With the exception of a straight-up death sentence, few punishments were comparable to being sent to a penal colony. The practice of shipping off your worst convicts to remote corners of the world began well over 500 hundred years ago and continues to this day, albeit on a drastically reduced scale.
While this was initially a form of punishment used by the colonial overlords of the day – yes I’m looking at you, Britain, France, Spain and Portugal – it was a practice that eventually became well established around the world with hundreds of thousands of prisoners transported to various distant and often horrific parts of our globe.
We have no idea how many died in penal colonies throughout the years, but it’s long been clear that a ticket to a malaria-infested island off the coast of South America was often seen as one way. This was essentially a method of removing those deemed too dangerous for society – or simply unpalatable for dignified society – and dropping them off in a distant land with the hope of never seeing them again.
Of course, the story of penal colonies is far greater than just one example and one location, so in this video, we’re going to take you through the expansion of the practice, while focusing on some of the most significant colonies throughout history.
But let’s begin with some background information. Penal Colonies were outposts often far from the mother country where the worst criminals would be sent. Sometimes they came in the form of the most detestable prisons you can possibly imagine, often in tropical locations where disease was rampant. In other cases, the prisoners were given a far greater degree of freedom because there was nowhere else to go and would sometimes live in their own houses with their own jobs.
Conditions in penal colonies were never pleasant – that obviously wasn’t the point. This was meant to act as a deterrent to criminality back at home and the worse they were perceived the better. As I said, many who were sent to penal colonies never came back. Some were given life sentences – and when I say life I really mean it – but there were certainly some who were sentenced to a specified period in the colonies that did return home, while others settled nearby when their sentence was over.
One final point before we look at the first penal colonies. While this system was undoubtedly used to remove the very worst of society it also came with a rather more controversial purpose that saw many nations attempt to remove people from society who didn’t quite fit. In some instances, it simply became a method of “cleaning” the streets and the poor, destitute, prostitutes and often only mildly criminal were swept up and disgorged many thousands of miles away. This really became apparent during the Industrial Revolution when populations boomed and the general state of many European cities became hellish.
Earliest Penal Colonies
The practice of human banishment to distant lands has been around for thousands of years so establishing what was the very first penal colony can be a little tricky, but there are some strong contenders.
In 1419, intrepid Portuguese explorers first sighted a small island in the Atlantic Ocean after being blown off course. The island, uninhabited and filled with enormous trees, was christened Madeira – meaning wood – and the speck of land was brought under the rule of the Portuguese crown. Between 1420 and 1425 the area was slowly colonised and eventually sugarcane became the island’s principal staple.
Sugarcane, as you may know, was one of the main reasons that African slaves began to be transported across the Atlantic to the New World and the vast sugarcane plantations that were springing up there. On Madeira, it was not slaves per se who arrived, but rather prisoners from back in Portugal deemed surplus to requirements and a logical option to work in the fields. While we don’t have a huge amount of information on this, the early penal colony on Madeira is generally considered to be the blueprint for which other European nations eventually followed.
On the other side of the world, the Qing Empire in China used Xinjiang Province in north-west China as a penal colony for hundreds of years and if that name sounds familiar to modern ears, it’s because it is the region where a number of the notorious and highly secretive facilities that are said to hold many of the Uyghurs, an ethnic group native to Xinjiang, are still located.
When we think of the British Empire and its penal colonies we generally think of the land down under, and while Australia was certainly one of the biggest and one that we’ll be coming to shortly, it certainly wasn’t the first place that the Brits decided to send their criminals.
Under the British government’s Transportation Act of 1717, the United Kingdom began a system of transporting criminals to colonies in North America for indentured service, meaning working without pay for a set period.
These criminals would be transported across the ocean where they would then effectively be auctioned off to landowners who retained them until the period of their incarceration was up. This was very much an early form of privatized correctional systems with merchants, who also took part in the slave trade, moving prisoners across the Atlantic before securing an arrival certificate which they would then submit to the British government to be paid.
Many of those who were sent to America were given seven-year sentences which led to the term “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers”. It’s estimated that around 50,000 convicts, 80% of whom were male, were sent to America up until the American Revolution with the majority ending up in the Chesapeake Colonies of Maryland and Virginia. The treatment handed out to the convicts could be frequently brutal, and it wasn’t unheard of for prisoners not to make it to the end of their sentence.
The final colony of the 13 original states that formed the basis of the United States was Georgia – or rather the Province of Georgia or even the Georgia Colony. It was granted its corporate charter in 1732 and was initially seen as the ideal place to send English subjects who had been imprisoned for debt or “the worthy poor”. If that sounds a little ambiguous, it essentially meant that a mixture of low-level criminals and impoverished English citizens were granted the right to colonise what is today Georgia.
This topic has become somewhat hazy and many sources that tell of the early history of Georgia choose to completely sidestep the fact that criminals were part of the early days of the colony. But it is important to highlight the differences here. The colony remained firmly against slavery and this certainly wasn’t the kind of penal colony that we imagine one to be. In fact, the number of convicts brought over was low, with the majority being the lucky few chosen to be plucked out of the squalor of England in the 18th Century to begin a new life in the New World.
The first to arrive were 35 families, numbering around 120 people in total, and they were eventually all given small land holdings in the new province. The rules were fairly strict and involved a zero tolerance on alcohol, but discord eventually led to restrictions being lifted and Georgia eventually welcomed alcohol, land acquisition (which had previously been tightly controlled) and slavery – which greatly aided its growth and prosperity.
If the story of the American penal colonies is severely undertold – and at times brazenly denied by those who’d rather whitewash the fact that criminals were part of the early American story – the story of the Australian penal colonies is completely different. It’s even safe to say that if the Americans hadn’t risen up against the British crown in what became the American Revolution, criminals may never have been sent all the way to Australia.
By the mid-18th Century, British prisons were horribly overcrowded and it was clear that a new system was needed. Now, it might not sound like sending people to the opposite side of the world via an ocean journey that could stretch to four months was the clear and obvious solution to this matter, but that was exactly what happened.
European explorers had tiptoed in and around Australia since 1606, but no attempt to establish a colony had ever been attempted, until 13th May 1787 when a fleet of boats carrying 1,400 people – 800 of whom were convicts – set sail from Portsmouth in the South of England. It took the boats 252 days to reach Botany Bay in what is present-day New South Wales, the site of the first European settlement in Australia.
The first few years of the colony was little short of disastrous with poor soil, poor freshwater access and poor morale severely affecting both the convicts and the Marines guarding them and their families. Many of the Marines were quite simply awful at their jobs and would frequently get drunk rather than keep guard. There were several instances where widespread starvation was a serious threat, but the young colony just about managed to stagger on and by the early 19th Century it was slowly becoming prosperous with many convicts being promoted to positions of responsibility.
But it wasn’t just here that the British government decreed to dump their convicts. Colonies were also established on Norfolk Island, situated between New Zealand and New Caledonia and on Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania, and Moreton Bay in modern-day Queensland. The story of the Norfolk Island colony was an interesting one because it was used as a penal settlement on two separate occasions and was completely abandoned in between.
From 1788 to 1814 the island saw a small penal colony established but because of costs and remoteness, it was eventually closed. However, in 1824, it was reopened, this time to house “the worst description of convicts”, often those who had committed crimes in Australia or who were deemed the most hardcore criminals. There were a series of unsuccessful uprisings over the years and the British government finally closed the island as a penal colony for good in 1855.
France and her Penal Colonies
OK, that’s enough of Britain and its penal colonies, let’s turn our attention to the other major colonial brute of the time, France.
While the most famous French penal colonies were situated in French Guiana in South American and New Caledonia in the Pacific, France’s first foray into sending its convicts abroad went to exactly the same place the British sent theirs, to what is the present-day United States.
The area that was then known as New France but that today we call Louisiana had been claimed by France in 1699 and was an enormous expanse of land that nobody was really doing much with. Such was the colonial scramble back in those days that actually using the land came a very distant second to placing one’s flag upon it.
The French government had requested volunteers to colonize their portion of the new world, but despite plenty of promises of gold and rich, fertile land, uptake remained low. Their response was similar to that of the British and forced immigration was seen as both a way to clear some of France’s squalid and overcrowded prisons and to colonize New France.
This forced colonisation, between 1799 and 1722, was barbaric and often appeared little more than an excuse to expel the more undesirable sections of the French population as far from France as they could. There were even quite extraordinary stories of large numbers of inmates being told to choose a “partner” to marry before being shipped across the Atlantic. It became so unpopular that riots broke out on the streets of Paris and other French cities and the practise was deemed illegal in 1722.
But if New France was an unpopular destination then the ominously named Devil’s Island part of the Salvation Islands of French Guiana was an entirely different proposition and probably one of the closest examples of what we often think a penal colony to be.
Opened in 1852, Devil’s Island was as notorious as its name suggests and at its worst, it recorded a death rate of around 75%. This was the final part of a penal system in the area where the majority of the population lived in relative freedom on nearby Île Royale. Those who had attempted to escape or required further punishment were sent to Saint-Joseph Island, with Devil’s Island reserved for the absolute worst or political prisoners, including 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851.
It’s fair to say that conditions deteriorated dramatically as you went from Île Royale to Devil’s Island where inmates spent long stretches in isolation. Across all three locations, prisoner on prisoner violence was rampant and if that didn’t get you the area’s dazzling mixture of hellish tropical diseases might well. It’s thought that 40% of those who arrived in these penal colonies didn’t survive the first year.
A short-lived experiment took place on Devil’s Island in the mid-19th Century when 15 prostitutes were forcibly relocated to the island with the hope that it might instil a greater degree of dignity among the inmates who might finally want to settle down and have a family. It was a spectacular failure with zero families started and a whole lot of prostitution in return for rum taking place instead. In 1938, the French government ceased sending inmates to the area and in 1953 the entire system across the three separate locations was finally closed.
Around the World
Sadly we don’t have anywhere near enough time to tell you about all of the penal colonies around the world for the quite simple reason that there was a staggering number. Over the years it became a truly global phenomenon and most countries have used penal colonies in some way or another.
In South Africa, under apartheid, nearby Robben Island was used as a penal colony for anti-apartheid activists, which of course included Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated on the island for 18 of his 27 prison years.
The Spanish used several penal colonies including Fernando Po in present-day Equatorial Guinea and the small Baleric island of Cabrera where 7,000 French prisoners of war were dumped after the Battle of Bailén in 1808 – only half of which survived.
In the Netherlands, they kept things much closer to home by establishing the Dutch village of Veenhuizen as a reform housing colony for the poor and homeless. Again, as we’ve seen with the British and French, a way of clearing the undesirables from the large filthy cities. But that was just the start and by the end of the 19th Century, the village was instead being used as a penal colony with prison buildings constructed to house the new inmates.
Ecuador once used two of the Galapagos Islands for their convicts, Brazil sent theirs to the island of Fernando de Noronha, Chile dispatched their criminals to Punta Arenas and Mexico still uses Isla María Madre as a penal colony to this day, though it has been slated for closure since 2019.
There is a long list of places around the world that have been used to quietly house convicts well away from what was deemed more civil society. In most cases, numbers rarely climbed above the thousands but that is not the case for the final set of penal colonies that we’re going to look at. A macabre system of distant jails in intolerable locations that saw over 18 million people pass through them throughout their history.
Of all of the penal colonies that we’ve looked at today, nothing comes remotely close to what occurred in the Soviet Union between 1919 and 1960 known broadly as the Gulags. Now, we should say from the outset that while we’ve focused on specific colonies around the world, the Gulags constituted a broad system of detention centres that included 423 labour colonies scattered around the Soviet Union, but with a healthy number – or not – located in the brutally harsh climate of Siberia.
Reasons for being sent to one of these camps were wide-ranging and could include anything from common criminality to high-level political mistakes that quickly found you labelled as an enemy of the Soviet Union. Even those who remained fiercely loyal and always behaved impeccably could easily find themselves being denounced and on a shaky rail cart trundling through the snow in no time.
Life in the Gulags was beyond horrendous with prisoners forced to perform manual labour on projects such as canals, roads and railways often in the bleakest of environments. A typical camp would hold between 2,000 and 10,000 prisoners who toiled under the constant threat of execution, starvation and disease. It’s thought that in 1936 the number of those imprisoned in the Gulags reached around 5 million and while that figure fluctuated over the years, it remained roughly at the same level.
It’s long been notoriously difficult to determine how many people died in the Soviet gulags, but it’s thought somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 million is a safe bet. These camps were first established after the Russian Revolution as a way of cleansing Soviet society of those deemed against the glorious communist project but their use exploded under Stalin’s rule and large-scale changes didn’t really occur until his death in 1954 and the last Gulags didn’t close until 1960.
It’s easy to think of penal colonies as purely historic and often barbaric practices but the truth is there are many still in use around the world today. As I mentioned earlier, China still runs numerous camps in the Xinjiang Province where an unknown number of the Ughyr are still being detained and it probably won’t come as a complete shock to hear that North Korea currently operates several facilities that we’d certainly consider penal colonies.
The Philippines still runs seven penal facilities and of course, there are the shadowy Russian facilities that still exist, one of which currently houses Putin’s least favourite person Alexei Navalny after he was convicted of – well, I don’t think anybody is quite sure. It seems perfectly clear that the old Soviet way of making people disappear by sending them to do hard labour in some distant Siberian camp is still very much ongoing.
But for many parts of the world, the use of penal colonies has thankfully come to an end and it seems almost impossible that such a practice could ever be resurrected. The barbarity of sending a person who often did little more than stealing something to a distant land where the chances of them living were little more than 50% is difficult to comprehend today, but as we’ve seen, it became common practice in almost every corner of the world.
Map: Imperial Europe’s Penal Colonies | History Today
What are penal colonies, where Putin critic Navalny has been sentenced to for nearly 3 years (theprint.in)
American Colonies as Penal Settlements (jstor.org)
S002085901900049Xjxx 415..425 (cambridge.org)
PENAL COLONIES—VAN DIEMEN’S LAND. (Hansard, 3 March 1846) (parliament.uk)