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  • Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands.
  • Anupama Rao
Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands. By Satadru Sen. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Studies of colonial discipline have focused on the significance of the colonial body for the project of colonial governance. Inspired by Foucauldian approaches to the study of subjectification as an ideological project of modern state institutions, studies of colonial modernity have exposed the ambiguous effects of such projects in remaking colonial subjects into “modern” self-regulating citizens. Satadru Sen’s monograph is an important contribution to such inquiries.

Sen’s book spans the period between the development of the Port Blair settlement as a place to send political prisoners who had participated in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the construction in 1898 of a Cellular Jail, where strategies of segregation and regimentation further enhanced the effects of penal discipline and reform. The book’s focus is on the lives of “ordinary” convicts, rather than those anti-colonial nationalists whose transportation to the Andamans during the early part of the nineteenth-century earned the islands their notoriety. Recent work by Radhika Singha on the codification of criminal law has illustrated the significance of domesticating native subjects through their insertion into a modern penal-judicial regime, i.e., the extent to which legality enabled a colonial solution to the political problem of pacification. This can be seen in the attempts to classify certain communities as belonging to “Criminal Tribes” with crime as a vocation, or in the ways in which political crime was attributed to subversive native elites rather than followers from the lower castes and classes. Sen writes “Administrators in the Andamans could speak fondly of gallant (if formerly mutinous) sepoys and of domestic servants recruited from transported Mapilah convicts; there is no similar affection expressed for nationalist prisoners…” (65) Sen suggests powerful convergences across projects of colonial reform—Stamford Raffles’s experiences in the Straits Settlement were the direct precursor to the Port Blair settlement—but doesn’t pursue them in detail. Rather, the focus of the book is on the contradiction between attempts to mobilize convicts as “free” productive labor, and competing attempts to reform them through punitive means; between the utility of the convict to the state as a laboring body, and as the object of rehabilitative measures to improve his “character.” Thus the book focuses on the connections between the penal institution, the cultural body, techniques of measurement and objectification, and liberal ideologies of labor and private property.

The Port Blair settlement was a laboratory where the “slow transition from a convicted criminal, to a convict in a chain gang, to employment as a Self-Supporter or an officer in the service of the prison regime, to life as a free settler in a penal colony…” (2) could be traced. I will briefly mention three conceptions of the convict’s body that mutually constituted the logic of confinement and rehabilitation in the Andamans:

1) As bodies of labor convicts coming to the Andamans were subject to the six-class system by 1870–1871, which dictated the harsh labor of forest clearance and land reclamation for new convicts. Labor demands had the ironic effect of introducing petty thieves and habitual criminals to the Andamans whose “innate” natures were understood to be to inimical labor discipline. On the other end of this spectrum were Self-Supporters who were criminals transported for life, who had been sufficiently reformed to function as settled agriculturalists with “families” created when they married female Self-Supporters. Convict officers or tindals functioned as overseers who imputed penal discipline. Much like the “approver” mentioned by Shahid Amin in his study of political violence, the convict overseer was an agent of the state and someone who understood the codes of native illegality. By the mid-1870s the size of the settlement and the demand for skilled labor produced a situation in which many convicts were outside the immediate purview of the penal regime.

2) Medical discourses further facilitated the reification of the convict’s body. The Senior Medical Officer competed with the Superintendent in Port Blair for authority, and came to define the limits...

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