By Anand A. Yang, author of Empire of Convicts: Indian Penal Labor in Colonial Southeast Asia

“Many years ago,” began a story in a Singapore-based newspaper in 1899, “it used to be customary to transport convicts from India to this Colony.”  That article profiled a courthouse scene of fisticuffs between two old men.  According to the newspaper, these two ex-convicts opted “to settle their slight differences” with violence, resulting in the “junior” of the pair having “both his arms broken.”  At the time of their scuffle, the senior of the two was over a hundred years old, a “decrepit-looking specimen of humanity,” and the second man not much younger. Amused by the scene, the writer cast these men as relics from another time.

Convicts from South Asia were once a conspicuous presence in Southeast Asia, their handiwork visible everywhere, particularly in the built environment of Singapore.  In the twenty-first century, public acknowledgment of their achievements barely exists, elided by many in the Indian community who would rather not trace their origins to convict ancestors and erased by postcolonial governments that would rather not see their shining cities and states shaped by coerced labor.  As for the roads, bridges, and buildings constructed by “servants” of the East India Company, as Indian convicts understood themselves, many have been leveled to make room for new monuments. 

Convicts had a significant role in forging empires across the world.  Penal transportation was a key strategy of British imperial rule, notably in the case of Australia, from the eighteenth century onward. However, the British also established penal settlements in Southeast Asia where they sent women and men from South Asia convicted of heinous crimes, including political offenses.

My book Empire of Convicts: Indian Penal Labor in Colonial Southeast Asia tells the stories of convicts journeying across kala pani (black waters) and making their homes in Bengkulu, Penang, and Singapore, where they served extended sentences. Despite finding themselves in novel and precarious situations, many prisoners exercised considerable agency and resisted colonial authorities, in some cases even becoming “their own warders.” Such are the tales of Fateh Khan of Banaras who emerged as the sahib and leader of the Indian convicts and soldiers in Bengkulu or Jallia who escaped from Penang and made his way back home to Gujarat or the many women and men who labored in Singapore for decades and never returned to India. 

Political prisoners from South Asia lived alongside other convicts in the insular prisons of Southeast Asia.  My book’s cover features the belongings of the Sikh rebel, Bhai Maharaj Singh, who fought the British in India and was held captive in Singapore in the early 1850s.  These objects—a conch shell, a finger ring, a knife, two steel quoits, a sewing needle and thread, and a religious text—attest to persons and things dispersed across an Indian Ocean world. Empire of Convicts serves as a counterpart to well-known stories of law, crime, punishment, and prisons, and to an ongoing story of prisoners, particularly in the United States, being used for their labor and exploited by racist structures in liberal democracies.