Monday, 18 November 2013

Recap 15th November 2013 - The Carceral Archipelago: A Global History of Penal Colonies

For those of you that missed it, here’s a recap of the last New History Lab ‘The Carceral Archipelago: A Global History of Penal Colonies’ led by Professor Clare Anderson, with short talks by Kellie Moss and Katy Roscoe.

Professor Clare Anderson is seven months into acting as principal investigator for the five year ERC-funded project ‘The Carceral Archipelago.’ Prof. Anderson started off by showing on a map of a world, one at a time, the various penal colonies of each nation or continent – British, European, Latin American, Russian and Asian – that existed between 1415 and 1960. Prof. Anderson then incorporated all these transportation flows onto one map of the world, which was so jam-packed with penal colonies, that, as Prof. Anderson put it, ‘the question becomes not “where are there penal colonies?” but “where aren’t there penal colonies?”. She highlighted that this is the first project to try and theorise all these multifarious convict flows within global labour or migration history, as penal transportation tends to be studied within national histories of crime and punishment. By doing so the project challenges several widely held assumptions - namely that the transition from ‘unfree’ to ‘free’ labour underpinned the movement to modernity, that Europeans were largely ‘free’ migrants and non-Europeans were largely unfree, and that transportation was a movement that started in the metropole and ended up somewhere in the empire. Instead Prof. Anderson argued that penal transportation was characterised by circulations of people, both convicts and administrators, and ideas, on different types of discipline and labour practices. People were transported to far more locales and for far longer than has been recognised, to be used as a tool of national and imperial expansion through their labour.  The transformation of spaces from one type of confinement to another, and the overlap of disciplinary practices from other forms of labour migration, e.g. enslavement and indenture,  is visible only by viewing convict transportation in the context of a global network – which in turn has major implications for the legacy of transportation across the world today. This work is being done by an international team of researchers working on an ever-increasing number of case-studies – so far work is being done on Australia, Russia, Latin America, Zanzibar, Japan by a team of researchers, including Prof. Anderson’s own work on Mazaruni in British Guiana and other parts of Caribbean. As well as mapping and enumerating convict flows in the period, the meaning of race, the creation of gendered space, the management of work and the operation of convict agency will form the comparative indicators around which these various case studies will coalesce. The methodology will centre around what Ann Stoler dubbed the ‘politics of comparison’ which involves considering what people at the time compared penal transportation to. This should enable the project to bring the history of labour migration into dialogue with the history of confinement.  

One of the students working on her PhD as part of the project, Kellie Moss, spoke about her research project entitled  ‘Free or Unfree Labour: The British Empire and the Establishment of the Swan River Colony.’ Kellie discussed the transportation of convicts to Western Australia and their influence on the establishment of Swan River Colony. She highlighted the difficulties settlers faced when trying to found a settlement, including a lack of infrastructure and manpower, and how convicts, who were often handpicked for their abilities at trade, helped the establishment develop into an economically thriving and socially driven colony. Her research works to undo common misconceptions of convicts as Britain’s dregs ‘dumped’ on Australia,  instead investing the convict experience with a degree of agency and get up and go that complicates simplistic binaries of unfree and free labour. Her work is all the more valuable considering the short shrift that Western Australia has received in the study of Australian history. Kellie also drew attention to the displacement of aboriginals in the establishment of Swan River Colony and the continuing legacy of convict Australia on the environment, demography and identities of those living in Western Australia.

                Another student with a PhD studentship on the project, Katy Roscoe, spoke about her research on spatiality on the Australian penal colonies of Rottnest and Cockatoo Islands from 1839 to 1918. She saw space as physically and socially constructed within a range of possibilities that were geographically determined.  Space operated on interconnected levels: the exterior – position between maritime and mainland geographies; the interior – buildings and natural environment of island; the individual – convicts ‘carving out’ their own space. She discussed the first kind of space:  the exterior.  Using maps of the two islands, Katy suggested that their different positions had profound impact on their usage. The proximity of Cockatoo Island to the mainland on all sides made it ideal for exploitation of prisoners as a labour supply. However, the natural geography – in the form of the malleable limestone and swimmable distance to the shore – undermined its’ penal role as concealment and escape were constant threats. Rottnest Island is more cut off, a solitary speck 11 miles out to sea from Fremantle. Its purpose was political, as British understandings of aboriginal crime made imperial administrators keen to break up tribal networks of loyalty. Instead aboriginals were implanted into a British imperial ‘legal’ space where authorities tried to alter the aboriginal relationship to the land, and by so doing assimilate them into possible future citizens.

If you are interested in learning more about the project follow Clare (@sysgak) or Katy (@katwee_) or search #CArchipelago on twitter. Alternatively visit the project website: