By Jennie Jeppesen.
At the beginning of her discursive remarks, Ebony Jones summed up best one of the most refreshing things about the Carceral Archipelago conference which took place between the 13th and 16th of September in Leicester. She said (and I paraphrase slightly here) “It is refreshing to be in a place and with people where when I say that I am working on Transportation they don’t automatically think trains or automobiles.” Not only do I agree with Ebony, but her comment highlights the fact that this gathering of people, from postgraduate to eminent leading scholars, all interested in aspects of the same topic, created a space in which real connections and conversations could be had.
For me, there is something about attending a conference which fires brain cells and re-excites me about my topics. It is like a chocolate bar – the hit of sugar gives a surge of creative energy. Yet usually, the excitement comes from tangential or abstract concepts or ideas. A law conference will make me want to go back to the law books to learn about some abstract concept or application of the law, a labour conference makes me think about the long term effects of the types of labour patterns I see in my colonies, an American studies conference makes me thinks of links with other pieces of American history. Yet I always feel that there is often something missing in these conferences. While there is often excitement about the idea of a comparison of unfree labour in America and Australia, it is one of a general nature, without an understanding of the nuance. Few at these events even knew that transportation to America happened, and so casual conversation is always a wonderment that this event took place, or – to borrow Ebony Jones’ words – that I wasn’t actually looking at cars. As a result, often a chunk of my conference papers are background, needing to explain what convict transportation was, and what it looked like, and that it wasn’t uniquely Australian.
The Carceral Archipelago conference on the other hand was a rich and full dinner in comparison to the chocolate bar of other kinds of conferences. Rather than a short rush of energy, the Carceral Archipelago has given me ideas and connections which will stay with me for years. I didn’t need to explain what convict transportation was, because everyone in the room already knew. While I can’t speak for other attendees, I found it refreshing to be able to talk to researchers not just about broad ideas, but how they apply specifically to the idea of convict transportation. Being able to talk to Christian De Vito (who studies the Spanish Empire) on the ways in which public and private control are adapted to different empires in different ways and to think about why this control dynamic was different in English colonies to the ones he studied. Or my discussions with Tyler Kirk, who works on Russian Gulags, on the idea of internal versus external settlement using convict labourers made me reconsider some ideas I had on secondary punishment sights. Or talking with Sarah Pemberton on the political implications of Locke and the implications of my argument of chattelhood and how the two are not isolated. Or Kellie Moss and the idea that indentured servitude in Australia was so much different than what I understood in America; or Ebony Jones who made me broaden some of my ideas on the shifting status between convict and slave or slave and convict; or Clare Anderson or Ian Duffield or Gwenda Morgan or Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, who all shared their experience and expertise and offered sage advice in these early days of my career; or any of the other many people I met and conversed with meant that my own work will be more diverse and enriched.
In one casual lunch time conversation, something became clear to me. I wasn’t just meeting people who after the conference would disappear into their own research and lives. I was meeting people that I would collaborate with and converse with for the rest of my career. Just as Ian Duffield and Gwenda Morgan were the pioneers (and I must admit I felt a bit awestruck to be around such convict studies royalty!), and Clare and Hamish were the second wave, those of us who were still postgrads or just newly graduated have hopefully found our cohort of fellow convict researchers. People that as our careers progress will become those I potentially apply for grants with or collaborate on projects or even simply seek out at the next conference for a drink and a chat. I hope to be as close to these people as Ian and Gwenda or Hamish and Clare are to one another. And yet it wasn’t simply the long-time researchers versus us ‘newbies’. The ideas and conversations flowed in all directions, and there was never a feeling of inferiority or superiority in any direction. I would just as easily seek out Ian, Gwenda, Hamish, Christian, Tim Causer, Clare, Tyler, Minako Sakata, Emma Battell Lowman, or any of the other established researchers for a drink as I would the early career or postgraduate scholars. For me, as someone still trying to make my mark in academia, it is these future connections that I found the most valuable about this gathering.
The conference had a focus on everything from Portugal in the 1400s to Russia in the 1940s, and the times in between and places from Italy to Denmark to the Netherlands to India to Spain to France to America to the Caribbean to Australia. This sense of a cohesive focus on a similar – and yet wildly diverse – topic gave the conference an amazingly strong sense of community, and created or enforced ties between researchers and locations and topics. I will forever be grateful to the Carceral Archipelago team for putting on this conference and allowing me to be a part of it, and know that it will forever have an impact on my work.
I look forward to the next one.
Jennie Jeppesen recently completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne comparing convicts in Virginia and eastern Australia. The focus of the thesis was on the impact of the shift in control from private to public on convict lives. The thesis covers variations in the assignment of labour, laws that surrounded convicts, changes to the application of felony attaint, access to freedom, the shift from coercion to incentive in driving convicts to work, marriage and illegitimacy. Her most recent publication is a book chapter in Order and Civility in the Early Modern Chesapeake (eds Debra Meyers and Melanie Perreault, Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), on the chattel status of convicts in Virginia. She is currently working on a full-length book based on her PhD thesis.