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  • Britain’s Archipelago of CampsLabor and Detention in a Liberal Empire, 1871–1903
  • Aidan Forth (bio)

Camps suggest an Enlightenment project derailed. Associated most often and perhaps most appropriately with Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Gulag under Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, the barbed-wire aesthetic of the camp and the skeletal profile of overworked and undernourished inmates stand as stark reminders of the ideological excesses of an “age of extremes.” They are emblems of modern terror. Yet camps are by no means unique to the despotic powers of a short 20th century. Indeed, Britain presided over a considerable empire of labor and detention camps in a long and ostensibly liberal 19th century.

Camps segregated and immobilized populations deemed vagrant, criminal, or otherwise socially or politically dangerous. In contrast to prisons and other disciplinary sites, camps were instruments of collective detention that operated outside normal judicial procedures, often in the context of a perceived emergency. As an integral tool of multiple polities in the 19th and 20th centuries, they enforced heavy labor and penal rations under dire economic restraints, often in the name of controlling and rehabilitating “problem populations.” In Britain, camps concentrated an undesirable “dangerous class” in the metropole. But it was the British Empire that offered an especially ripe environment for the development of camps. Directed at a racial and cultural “other” and detached, at times, from public scrutiny, the authoritarian nature of imperial rule motivated officials to assemble many of the physical and psychological prerequisites for the coercive encampment of suspect groups. Although labor, concentration, and extermination camps became infamous in the 20th century, Britain and other colonial powers in the 19th century assembled many of the cultural, material, and political preconditions of forced encampment.

Given their global profile at the turn of the 19th century, British camps may have suggested a direct and conscious model for the early camps of [End Page 651] the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. But more than this, British rule helped foster the structural and conceptual preconditions for the development and management of camps. Imperial administration generated a sophisticated logistical and bureaucratic apparatus aimed at the organization and control of unfamiliar and potentially dangerous populations. Furthermore, it incubated a mental framework (shared across the Western world) that at times demanded the exclusion and incarceration of groups deemed socially or racially suspect. As instruments of the modern “gardening state,” moreover, camps embodied an Enlightenment impulse to classify and rationalize large populations on a macro scale, rooting out potential “weeds” in the name of order, prosperity, and social purity.1 The products of coercion and suspicion, British camps were also justified by discourses of social welfare, humanitarian uplift, and sanitary reform—the justifying imperatives of European rule—that were always preached but only imperfectly practiced.

British camps were often the expedient products of emergencies: famine, disease, and war. Although contingent on circumstance, they help reveal the deeper structures of Western culture that gave rise to extrajudicial detention. As artifacts of social and political modernity assembled by the world’s first “modern” state, British camps offer insight into an archaeology of violence shared by states across the ideological spectrum. By confining in a preemptive manner populations deemed “potentially dangerous” but not convicted of any crime, British camps conformed to a more general typology of concentration camps in the modern world.2

Checked by liberal ideology and an open public sphere, Britain never assembled anything so brutal as the Soviet Gulag, let alone the Nazi extermination camp. On the contrary, relief and rehabilitation often proved the dominant stated motive. But British camps stemmed nonetheless from new mindsets and government rationalities that sought to organize potentially dangerous segments of the population on a mass scale. While attending to the specific characteristics of camp regimes in liberal and authoritarian states, an examination of Britain’s “archipelago of camps” reveals that the coercive and extrajudicial use of camps was by no means the exclusive prerogative of [End Page 652] “evil” and “illiberal” empires. Indeed, the term “concentration camp” was first coined to describe British practices in South Africa, even if this was not the first campaign to concentrate or resettle populations in fortified enclosures.3 Connected...


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pp. 651-680
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