27th October 2011

Clare Anderson, University of Leicester, UK

South Asian networks of convict transportation in the Indian Ocean

In this paper I will explore South Asian networks of convict transportation in the British colonial Indian Ocean. From the end of the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, over 100,000 Indian convicts were shipped overseas, to penal settlements and colonies across Southeast Asia, Mauritius and Aden. These convicts came from all over South Asia; most were men, and most were transported for life. Colonial convict flows worked in other directions too. The Indian mainland received convicts from Malaya and Burma. And, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Mauritius transported African slaves and ex-slaves – and Indian settlers and indentured labourers – to the Australian penal colonies.

Transportation had enormous symbolic appeal to the Indian authorities, for they believed that ‘Hindus’ greatly feared the prospect of a voyage across the kala pani, or black water. It was a boon to the Indian treasury as well, for it emptied jails. But most significant of all was the relationship between penal transportation and the political economy of colonial expansion. Colonial officials saw great public advantage in the use of a near continuous supply of convict labour to build roads, bridges, and basic infrastructure. And, in the Australian colonies, convict work practices became racialised in interesting ways.

My paper will open with a presentation of some of my ethnographic work with convict descendants in the Andaman Islands. I will use it as a way into an exploration of some of the economic, social and cultural features of Indian convict transportation. I will argue that penal settlements and colonies were part of a broader colonial repertoire that in South Asia included repressive practices of confinement, prison work, forced labour, indentured migration, and indigenous reservation and resettlement. I will explore the circulation of people, knowledge and practices around the Indian Ocean. I will show that South Asia and Australia were networked in significant ways. And, finally, I will square up to the many silences that pervade the historiography of Indian convict labour; considering how it is that such an extensive system of forced labour stemming from South Asia is almost entirely absent from larger imperial, world and global histories.

Clare Anderson is Professor of History in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester, UK. Her research focuses on the histories and legacies of penal transportation, with her published work including: Convicts in the Indian Ocean (Macmillan, 2000); Legible Bodies (Berg, 2004); The Indian Uprising of 1857-8 (Anthem, 2007); and Subaltern Lives (CUP, 2012). She has held personal research fellowships from the ESRC and National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and is currently principal investigator of the interdisciplinary ESRC funded UK/ India collaboration ‘integrated histories of the Andaman Islands.’ She has served on the executive committee of the British Association of South Asian Studies, and was recently elected to the British Academy South Asia panel. In January 2011, she was appointed editor of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.


19 August 2010

Professor Sugata Bose
Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs (Modern South Asian History; Indian Ocean History)

The Idea of Asia in Tagore and his Times

24 November 2009

Gyanendra Pandey

The politics of difference: Reflections on the Dalit and African American struggles

UTS logo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s