World History 2 158 - 10.3.3 Penal Labor

Forced labor assigned as punishment to those convicted of crimes, known as penal labor, was also employed in the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1788 to 1868, British convicts, most of whom had been found guilty of nonviolent crimes, were given the choice of languishing in a cell or being transported to the colony of Australia. If they chose Australia, after an ocean journey that might last eight months, they had to endure seven to ten years of labor. The unlucky might be assigned to work gangs, building roads or constructing government buildings. Others went to work for farmers or merchants. After they had served their sentences, they were free to remain in Australia as settlers or return to England.

Like Britain, Russia used convicted prisoners to satisfy the need for labor in distant parts of the empire, where it was difficult to attract voluntary settlers. The katorga system sent prisoners to Siberia and the Russian Far East (Figure 10.14). The men, often political prisoners, typically felled timber or worked in mines. Sometimes they were rented out to private employers.

This photograph shows a group of workers standing in a line. Men in military style uniforms stand near the workers. Several log cabins are visible behind the men. A mountain is visible in the distance.
Figure 10.14 Prisoners building the Amur Cart Road through an isolated part of Russia in the early twentieth century pose for a photograph. The railway extended for hundreds of miles through forests and swamps. (credit: “Russian prisoners of Amur Railway” by Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Penal Labor in Russia

This excerpt is from the 1887 book In Russian and French Prisons by Peter Kropotkin. The book is based on Kropotkin’s experiences as a young military officer in the 1860s, when he first became interested in the question of crime and punishment and served on a committee for the reform of the Russian penal system. In this excerpt, he describes the treatment of prisoners working at a Siberian gold mine, including punishments such as the blackholes—“the warm one, and the cold one underground with a temperature at freezing point.”

As a rule, the hard-labour convict must be kept in prison, at the mines, only for about one-third of the time to which he has been condemned. Beyond this time, he must be settled in the village close by the mine, in a separate house, with his family, if his wife has followed him; he is bound to go to work like other convicts, but without chains, and he has his own house and hearth. It is obvious that this law might be an immense benefit for the convicts, but its provisions are marred by the manner in which it is applied. The liberation of the convict depends entirely upon the caprice of the superintendent of the mine. Moreover, with the absurd payment for his labour, which hardly reaches a few shillings per month in addition to the ration of flour, the liberated convict falls, with but few exceptions, into the most dreadful misery. . . . The punishments depend also entirely upon the fancy of the superintendent of the works, and mostly they are atrocious. The privation of food and the blackhole . . . are considered as merely childish punishments. Only the plete, the cat-o’-nine-tails, distributed at will, for the slightest delinquency, and to the amount dictated by the good or bad temper of the manager, is considered as a punishment. It is so usual a thing in the minds of the overseers, that “hundred pletes,” a hundred lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, are ordered with the same easiness as one week’s incarceration would be ordered in European prisons.

—Peter Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons

  • Based on this excerpt, explain why the author later calls the superintendent of the mines “a king in his dominions.”
  • Why do you think the privation of food and the “blackhole” are considered “childish punishments” in comparison to a whipping?

Many other countries, such as the United States, also used convicts for labor or rented them for use by private citizens. After the abolition of slavery, the southern U.S. states often required African American men to sign yearly contracts with White employers. A man who did not have such a contract could be arrested for vagrancy and then forced to sign a labor contract and work in agriculture. People found guilty of and imprisoned for actual crimes were also often required to perform free labor, either inside or outside the prison. Prisoners were often used to build roads in the southern United States.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax