The Andaman Islands, situated in the Bay of Bengal, were once home to a penal colony created by the British colonisers to detain the criminal convicts from the India; mostly rebels in search of the independence of their country. Here, whilst on service in India, The Royal Scots Fusiliers sent troops to guard the main prison, Cellular Jail in Port Blair. This was also known as Kala Pani meaning Black Waters! Among these was John Gordon, a young drummer boy who joined the Army at the young age of 14.
John’s story was brought to the museum by his daughter, Christina Gordon, who also donated his collection of musical books, photographs and an intricately-carved coconut shell and also a carved sea-shell, brought home by her great uncle, Samuel Auld, both from the Andaman Islands.
John, born in 1887, grew up in Glasgow. His father was a barber in Carlton Street and when men were shaved on Saturday nights, John was the soap-boy. After his father died of pneumonia, his mother re-married and emigrated to Canada however John did not wish to go. So, he joined The Royal Scots Fusiliers, at the age of 14 as a drummer boy. He was then immediately shipped off to India and from there the Andaman Islands.
Drummer boys, like John, gave military commands by beating the drums and they helped maintain a steady tempo whilst troops were marching. At ten o’clock every morning, the boys were required to go to the cookhouse to drink a milk ration to ensure that they did not suffer from rickets – a disease endemic among city children at that time. However, the role of drummer boys started to decline during the late 19th Century as many people started questioning the young age in which these boys were going to the frontline. Their role of giving military was given to adult buglers. However, John carried on drumming and he eventually became Drum Major for The Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Life as a guard at the Cellular Jail was strict and discipline had to be enforced. Stories of torture were known and the prisoners were often kept in solitary confinement, and harsh punishments, such as beatings and hangings, were given to anyone who even stepped slight out of line. This vicious treatment led to revolts and mass hunger strikes.
John Gordon also fought with the regiment in the First World War where he was one of the Old Contemptibles in France. It can be seen from pictures that he collected a chestful of medals, the 1914 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory medal among others.
John eventually retired from the regular army and The Royal Scots Fusiliers; however, within a month, he had joined the Territorial Army – the 6th Batallion, The Highland Light Infantry.
Story by Lucy Fitzpatrick