of the British Period to 1947
John Ritchie (died after 1790)
Several European explorers are known to have touched the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar islands from the 16th century onwards but none stayed long and all were on their way to richer discoveries elsewhere. The Andamans had no gold to offer and Ritchie is the earliest known surveyor-explorer interested in the Andamans for their own sake. It is only right that Ritchie's Archipelago is today still named after him.
Ritchie called himself a mariner in 1767 when he was taken on by the Governor and Council of Bengal as surveyor to the Marine department. Nothing is known of his origins or background. He was chiefly employed in exploring and mapping the eastern coasts of the Bay of Bengal as well as the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Occasionally, he also went on military land surveys, one of which in 1773 led to an acrimonious dispute about pay arrears and alleged financial irregularities with his employer. Although the dispute dragged on for years, it does not seem to have curtailed Ritchie's surveying activities.
In 1901 R.C. Temple rediscovered and published Ritchie's account of his survey of the Andaman islands. It contains the first reliable description of the islands' inhabitants, including one Andamanese man's rather hilarious if somewhat crude reaction to the intruders, and the first known description of Sentinel island with an interesting note on its inhabitants as seen from afar (for the text see Ritchie's Report in the Reprint section).
In 1774 the Marine department completed the best series of charts of the Bay of Bengal and its islands up to that date which was based on Ritchie's surveying work of which we show a part here. The archipelago names after Ritchie is shown at the top right and North Sentinel island at the bottom left.
Part of Ritchie's survey map dealing with the southern
In 1777 the first British governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, received a letter from Ritchie, giving the opinion that a "thorough knowledge of [the Andamans] will appear to be a matter of great utility." The Supreme Council, after discussing the matter, however, did nothing. In 1786 Ritchie, worn out from his arduous duties, applied for home leave:
The condition of my health being such as requires an immediate change of climate... after a series of 19 years continuous service in the office of Marine Surveyor, I hope there is no impropriety in my requesting the favour, also... to continue my allowance to me... It is a small salary, and the receipt of it has been the only advantage I have ever reaped from the Company's service, and because my Line of Service, from its singularity, has had no gradation of advancement... whilst its Duties have been uncommonly severe, uncommonly hazardous, and equally unprofitable; for what advantage could be obtained from tracking a Labyrinth of Woods and Rivers? Or from exploring the Shoals of a shelving and broken Sea Coast? All of which uninhabited, and seldom visited, except perhaps in the disastrous case of shipwreck... In the meantime it has been from my Labours, that the Hon'ble Company have obtained all authentic knowledge of the Sea Coast and Tide Rivers of their possessions in Bengal, together with other services more important and beneficial.
Calling the islands "uninhabited" in view of his dealings with the Andamanese can only mean "uninhabited by civilized people."
Ritchie's wish of home leave was granted and he returned to England in 1787. We last hear of him in 1791 when he applied for permission to return to India. Whether permission was granted we do not know. As far as is known, Ritchie never returned to India and the date and place of his death are not recorded.
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Last changed 14 January 2001