Exile, Penal

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british penal exile: transportation to the colonies
french penal exile
russian penal exile

Exile and banishment are some of the earliest forms of penal punishments. Although terminology differs and exile has generally been used to describe both these punishments, in a strict sense banishment is the exclusion or expulsion of an individual from a particular territory, while exile is a specific form of banishment in which the location of exile is specified. Criminals are banished from the homeland but exiled to a specific location. Exile was more difficult and costly to organize because it presumed some form of mechanism to ensure that the exile was restricted to the exile zone, and that the exile zone was to some extent under the control of the home country. It could be an island such as St. Helena, where the British exiled Napoleon in 1815; it could be a distant fortified city like Accra, where the Ottoman Empire exiled the popular Iranian religious leader Baha Allah in 1868. But these were privileged exiles who were treated with respect and not forced to engage in penal work.

Penal exile is a subcategory of exile that requires some additional penal sanction in the exile zone. In practice there was little difference between penal exile and exile for the poor. In order for the poor to survive in their place of exile they had to find work, and if the only available work was that organized by the authorities, the penal exiles had to accept the work on the conditions that it was offered in order to survive. For wealthier, more privileged exiles there clearly was a difference. In most cases the financial situation within the penal establishments was such that exiles who had money were given privileges that exempted them from having to engage in the harsh penal work of the poor. If the state wanted to punish the wealthy it would execute or imprison them rather than send them to penal exile.

Some of the earliest examples of modern colonial penal exile developed out of galley slavery, as in the early Spanish penal exile of about 220 forzados (convicts) to the mercury mines of Almaden in Mexico from the 1550s. In other cases penal exile arose from the need to find employment for those imprisoned in castles, especially in places of colonial expansion. In the Spanish case this applied to the presidios of North Africa or the Caribbean where desterrados (exiles) served out their banishment.

british penal exile: transportation to the colonies

British penal exile, in the form of transportation to the American colonies, had been used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a substitute for the death penalty, particularly for those claiming benefit of clergy (meaning the right not to be executed on the grounds that they could read). The numbers of criminals transported to America rose from about 4 per year at the beginning of the seventeenth century to about 180 per year at the beginning of the eighteenth century and peaked at about 1,000 per year in 1770. The American Revolution put a sudden end to this form of punishment just as its numbers were becoming significant. For a while the British reverted to putting dangerous prisoners to work in the docks and on naval installation and lodging them in decommissioned vessels known as "the hulks." Attempts were made to find other possible locations for transportation or penal exile, including Canada, Gibraltar, or the Gambia and Senegal Rivers in Africa, before the decision eventually was made to set up a penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia.

The initial attempts to establish Australia as a penal colony were disturbed by the Napoleonic Wars. The first fleet of 1788 contained 759 convicts, the second fleet in 1790 contained over 1,250, and the third fleet of 1791 over 2,000. But numbers then fell dramatically during wartime and only resumed a level of over 1,000 per year in 1814. By 1818 more than 3,000 convicts were being sent out per year and over 4,000 in 1820. Figures probably peaked at 6,500 per year in 1833 but fell sharply in 1840 when transportation to New South Wales ceased. Transportation to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) continued until 1852 and to Western Australia, on a smaller scale, to 1867. Altogether about 187,000 convicts were sent to Australia from 1788 to 1867, and they provided the basis upon which the colony was to develop.

Unlike in America, where convicts had been sold to private contractors who employed them as they wished, the employment of convicts in the Australian colonies was under much more direct government control. Initially convicts were used for many kinds of productive work, but as the colony developed the tasks became more restricted to labor such as road building, timber production, and construction.

The punishment of penal exile in Australia had appeared very severe at first, when mortality rates were high and the fate of the colony seemed unsure. But as the colony prospered and the transportation conditions eased, the sentence began to loose some of its dread. The discovery of gold in the colony and massive improvements in local wealth quickly led authorities to seek alternative punishments. Port Arthur in Van Diemen's Land developed as a center for secondary punishment.

french penal exile

Although there was much debate among British penologists about the failures of the penal colony, the French were eager to emulate it. Following the decommissioning of the French galleys in the middle of the eighteenth century the French had sent their hard-labor prisoners to a series of naval dockyards (bagnes), mainly in Toulon, Brest, Rochefort, and Lorient. On the eve of the French Revolution the bagnes contained about 5,400 hard-labor prisoners.

The Revolution transformed the legal system and introduced a form of penal exile that entailed deportation for life. This was designed as a punishment of hard labor for second offenders, but only after they had served their second sentence in France. This initiated a search for possible locations for penal exile. Some political offenders were sent to French Guinea in the 1790s, but this was a disaster, with many dying. In 1801 Napoleon expressed his support for the transportation of 6,000 common criminals who at the time were filling the prisons. However, no location was found and by 1810 the bagnes are estimated to have contained about 16,000 forcats (convicts). The Revolution of 1848 resulted in the arrest of 15,000 insurgents, which greatly added to the problem of penal overpopulation. Eventually many of these prisoners were sent to penal exile in Algeria. Following the 1851 coup d'état of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, 27,000 opponents of the regime were arrested. About half of these were sentenced by special courts to penal exile in Algeria, and 239 of the most dangerous were sent to a newly created penal colony in French Guiana. In addition, about 3,000 forcats in the bagnes were cajoled into volunteering to go into penal exile in French Guiana rather than remain in France. This again turned into a disaster with an extremely high death rate. In 1863 New Caledonia was declared an alternative site for penal exile from France. From 1867 until its closure in 1896, New Caledonia operated as the only site for exile from France, while Guiana continued to be used for exiles from the French colonies, only ceasing operations in 1938. Altogether it is estimated that 104,000 prisoners served time in these two exile colonies over these years.

russian penal exile

The nature of Russian penal exile was somewhat different from that in Britain or France and more similar to the earlier Spanish experience. The Russian word katorga derives from the Greek word for galley slave and was introduced in Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Peter the Great, on the advice of his friend Ambassador Andrei Vinius. Under Peter and his successors the death penalty was virtually abolished for civil offenses, and many of those who would have received the death penalty in Britain or France were sentenced to katorga instead.

The katorzhniki built much of the new capital, St. Petersburg. They later labored on the great canal structures linking it with Moscow. Eventually the katorzhniki were moved farther east into increasingly remote locations and began to take on the nature of forced exiles, where they worked in the mines of Yekaterinburg and Nerchinsk, in timber cutting or on construction sites.

Apart from the legal category of katorzhnik, the Russian penal system included a number of categories of offenders who were sent into exile as an administrative measure and were able to escape the penal aspects of this punishment. This applied to revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin, who were provided with food and money by their friends and relatives and could spend their time writing or hunting. Although political offenders are often the best known of the Siberian exiles, they are quite untypical of the mass of penal exiles whose lives were very hard indeed. Less privileged groups included those who were exiled by their local village communities. This included former criminals, who were not accepted back into their village communities and who automatically faced exile, but also other groups that had earned for some reason the disfavor of their local communities. At the central level, apart from wealthy and well-known political leaders, local troublemakers and youths charged with hooliganism could find themselves in these categories. Prior to 1871 many of these groups would have been forced into the army, but military reforms of that year did away with this kind of punishment.

Following the abolition of corporal punishment for civil society in 1845 and the legal reforms of the 1860s, the situation may have improved somewhat, although corporal punishment continued to be applied in penal establishments. Exile was formally abolished as a form of punishment in 1901. However, from 1905 there was much resort to extrajudicial punishments and the continuation of something that looked very similar to the former exile system, even though it was supposed to have been abolished.

Because of these changes in categories and the poor accounting of exiles once they were in Siberia, it is difficult to assess precisely the numbers of penal exiles in Russia. The numbers transported to Siberia appear to have grown from about 2,000 per year in the early nineteenth century to about 7,000 per year at midcentury and 17,000 per year at the end of the century.


Penal exile was a significant form of punishment in a number of European countries in the nineteenth century that had access to colonies or large under-populated areas. It provided an alternative punishment to the death sentence for serious crimes when the widespread use of the death sentence seemed inappropriate. In many of these countries penal exile was used to assist colonial expansion and development of poorly populated areas, but as colonial development proceeded the scope for continuing to send exiles was reduced.

See alsoClass and Social Relations; Colonies; Crime; Police and Policing.


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Stephen G. Wheatcroft