At first, the book gives the impression of having no more than knit together the complexities of the lives of five convicts, and the meaning and the lived experiences of deportation, with a deft handling of the archival sources across the Indian Ocean world. But its subsequent seamlessly woven chapters reveal that it is an account of many lives with the five in focus. It has employed the method of life-writing on the vicissitudes of convicts, sailors, guards, bookbinders, superintendents, Indians, Eurasians, and Andaman islanders, highlighting the inter-relations of colonial governance between the East India Company's settlements in South, Southeast Asia and British Crown colonies in Australia and the western Indian Ocean.
Further, it also deals with the shipping of individuals from location to location as part of deportation and segregation on the basis of race, colour, gender, violent behaviour, old age and destitution. Based on multiple fragments of life in archives across time and space, the book critiques the greed and cruelty of British colonialism and the crime and punishment network of the Empire during 1790-1920.
Power and punishment
The lives are viewed against the backdrop of the transportation as a geographically networked socio-political process. The history of the use of political power to dominate, discipline and punish, as is manifest in the sufferings of the convicts, the miseries of the captives, sailors, slaves, indentured labourers and indigenous communities is brought to the fore. Thus, it interconnects convictism, punishment and colonial labour, depending on sources such as convict musters, petitions, letters, diaries, court records, convict registers, official correspondence and photographs.
The author’s labour and patience in making use of dispersed archives across the Indian Ocean have enriched the book with thick descriptions of lives of individuals in the realms of geographical margins beyond languages. Clare Anderson corners colonialism from a subaltern perspective and maps deportation in a global context problematising the question of method and ideology.
The core chapters in the book centre on the lives of convicts who did not record their own stories, but despite their subaltern status, they left fragmentary traces in the archives. Convict Dullah, a layman from Bengal presidency was transported to Mauritius in 1816. He was committed for a ‘crime’, of theft from the house of the prosecutor Juwahur. In the melee, Chubbee, Juwahur's brother was fatally wounded with a spear at the hands of one of the thieves. Dullah was sentenced to life imprisonment and deported across the sea. These lives are being interpreted not in isolation but in contextualisation with the lives of a group of convicts. The life of George Morgan, a cook and servant to Burma's Tenasserim Provinces, brings forth the aspects of racism articulating the politics of difference eloquently.
The book with the manifold exposition of the lives of different social margins brings to the centre a historical analysis, which in its turn, makes for a colonial history on the one hand, and a way of writing of history itself.
SUBALTERN LIVES — Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790-1920: Clare Anderson; Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd., 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 995.