Archibald Blair

Port Blair in Andaman is named after Lieutentant Blair of the Bombay Marine. Archibald Blair joined the Bombay Marine and received his first commission in 1771. In 1792 he was promoted to the rank of captain.

In 1772, as a midshipman, he went on his first survey mission along the coasts of India, Iran and Arabia. In 1780 he was captured by a French man-of-war off the Cape of Good Hope. He was kept prisoner by the French until 1784 when they handed him over to the Dutch who returned him to the Bombay Marine. Blair must have been valued very highly for he was given the then considerable sum of 200 pounds as compensation for his ordeal

Between 1786 and 1788 Blair participated in a number of survey missions, to the Chagos archipelago, to Diamond Harbour south of Calcutta and along the Hooghly river.

On 12th June 1789 a meeting of the British governor-general in Council took place in Calcutta at which Lieutenant Blair was present. He had earlier conducted a very thorough survey of the Andaman Islands on which he had presented a detailed report. This was received favourably on account of the clarity and precision in which it was written. The meeting decided to colonize the Andaman islands in order to gain a safe harbour from which to check the activities of Malayan pirates, to serve as a refuge for shipwrecked people, a watering station, a shelter from storms for all shipping and a naval base in case of hostilities with other powers.

Blair's first surveying voyage to the Andamans had taken from December 1788 until April 1789. He had left Calcutta on 20th December 1788 with the two ships Elizabeth and Viper. The expedition proceeded southwards along the west coast of the main islands, rounded Rutland island and then, sailing north along the eastern coast, discovered the superb natural harbour that Blair called Port Cornwallis (after Commodore William Cornwallis, Commander-in-Chief of the British-Indian navy) but which later came to be called after him, Port Blair. He immediately recognized the importance of his discovery and proceeded to hoist the British colours and to establish a redoubt on Chatham island within the harbour. Later he sailed north to Baratang Island and then turned west across Ritchie's Archipelago to Barren island, whose volcano he found in full eruption. After re-fitting on the Malay peninsula, the expedition returned to Calcutta on 22nd April 1789 where Blair submitted the report that was to prove so fateful to the Andamanese aborigines.

During his first and later surveys, Blair had many contacts with the Andamanese. Sometimes the natives were friendly, though never enthusiastic, while at others there took place what the explorers called "unprovoked attacks." For his time and background, Blair's reaction to the provocations offered reveal the man's generous character. He had instructions to maintain a conciliatory attitude towards the natives but in all his dealings with them he showed a degree of tolerance and understanding that went far beyond his orders. Blair himself offered an explanation for the hostile attitude of most Andamanese in the depredations suffered from pirates. As one observer noted

In one respect [Blair's] report differed from all previous accounts of these islands. The inhabitants were described in such a manner as to leave a much more favourable impression on the minds of the readers as to their character, manners and customs than the narratives of any former writer were calculated to impart. After the decision to colonize the Andamans, the commander, army Captain Alexander Kyd (1754-1826) appointed two naval lieutenants to conduct further surveys in the islands. One was Archibald Blair, the other Lieutenant R. H. Colebrooke.

Blair returned to Chatham island in September 1789 as the first officer-in-charge of the new settlement where he had to divide his time between survey work and administrative duties. Although there had been no plans to establish a penal colony, some convicts were nevertheless taken along as unpaid labour. Blair had a great many duties and in all his dealings he showed himself a man of exceptional talents and remarkable abilities. The settlement initially was a success but when the government, on purely strategic grounds, ordered its removal to a new Port Cornwallis in Northern Great Andaman in December 1792, the new location turned out to be very unhealthy and the natives unremittingly hostile. Disease rapidly decimated the colony and Blair, who had been in charge of the move north, cannot have been devastated when he was asked to hand over his local command to Major Kyd in March 1793, on the grounds that

the circumstances of your situation on the Bombay Establishment rendering it of consequence to you to be on the Malabar Coast, and the Services of a Surveyor being now less wanted at the Andamans than those of an Engineer. Kyd fought a brave but in the end hopeless battle against disease and hostility. He was instructed to abandon it three years later.

Throughout this eventful time, Blair continued his surveying work in the Andamans. He was a most meticulous explorer, discovering and charting new passages and inlets and describing the position of the many reefs that make the islands such a dangerous place for shipping even today. His work was exceptionally trustworthy and accurate, to the point that later surveyors complained only half jokingly that Blair had not left them with much to do.

Rather unexpectedly, we find that Blair also seems to have been something of an inventor and entrepreneur: in 1803 he received a government commission in England on all cotton belonging to the Company and exported from Bombay for the invention of a machine which made "a considerable improvement in the packing of cotton."

Captain Archibald Blair returned to England in 1795. He is recorded to have read an account of the Andaman islands before the Royal Society in London in 1799. Retiring in 1800, he settled at Bayford, Hertfordshire. In 1803 he received a government commission in England on all cotton belonging to the Company and exported from Bombay as the reward for inventing a machine which made "a considerable improvement in the packing of cotton."

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by Stephen Luscombe