Penal colony

Penal colony
Epigraphy in honour of a 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.



The prison regime was often harsh, sometimes including severe physical punishment, so even if prisoners were not sentenced for the rest of their natural lives, many died from hunger, disease, medical neglect, excessive labour, or during an escape attempt.

In the penal colony system, prisoners were sent far away to prevent escape and to discourage returning after their sentence expired. Penal colonies were often located in inhospitable frontier lands, where their unpaid labour could benefit the colonial powers before immigration labor became available, or even after because they are much cheaper. In fact, some people (especially the poor, following a similar social logic as could see them domestically 'employed' in a poorhouse) were sentenced for trivial or dubious offenses to generate cheap labor.

British Empire

The British used North America as a penal colony through a system of indentured servitude. Convicts would be transported by merchants and auctioned off to 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.[1]

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. Some of these included Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and New South Wales. Advocates of Irish Home Rule or of Trade Unionism (the Tolpuddle Martyrs) often received sentences of deportation to these Australian colonies.[citation needed]. Without the allocation of the available convict labor to farmers, pastoral squatters and Government projects such as roadbuilding, colonisation of Australia would not have been possible, especially considering the considerable drain on non-convict labor caused by several goldrushes that took place in the 19th century.

Bermuda, off the North American coastline, 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, Boer prisoners-of-war were sent to the archipelago and imprisoned on one of the smaller islands.

In colonial India, the British had 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.


  • During the Argentine rule of the Falkland Islands, Major Esteban Mestivier was commissioned by the Buenos Aires government, as the new governor of the islands, to set up a penal colony. He arrived at his destination on November 15, 1832 but his soldiers mutinied and killed him. Lt. Col. José María Pinedo quelled the rebellion and took charge as governor. Argentinas southermost city Ushuaia was founded as a penal colony.
  • In Ecuador, the Island of San Cristóbal (in the Galapagos archipelago) was used as a penal colony 1869–1904.
  • The Netherlands had a penal colony since the late 19th century. A town called Veenhuizen, originally set up by a private company to "re-educate" vagrants from the large cities in the west like Amsterdam, was taken over by the Department of Justice to be turned into a collection of prison buildings. The town is located 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.
  • Currently in Mexico, the island of Isla María Madre (in the Marías Islands) is used as a penal colony. With a small population (less 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 was a Portuguese penal colony in the Cape Verde Islands, set up by the head of the Portuguese government, Salazar, before WWII (1936) where anti-fascist opponents of this right-wing regime were sent. At least 32 Anarchists, Communists and other opponents of Salazar's regime died in that camp. The camp was closed in 1954 but was re-opened in the 1970s to jail African leaders fighting Portuguese colonialism.
  • Con Dao Island in Vietnam was used as a penal colony by both the French colonists and the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
  • 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 the sharks patrolling the 30 km to the mainland. The penal colony was closed in 1984 and the last prisoners were transferred to mainland. The former jail buildings now have been covered by dense vegetation, but a portion can still be seen.
  • The Guantanamo Bay detention camp has been used by the United States as a penal colony to maintain and interrogate prisoners outside US legal jurisdiction.


In fiction

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

Notes and references

  1. ^ "British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies". American Historical Review 2. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. October 1896. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 
  2. ^ Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin: London(2001).

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