Date of Award
Ph.D. in History
University of Mississippi
This dissertation examines the history of incarceration in British Guiana between 1838 and 1917 with emphasis on the interconnections between the colony’s burgeoning carceral apparatus and the life and labour of women. It highlights the intersection of coerced labour and colonialism in the colony in the post-emancipation period, by centering the lives of incarcerated women to understand the nature of state governance and the use of labour in this colonial spaces. I argue the plantocracy leveraged the expansion of the penal apparatus not to control crime but to control labour.
Tracing the use of prisons in the colony, I demonstrate that under Dutch and during preemancipation British colonial administration, the institutions were used strictly as sites of punishment for enslaved capital offenders, for free people of colour and white criminals. However, as the plantocracy lost control over labour in the post-emancipation period and as freed women increasingly withdrew their labour from the plantation, the plantocracy used the prison and later, the indentureship scheme to reassert their power over the free population.
As the number of prisons increased (from three in 1838 to thirteen by the 1870s), colonial and local authorities explained increased incarceration rates as a legitimate state response to increased crime. However, I argue they used the prison system as a means of labour discipline, labour extraction and as a threat to secure the future docility of labourers, since immigrant women who were incarcerated for petty crimes including breach of contract were often sentenced to work on private plantations close to the prisons, while creole women worked on the colony’s public works projects. I also show that both the plantocracy and the colonial administration accrued economic benefits from the exploitation of prison labour.
While incarcerated men and women experienced the same living and laboring conditions and I suggest that prison authorities continued the slavery era practice of defeminizing or masculinizing women to justify using their labour in non-traditional areas. I also suggest that authorities contravened accepted contemporary gender norms and practices by not only subjecting incarcerated women to cross gender supervision but also to the same living conditions, clothing, diet, labour, discipline, and punishment as men.
A common refrain in the colony was that free labor could not be easily obtained but I suggest it was the malleability of incarcerated women and men as a labour force that was attractive to the administration, as prisoners could be moved and deployed and disciplined in ways that was not as possible for free labor. What I am suggesting is the centrality of labour to the expansion of the colony’s penal system, and the role of women in this development as this is the period with the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the history of Guyana as both a colony and a country.
Adams, Estherine Gwendoline, "The Few Among the Many: Women's labour in British Guiana Prisons, 1838-1917" (2022). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2414.
Available for download on Friday, February 07, 2025