Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain's Empire of Camps, 1876-1903

Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain's Empire of Camps, 1876-1903

by Aidan Forth

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293977
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Series: Berkeley Series in British Studies , #12
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Aidan Forth is Assistant Professor of British imperial history at Loyola University Chicago. 

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Concentrating the "Dangerous Classes"

The Cultural and Material Foundations of British Camps

Repression and relief, servitude and shelter: camps, historically, have performed an array of contrary functions. Medieval Sicily's Christian rulers concentrated the island's Muslim population in isolated settlements. Jesuit "reductions" in eighteenth-century Latin America forcibly concentrated indigenous communities into "prayer villages" in the name of Christianity and taxation. Catherine the Great established prison camps in the western reaches of the Russian Empire to punish rebels of the Polish Bar Confederation (1768–72). French republicans used extrajudicial enclosures to concentrate counterrevolutionary forces in the Vendée (1793), while Napoleon interned suspect foreigners in wartime France. Modern Britain did not "invent" camps. But the cultural and material foundations of Britain and its empire — the most influential global power of the late nineteenth century — offered important groundwork for the twentieth century's ubiquitous barracks and barbed wire.

British camps responded to contingent factors. But they also rested on deeper cultural transformations in both metropole and colony. As confinement emerged in the nineteenth century as the normative motif of modern discipline, the exclusionary practices of segregation and isolation proliferated. Britain's empire of camps was part of a worldwide "carceral archipelago" that sought to classify and control "problem populations" deemed dangerous or undesirable. Britain's counterinsurgency against its own poor relied on the concentration of "criminal classes" in workhouses, prisons, and suburban labor camps. In the empire, mean while, social and spatial control resulted in the mass concentration of native insurgents and "criminal tribes" in a network of enclosed settlements, which confined nomadic groups defined as a collective threat. In the context of professionalizing armies and emerging forms of medical expertise, these spaces operated according to strict military discipline and sanitary policing, suggesting templates for later and larger camps convened during famine, plague, and war. The essential preconditions for Britain's empire of camps were laid in the Victorian period.


Nineteenth-century Britain was a society in motion. Rapid social and political change transformed a rural country into an urban and industrialized one; a "revolution in government" established mechanisms of universal education and modern administration; and mass democracy replaced earlier systems of aristocratic patronage, fortifying the rule of law and transforming subjects into rights-bearing citizens. According to Whiggish narratives, a series of legislative acts consolidated a constitutional system based on popular sovereignty and an ever-expanding franchise, while capitalist development and free market prosperity fortified Britain's stable constitutional monarchy. Yet liberty and progress were accompanied by the birth of new disciplines and coercive technologies. The "age of optimism" was also an age of camps.

The social dislocations and forced relocations of enclosure and urbanization are familiar stories. At times, industrial capitalism displaced peasant farmers as dramatically as famine, war, and disease. The ongoing fencing and privatization of common lands — a function, in turn, of market exchange and the cash nexus — uprooted vast and newly mobile masses, who were subsequently concentrated in urban centers like London and Manchester. Accompanying this dynamic was the compression of space and time facilitated by railways and the transportation revolution. Shrinking distances facilitated convergence and concentration at fixed points. Meanwhile, relaxation of the laws of settlement (1834) — legislation that once restrained the mobility of the poor at the parish level — along with calamities like the Irish Famine (1845–52), compelled thousands of destitute migrants to the center of burgeoning cities. As Eric Lampard notes, the "level of [urban] concentration" underwent an exponential increase. Elites, meanwhile, spread into spacious suburbs: nineteenth-century cities increasingly segregated inhabitants by class (as well as race and gender).

As temporary and sometimes mobile erections, camps suggest an antithesis to fixed and permanent cities. At the same time, however, they evoke a primitive urban form. In the nineteenth century, "tent cities" and mining camps developed on the periphery of industrial "shock cities" and gold-rush towns. In Johannesburg, once a paltry collection of canvas, the land surveyor W. K. Tucker introduced a "rectilinear street plan," thereby establishing a "grid system ... well suited to mechanisation and standardized building components." The liminal shelter of tents and huts, expedient and haphazard, eventually gave way to bleak workers' barracks or salubrious model communities designed by industrial philanthropists. In microcosm, Britain's empire of camps embodied the forces of urbanization — displacement, concentration, and regulation.

The "mass society" of urban and industrial Britain engendered new spatial arrangements and the proliferation of standard serialized facilities. Whether in the service of regulation or recreation, Victorian Britain was a land of "camps." With uniform "living quarters ... a camp store, always a hospital (the infirmary), and, of course, places to eat," a wide variety of institutions, from military barracks to outdoor summer camps conformed to basic templates for quartering mass populations. Likewise, public schools, amusement parks, stadia, and even zoos, with their aggregated facilities, "crowd control," and surveillance techniques, were products of a shared historical moment. These new urban arrangements exhibited standardized mass architecture, gesturing toward plague, famine, and Boer War concentration camps, which were "constructed in sections, bolted together and easily removable."

Urban concentration posed serious social and sanitary challenges, however. As local face-to-face transactions dissolved amid the tide of mass society, the unprecedented scale of nineteenth-century cities demanded new institutions, bureaucracies, and anonymous methods of observation, classification, and control. The concentrated populations of industrial cities — and the spread of diseases like typhoid and cholera in particular — occasioned advances in sanitary management and new surveillance regimes. At ground level, urban planning refurbished disorderly conglomerations according to the meticulous logic of right angles. Planners rendered space abstract: countable, interchangeable, and reduced to mathematical regularity. In contrast to Paris or Vienna, a liberal regard for property rights saved London's organic amalgam of winding streets from grandiose rationalization. But new industrial and colonial centers proved more conducive to disciplinary interventions — and to the fetish of the straight line. In the words of Paul Rabinow, the governable and geometric streets of New Delhi and Johannesburg suggested an "urban parallel to Bentham's panopticon," that utopian prison of utilitarian rationality. Converting colonial chaos into Cartesian order, camps exemplified, in the words of Lewis Mumford, the "geometric clarification of the spirit" that the nineteenth century inherited from the Baroque. The perpendicular sightline of camps, with their uniform plots and interchangeable tents and huts reflected the bird's-eye view of the planner and the "mechanical pattern[s]" of the machine age. Such was modernity's aspiration for order.


Above all, camps emerged within a "carceral archipelago" of prisons, workhouses, factories, and hospitals that organized nineteenth-century people and places. Incarceration was not exclusive to the Victorians: in the 1700s, for example, naval hulks on the River Thames — floating work camps, of a sort — accommodated criminals prior to their transportation overseas. But as Michel Foucault and Michael Ignatieff confirm, confinement replaced banishment and execution as the Victorian era's standard strategy to regulate deviance. No longer were convicts dispersed to remote Australian outposts: they were concentrated instead. New prisons like London's Pentonville effaced the premodern spectacle of the scaffold, concealing inmates in uniform, rectilinear cells, segregated from society. And the prisons filled. Fear of the rootless and mobile was deeply engrained in Western political culture, and a liberal equation of property with rights served to criminalize poverty over the course of the nineteenth century. To this end, proliferating vagrancy laws reflected anxieties about the itinerant poor. In Britain but especially in the colonies, Julie Kimber argues, legislation remained flexible enough to endow magistrates with formidable powers of detention.

To those incarcerated, prisons were sites of terror. Simultaneously, however, they attained symbolic status as technologies of Enlightenment. Apportioning a "just measure of pain," they represented a "humane" alternative to the archaic violence of execution. In sum, they embodied a characteristic tension between coercion and care reproduced in Britain's empire of camps. Prisons and camps differed in logic and purpose: the former, in principle, were instruments of normal (though always contested) judicial procedure, detaining inmates convicted by established legal channels. Camps, meanwhile, were temporary, extrajudicial affairs — the impermanent products of emergency. Yet prisons and camps shared a fundamental emphasis on isolation, segregation, and (at times) rehabilitation. Each operated according to what Chris Otter calls the principle of "agglomeration": as in hospitals and asylums, formerly scattered inmates could be better identified, classified, and observed when organized within a single space.

Prisons were also tools of imperial conquest, and as they proliferated globally, they served as conceptual and architectural precursors for imperial camps. In contrast to those of metropolitan Britain, however, colonial prisons consisted of improvised huts and single-story outbuildings surrounded by fences and equipped with guardhouses and sentry posts. In Mauritius, for example, prisoners were lodged in old army barracks and "huts made out of dried grasses." According to David Arnold, such arrangements reflected "a more relaxed principle of spatial separation," with inmates confined to "sheds or barracks divided by internal walls." This relative laxity, however, gave way in the late nineteenth century to a period of systematic prison construction as the "total institution" — with common messing, scientific diets, and the close surveillance of work, behavior, and medical arrangements — spread to India and other imperial domains. Meanwhile, published manuals, starting in the 1870s, systematized penal procedures, inspiring future concentrations.

Such developments intersected with metropolitan trends, though colonial prisons relied more heavily on physical force and arbitrary arrest. In the empire, assertions of European supremacy over denigrated racial collectivities took precedence over the production of improving, self-correcting individuals. Imperial Britain's most forbidding penal outpost — the convict settlement on the Andaman Islands — accentuates the exploitative nature and fiscal stringency of colonial rule. Here, some twenty thousand common criminals and political prisoners were banished "across the black waters" after the 1857–58 Indian "Mutiny," thereby "purifying" the subcontinent of social and political disorder. Even after the construction of a permanent prison — reserved for the worst of the "politicals" — the majority resided in provisional thatch-and-bamboo camps and labored on public works projects, a practice discontinued in Britain by the late eighteenth century. The principles of confinement and the legitimizing cloak of the metropolitan penitentiary inspired arrangements throughout Britain's empire of camps; but so did practices (banishment, bodily coercion, extramural labor) deemed outmoded by the standards of metropolitan modernity. Like colonial prisons, Britain's empire of camps would synthesize practices old and new.


Just as prisons partitioned space according to new mandates of control, factories inaugurated new rhythms of work and a new regulation of the body. Karl Marx described British factories as "mitigated prisons," while Max Weber noted the "military discipline" typical of "big capitalist enterprises." Industrial factories experimented with synchronized labor, panoptic surveillance, and rigid time discipline on mass scales — all practices that would feature in colonial camps. Not only the means to some productive end but an expression of exalted virtue, work became an end in and of itself. Segmented task work and assembly-line production were as alien to Indian famine camp inmates and subsistence farmers in South Africa as they were to peasant cultivators and petty artisans in preindustrial Europe; in each case, however, factories and camps proved potent vehicles of social and industrial reform, inaugurating modern rhythms and ideologies of labor. Despite limits to enforcement in colonial settings, camps, like factories, were ancillary tools of modernization: the vehicles (in theory, at least) of ideal colonial societies accustomed to exacting discipline and productive labor.

As the first industrial nation and the world's foremost imperial power, Britain transported labor discipline abroad. Without cash economies or mobile workforces inured to factory regimens, however, material improvement in the colonies depended on unfree labor. The Atlantic slave trade refined longstanding practices of confinement at slave lodges and galleys. Indeed, slave ships were perhaps the world's first "concentration camps": these "floating prisons" applied the logistics of military planning to incarcerate human bodies in unspeakable concentrations. As in future concentration camps, smallpox, malnutrition, and ill treatment flourished on overcrowded vessels, even if ships —"the first hygiene cit[ies] in miniature" — also pioneered the sanitary management of concentrated humanity.

With slavery's abolition in 1833, chain gangs and indentured labor filled the void. Lacking the wage labor force predominant in Britain, the infrastructure projects of empire depended on penal labor. Apart from colonial plantations manned by indentured laborers, imperial public works departments became centers of expertise in billeting and supervising workers. Its executives — Cape Colony's Lewis Mansergh in particular — later played central roles in the construction and management of famine, plague and wartime concentration camps, for they "thoroughly underst[ood] the management of native labor."

Empire also organized a global system of migrant workers. Transit camps and coolie depots housed workers shipped to Mauritius, South Africa, and the Caribbean: like convict settlements, these spaces experimented with common messing and penal diets, bureaucratic systems of registration and surveillance, medical inspection, and reformative labor. With the various imperial gold rushes of the nineteenth century, meanwhile, mining camps in South Africa concentrated native labor in tightly administered disciplinary regimes. Here the vast labor resources and mineral wealth of empire coincided. Consisting of enclosed barracks, compounds "facilitated [the] control and discipline of migrant male workers," achieving a "synthesis of penal and labor architecture." Such facilities recalled earlier modes of confining slaves, reviving residual practices of bygone eras. The link was especially clear in Kimberley, where enclosed compounds drew inspiration from Cape Town's eighteenth-century slave lodge.

Surrounded by barbed-wire fences, South African mining facilities intersected with global networks of labor camps, extending from the villes indigenes in Belgian Congo to diamond-mine compounds in Brazil. Locally, they were direct and tangible inspiration for British concentration camps in the Boer War, where "mine managers" were specified as model superintendents. Mining compounds also intersected with South Africa's first native locations, like Uitvlugt (Ndabeni), built to concentrate and better manage segregated black African workers.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures

Introduction: Britain’s Empire of Camps
1. Concentrating the “Dangerous Classes”: The Cultural and Material Foundations of British Camps
2. “Barbed-Wire Deterrents”: Detention and Relief at Indian Famine Camps, 1876–1901
3. “A Source of Horror and Dread”: Plague Camps in India and South Africa, 1896–1901
4. Concentrated Humanity: The Management and Anatomy of Colonial Camps, c. 1900
5. Camps in a Time of War: Civilian Concentration in Southern Africa, 1900–1901
6. “Only Matched in Times of Famine and Plague”: Life and Death in the Concentration Camps
7. “A System Steadily Perfected”: Camp Reform and the “New Geniuses from India,” 1901–1903

Epilogue: Camps Go Global: Lessons, Legacies, and Forgotten Solidarities
Works Cited

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