Convicts: A Global History 
by Clare Anderson.
Cambridge, 476 pp., £26.99, January, 978 1 108 81494 2
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Suella Braverman​ has a dream. She imagines rounding up immigrants who have landed illegally on the coast of southern England and stuffing them into planes. They will be flown to Rwanda, where they’ll stay, a comforting 4300 miles away. As the home secretary sees it, this project has multiple advantages. It removes unwanted bodies, while punishing them and their sponsors for journeying to the UK. It also offers a new future for the migrants in a ‘very inspiring’ African republic. Her own family has links with compulsory mobility. Her mother comes from Mauritius, an island once used by the British as a penal colony for convicts from the Indian subcontinent. Her father was born in Nairobi and moved to the UK after Kenya became independent, a few years before the expulsion of Asians from neighbouring Uganda.

The idea of removing transgressive or simply unwelcome people by forcing them to travel to faraway territories is persistent and ubiquitous, championed across the centuries by politicians, scientists, lawyers and the military on every continent. This is the central subject of Clare Anderson’s big, important, well-researched and necessarily imperfect Convicts: A Global History. ‘Punitive mobility’, as she terms it, was practised in the ancient world, not least in the Roman Empire. The story she tells, however, begins in the 15th century, and the estimates she provides of the numbers forcibly transported since then are startling. Between the early 17th century and the 1940s, the Dutch Empire removed 202,000 convicts and the British Empire 376,000. Such estimates of people exported after being judged criminal can also omit other groups who escaped formal trials but suffered similar fates. Between 1730 and 1769 alone, Spain transported 60,000 people it chose to view as vagrants. But these Western European totals are dwarfed by those in other parts of the world. Anderson estimates that imperial Russia dispatched close to two million convicts eastwards between 1590 and 1917. The numbers for the Soviet era are much greater. Perhaps 25 million people, including a higher percentage of women than was usual in such convict flows, were sent to Siberia between 1928 and 1953.

In examining these huge and relentless exports of unwanted people overland and overseas, Anderson wants to write a ‘global, and connected, history from below’, one that pays attention to the experiences of subaltern and oppressed individuals, as distinct from dwelling on the ideas and actions of dominant orders in states, kingdoms and empires. More crucially and rightly, she wants to move away from Michel Foucault’s influential focus on fixed prisons and penitentiaries as sites of punishment that also reveal structures and theories of power. The prisoners she studies are those millions who were forced into compulsory migration, often over very large distances. Long-distance movement is usually thought of in terms of opportunity and even liberation. But as Anderson documents, such journeying has often been a mode of punishment.

As with Braverman’s Rwanda scheme (she has called it her ‘obsession’), penal strategies of this sort can possess multiple attractions for those in positions of power. Along with ridding the home society of unwanted people and criminals, transporting men and sometimes women to distant places made available rich supplies of coercible labour. Imperial Spain, for instance, employed transported convicts to man its war and trade galleys, but also to work its mines in South America. In virtually all overseas and overland imperial territories, ‘convicts’ of various sorts became vital frontier workers and sometimes active agents of expansion and consolidation. If they died in the process, or became hobbled by disease, who really cared? It was part of their punishment.

Denmark sent convicts to its Caribbean colony of St Thomas, where they cleared land, planted crops, fished and built houses. The British employed the inmates of their ‘model’ penal colony at Mazaruni, Guyana, established in 1842, to quarry granite, a commodity that commanded high prices. It was a bonus that these latter prisoners were exposed to the regular attentions of nearby Christian mission stations, while learning – so the administrators reasoned – the necessary discipline of productive work. Of course, the most celebrated British example of enforced colonial labour and imagined redemption involved the territories that ultimately became Australia. From the late 1780s, London used portions of these lands to replace the lost United States as a dumping ground for British and Irish criminals. By the 1870s, 167,000 individuals had been transported to Australia, most of them ordinary convicts, but with a number of political undesirables included for good measure – such as fifteen sailors accused of involvement in the Spithead and Nore naval mutinies of 1797.

Anderson has been working on this subject for a quarter of a century, and her analysis is highly detailed, nuanced and questioning. Might punitive mobility, for all its brutalities, have been a kinder punishment than protracted incarceration in the home country? Sometimes the answer was yes. ‘It was the prison and silence that made me wretched and tired of life,’ a recuperating prisoner confided to a ship’s surgeon in 1846, as he sailed to a more open mode of confinement. Male convicts were sometimes allowed to marry local women or to have their wives sent out to join them, an arrangement that had the further benefit of providing for an increase in the colonial population.

Might enforced exposure to harsh, alien landscapes serve to forge new solidarities and modes of protest among different kinds of prisoner? Anderson is careful to supply mixed answers. In 1751, the onetime regent of Padang, an elite political prisoner held on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was confined for eighteen years), cheerfully conspired with an ordinary criminal to stage a rebellion against their Dutch guards and other local Europeans. When their plan failed, the difference in their status meant little. Each man was tied to a wooden cross and had his limbs shattered. But being forced across long distances didn’t necessarily mean that convicts were willing to abandon other boundaries. In penal colonies abroad, as in penitentiaries at home, an inmate’s sense of innate differences was often sharpened. When the Irish nationalist activist John Mitchel was transported in 1848, first to the hulks off Bermuda, then to a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), one of his greatest torments was the perception that he was being treated no better than a West Indian slave. Escaping to the US, he sought to recover his sense of self and racial superiority by loudly supporting the South in the Civil War.

As these examples illustrate, Anderson works hard to extract and convey stories of individuals from the uneven, abundant but mainly impersonal information that survives on punitive mobility. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to do this where elite prisoners are involved – such as the scholar Ji Yun, who was caught up in a bribery case and banished from Beijing to Xinjiang in 1768. He proved so useful to the authorities in his place of punishment that they employed him as a secretary. Most long-distance convicts were not like this. Many could not read or write, and the majority have left little or no evidence behind of their lives and ideas. In this regard, Anderson might have done more with some of the remarkable illustrations she includes in the book. They are themselves sources that could have been mined and interpreted. How, for instance, are we to understand the extraordinary flag she reproduces that was flaunted by insurgent slaves in Barbados in 1816, some of whom were later transported to Honduras?

And then there is the question of costume. A sketch of British convicts in Bermuda in 1860 shows them in what appear to be mass-produced striped jackets and trousers. By contrast, the young convict couple in New Holland drawn in 1790 by the Spanish naval officer Felipe Bauza seem far more distinctive. Their clothes resemble cut-down versions of contemporary Western fashions, but they are nonetheless an elegant, even rakish pair. Was Bauza romanticising? Or did transported convicts sometimes make their own clothes, or adjust those doled out to them in ways that asserted their individuality? Despite all the work of anthropologists on the significance of bodily practices, such issues aren’t raised here.

But the book’s biggest lacuna, for all its size and scholarship, is that in focusing on the maritime empires of Western Europe and Japan, Anderson doesn’t pay much attention to enforced migration overland. No self-proclaimed global history can deal in equal measure with every part of the world, but overland punitive mobility is an enduring phenomenon whose distinctive features demand discussion. To begin with, overland empires have generally lasted longer than maritime ones. Consequently (as with Russia) they have forcibly transported people over longer periods and in larger numbers. Second, by dwelling on maritime empires, Anderson leaves out some crucial places and events. The US doesn’t feature at all in her valuable table of global convict flows between the 15th and 20th centuries, yet surely the forced removal of thousands of Cherokees to Oklahoma, nine hundred miles from their native Georgia, in the 1830s deserves some mention. They weren’t, it’s true, formally convicted in courts of law, but many white settlers viewed the Cherokee and other Native American people as thieves, marauders and murderers. After all, as Anderson observes, a frequent function of ‘penal relocation’ has been ‘to repress entire populations’ while simultaneously aiding imperial expansion.

There are also some significant divergences between patterns of overland and overseas enforced mobility. Prisoners dispatched hundreds, even thousands of miles inland across brutal, empty country often found it harder to escape than counterparts held in penal colonies on islands. On an island, there might be a lingering hope – and occasionally a realised one – of slipping away from one’s guards, and coming across a stray boat on an empty shore.

The two modes of punitive mobility have also left behind different kinds of paper trail. The business of hiring ships to transport prisoners long distances often, as Anderson shows, took months, sometimes years, and involved numerous letters and legal documents. Even when a ship finally became available, the prisoners had to be counted on board, monitored and logged at sea, then counted and recorded again on disembarkation, all of which has served to swell historical archives. By contrast, flows of convicts overland have tended to leave behind much less documentary evidence – or, in some cases, much less accessible evidence.

The Western maritime empires on which Anderson concentrates have all at times withheld, censored and destroyed official and administrative papers. In the main, however, it has proved easier to gain access to the archives of Western powers, on matters of punishment as on other things, than it has been to obtain admission to the records of some overland empires, Russia and China in particular. The detainment camps recently established in the Xinjiang region clearly have things in common with the cases of enforced mobility and retraining analysed by Anderson, but they are hard to investigate, and likely to remain so. This imbalance of archival survival and access shapes the final section of Convicts, which covers the mid to late 19th century and the 1900s. Anderson shows that during this period there was growing scepticism in parts of the world about the utility as well as the humanity of transportation. Beginning in 1872, there were also regular International Penitentiary Congresses. Until the mid-20th century these were invariably held in Western capitals, while still attracting delegates from India, Haiti, Siam, Turkey and elsewhere. Yet even as she describes interactions between various nations and empires on matters of punishment, Anderson relies heavily on French and British sources to explore her final theme: the systematic use of overseas penal colonies for medical, scientific and pseudo-scientific investigation and experimentation.

Some of these experiments – on people who were rarely in any position to resist – may now appear justified. Ronald Ross, a British doctor, carried out some of his research on the relationship between mosquitoes and malaria in the penal colony on the Andaman Islands, work that helped win him a Nobel Prize in 1902. ‘With tears and toiling breath,’ he wrote, ‘I find thy cunning seeds,/O million-murdering death.’ Yet convicts were vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, even after death. As Anderson points out, staging postmortems on a large scale was comparatively easy when the bodies concerned were those of transported prisoners in a faraway place. Some of the research to which prisoners were subjected was highly questionable, not least Franck Cazanove’s 1906 study of sexuality in a French repeat offender settlement in Guyana, which involved close attention to the shape and size of his subjects’ penises. It would be wrong to let this book’s more bizarre horrors tempt one into believing that its subject matter is securely rooted in the past.

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Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

In her review of Clare Anderson’s Convicts: A Global History, Linda Colley refers to individuals transported to Australia, ‘most of them ordinary convicts, but with a number of political undesirables included for good measure’, citing the example of fifteen sailors found to be involved in the naval mutinies of 1797 (LRB, 5 January). She also laments the dearth of evidence available to sustain a historical account written ‘from below’.

The distinction between ‘ordinary convicts’ and ‘political undesirables’ is by no means straightforward. The official histories ‘written from above’ found it convenient generally to categorise the deportees as criminals. But several sources indicate that in fact very large numbers were included for political reasons. Apart from members of such groups as the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Glasgow cotton spinners, by 1800 Irish deportees, feared as militant Republicans, made up more than a quarter of the population of the penal colony. The fear was reinforced by events such as the Vinegar Hill uprising of 1804, when convicts marching to ‘Croppy Boy’, the song of the 1798 Irish rebellion, planned to proceed south to recruit Irish prisoners at Parramatta, then east to march on Sydney. Similarly, Ned Kelly’s 1879 ‘Jerilderie Letter’ announced the intention of forming an independent state within the colony. During the nocturnal lead-up to the gang’s ‘last stand’ at Glenrowan, the song ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ was sung. Such songs form part of a significant body of evidence.

Sydney Police Bench reports from 1833 describe penalties imposed at the prison settlement on Norfolk Island, including, for example, a hundred lashes for William Riley and Michael Burns ‘for singing a song’. (‘Grossly neglecting his duty’ and ‘absent without leave’, by comparison, incurred only fifty lashes, though that was still enough nearly to flay a man.) A large proportion of these songs were about Ireland. From Hugh Anderson’s extensive work in this area we learn that while many convict ballads referred straightforwardly to criminality, the Irish contributions were overwhelmingly political, hymns to various forms of Irish nationalism. Such vernacular songs exported a tradition of rebellion against a colonising authority that extended its power from one side of the world to the other, and which lumped its deportees to Australia into the single category ‘convicts’. From top down these deportees were criminals. From bottom up they were often what we would now call freedom fighters.

Bruce Johnson
University of Technology Sydney

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