Ross Island, an abandoned British settlement in the remote Andaman archipelago, is being taken over by its rightful owner: nature.
India’s idyllic islands
Situated in the Bay of Bengal, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an isolated group of 572 tropical islands, of which only 38 are currently inhabited. Nautically located closer to South East Asia than India, they are known for stunning beaches, thriving marine life, rich coral reefs and largely undisturbed primary forests. But beyond the idyllic views lie a dark past. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
Eerie remains of a colonial settlement
One of the islands, Ross Island, is a morbidly fascinating ghost town, where the remnants of a 19th-Century British settlement lie in ruins. Abandoned in the 1940s, the island is being reclaimed by nature. Lavish bungalows, a massive church, ballrooms, even a graveyard, all are in varying stages of dilapidation, being taken over by an unyielding forest. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
An isolated penal colony
In 1857, reacting to an unanticipated Indian revolt, the British Empire chose these remote islands as the site of a penal colony for Indian mutineers. When the British first arrived in 1858 with 200 Indian convicts, the archipelago was covered in impenetrable primeval jungle. Ross Island, measuring barely more than 0.3 sq km, was chosen as the first convict settlement due to availability of water. The deadly task of clearing the thick jungle fell upon the inmates, while the officers stayed on the ships. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
As the penal colony expanded, the convicts were moved to prisons and barracks on neighbouring islands. Ross Island became the administrative headquarters, as well as an exclusive settlement for high-ranking officers and their families. Since the isolated islands had a high mortality rate due to water-borne diseases, no stone was left unturned in making Ross Island an enticing place to live. Grand mansions replete with period furniture, manicured lawns and tennis courts were constructed, along with a Presbyterian church (pictured), water purification plant, military barracks and an infirmary. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
A power station (pictured) housing a diesel generator lit up the tiny, remote island, elevating Ross to a glittering paradise insulated from the suffering all around.
By 1942, the penal settlement was barely operational after being forced to release all political prisoners in 1938; the remaining British troops fled the island due to imminent Japanese invasion – although it wasn’t long until the islands once again came under British rule when the war ended. Shortly after, India gained independence in 1947, after which the island was left to its fate, until the Indian Navy took over in 1979. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
Nature takes its course
The island’s undisturbed ruins provide a small glimpse into its poignant and brutal colonial past. The gabled roofs, bustling bazaar, Italian tiles and stained-glass windows are long gone, but the roofless skeletons of the Commissioner’s Bungalow, Subordinates Club, Presbyterian Church, along with other nameless walls, are left behind, mangled in a mess of twisted and unstoppable ficus tree roots. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
Hunting plans gone awry
In the early 1900s, British officers introduced various species of deer to the Andaman Islands for game hunting. However, without any natural predators, spotted deer became a pest, proliferating widely and severely affecting new forest growth by munching on fresh saplings. Today they, along with untamed rabbits and peafowls, are the sole inhabitants of Ross Island, much to the enjoyment of visitors. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)
A glimpse into the future
In the Subordinate’s Club (pictured), built for the entertainment of junior officers, the teak dance floor must have once reverberated with music. Today birds are the only source of cacophony in the club’s broken halls.
It has been nearly eight decades since the penal colony was shut down, ending a dark chapter in the annals of India’s colonial past. Ross Island is now a forgotten blot in the Indian Ocean that offers a sobering glimpse of how our world might look when humans are long gone and nature begins the inevitable takeover. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)