ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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British Penal Colonies of the 19th Century

Lives of Convicts

Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790-1920 by Clare Anderson; Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2012; pp xii + 210, Rs 995.

In Subaltern Lives, Clare Anderson sifts through biographies from the world of penal transportation in the 19th-century Indian Ocean. She suggests that these biographies can be read for an insight into the interconnected nature of this world, demonstrating the movement of convicts, records and discourses—especially those of race—between multiple British penal colonies. The drifting and shifting lives of criminals and those with whom they interacted also indicate the contingent, unstable nature of subalternity in an environment in which the imperial regime struggled, not very successfully, to control information about the identities of its subjects.

This is in many ways an enjoyable book, valuable not only to historians of punishment and mobility in the British Empire, but also to scholars of race in 19th-century India and its geographical overflows. More insightful and original than other recent studies of the Indian Ocean as an imperial space, it adds considerably to our understanding of the “fit” between empire and those it incarcerated. It brings together many of Anderson’s prior interests and areas of publication: Mauritius, convict diasporas, practices of inscribing and “reading” criminalised bodies, and mutinies on convict ships. Also, it is one of the few works of history published in the wake of subaltern studies to engage meaningfully with subalternity. Anderson is, as always, a very impressive archival researcher, and here she has unearthed some fascinating documents—such as the writings of an American guardsman in the Andaman Islands—and deployed them as windows into the experience of empire. Finally, this is an excellent exploration of the challenges of using biography as a way of “linking the micro with the macro.”

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