Chris Holdridge – A Plague Upon the Ocean: Convicts, Immigration Restriction and Liberty of Movement in Britain’s Settler Colonies

 

Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Chris Holdridge (Sydney) – A Plague Upon the Ocean: Convicts, Immigration Restriction and Liberty of Movement in Britain’s Settler Colonies

Histories of colonial immigration restriction are traditionally centred on race. In this paper I will show instead that the cordoning off of settler borders was also coterminous with definitions over desirable white migrants. In particular, I will argue that convicts were the archetype of a poor white subaltern threat. Opposition to convict transportation in British settler colonies in the mid-nineteenth-century saw a marked shift in ideas around liberty, proof of identity and vagrancy. In the words of a Cape Town speaker, convicts were ‘a padlock on the Commerce of the Southern Ocean’. An Australian anti-convict circular warned that as ‘vessels enter foreign ports… the British name, everywhere respectable until now, has ceased to ensure for many the common confidence of foreign nations’. Colonists responded to an 1848 decision by colonial secretary the 3rd Earl Grey to expand convict transportation within the Australian colonies and designate the Cape Colony a penal settlement, with convict prevention acts, boycotts and mass protest meetings. Although my paper centres on the Cape Colony and Australian colonies, mention is made of gold rush California, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Mauritius. By unhinging scholarship on British convict transportation from a Britain–Australia axis and from national historiographical preoccupations, I show that concern over convict mobility was directly related to the granting of settler self-government in the 1850s. Liberal constitutions enfranchised many, but also aided exclusion from the political body. As colonial reputation encouraged desired emigration, parallels were drawn between quarantine against contagious disease and the social maladies of convictism. It was argued that convicts would foment rebellion amongst ex-slave and indigenous Khoekhoe labourers in the Cape Colony, while in Australia the gold rushes heightened concern over disorder. In response, the inability to distinguish easily between ticket-of-leave convicts and free settlers led to passport proposals decried as ‘un-English’.     

Play

<<back to conference page>>

share this entry: