Out of Sight, Out of Mind: What Were Penal Colonies? | History Hit

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: What Were Penal Colonies?

The grounds and an abandoned building of the early 1900s French penal colony on Devil's Island.
Image Credit: Sue Clark / Alamy Stock Photo

All sorts of methods have been used to deal with prisoners over the centuries: from the days of the death penalty and intense corporal punishment to forced labour and transportation, governments and monarchs have employed various cruel and unusual ways to contain and punish criminals.

One of the favoured methods for several centuries was the use of penal colonies. Predominantly, these were set up on small, largely barren or unpopulated islands. Overseen by wardens or governors, these remote outposts became popular in the early modern period, and life proved extremely tough for those transported to them.

So, why were penal colonies created, and what was life like for those sent to them?

Today, Sydney is one of the World's great metropolises. 200 years ago, it was a very different place. Sydney was a rudimentary British penal colony, established on the far side of the World in one of the most hostile environments on the planet. For the first Europeans who called Australia home, life was tough and unforgiving. In this documentary, historian Mat Mclachlan looks into Sydney's convict past. Featuring Beth Hise, Dr James Hunter and Noeleen Timbrey.
Watch Now

An age of empire

At the start of the 18th century, horizons were beginning to expand. As European powers competed to grab territory and explore further and further into currently uncharted waters, huge swathes of the world came under the control of empires based back in Europe.

In 1717, Britain introduced its first Transportation Act, which permitted the transportation of criminals to the American colonies for use as indentured labour. On their arrival, prisoners would be auctioned off to local landowners and forced to work for them for a 7-year term, earning them the nickname of “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers”.

France quickly followed suit, sending convicts to its colonies in Louisiana. It’s estimated that 50,000 British convicts and several thousand French convicts arrived in modern-day America this way. In the cases of both Britain and France, transportation provided a convenient way of preventing overcrowding in prisons as well as helping these new territories prosper.

Remembering the miscarriage of justice that led to the hanging of Mahmood Hussein Mattan.
Listen Now

A changing climate

However, with the American Revolution, increasingly inventive and hostile places were found to be used as penal colonies. Many of these were remote islands, hard to reach and virtually impossible to escape from, often in harsh climates and overseen by a governor. Other countries with vast territories chose far-flung, barely inhabited provinces.

Most famously, Britain spent large swathes of the 19th century transporting criminals to Australia, and later Tasmania. Penal colonies in New South Wales took off: people were transported there for crimes as petty as stealing a loaf of bread. Many of those who survived the arduous journey and forced labour of their sentence decided to stay and settle in Australia when they had served their time.

A drawing of the ‘Warrior’, a convict hulk stationed in Woolwich, used for transporting convicts to Australia.

The idea of penal colonies was often to break the spirit of criminals, subjecting them to harsh conditions and brutal forced labour. In some cases, the labour they undertook was part of public works projects and actually useful, but in many cases, it was simply designed to keep them busy. Idleness was viewed as part of what drove people to criminal behaviour in the first place.

Devil’s Island

Perhaps one of the most famous penal colonies in history, Devil’s Island – or Cayenne, as it was officially known – was a French penal colony in the Salvation Islands, off French Guiana. Renowned for its intense tropical climate, which was the backdrop for multiple tropical diseases and high death rates, it was operational for just over 100 years.

Opened in 1852, the inmates there were mainly a mix of hardened thieves and murderers, with a few political prisoners too. Over 80,000 prisoners spent time there within its hundred-year existence. Only a handful returned to France to tell the horrific tales of life on Devil’s Island. In 1854, France passed a law which meant that when convicts were released, they were forced to spend the same length of time again as residents of French Guiana in order to stem the ebbing population there.

The island was almost exclusively home to men, so its governor decided to bring 15 sex workers to the island, in order to try and rehabilitate both the men and women and convince them to settle down and start families. Instead, their arrival fuelled sexual violence and a syphilis epidemic, with neither party interested in family life.

The horrendous conditions, brutal schedule of forced labour and virtually unchecked prisoner-on-prisoner violence was pushed into the forefront following the Dreyfus Affair. The wrongly convicted French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island for 4 years, from 1895-1899, where he endured isolation and torturous physical conditions, with no idea about events that had been set in motion back at home that would lead to his exoneration.

A photograph of Alfred Dreyfus in his cell on Devil’s Island, in 1898.

The demise of penal colonies?

As the world seemed to become smaller and smaller, penal colonies fell out of fashion: partly because many countries began to emphasise the humanitarian side of crime, and the need to try and rehabilitate criminals rather than simply punish them or put them out of sight and out of mind, halfway across the world.

With a changing geopolitical landscape and the end of empires and colonialism in the mid-20th century, the hostile and remote islands previously used by colonial administrations as prisons were no longer available either. Some countries, such as the Philippines, continue to use islands as prisons. Mexico only closed its last penal colony, Isla María Madre, in 2019.

Today, many former penal colonies are tourist destinations and centres for learning: Alcatraz, Robben Island and Taiwan’s Green Island are perhaps the most famous of these. Whilst there is a certain aspect of dark tourism about them, many see these former prisons as a vital learning opportunity and a way into difficult conversations about crime and the way in which societies and governments react and respond to those who commit it.

Sarah Roller