Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
This book explores fragments from the lives of socially marginal men and women who were associated with Indian Ocean penal settlements and colonies in the nineteenth century. It interrogates colonialism from a subaltern history perspective, and places penal transportation in a broad global context. It takes a life-writing approach, weaving together biographical snapshots of convicts – ordinary Indians and Eurasians; African slaves, apprentices and ex-slaves; indentured labourers; soldiers and rebels – with the lives of sailors, indigenous peoples and the ‘poor whites’ of Empire. Subaltern Lives brings into focus convict experiences of transportation and penal settlements and colonies, as well as the relationship between convictism, punishment and colonial labour regimes. It also cuts a slice into society and social transformation in the nineteenth century, analysing the making of colonial identities, the nature of social capital in the colonial context, and networks of Empire across the Indian Ocean and beyond.
There was an intricate web of British penal settlements and colonies in the nineteenth century, which together received at least 300,000 convicts. It is well known that during the period 1788 to 1868 convicts were shipped from Britain and Ireland to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land and Western Australia, and to Gibraltar and Bermuda. But, significantly, there were also substantial convict flows between British colonies at this time. For instance, from 1815 to 1825 the colonial authorities in Mauritius, the Cape Colony and the Seychelles transported convicts to Robben Island. Subsequently, they shipped them to the Australian colonies, which also became the destination for convicts from the Caribbean. From the 1790s the British transported Indian convicts from mainland South Asia to penal settlements across the Bay of Bengal in Burma and Southeast Asia, and also further afield to Mauritius and Aden. Felons convicted in Southeast Asia and Ceylon were transported to these destinations too, as well as to mainland South Asian jails. After the great Indian revolt of 1857, the British largely replaced these settlements with a single penal colony in the Andaman Islands, and this remained in service until the Second World War. There was, then, a pan-imperial traffic in convicts, which stretched from Britain, Ireland and Gibraltar to India, Aden, Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal, southward to Australia, around the Cape Colony to Robben Island, and across the Atlantic to Bermuda and the Caribbean islands.