadell goes on to say that the harbour should be protected by torpedoes and the garrison strengthened with more troops.  Going further he says, "Perhaps I shall not be considered as going beyond my province if I venture to express my opinion that Port Blair might be used as a very important strategical centre for the operations of our men of war."  He strongly lobbies for laying a telegraph cable between the Islands and Calcutta by saying that the squadron at Port Blair, " being in a centrical position could act in any direction on receipt of reliable news by wire, all ports around the Bay of course telegraphing their news daily to the Senior Naval Officer at Port Blair." (We may see that Cadell in his wisdom as a military strategist and veteran of the First War of Independence of 1857 has foreseen and planned what we were able to implement more than 100 years later!)
However, Cadell's proposal were struck down by the cost-conscious British Indian government of those days.  Replying his letter Mr A. Mackenzie, Secretary to the Government of India wrote that the "Governor General in Council, after reconsidering the question of the establishment of telegraphic communication with the settlement , is not prepared at the present time to incur the large expenditure which the construction and maintenance of the cable would involve."  But the question of the defence of the islands had been taken seriously and the Inspector General of Military Works was asked to "depute an officer of experience to visit Port Blair for the purpose of preparing a full report of the means that should be adopted , and the probable cost that should be involved in placing that port in a fair state of defensive security." (Letter No. 479, MW., dated Simla the 21st May 1885.)
The strategic location of the Andamans was put to maximum use by the Japanese, when they invaded the Islands.  They built solid coastal defences and laid roads.  A chain of pillboxes and bunkers, many of them still in pristine condition, rings Port Blair and surrounding areas.  Huge naval guns removed from Singapore were mounted at strategic locations on the coast. 
Anti aircraft defences were mounted around vital installations.  Bunkering and supply facilities for ships and submarines were provided.  The aim was to use the Islands, as the British did during the First Anglo-Burmese War, as a springboard for an invasion of mainland India via Burma. The Japanese almost succeeded in their objective, reaching up to Nagaland but with heavy attrition on both sides.  
It is clear that the Islands are poised to play a major role in India's 'Look East Policy' because of their strategic location.  In the times ahead the Islands are destined to serve as a key hub for implementing our foreign policy towards our South East Asian neighbours.  The future of the Islands is bright and full of hope and their name "Islands of Good Fortune" as mentioned in ancient maps may come true.

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