Discover the Penal Colonies of the British Empire

British Penal Colonies

During the colonial age, many of the newly established empires sent criminals to penal colonies. With the multitude of newly “discovered” lands and territories, dozens of locations ultimately ended up being utilized as penal colonies. This article and chart shows the penal colonies of the British Empire.

Prison or forced labor camps have existed for thousands of years. In these criminals sentenced to hard labor would often work alongside slaves as their punishment. The various empires of the colonial period took this concept to a new level. Instead of camps, in some cases nations designed entire colonies to send their criminals. The British Empire was one of the most prolific users .

The Penal Colonies of the British Empire

The Penal Colonies of the British Empire

With the establishment of new colonies all over the world, the British sought two outcomes: First, a solution for the dangerous overcrowding of prisons on the British isles. Industrialization had led to a huge rise in city populations and crime rates with it.

Prisons were so overcrowded that old decommissioned warships were being used to house prisoners. To help with this problem the British government decided to exile these prisoners and send them to far off lands – away and out of the sight.

Secondly, the British needed settlers in their new colonies. The empire hoped that once the prisoners’ sentences were up, the distance and isolation of their new location would persuade them to stay and settle the lands.

However, it is a misconception that the penal colonies were solely that. Most also housed free settlers, but the influx of population helped the British to expand their influence in the regions.1

British penal colony Andamans
British penal colony in the Andamans via Wikimedia

The most notorious of these penal colonies was that of Australia. Within the continent, there were four primary colonies: New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Island, Western Australia and Norfolk Island off the coast. The British government sent roughly 158,500 prisoners to these locations over a 70-80 year time period in the late 18th-early 19th centuries.

British America and Bermuda were also used as places to send prisoners. Most prisoners ended up in the Chesapeake Bay region in modern day Maryland/Virginia. Once the Revolutionary War ended this practice, the British looked to other colonies, like Australia, to substitute.2

Lesser known British penal colonies include the Andaman Islands, Straits Settlements and Bencoolen. These colonies located across Southeast Asia primarily housed Indian criminals as well as political prisoners. Conditions here were particularly harsh and thousands died from brutal conditions and treatment.


1) Kercher, Bruce. “Perish or Prosper: The Law and Convict Transportation in the British Empire, 1700-1850.” Law and History Review, vol. 21, no. 3, 2003, pp. 527–84. JSTOR,

2) Butler, James Davie. “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies.” The American Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1896, pp. 12–33. JSTOR,

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