Debtor Prisons in the British Empire


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The debtors’ sanctuaries of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century London were in part a reaction to the threat of imprisonment without trial or fixed term for nonpayment. At that time such incarcerations appear to be common throughout England and Wales, although numbers are hard to come by. I am at present turning the lists of imprisoned debtors applying for release under the bills for their relief of 1712, 1720, 1725 and 1729 into data, and first indications are that the debtors number in their thousands, and the gaols in the low hundreds. Mapping the English and Welsh prison system will be the subject of my next post, as there’s still much to transcribe and process.

Here I want to begin to consider a wider question about imprisonment for debt. If this practice was widespread in England, what of the Empire? To what extent was it exported to those territories ruled over by the British, and how did it resemble or diverge from the domestic system? A vast question that, like the Empire, spans the globe. A very tentative first step towards answering it – or rather, of appreciating the scale of it – is the map above, drawing upon the convenient volume of Statistics of the Colonies of the British Empire (1839), a digest of Colonial Office reports compiled by one Robert Montgomery Martin.

As can be seen, debtors’ prisons are everywhere. From Honduras  to New South Wales, from Newfoundland to Van Dieman’s Island (Tasmania), they are found on all six populated continents.

Martin’s handbook gives figures for the number of imprisoned debtors by territory over the period 1828 to 1836. The returns are not always clear: sometimes it is difficult to tell whether there were no prisoners, or no data returned by the authorities. Sometimes only partial returns were made; perhaps missing some gaols or some year. For this map I have simply marked those colonies where mention is made of debt, and put the highest and lowest figures for incarceration in the text box. The icon colour indicates the general number: red if at some point there were over 100 incarcerated debtors, yellow if less than that, green if none at all. I have not marked those areas for which Martin gives no figures at all, such as Singapore, even though debtor incarceration was practiced there. Three exceptional areas: the table for Malacca is unexplained, but appears to show the number of Malay and Chinese debtors bonded to households, alongside slaves and servants. In Swan River, Western Australia, Martin tersely notes “None allowed by local law.” The island of Nevis (obscured on the map by the cluster of icons in the West Indies) had no imprisoned debtors in the years surveyed, but had that possibility on the statute book.

Martin doesn’t give any figures on debtors in ‘Hindostan’, although there is a lengthy section on criminality there. So I have taken figures – lacking any indication of gender – for the combined civil prisons of four regions from the Report of the Committee on Prison-Discipline to the Governor General of India. One of the members of this committee was T.B. Macaulay, who was not only an important imperial functionary, but also author of a history of England that painted a most lurid portrait of Whitefriars. I have a strong suspicion that this example of an area beyond the law greatly influenced him, and therefore Britain’s imperial policy. But that, like British penal policy in India, I will analyse another day. But for the moment note that large numbers confined there: over a thousand in Bengal!

I have used the colonial names from the source rather than todays names; the nomenclature is not interchangeable, and refers to very different political organizations, however similar the place may be.

So, how many caveats do you want? Firstly, the map doesn’t show the extent of the British Empire, and also presents historical data on a present-day survey: anachronistic indeed. Secondly, each marker, and the information attached, denotes a political unit; it does not reflect the number of inhabitants, prisons or prisoners. The cluster of 15 markers in the West Indies makes it look like a veritable carceral archipelago; but this is because each island is treated separately. The great size and population of India, divided into only four regions, may, rather than the vigorous pursuit of repayment, account for the numbers imprisoned there. Nevertheless, only Bengal exceeds one thousand jailed.

Further, the involvement of the British Empire in the genesis of this prison system is not clear. Many of these territories were taken from other European regimes: Trinidad was previously Spanish; Ceylon, Guyana and Mauritius Dutch; Malacca both Dutch and Portuguese. Laws and prisons alike may have been established prior to British occupation. Note that the formerly French-ruled Lower Canada has far fewer imprisoned debtors than all the other North American territories bar Newfoundland, perhaps because France was far more lenient to debtors than Britain. Also, this map, perhaps artificially, documents only one category of prisoner; the prisons of the Empire held many other people for many other reasons, even within the same penitentiary.

That this data is taken from the early nineteenth century should also be borne in mind. The United States is absent, yet imprisonment for debt there was widespread and a product of English colonisation. Areas occupied later are also missing: the Hope Simpson report (chapter 6) on Palestine reported at least 599 people were imprisoned in the first two months of 1930 alone. (The law was soon reformed, but imprisonment not abolished.)

Finally, and most importantly, this only maps debt in the context of the prison system. Consequently, debt bondage and all its discipline and punishments, the most important manifestation of indebtedness at this time, is missing from this map.

Nevertheless, for all its faults, this quick visualization indicates a greater, imperial dimension to the incarceration of debtors, and suggests some avenues for research.

Download the data (.csv)

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