A Political Ecology of "Unnatural Offences": State Security, Queer Embodiment, and the Environmental Impacts of Prison Migration
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A Political Ecology of "Unnatural Offences"
State Security, Queer Embodiment, and the Environmental Impacts of Prison Migration

From the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, European and colonial governments sentenced hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, housebreakers, rioters, forgers, and petty thieves to transportation to penal colonies that were purposefully situated at a far remove from the places where the accused were apprehended. France transported prisoners to New Caledonia in the South Pacific and French Guiana in South America, where the unlucky might find themselves assigned to the notorious offshore prison on Île du Diable (Devil's Island). Britain shipped many convicts to the Americas until its colonies there gained independence. From 1788 to 1868, Australia then became a preferred destination. Colonial governments extended the practice by establishing satellite penal settlements of their own. Along with the slave trade, transportation produced one of the most massive forced transoceanic relocations in history.

"Before we knew it the ship had transformed into a moving cloud, & as the cracked pastels of sunrise began to escape into the early morning sky behind [the Commandant], he was pointing out the future as we flew over it," observed the protagonist of Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan's fictional meditation on transportation and natural history.1 And what sort of future was that? Robert Hughes recounts in The Fatal Shore how remote penal colonies like the one in Tasmania, deliberately constructed to emphasize their isolation, allowed prisoners (and tourists after them) to "crawl through the bushes to their unfenced rim and gaze down on the wide, wrinkled, glimmering sheet of our imprisoning sea."2 For convicts, isolation could be torment enough. As for more conventional sorts of persecution at the hands of crew bosses, guards, and wardens, there would be plenty to offer.

When it comes to histories of migration, this "big story" of transportation has had little to say about queerness.3 For that matter, queer theory and LGBT studies have largely ignored forced migrations of this sort, preferring to focus on less overtly coerced movements from village to city and country to country, when they have considered migration at all. That colonial histories of prison migration might also teach something about linkages among environmental politics, queerness, embodiment, detention, and the state is a proposition that has yet to be formulated, much less illustrated or tested. This essay proposes to make a start by focusing on a "small story" that occurred a century ago at the penal settlement founded in 1858 by the East India Company at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, off the coast of what was once British Burma. My aims are threefold: to call attention to queer resonances in accounts of forced migrations compelled by security-minded states; to locate those resonances in a genealogy of offshore incarceration and detention; and to open a dialogue between the interdisciplinary fields of political ecology and queer studies with an eye to understanding how certain disciplinary formations directed at bodies can reshape, even devastate, the environments in which they operate.4

Under British rule in places like India, some people were sentenced to transportation explicitly for the crime of having committed an "unnatural offence." Others, duly convicted on unrelated charges and transported, received extra punishment for "unnatural crimes" allegedly committed while serving time in a penal colony or offshore prison. Here the significance for queer studies seems obvious. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prescribed fines and imprisonment of ten years to life for "carnal intercourse against the order of nature, with any man, woman, or animal."5 This provision had analogues in statutory and common law in many other colonies, including what are now Fiji, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, and New Zealand. In India Section 377 remains in effect years after independence and has recently become the target of a grassroots movement for repeal.6

Yet what constituted an unnatural offense was —and is —not at all obvious. Indeed, a certain slipperiness could be said to be the animus of the term, since the charge of unnatural crime tended to mobilize economic ambitions and political rivalries as well as garden-variety emotions such as fear or...