The History of Penal Colonies


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Park, Jihyeon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, July 2008



Table of Contents


I. Introduction
II. The Purpose of Penal Colonies
II.1 A Place for Extreme Cases of Criminals
II.2 The Need for Labor on the Frontier
II.3 A Place for Religious Minorities
III. How Penal Colonies Came into Being
IV. Examples of Penal Colonies
IV.1 Portugal : Madeira
IV.2 Britain : Georgia
IV.3 Britain : Australia
IV.4 France : Devil's Island
V. The Decline of Penal Colonies
VI. Conclusion
Notes
Bbliography



I. Introduction


            Penal Colony is a settlement used to detain prisoners and generally use them for penal labor in an economically underdeveloped part of the state's (usually colonial) territories, and on a far larger scale than a prison farm (1). Mostly, penal colony served its purpose as a prison for political offenders; therefore the environment was not hospitable, which was a means to slowly kill them (It is not strange to think that any government would not like political offenders, who have ideology different from that of the conventional government). In the Imperialistic Period, many European countries established penal colonies among their frontier territories. In this paper, I will mainly discuss the purpose and effect of such penal colonies on European nations.

II. The Purpose of Penal Colonies
            Penal Colonies served various purposes for the European mother nations :
            A     First of all, they could serve an excellent prison for criminals, because there was no away to escape if the island was in a distant place. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, transportation system was not developed to effectively and safely move people from one area to another (Of course, it was not even available for the imprisoned.). Moreover, since the imprisoned sometimes did not have a lifetime sentence, distant penal colonies delayed their possible return the motherland governments.
            B     Secondly, penal colonies could be easily developed with the help of penal labor. Usually, severe and harsh criminals were transported to penal colonies to do forced labor. To pay the price for their crimes, the offenders had to suffer additional punishment other than just the depravation of liberty. The penal labor could temporarily replace the need for labor before sufficient number of immigrants was available. This was rather critical labor resource for the colony administrations, so some poor people were charged with penal sentence for creating just minor crimes.
            C     Lastly, the penal colonies were places for religious minorities. When the government persecuted certain religious minorities, either the persecuted chose to go to penal colonies to enjoy the freedom of religion, or the government forced them to go to penal colonies, where obligation to protect the people was not held. Therefore, especially Jews were forced or strongly encouraged to move to penal colonies to live, as was in the case of settlement in Madeira.
            In the late periods, mainly during the Enlightenment Period, such religious minorities were no longer forced to go to penal colonies, contrasted to the early periods. When the first penal colonies were established, many religious minorities had to choose to abdicate either their beliefs or their homeland, the most famous example being people of Mayflower. Indeed, the Puritans at first fled to the Netherlands and eventually came to North America to seek their freedom of religion and style of living

III. How Penal Colonies Came into Being
            There were many reasons why penal colonies came into being. As Imperialistic European nations expanded their boundary through colonies, the mother nations had to decide how to deal with the newly gained territory. Although gaining nominal control of the land was easy, pursuing economical gain was rather difficult because practically no infrastructure existed in much of the primitive land that European nations acquired. Therefore, people had to be transported to provide labor in such colonies. However, transporting people from their mother countries to new colonies was extremely difficult. The new environment was often very hostile, and the death rate was high among colonial population. A means to enforce people to move to the frontier settlements was needed.
            Especially two views existed to enable the appearance of penal colonies : (a) In economical point of view, intense labor was required to build the proper settings for the colonies to develop and to reap benefits out of the land. (b) In administrative point of view, newly gained land could serve perfect role as a prison for extremely harsh criminals.
            With this views combined, European nations decided to use some of the most distant lands as penal colonies. They could simply send the most unwanted to these penal colonies to establish settlements and provide labor for the colonial administration.

IV. Examples of Penal Colonies

IV.1 Portugal : Madeira
            An archetype of a penal colony, Madeira was first discovered by Portuguese sailors between 1418 and 1420. It is considered by historians the first discovery of the exploratory period initiated by Henry the Navigator. Since the island was uninhabited, the Portuguese had to transport many people from the mainland to the island to provide manpower for establishing permanent settlements. In 1433, the name Ilha da Madeira (Madeira Island or "island of the wood") appears in a map, by the first time, in a document (2). The Portuguese transported some of the old prisoners into the island, and this process became a model for other European nations which later established penal colonies of their own. In some cases, religious minorities, mainly Jews, were also transported to the island. Jewish immigrants from Morocco arrived in 1819.

IV.2 Britain : Georgia
            The British used North America as a penal colony both in the usual sense and through the system of indentured servitude (3) from the 1610s to the American Revolution. The reason than the ship Mayflower could reach the United States without restriction from Britain was because the land was not 'the land of opportunity' yet. Rather, North America was a land of wretched people, who were almost castigated by being transported to such a distant place from Britain. As time passed, the United States lost its purpose as a prison, but still indentured servitude existed to continue to provide the labor for the colonies. Among many American colonies of Britain, especially Georgia served its role as a penal colony.

IV.3 Britain : Australia
            Another important penal colony of Britain was Australia, which is even more distant from Britain than the United States is. From 1788 to 1868 Australia and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) served its role as penal colonies. Although there were countries that were 'free settlements,' meaning that they were non-convicts, many of them, including Western Australia, had to adopt the policy of penal colonies because of labor shortage. After the gold rushes of the 1850s, the proportion of such convicts decreased.

IV.4 France : Devil's Island
            The smallest and northernmost island of the three ?les du Salut, Devil's Island served its role as an infamous and notorious prison of the time. Built in 1852 during the Emperor Napoleon III's government, the colony took about a group of 80,000 prisoners, most of which did not come back. Even after serving the sentence, the prisoners had to work in the French New Guinea for a time equal to their sentence. The French government wanted to keep the convicts in the island to keep the island populated, by forcing the convicted males to continue living with convicted females. However, extremely harsh conditions in the prison did not allow many to finish their sentences (Most of them died.), and French government's objective of populating the colony faced failure.

V. The Decline of Penal Colonies
            The decline of penal colonies was evident from their very beginning. The penal colonies and the policies regarding them were not created to last permanently. In the early phase of penal colonies, mostly former prisoners and unwonted religious minorities were transported to the islands. Penal colonies were established to increase the number of population, and to serve this purpose, voluntary immigrants were not enough. However, in the later phase of penal colonies, the number of non-convicts increased drastically. Therefore, as the policy achieved its goals, the need for immigrants subsided. This meant that additional labor in a form of indentured servants or forced prisoners could now be replaced with labor of legal or non-convict immigrants. Furthermore, religious minorities were no longer forced to live on the penal colonies because the mercantilist European governments deemed them important to gaining more wealth of the nation.
            Moreover, in the political point of view, as the civil rights increased, such inhumane practice of removing people from their homeland was deemed illegal. For example, although France kept transporting criminals to the notorious Devil's Island even until late as early 20th century, the government lost its ground for holding the penal colony when the imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongfully sent there revealed the notorious treatment and inhumane practices in the penal colony. Public outcry started to gather against such outdated practices and eventually led to the end of penal colonies in France.
            These two reasons cooperated with each other to stop the practice of penal sentence altogether. In 1938 the French government stopped sending prisoners to Devil's Island, and in 1952 the prison closed forever (4).

VI. Conclusion
            Penal colonies came into their being because of two reasons. One was political, which enabled the government to simply transport those who cause trouble for the regime, and another was economical, which forced penal labor to turn the colonies into profitable source of wealth quickly. However, pursuing only these two reasons was very costly, because concerns over civil rights and individual basic rights were often ignored. Thousands of people had to suffer far from their homeland, sometimes for just doing minor crimes. The laws were unfavorable toward the poor, and such people easily became victim of penal labor.
            Of course, developing the frontiers must have been very crucial part of their political achievement for most of the European nations with colonies. However, they accomplished such feat by sacrifice of much human suffering. Some might try to think that attaining the goal of establishing colonies was a task worthy enough for such sacrifices. Yet, none of the sacrifices was voluntary, and involuntary sacrifices are never noble.


Notes

(1)      Article : Penal Colony, from Wikipedia
(2)      Article : Madeira, from Wikipedia
(3)      Article : Penal Colony, from Wikipedia
(4)      Article : Devilí»s Island, from Wikipedia


Bibliography

Note : websites quoted below were visited in July 2008.
1.      Ganse, Alexander. Madeira 1815-1880, at World History at KMLA. http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/northafrica/madeira18151880.html
2.      Article : Madeira, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira
3.      Article : Penal Colony, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_colony.
4.      Article : Penal Harm, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_harm
5.      Article : Penal Labor, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_labour
6.      Article : British Transportation to Australia, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_transportation#British_transportation_to_Australia
7.      Article : Devilí»s Island, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Island