Sent overseas: how prisoners were shipped between British colonies
Everyone is familiar with the stories of convicts shipped from Britain to Australia and other far-flung parts of the Empire, but much less well known is the practice, throughout the 19th century, of shipping convicts between British colonies. Men (and sometimes women) arrested in one location for petty crimes or political actions were transported elsewhere, creating a network of penal settlements and colonies criss-crossing the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as South Africa or even Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
This largely unexplored aspect of British colonial rule is examined by Professor Clare Anderson from our School of Historical Studies in her fascinating new book Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920.
‘Subaltern’ in this sense has nothing to do with junior military officers or logical propositions. The term refers to people excluded from ruling power structures by politics, race or geography.
Although official documentation exists about the logistics of this multi-directional trade in prisoners, very few of those involved told their stories, and the few who did tended to be exceptional: elite, educated individuals railing against the indignities of the system in the Andamans penal colony. (Where the Viceroy of India was murdered, as Clare revealed on Radio 4 last September.)
Professor Anderson’s approach is to examine the lives of ordinary convicts involved, even if information on an individual is desperately scarce. For example the first of six subjects in her book is a man named Dullah who was transported from Bengal to Mauritius in 1816. A note exists of his subsequent employment, we have one statement he gave to a British soldier and we know he died in 1847. That’s about it. But these huge gaps in Dullah’s story can tell as much about his life and his world as the surviving fragments of documentation.
Another chapter recounts the known movements of George Morgan. African by birth, he was arrested in Calcutta in 1834 for theft and transported to Burma. Incredibly, he not only escaped from his penitude, he actually returned to Calcutta and managed to get himself arrested again, after which he was re-transported beyond Burma all the way to Van Diemen’s Land, with a metaphorical “And stay out!”
In complete contrast is Narain Sing, a senior military officer who was arrested for treason during the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s. He too was transported to Burma but managed to establish himself in his new home and by the 1870s he had become Chief Gaoler!
Picking through these and other lives, Professor Anderson opens up a vast realm of largely unknown colonial activity in the region and illuminates some of the less famous activities of the ruling powers. She demonstrates how this penal transportation network affected not only the convicts themselves but those around them including the British soldiers and officials and the local populations on whom these penal colonies were foisted.
Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920 is published this month by Cambridge University Press at £19.99 in paperback and can be ordered from the University Bookshop.