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Book Review


Clare Anderson, ed., A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. xiv + 380. Index. $39.95. (cloth).


     A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies effectively showcases the place and role of convicts, convict transport, and penal colonies in key processes that underpinned global change from the late-medieval to the modern periods. Along with the volume editor and contributor, Clare Anderson, the authors weave a tapestry of global connections that chart a trajectory of penal history paralleling European, Asian, and Latin American expansion and empire- and nation-state building. The result is a transnational comparative history book that cuts across multiple contexts, polities, and colonies within a single analytical framework, demonstrating the diversity and range of what Anderson refers to in the "Introduction" as "penal patterns of connection" (4).  

     Collectively, the authors explore common themes revealed by these patterns, including "textures" of punishment and repression; the link between penal transportation, coerced labor and migration; and the role of "ordinary people" in global transformation (20). Throughout the study, the phenomena which most comprehensively demonstrate these patterns of connection is frontier expansion and colonization. As Anderson notes in the "Introduction," convicts constituted a "disproportionately large" population in many colonizing missions and, as the contributors demonstrate, they were also essential, albeit ambivalent, agents of empire (20).

     Key infrastructural projects for the expansion and consolidation of empires were manned by convicts across every context featured in A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies. As Minako Sakata observes in her study on the settlement of the Japanese island of Hokkaido in the late-nineteenth century, "it would not have been possible to settle people inland without the convict-built roads" (324). This convict-cum-colonial-laborer/settler dynamic is a persistent subtheme throughout the collection. As Ryan C. Edwards notes in his essay on post-colonial Latin America, authoritarian regimes in modernizing Latin American countries enacted laws and punishments designed specifically to advance infrastructural development projects, which they coupled with land improvement and penal settlement. Half a world away and two centuries removed, Swedish officials routinely used convict settlers as the equivalent of a pioneer vanguard to extend the Swedish Empire into the Baltic region, as Johan Heinsen argues in his chapter on "The Scandinavian Empires in the Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries."

     But while convict labor was used to build key infrastructural components that introduced and deepened metropolitan penetration into the soon-to-be peripheral regions of the Japanese Empire, agents of modernization across Central America, from land improvement schemes in Costa Rica to island penal colonies in Mexico, as well as Scandinavian officials deployed criminals to extend their imperial reach into under- and un-populated regions. The French Empire made similar use of military convicts. As Jean-Lucien Sanchez explains in "The French Empire, 1542–1976," between 1830 and 1970, French authorities installed a "special corps" of soldiers in the Biribi, a region that roughly equated to the French North African colonies of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. These "disciplinary companies" existed alongside "native" troops and within colonial troops but were populated by soldiers who had contravened and who were mainly employed in "hard labor" and the "development of colonial infrastructure" (144).

     Elsewhere, exiles and prisoners were central to the expansion of defensive networks and as agents of domestic and imperial economic integration. In his essay on "The Spanish Empire, 1500–1898," Christian G. De Vito shows how eighteenth-century Spanish exiles and prisoners were impressed into the army and used for the construction of defensive works, including presidios, the fortified military settlements necessary to maintain and extend Spanish dominance in the Americas. When not impressed on the Spanish American frontier, convict labor was mobilized in various extractive industries to knit the economic fabric of the empire together, from the mercury mined in Almaden, Spain and used by involuntary workers to extract silver in Peru, to a domestic woolen industry whose convict labor force produced the cloths sold in New Spain and, eventually, the metropole (67).

     Economic and military considerations likewise motivated convict transportation from Britain and Ireland between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, according Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. As European states gradually abolished the use of slave labor, the development of New World plantation economies "rekindled the demand" for unfree labor. While indentured servitude remained one vehicle to meet this demand, the fixed, relatively short-term contract-based system which was its defining feature presented an obstacle for colonists who desired the prolongation of those terms. The result was something like a race to the bottom fueled by the creation of a contract-based transportation system in which convicts' sentences were dictated not by legal precedent, but rather by the competitive nature of the transatlantic market in unfree labor (in which they were destined to work) (187–188). The same period witnessed an explosion in the military deployment of convict labor in the British Empire. As Maxwell-Stewart notes, convicts were "earmarked" for the more dangerous tropical theaters of Africa and the Windward and Leeward Islands during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. For good reason: death rates for British troops in West Africa were "twenty times greater than those troops billeted…in the British Isles (195–196).

     Timothy J. Coates draws out these martial themes by detailing the military importance of convict soldiers in the Portuguese Empire. According to Coates, convict soldiers were at the forefront of Portugal's earliest imperial forays into North Africa during the fifteenth century. Confronted by the forces of Islam, the Portuguese crown pursued and extended the agenda of the Iberian Reconquista in a war whose prosecution was critically dependent on the "emergency manpower" provided by convict soldiers. As Coates notes, finding "sufficient troops for this struggle was a never-ending problem…and one solution was a reduction in sentences for those convicts who volunteered to fight" (48).

     Rather than as an evolving adjunct, some states also regulated convict labor specifically to fulfil imperial aims. As Clare Anderson shows in her chapter on "The British Indian Empire, 1789–1939," by the turn of the nineteenth century the British East India Company (EIC) realized how a scrupulously codified (and seemingly ever-growing) range of transportation-eligible offenses could be married to the British Empire's territorial ambitions in the East to produce a nexus-like penal management system that drew in offenders to form a colonial development workforce in lieu of slaves. Anderson traces the spatial and chronological flow of these convicts to demonstrate a clear linear association between these and the expansion of the company (211).

     Empire- and state-building convict labor forces were drawn from an array of outgroups, including the poverty-stricken and their families, court-martialed soldiers, and various groups criminalized by the state, such as vagrants, the vaguely-categorized "'notorious suspects,'" and those who found themselves on the losing side of a regime change, as is well demonstrated by Sarah Badcock and Judith Pallot in their chapter "Russia and the Soviet Union from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century" (213). The Soviet penal system exacted particularly brutal hardships on newly-"othered" outgroups such as the kulaks, millions of whom were deported to spetsposelenia or "special settlements" in the far north and east of the country (289). Along these frontiers, often located in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments, the kulak deportees labored in newly developed extractive industries, including gold and silver mining, where they were subjected to such appalling living and working conditions that countless numbers of them died. As Badcock and Pallot explain, the brutality characteristic of the Soviet system marks a significant divergence from the prevalent Foucauldian model of penology which held that "modernizing states" would move "away from punishment of the body" and instead favor "control, regulation, and regimentation" within prisons (293 and 274).

     The overarching argument posited by the contributors to A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies is well-supported by the material presented. Although I would have liked to have seen more primary sources used in support of said argument, the wealth of secondary literature referenced in the endnotes demonstrates a reasonably comprehensive historiographic canvass, one that includes key texts in the study of convicts, convict transport, and penal colonies, including Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein's Global Convict Labour, Timothy J. Coates' Convicts and Orphans: Forced and State-Sponsored Convicts in the Portuguese Empire, 15501775, Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, Colin Forster's France and Botany Bay: The Lure of a Penal Colony, Ricardo Salvatore and Carlos Aguirre's The Birth of the Penitentiary in Latin America, Bruce F. Adams' The Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia, 18631917, and Norval Morris and David J. Rothman's The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Although there are some weaknesses, particularly the tendency of one or two of the authors to elaborate on the minutiae of juridical distinctions between particular classes of convicts, as well as a surprising number of glaring editing oversights (e.g., multiple instances of "Fernando Poo" rather than "Fernando Po"), these do not detract from the overall effectiveness of the argument.

     In the final analysis, A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies is an approachable transnational comparison that effectively cuts across multiple contexts, polities, and colonies within a single analytical framework to demonstrate the diversity and range of penal patterns of connection. As a postcolonial social history, the volume is suitable for upper-division undergraduate history majors and for graduate students alike, particularly those interested in empire-building, the development and elaboration of global networks of exchange, nation-state formation, subaltern studies, the construction of communal identities, and even labor history.

Joseph M. Snyder holds a PhD from West Virginia University and is Assistant Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University, where he teaches graduate courses in World Civilizations and British Imperial History, as well as undergraduate courses in British, African, Greek, and Roman histories. He can be reached via email at


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