Bridging Chatham in 1930!

By Zubair Ahmed

It’s always a pleasure to talk on the history of the Islands. A peek into our past is the best way to know, how things around us took the shape that we see today and also assess the progress of the young civilization in the Islands. There is a slice of history in most of the infrastructure that is around us, whether it’s the seaport, airport or even the bungalows or the bunkers. Today, I would like to dwell on an interesting development that took place 90 years ago. The inauguration of Chatham Bridge that connects the small Island with Port Blair!

The first ever bridge connecting two major Islands in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came into existence in 1930, when a causeway constructed in 1919 as a pedestrian walkway between Chatham and Port Blair was remodeled and made into a two-lane bridge during the Chief Commissionership of Lieutenant Colonel M L Ferrar.

In fact, they felt need for a motorway in the late 20s with the increase in vehicular population and the construction of a deep natural jetty on Chatham Island that berthed mainland bound ships. The annals from the pages of history give us a glimpse, how a bridge had come up within a reasonable span of time, though keeping pace with their needs of colonial exploitation of timber produce.

On 21st April 1930, the day of inauguration of a two-lane Chatham causeway, the electric gantry and the new saw mill had stirred large interest among the Islanders and officers.

In 1919 the Island of Chatham was connected with the mainland of the South Andaman by a causeway designed to carry foot-passengers and a two foot trolley line. The shore-end of the causeway was made of masonry for 235 yards and the remainder of wooden decking over piles for 200 yards. The width was 10 feet and 8 feet respectively.

With the opening up of a jetty at Chatham to accommodate vessels of 8000 tons and with nominal increase in motor vehicles in the settlement during the late 20s, it became apparent that the old causeway had to be remodeled so as to take a double stream of motor traffic. The work was carried out during the dry season of 1929-30. The masonry part was rebuilt by Islanders deported here on various reasons, and the wooden part by free Chinese contractors. This latter section cost Rs 19,987.00.

The new causeway was opened for use on Monday 21st April 1930 by Mrs Ferrar and the ceremony was an official one attended by all available officers and subordinates and their wives and by the general public. A guard of honour under the acting Subedar Major was furnished by the Andaman and Nicobar Military Police.

The Chief Commissioner and Mrs Ferrar arrived at the Causeway at 10.15 am and after inspection of the guard, two interesting speeches were made by Major D Kenny, Deputy Commissioner and Lieutenant Colonel M L Ferrar, Chief Commissioner on the occasion.

Major Kenny gave a brief about the causeway.

In his address, he expressed it to be a privilege for him to make a few remarks in preface to the Chief Commissioner’s address and on the subject of the Causeway, which was about to be opened.

He said that it was a great day in the history of the Andamans. A great advance being made, for the opening of this causeway means that, for the first time, the Islands have a deep-water jetty for big ships at Chatham actually connected with the mainland by a road capable of carrying all forms of wheeled traffic.”

Major Kenny felt it to be a very happy circumstance that the jetty is at Chatham. He reminisced about how Chatham was the site of the original Settlement in these Islands in the days of Blair. The Settlement, which was given up, but returned to and reopened again in 1858, as the settlement dates from that time and – he thanked the jetty and causeway and the men who made them. He said how big ships can berth alongside the original settlement from which Port Blair takes its name.

Kenny also dwelt upon why he thought, it to be very right that the Causeway was built in two portions and of two different materials. At the Chatham end, it was built by Mr Bonington, Mr Mouin and the workmen of the Forest Department and the timber from the forests. At Haddo end, Mr. Contin and Mr Delaney and the men under them built it of stones from their quarries. He recalled the name of Mr. Lindsay, the Engineer who guided and supervised throughout and that both officers and men – all, down to the Islanders – who worked excellently and it was self evident that they deserved the due credit for the same.

Excitedly he also spoke about how the little Causeway, out of which the bridge sprung up, was built around 1919 but was intended only for foot passengers and for the distribution of forest produce by the trolley way that ran over it. He claimed that with time, prosperity in the Islands had marched along with. He felt where once a little pathway was sufficient, there was need for more; and, with the opening of the bridge, fine and broad road had come up, over which motors and merchandise and men about their lawful occasions could pass unhindered.

The Chief Commissioner, Lt Col M L Ferrar who also spoke before the inauguration, threw light on the state of Administration at that time and shows why speeches of the Administrators are not much different.

After expressing his admiration for the splendid combined piece of work, which being opened for public use on the day, and thanking all those who had a hand in the construction of it, he felt particular pleasure that the construction of the causeway and of the new mill and electric gantry had been completed while Mr Bonington was still in charge at Chatham.

He also apologized and had some explanation for calling together so large a number of officials and their wives and of the general public to stand about on a stuffy April morning to listen to speeches. But that’s the hard truth even today.

Ferrar said, “The truth is the occasion is one of great importance in the present and of great significance for the future.”

He also wanted to showcase how the Islands transformed during his tenure. He told the gathering that on his arrival in 1923, he was told that in 1926, the Penal Settlement would close suddenly like a book and that Port Blair would revert to jungle. And he reminded that in 1930 and in reality what has happened? He claimed that progress can be seen in every direction. He reiterated that the Penal Settlement remained, but changed, immensely changed, owing to the removal of habitual criminals and the recruitment in their place of casual criminals who came as volunteers with the hope of a speedy recovery of their self respect and who can generally be trusted to behave and to work under less rigorous, less visibly penal forms of restraint.

He highlighted how the colony had changed drastically with large numbers of the deportees importing their families and he specifically took one index and said that Port Blair had nearly 4000 children against some 1200 in 1923. On the morality he said that every person on the land had a wife and the dreary villages of idle bachelor convicts had disappeared. He felt that the humanizing effect of these changes was great. On the economic condition of people, he said that placing of all convicts on wages had brought money into the bazaars and wealth or at least prosperity to the whole trading community. He claimed that the standard of living had improved citing the increase in number of houses every year through the whole settlement.

Highlighting the good fortune of the coconut growers who were more fortunate than their brethren elsewhere in having good markets, he claimed that they would export about 3,000,000 nuts in 1930 against the figure nil for 1923. The Forest Department, according to Ferrar had been exporting five times the amount of timber exported in 1923.

Like the present day, Ferrar too had apprehensions in 1930 about investments in the Islands from outside and he mentioned about the Western India Match Company (WIMCO) as the pioneer in this respect, which would be the first private factory in the Andamans to be erected a few yards from where the bridge stood.

Whereas, the Islanders today rue about increase in motor traffic, Ferrar mentioned it as another sign of advancement! Against 2 Ford vans in 1923, the number had gone up to 150 motor vehicles of all sorts. According to him, the outcome of all this had been the building of firstly a deep sea jetty at Chatham and secondly a road to take all traffic between that jetty and the mainland.

In 1930, what Ferrar said in his speech echoes a sentiment, “I wish, however by today’s ceremony to stir the imagination not only of my fellow government servants who come and go, but of the permanent residents, the planters and the commercial and the agricultural population of Port Blair.

He asked them to reflect on what is being done by Government to secure their health and their prosperity and that of the new rural community that is being built up alongside them by the aided introduction of families of the deportees.

In addition to ordinary expenditure on health measures, Ferrar told the gathering that a total sum of 20 lakhs of rupees would be spent by the coming year on the filling of swamps and the elimination of malaria and incidentally the creation of 1200 more acres of arable land.

Appraising his own efforts, he informed that capital is being sunk by the Government in the forest enterprise. He was keen that everyone inspect the new mill and gantry for the Southern Division and out in the stream the new vessel being built for the Northern Division which he took much pleasure in naming after a great predecessor of him, Colonel Douglas.

About the money being spent on the dredger and on the expansion of the Forest Department he said the Government of India to have faith in the future of Port Blair, a faith which he himself shared. He sought the people of Port Blair on their side to show that the faith is justified and they all work with industry, with imagination and with goodwill and a united front for the prosperity and happiness of these wonderful Islands.

After a long speech, the ribbon closing the Causeway was then cut by Mrs. Ferrar and a procession of some 39 motor cars drove across to Chatham. There the opportunity was taken for the new Electric Gantry, the erection of which was completed that day, to be set in motion by Mrs. Ferrar. The new mill was also set going. Those two works cost Rs 35,000 and Rs 138,465 respectively.

After a reception by Mr. and Mrs Bonington on their lawn, the Chief Commissioner and Mrs Ferrar left for Hopetown by launch at noon.

Its 2019, and Chatham Island is now a hub of ferry services connecting Bambooflat and Dundas Point with Port Blair. More than 10000 passengers and hundreds of vehicles use the ferry services, and the number of vessels always falls short to meet the increasing demand. The construction of a bridge hangs fire for decades and is on and off the agenda of the present government. It has to be seen when the Islanders can see the bridge becoming a reality and a speech, like that of Col. Ferrar that follows the inauguration on the occasion. Let’s hope for the best!