Indian convicts’ contributions to early Singapore (1825–1873)

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


From 1825, Singapore began receiving Indian convicts from British India to serve out their sentences, and assist with the labour shortage and development requirements in the colony. Singapore, being the fastest growing of the Straits Settlements, which also comprised Penang and Malacca, had become the main convict station by the 1830s. Laying many of Singapore’s early public roads, and erecting monumental buildings and bridges, these convicts literally built early Singapore. The transportation of convict labour to Singapore ceased in 1873. The convicts were either sent to other colonies, given freedom to settle in Singapore or repatriated. 

In 1787, the British began the transportation of English convicts to Australia, while the British government of India began the transportation of convicts to Bencoolen, a penal settlement in Sumatra.The following year, Indian convicts who were sentenced to more than seven years’ imprisonment started to be transported to Penang. From 1825, Malacca and Singapore also became convict stations.Singapore received its first batch of convicts – 79 men and 1 woman from Madras – on 18 April 1825. Just a week later, a second group of 122 convicts from Bengal arrived.3

For governors and officials, particularly those in charge of convicts, it was economically profitable to engage convicts in tasks that contractors and free labour refused to undertake. Convict labour was therefore invaluable. Generally well behaved and hardworking, the convicts initially did work such as clearing land and rubbish, reclaiming swamps, laying the earliest roads, and erecting buildings and bridges.4

Singapore quickly became the major convict centre among the Straits Settlements because of the colony’s speedy development. Also, because the Indian population in Singapore was much smaller than that in Penang, it was harder for Indian convicts to escape into the community.5 By 1841, the Straits Settlements had become the “Sydney convict settlements of British India”, and there were between 1,100 and 1,200 of such transported convicts just in Singapore. In an 1845 population census, the numbers of “local and continental convicts” had risen to 1,500.

Between 1825 to 1872, Indian convicts made up the bulk of the labour force for public works in Singapore”.7Between 1852 and 1854, when labour cost rose by 30 percent, the government came to rely almost entirely on convict labour for the construction of public works.8

Convicts were essential to the economy of the Settlements as they were a steady source of cheap labour. Although the European community had no objections to receiving Indian convicts, some argued that such labour was inefficient, slow and ill-supervised, while others complained about lazy convicts sleeping during work hours and dancing all night. There were, on the other hand, fierce objections to the transportation of Chinese convicts from Hong Kong, who, with the connivance of secret societies, were said to be able to easily escape and blend into the general community.

In January 1848, General Wood, a ship carrying 93 convicts, left Singapore and was anchored near the Carimon (Karimun) Islands for the night when the convicts murdered the captain, kidnapped three European passengers and forced the crew to set sail for China. The ship then ran aground, and Malays from a nearby island rescued the passengers and crew. The incident and a sensational trial led to appeals from the press, grand juries and public to stop the transportation of Chinese convicts to Singapore.10 But it was only in 1856, after several years of agitation, that the transportation of Chinese convicts from Hong Kong to the Straits was abandoned.11 In early 1857, there were nearly 3,000 convicts in Singapore.12

Origins of Indian convict labourers
The transported convict labourers were mainly from the Bengal, Madras and Bombay presidencies of British India. The convicts were initially brought to Bencoolen, a penal settlement, and later to the Straits Settlements, to serve out their sentences doing labour work. Some were political prisoners, a few of high standing, but the bulk were thieves and murderers.13

Convict jail
The first batch of convicts sent to Singapore, were initially housed in a godown by the bank of the Singapore River mouth. Subsequently, temporary sheds were later erected near the Bras Basah Canal as more convicts arrived.14 

Between the 1840s and 1860, convict labour was used to build the Bras Basah Jail, where the convicts themselves eventually moved into upon its completion. Bras Basah Jail, which was located between Bras Basah Road and Stamford Road, was also a site of industry where the convicts were employed for rattan work, weaving, tailoring and even a printing press, among others.15

On 6 February 1847, the foundation stone of a new civil jail was laid at the foot of Pearl’s Hill. However, only transported political prisoners were housed there.16

Penal system and organisation of convicts
Singapore’s penal policies included organising the convicts into classes, the ticket-of-leave system and providing them with industrial training.17 The ticket-of-leave policy was implemented to ease the burden of convict expenses by allowing convicts to be employed so that they could be self-sufficient. In 1868, there were 414, out of 1,302 convicts, who had obtained tickets of leave. This group often ended up marrying female convicts and settling down in Singapore, with the means to financially support themselves and their families.18

Superintendents and supervisors
The engineer of public works was often appointed as the overseer of convicts, as convict labour was used in the construction of public works. In 1833, George D. Coleman became the first superintendent of public works and convicts. He was succeeded first by Captain Stevenson, followed by Captain Henry Man, who initiated the system of industrial training among the convicts. Colonel Ronald MacPherson succeeded Man.19

A prominent superintendent of convicts was Major J. F. A. McNair, who became the superintendent of convicts in 1857.20 He used industrially trained convicts to build the gothic-style Church of Andrew (later known as St Andrew’s Cathedral).21 Being able to speak Hindustani, McNair was said to have been popular among the convicts.22

Organisation and classes of convicts
There was a routine “general monthly muster” to check on duties and discipline, and the inspection of convicts was under the general charge of the Resident councillor, whose duty was to visit the lines together with the residency surgeon once a month. This was always carried out in the presence of the superintendent who would also inspect the prison facilities and address any grievances from the convicts. Various record books and registers were kept by the superintendent of convicts and his subordinates, and reports were made each month and annually, showing distribution and classification of all convicts in the colony. A record of punishment is kept, and no corporal punishment could be administered except in the presence of the medical officer or his apothecary.23

There were six classes of convicts, dependent on the extent of their criminal offences, as follows:24

1. First-class convicts lived at liberty, having obtained a ticket of leave and thus held their own jobs. This group was deemed to be more trustworthy; however, they still needed a guarantor for their good behaviour and their privileges could be forfeited due to misconduct. They had to appear at muster once every 15 days, or whenever required. Sixteen years of service in the colony was required for admission to this class.25

2. Second-class convicts were not shackled and could be employed in low-ranking jobs such as convict petty officers, messengers and punkah (fan) pullers and household servants. Convicts could not be admitted into this class unless they had served in the colony for five years if their original imprisonment was seven years, or 10 years for 14 years’ imprisonment. They must sleep within their base stations every night unless their employment elsewhere rendered this possible. Convicts attached to public departments received 5½ rupees per month, in lieu of rations, clothes and other items. 

3. Third-class convicts consisted of those with a service of one year (for seven years’ imprisonment), at least three years (for 14 years’ imprisonment), or five years for those with a life sentence. Admission to the third class was made at the discretion of the superintendent. Working without irons, these people worked as labourers clearing land and cultivation for the construction of roads or public works. They worked from 6 am to 11 am and then from 1 pm to 4 pm, or from 5 am to 1 pm. They were properly secured at night if their work location was too far for them to return each day to their base stations. Their monthly allowance was one rupee, one anna and seven pice.26

4. The fourth class was the entry level for most of the new arrivals, and they remained in this class until they had fulfilled their respective requisite service periods to qualify for admission into a better class. Bearing light double-chains, they worked in town and the environs from 6 am to 11 am and then 1 pm to 5 pm. For their service, they received rations and clothing but no money allowance. For good behaviour, they were promoted to the third class. Convicts degraded from a higher class for misbehaviour must serve at least a year in the fourth class before they could be promoted again.27

5. The fifth class comprised violent convicts, degraded from the higher classes for committing serious offences during service terms here. These offenders were guarded with extra vigilance to prevent them from escaping. They were bound by heavy iron-chains and worked on the roads and at public works located within the limits of the town, from 6 am to 11am and 1 pm to 5 pm. They were fully secured at night, received rations and clothing but no money, and were not allowed to leave their stations except for work. Convicts degraded from the fourth class must serve six months before they could be promoted; others demoted from other classes must serve two years before they could move up to the third class.28 

6. The sixth class comprised mostly female convicts, and females not included in the second class, as well as male invalids and superannuated convicts. Male invalid convicts capable of light work were employed as sweepers and for breaking stones for roads. Females in this class were tasked with keeping the prisons clean. Those guilty of misconduct were employed in the mixing of chunam or other suitable hard labour. No male convict could be admitted into this class until he had been pronounced unfit for work by a medical committee. Female convicts who were charged with murder could not be admitted into the second class, or permitted to leave their base stations until they had served for at least 10 years. Superannuated convicts were exempted from all work.29

A man of bad character could, on no account, be upgraded to a higher class. Convict women were kept separate from men, and their wives were neither permitted permanent residence nor visits at the base stations after sunset.

Outcome of convict labourers
Despite the freedom granted them, very few Indian convicts absconded. Over the years, many Indian convicts who were released at the end of their term married local women and settled down.30 In 1867, when control of the Straits Settlements government administration was transferred from Calcutta to the Colonial Office in London, convicts who were deemed unsafe were sent to the Andaman Islands.31 

By 1873, when the system of convict labour ended in Singapore, the convicts were either sent to other colonies, given freedom to settle in Singapore or repatriated. Instead of returning to India, many who had savings went into business and bought landed property, while some sought employment with the Public Works Department. The skilled artisans were made as sub-assistant overseers for public works.32

Indian convict labourers contributed much towards Singapore’s early development by constructing public works and buildings. Indian convicts even made their own bricks under the supervision of a European brick maker at Serangoon Road. Sufficient bricks were made for local use and for export to Malacca. In 1867, at the Agra Exhibition, the convicts were awarded a silver medal for the quality of their bricks.33

Public structures 
Among the roads built by convicts were North and South Bridge roads, Serangoon Road and New Harbour Road (today’s Keppel Road).34 Cavenagh Bridge was the last major project undertaken by Indian convict labour in 1869.35

Commercial Square (Raffles Place)
Convicts built Commercial Square in 1825. They also constructed Collyer Quay, which spanned Fort Fullerton at the Singapore River mouth to Telok Ayer, in around 1864.36 George Chancellor Collyer, who spearheaded the reclamation and development of Collyer Quay, reportedly monopolised the convict labour force from August 1858 to the early 1960s for this project.37

Kampong Glam
The area was developed in 1831 by 200 convict workers in eight months, at a total cost of $500.38

Forest clearing
John Prince, the acting Resident of Singapore, first explored Bukit Timah on 28 June 1827 in preparation for the construction of Bukit Timah Road. In 1843, convicts built a road at the top of Bukit Timah Hill.39

Tiger hunt
Twenty-five convicts assisted in the first tiger hunt in Singapore in 1840, and thereafter the convicts were taken along on tiger shoots.40

Places of worship

Convicts built Sri Mariamman Temple (1843)41 and the second Church of St Andrew in 1856.42

Convicts blasted the rocks at the mouth of the Singapore River, where Fort Fullerton was later built. The rocks were subsequently used to construct the adjoining sea and river walls. They also cleared and widened Keppel Harbour’s western gateway in 1848, including blasting of the rock formation there known as Batu Berlayer or Lot’s Wife.43

Convicts were employed as stone cutters, blasters and labourers for the construction of the Horsburgh Lighthouse (1851)44 and the Raffles Lighthouse (1855).45

While most of the earthwork was carried out by Chinese coolies, convicts manufactured the raw materials for the project and built the sally ports, drawbridge and deep wells for Fort Canning (1860).46 In 1869, they also built the Government House, now known as the Istana.47

Land survey

Convicts formed the nucleus of a regular native staff for the Survey Department under John Turnbull Thomson in 1842.48

The convicts built Pearl’s Hill Prison (1847) and Bras Basah Convict Jail (1860). They also helped to suppress a fire that broke out in 1830 at Market Street and assisted during the anti-Catholic riots within the Chinese community in 1851.49


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. John Frederick Adolphus McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders: A Record of the Convict Prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, Established 1825, Discontinued 1873, Together with a Cursory History of the Convict Establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year (Miami, FL: Hardpress Publishing, 2013), 1. (Call no. RSING 365.95957 MAC)
2. C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony (London: Athlone Press, 1972), 47. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
3. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 39.
4. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 39–40, 44, 66, 72–77, 97–104; Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 50–51.
5. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 47.
6. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 47; Untitled,” Straits Times, 19 August 1845, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Colin Cheong, Framework and Foundation: A History of the Public Works Department (Singapore: Times Editions, 1992), 29. (Call no. RSING 354.5957008609 CHE)
8. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 47.
9. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore: 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 475–76. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 47.
10. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 476–82.
11. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 6 November 1856, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 47–48.
12. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 347; McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 89.
13. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, viii, 15–16, 27–28, 38–40, 89; Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 51.
14. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 39, 54, 64–65, 71, 77–83; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 228.
15. Anoma Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), 87–88, 113–14 (Call no. RSING 365.95957 PIE); Donald Davies, “The Prisoners Built Themselves In,” Straits Times, 10 April 1955, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 11 February 1847, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 79.
17. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 4–10, 39; Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 96, 104.
18. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 75, 128.
19. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 227, 781–82; McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, ix, 43, 48, 71.
20. “Page 1 Advertisements Column 4: Notice,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 3 December 1857, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 11, 72–73.
22. “Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G.,” Straits Times, 4 October 1884, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 22 July 1847, 2 (From NewspaperSG); McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 88, 93.
24. “
Untitled”; Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 74–75.
25. McNair wrote that first-class convicts must attend muster on the first of every month. See McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 84–85.
26. McNair stated that convicts in the third class had served two years for 14 years’ imprisonment, and three years for life sentence. See McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 84, 86–87.
27. See more details in McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 84–85, 87.
28. McNair stated that convicts who downgraded from the fourth class must serve two years before being promoted again. See more details McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 85, 87–88.
29. See more details in McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 85, 88–89.
30. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 49; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 723.
31. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 41, 143–46.
32. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 192; McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 41, 143–46.
33. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 11, 109–10.
34. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 44, 59.
35. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 37 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Donald Davies, “Labour Built,” Straits Times, 30 December 1956, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
36. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 39, 76; Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 114. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
37. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 239.
38. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 212, 475–76.
39. “Singapore,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 17 April 1834, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 194, 198, 399–400.
40. Turnbull, Straits Settlements, 1826–67, 49; McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 52.
41. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 32; “134-Year Old Temple Gets New Look,” Straits Times, 3 September 1970, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 406. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
42. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 72–74, 97–101; G. Uma Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2002), 51. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
43. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 42, 66.
44. J. T. Thomas, F, Account of the Horsburgh Light-House (Singapore: [Printed by G.M. Frederick], 1852), 427–28 (Call no. RRARE 623.8942095957 THO); “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 3 October 1851, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
45. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 60–66; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26.
46. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, pp. 75–76.
47. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana: Through the Years (Singapore: Office of the President of the Republic of Singapore, 2015), 20 (Call no. RSING 959.57 OUR); Pugalenthi Sr., Singapore Landmarks: Monuments, Memorials, Statues & Historic Sites (Singapore: VJ Times International, 1999), 53. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUG)
48. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 56–57.
49. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 30, 67.

Further resources
A. D. 1834. Regulation II,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 24 April 1834, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Convicts – and Convict Labour,” Straits Times, 25 April 1846, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Convicts – and Convict Labour,” Straits Times, 2 May 1846, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Untitled,” Straits Times, 25 March 1846, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 January 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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