A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies: book launch

On July 4th 2018, the eminent scholar of empire, Professor Philippa Levine (University of Texas, Austin), launched my edited volume, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, at the annual conference of the Australian Historical Association, held at ANU, Canberra. This volume is one of the key outcomes of my ‘Carceral Archipelago’ project.


I am grateful to Philippa for allowing me to post the full text of the launch. Meantime, find full details of the book here.


“It is a pleasure and truly a privilege to have this opportunity to laud the work of Professor Clare Anderson on the occasion of the publication of her most recent book, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, just out from Bloomsbury Academic. Even before I began to read the book, I was confident that I would benefit and learn much from it, knowing Clare’s pre-eminence in this field of study, her deep as well as broad knowledge of this history. I was not disappointed.


In this volume Clare brings together a rich variety of contributors who address and reveal the deep links between incarceration, convict transportation, migration and labour across a vast array of locations and eras. We learn from Clare and her contributors not only about the bewildering variety of states, many but not all of them empires, which made use of transportation, the numbers in aggregate rising into the millions. We learn of the multiple intentions behind such practices: the provision of soldiers, the management of populations, the expansion of imperial frontiers, the hunger for labourers; the deterrence of crime. We are exposed to the inhumane conditions which often pertained: the high rates of mortality, the often brutal and dangerous labour regimes in which convicts toiled, the vicious punishments which added to the burden of banishment. The ironies of the immobility experienced by transportees, deliberately removed to distant locations, underscores the condition of such mobile subjects whose losses were material, political and psychological. Instrumental as they were in shaping the world around them through their labour, they were denied the new markers of personhood that emerged in the modern world.


Central to the formation of new political structures and to the expansion of empires, convicts nonetheless had no say in the disposition of their own bodies: in some instances they could be and were sold or transferred. Such transactions muddy traditional categories, suggesting a continuum rather than a sharp divide between free and unfree labour. Clare is quite clear in her introduction that convict workers (by no means all of them convicted criminals) existed alongside an array of other forms of labour exploitation, and indeed had a longer history in the European imperial framework than enslavement. These are, then, often painful tales of a system which marginalised as well as punished, which saw the lives of many as disposable. To be sure, plenty rebelled against their treatment and some managed to fashion fulfilling lives after their incarceration, but overall this is a tale of the ways in which disposable peoples helped make a world from which they were effectively excluded.


This quick gallop through some of the key issues the volume raises by no means does justice to the richness and sophistication of this remarkable collection curated by Clare. I hope, though, that it will spur you to spend time with this volume. It rethinks the basic terms in which we have understood and written the history of convict labour, it widens the scope and the scale of our understanding of that phenomenon, it insists on the connections and flows between quite different regimes, and it offers a cogent if sobering analysis of the dominant role both of convicts in the making of the modern world and of the continuing value to states of regimes of incarceration.


Indeed, I was reminded as I read these essays of the Guatemalan prisoners who were among a number of disenfranchised groups intentionally exposed to and infected with sexually transmitted diseases without consent by the United States Public Health Service in the 1940s. A lawsuit brought against the U.S. government in 2011 failed on the grounds that the government could not be held liable for actions outside the United States. This episode does not fit within the context of penal colonies, of course, but it serves to remind us, as does this entire volume, of the central but often obscured role played by those willy nilly caught up in the aims and intentions of the carceral state.


Thank you and congratulations, Clare, for producing such a profoundly important book, one that will shape and influence our thinking about prisons and penal regimes for many years to come.”


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Clare Anderson

About Clare Anderson

I am a professor of history, with interests in colonialism and colonial societies across the British Empire. I am especially interested in the history of confinement. I have worked on prisons, penal colonies, plantations, and migrant ships, and my interests also include the history of coerced labour. I have held grants and fellowships from the ESRC, National Maritime Museum and British Academy; and I am currently directing the European Research Council funded project "The Carceral Archipelago" (2013-18). I am a member of the British Academy Area Panel for South Asia, I have held visiting professorships at the University of Technology Sydney (2009, 2011), and I am currently editor of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

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2 responses to “A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies: book launch”

  1. Anandalal Nanayakkara

    Dear Clare,

    I have an interest in numismatic aspects from the Andamans and following a reference to the use of the Andaman token as a disciplinary measure, I came to your post. I wonder if you may have any direct reference as to how exactly these tokens were used as a disciplinary measure. My email is anandalal10@gmail.com. Thanks and Best Regards.

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