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Penal colony

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A penal colony is a settlement used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general population 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.


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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, Australia and other parts of the world as penal colonies to varying degrees, sometimes under the guise of indentured servitude or similar arrangements.

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The British used colonial North America as a penal colony through a system of indentured servitude. Merchants would transport the convicts and auction them off (for example) to plantation owners upon arrival in the colonies. It is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America and the majority landed in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Transported convicts represented perhaps one-quarter of all British emigrants during the 18th century. The State of Georgia for example was first founded by James Edward Oglethorpe by using penal prisoners taken largely from debtors' prison, creating a "Debtor's Colony". However, even though this largely failed, the idea that the state began as a penal has stayed both in popular history, and local lore. The British would often ship Irish and Scots to the Americas whenever rebellions took place in Ireland or Scotland.

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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. Australian penal colonies included Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Queensland and New South Wales. Advocates of Irish Home Rule or of Trade Unionism (the Tolpuddle Martyrs) sometimes received sentences of deportation to these Australian colonies.. Without the allocation of the available convict labour to farmers, to pastoral squatters, and to government projects such as roadbuilding, colonisation of Australia may not have been possible, especially considering the considerable drain on non-convict labor caused by several goldrushes that took place in the second half of the 19th century after the flow of convicts had dwindled and (in 1868) ceased.

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Bermuda, off the North American continent, 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 (1899–1902), Boer prisoners-of-war were sent to the archipelago and imprisoned on one of the smaller islands.

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In colonial India, the British 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.


  • The Qing Empire of 1644–1912 used Xinjiang province in the north-west of China as a penal colony.
  • During the Argentine rule of the Falkland Islands the Buenos Aires government commissioned major Esteban Mestivier, as the new governor of the islands, to set up a penal colony. He arrived at his destination on 15 November 1832; but his soldiers mutinied and killed him. Lt. Col. José María Pinedo quelled the rebellion and took charge as governor. Argentina's southernmost city, Ushuaia, hosted a penal colony from 1896 to 1947.
  • France sent criminals to tropical penal colonies including Louisiana in the early 18th century. Devil's Island in French Guiana, 1852–1939, received forgers and other criminals. New Caledonia and its Isle of Pines in Melanesia (in the South Sea) received transported dissidents like the Communards, Kabyles rebels as well as convicted criminals between the 1860s and 1897.
  • Ecuador has used two islands in the Galapagos archipelago as penal colonies: the Island of San Cristóbal (1869–1904) and Isabela Island (1945–1959).
  • Imperial Russia used Siberia as a penal colony for criminals and dissidents. Though geographically contiguous with heartland Russia, Siberia provided both remoteness and a harsh climate. In 1857 a penal colony was established on the island of Sakhalin. The Soviet Gulag system and its tsarist predecessor, the katorga system, provided penal labor to develop forestry, logging, and mining industries, construction enterprises, as well as highways and railroads across Siberia and in other areas.
  • In Paraguay the first ruler and supreme dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia opened the penal colony of Tevego in 1813, where mostly petty criminals were sent. It was abandoned in 1823, but re-established in 1843 as San Salvador. It was evacuated towards the end of the Paraguayan War of 1864–1870; soon afterwards Brazilian troops destroyed it.
  • The Kingdom of Hawaii under the rule of King Kamehameha III (reigned 1825–1854) replaced the death penalty with exile, and Kahoolawe became a men's penal colony sometime around 1830, while Kaena Point on Lanai served as the female penal colony. The law making the island a penal colony was repealed in 1853.
  • The Netherlands had a penal colony from the late 19th century. The Department of Justice took over the town of Veenhuizen (originally set up by a private company to "re-educate" vagrants from the large cities in the west like Amsterdam) to turn it into a collection of prison buildings. The town stands 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.
  • Mexico uses the island of Isla María Madre (in the Marías Islands) as a penal colony. With a small population (fewer 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.
  • Brazil had a prison on the island of Fernando de Noronha from 1938 to 1945.
  • Some sources refer to Third Reich forced-labor camps (Arbeitslager') in German-occupied Europe as penal colonies.
  • North Korea operates a penal system including prison labor camps and re-education camps.
  • Tarrafal operated as a Portuguese penal colony in the Cape Verde Islands, set up in 1936 by the head of the Portuguese government, Salazar, where anti-fascist opponents of this right-wing régime were sent. At least 32 anarchists, communists and other opponents of Salazar's regime died in this camp. The camp closed in 1954 but re-opened in the 1970s to jail African leaders fighting Portuguese colonialism.
  • Spain maintained a penal colony on Fernando Po in present-day Equatorial Guinea.
  • Taiwan had a penal colony at Green Island during Chiang Kai Shek's White Terror of 1949–1987. As of 2015 the island is a tourist destination.
  • Con Dao Island in Vietnam was used as a penal colony both by the French colonists (from 1861 onwards) and by the Republic of Vietnam (from 1954 and during the Vietnam War of 1955–1975).
  • 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 by the sharks patrolling the 30 km to the mainland. The penal colony closed in 1984 and the last prisoners transferred to the mainland. As of 2015 most of the former jail buildings are covered by dense vegetation, but some remain visible.
  • The United States has used Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Cuba as a penal colony to maintain and interrogate prisoners – purportedly outside US legal jurisdiction.
  • The Ottoman Empire used Fezzan as a penal colony, because it was the most remote province from then the capital city, Istanbul.
  • During the 19th century Chile used Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan as a penal colony (1848–??).
  • In fiction

  • Papillon is the title of Henri Charrière's 20th century autobiographical novel concerning a Frenchman interned on a penal colony on Devil's Island in French Guiana, and the 1973 movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.
  • Manhattan is evacuated and turned into a penal colony in the movie Escape From New York following a surge in violent crime.
  • Halo: Evolutions: Blunt Instruments: Psychotic and sociopathic Yanme'e that are unable to cope in society are held in a penal colony located on an abandoned human colony. These Yanme'e are accidentally released by the Spartan: Black Team.
  • Botany Bay is a historical fiction story written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall about the trials and tribulations of the first European settlers of the Australian continent.
  • In the Penal Colony is a short story by Franz Kafka upon which the movie La Colonia penal (1970) is based.
  • More than one of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series, including Desolation Island and The Nutmeg of Consolation include scenes set in and around New South Wales.
  • For the Term of his Natural Life by Marcus Clarke is a 19th-century novel dealing with the main characters deportation to the Port Arthur penal colony in Hobart, Australia in 1830. There are several movie versions, such as the 1983 TV movie starring Colin Friels.
  • Morgan's Run by Colleen McCullough is a 20th-century novel dealing with the main characters deportation to the Australian penal colony.
  • Our Country's Good a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, focuses on the story of deportees to a penal colony.
  • The events that Sherlock Holmes investigates in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Sign of Four" are set in motion by the background story of Jonathan Small, who had served time in the Andaman Islands penal colony. While there Small befriended an aboriginal Andamanese, Tonga, who helped Small escape and then accompanied Small when he returned to England.
  • The 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street written by Stephen Sondheim and based upon Christopher Bond's 1973 play of the same name, begins with its protagonist, Sweeney Todd, returning to London in 1846 having spent fifteen years in an unnamed British penal colony in Australia.
  • In Children of Men, the British Isle of Man is used as a penal colony for political dissidents of the authoritarian dystopia.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wall serves as a prison colony/military order for convicts.
  • The concept of remote and inhospitable prison planets has been employed by science fiction writers. Some famous examples include:

  • Kessel, a prison planet which specialized in spice mining in the Star Wars universe.
  • Wobani, another planet in Star Wars, was a working planet for Imperial prisoners as seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • Omega in Robert Sheckley's The Status Civilization
  • Salusa Secundus in Frank Herbert's Dune,
  • Fiorina 'Fury' 161, the penal colony in Alien 3 that was an abandoned leadworks,
  • The CoDominium series of Jerry Pournelle showed several planets, such as Tanith and Haven, that were used as dumping grounds for criminals and dissidents,
  • Rura Penthe, a Klingon colony where prisoners mine dilithium in the Star Trek universe.
  • The Doctor Who serial Frontier in Space features a lunar penal colony in the 26th century; a lunar penal colony of the 2002nd century is also mentioned in the episode "Bad Wolf",
  • In several episodes the TV series Stargate SG-1, whole planets are used as penal colonies, generally by the goa'uld, e.g. Hadante in episode 25 (season 2)
  • Crematoria is the sun scorched prison planet in The Chronicles of Riddick
  • Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg is a 1970 novel where political prisoners are sent to the pre-Cambrian period via a one-way time travel machine.
  • The Moon in Robert A. Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
  • The planet Shayol appears in Cordwainer Smith's stories.
  • In episode 1–2 "Trust" of the Starhunter series, the planet Mercury is a fully automated prison.
  • In an episode of The Outer Limits, the rulers of Zanti used Earth as a penal colony for their criminals and misfits.
  • On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, New Zealand is mentioned as the location of the Federation's minimum security Penal Settlement. In the pilot of Star Trek: Voyager, the character Tom Paris is recruited from said Penal Settlement.
  • On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5 episode 15 (515 – Power Play), they encounter a planet which they later find out is used as a penal colony.
  • Austar IV is a former prison planet and the setting of The Pit Dragon Trilogy. In the books, it has a history and climate similar to that of Australia.
  • Blake's 7 had the prison planet of Cygnus Alpha to which Blake was deported in the first episode. It had no specific regime, instead leaving prisoners left there to form their own society based on a personality cult surrounding one particular prisoner.
  • The Survivors by Tom Godwin tells the story of several generations marooned on the de facto prison planet of Ragnarok.
  • In The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi the city of the Oubliette on Mars used to be a penal colony.
  • The Judge Dredd series of comics places a penal colony on the moon Titan (in the 1995 film this was changed to Aspen).
  • References

    Penal colony Wikipedia