Penal colony

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Epigraphy in honour of an Irish prisoner in the Australian penal colony of Botany Bay.

A penal colony is a settlement used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general populace by placing them in a remote location, often an island or distant colonial territory. Although the term can be used to refer to a correctional facility located in a remote location it is more commonly used to refer to communities of prisoners overseen by wardens or governors having absolute authority.

Historically penal colonies have often been used for penal labour in an economically underdeveloped part of a state's (usually colonial) territories, and on a far larger scale than a prison farm. In practice such penal colonies may be little more than slave communities. The British, French, and other colonial empires heavily used North America and other parts of the world as penal colonies to varying degrees, sometimes under the guise of indentured servitude or similar arrangements.

British Empire[edit]

Penal colony in the Andaman Islands (c. 1895)

The British used colonial North America as a penal colony through a system of indentured servitude. Merchants would transport the convicts and auctioned them off to (for example) plantation owners upon arrival in the colonies. It is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America, representing perhaps one-quarter of all British emigrants during the 18th century. The State of Georgia for example was first founded by James Edward Oglethorpe by using penal prisoners taken largely from debtors' prison, creating a "Debtor's Colony". However, even though this largely failed, the idea that the state began as a penal has stayed both in popular history, and local lore.[1] The British also would often ship Irish and Scots to the Americas whenever rebellions took place in Ireland or Scotland, and they would be treated similar to the convicts, except that this also included women and children.

When that avenue closed in the 1780s after the American Revolution, Britain began using parts of what is now known as Australia as penal settlements. Australian penal colonies included Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Queensland and New South Wales. Advocates of Irish Home Rule or of Trade Unionism (the Tolpuddle Martyrs) sometimes received sentences of deportation to these Australian colonies.[citation needed]. Without the allocation of the available convict labor to farmers, to pastoral squatters, and to Government projects such as roadbuilding, colonisation of Australia may not have been possible,[citation needed] especially considering the considerable drain on non-convict labor caused by several goldrushes that took place in the second half of the 19th century after the flow of convicts had dwindled and (in 1868) ceased.

Bermuda, off the North American continent, was also used during the Victorian period. Convicts housed in hulks were used to build the Royal Naval Dockyard there, and during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Boer prisoners-of-war were sent to the archipelago and imprisoned on one of the smaller islands.

In colonial India, the British made various penal colonies. Two of the most infamous ones are on the Andaman Islands and Hijli. In the early days of settlement, Singapore was the recipient of Indian convicts, who were tasked with clearing the jungles for settlement and early public works.


  • In Paraguay the first ruler and supreme dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia opened the penal colony of Tevego in 1813, where mostly petty criminals were sent. It was abandoned in 1823, but re-established in 1843 as San Salvador. It was evacuated towards the end of the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870; soon afterwards Brazilian troops destroyed it.
  • The Kingdom of Hawaii under the rule of King Kamehameha III (reigned 1825-1854) replaced the death penalty with exile, and Kahoolawe became a men's penal colony sometime around 1830, while Kaena Point on Lanai served as the female penal colony. The law making the island a penal colony was repealed in 1853.
  • The Netherlands had a penal colony from the late 19th century. The Department of Justice took over the town of Veenhuizen (originally set up by a private company to "re-educate" vagrants from the large cities in the west like Amsterdam) to turn it into a collection of prison buildings. The town stands in the least populated province of Drenthe in the north of the country, isolated in the middle of a vast area of peat and marshland.
  • Mexico uses the island of Isla María Madre (in the Marías Islands) as a penal colony. With a small population (fewer than 1200), the colony is governed by a state official who is both the governor of the islands and chief judge. The military command is independent of the government and is exercised by an officer of the Mexican Navy. The other islands are uninhabited.
  • Tarrafal operated as a Portuguese penal colony in the Cape Verde Islands, set up in 1936 by the head of the Portuguese government, Salazar, where anti-fascist opponents of this right-wing régime were sent. At least 32 anarchists, communists and other opponents of Salazar's regime died in this camp. The camp closed in 1954 but re-opened in the 1970s to jail African leaders fighting Portuguese colonialism.
  • Gorgona Island in Colombia housed a state high-security prison from the 1950s. Convicts were dissuaded from escaping by the poisonous snakes in the interior of the island and by the sharks patrolling the 30 km to the mainland. The penal colony closed in 1984 and the last prisoners transferred to the mainland. As of 2015 most of the former jail buildings are covered by dense vegetation, but some remain visible.

In fiction[edit]

The concept of remote and inhospitable prison planets has been employed by science fiction writers. Some famous examples include:

See Also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies", American Historical Review 2 (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History), October 1896 
  2. ^ Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin: London(2001).
  3. ^ For example: Feig, Konnilyn G. (1981). Hitler's Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness (reissue ed.). Holmes & Meier Publishers. p. 296. ISBN 9780841906761. Retrieved 2015-06-29. [...] a forced-labor camp [...] named Arbeitslager Treblinka I [...] an order exists, dated November 15, 1941, establishing that penal colony. 
  4. ^ Jager, Sheila Miyoshi (2013). Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea. Profile Books. p. 458. ISBN 9781847652027. Retrieved 2015-06-29. Prison labor camps, or kwalliso, were first established in North Korea after liberation from Japan to imprison enemies of the revolution, landowners, collaborators, and religious leaders. After the war, these places housed un-repatriated South Korean prisoners of war. [...] There are six such camps in existence today, according to a May 2011 Amnesty International report, 'huge areas of land and located in vast wilderness sites in South Pyong'an, South Hamyong and North Hamyong Provinces.' [...] Perhaps the most notorious penal colony is kwalliso no. 15. or Yodok [...]. 
  5. ^ Stewart, John (2006). African States and Rulers (3 ed.). McFarland & Company. p. 96. ISBN 9780786425624. Retrieved 2015-06-29. From 1879 the Spanish basically used Fernando Po as a penal colony for captured Cuban rebels.